Thursday, January 14, 2016

School Daze: Jennifer Bohnhoff Looks at Schools Then and Now

In America during the 19th and early 20th centuries, most students attended one-room schoolhouses. In these schools, a single teacher taught reading, writing, arithmetic, history, music, art, and geography to students in the first through eighth grades. The number of students varied from four to 40 or more. The little children, sometimes as young as five years old, sat in the front, while bigger students, who could be as old as eighteen, sat in the back. Students memorized and recited their lessons. In order to proceed to the next grade, students had to pass a written examination, often given by a county examiner or the superintendent of the school district. The eighth grade exam was so rigorous that most students' education stopped at the eighth grade. Only a small percentage of students progressed to high school, and an even smaller percentage graduated. In 1900, for instance, only about 6 percent of students graduated from high school.

Avi's The Secret School is an historical novel that tells the story of one such student, and while fictitious, Avi based the story on solid research into the period. It is 1925 and fourteen year old Ida Bidson is an eighth grader in a remote farming community in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. In order to fulfill her dream to become a teacher, she must attend high school. When her teacher leaves mid-term, the school board decides to suspend classes to save money, jeopardizing her chances to take - and pass - the eighth grade exam. Ida decides to keep the school running by teaching school herself, but she does so without telling the school board. Poor Ida must balance her duty to teach the other students with her need to study her own lessons, all without slacking off on the chores at home. She is often exhausted to the point of defeat, but she manages to keep going in spite of the rigor. At the end of the school year she must face the biggest challenge of all: the final exam.

The year-end eighth grade exam that Ida must pass in order to continue to high school is rigorous by any standard. I doubt that any of my students (I teach 7th grade Social Studies) could pass it. Consider the question for the reading portion of the test: Choose a poem you have learned this year from your reader. Provide the title, the author, the date of his or her birth, and if such is the case, his or her death. Write out all the stanzas of the poem. Then write a brief essay as to why the poem is important to you. I seriously doubt that any of my students have ever memorized a poem, let alone the birth and death dates of any important American.

To see an actual copy of an Eighth Grade Exam from 1912, click here.
This kind of rigor in elementary education began to change in the 1930, when education journals, textbooks, and courses for administrators and teachers began to advocate Progressivism. Under this educational theory, school curriculum would be determined by the needs and interests of children instead of by academic subjects. Instead of separate instruction in reading and mathematics, these were integrated into other disciplines, especially in elementary school. It was common for Progressive educators to say, "We teach children, not subject matter." High schools, where teachers were trained in specific subject areas were less willing to change.

 The invention of the automobile also led to changes in education. The first school buses were horse-drawn. Gas powered ones let states consolidate schools into larger districts with common procedures. In 1940 there were over 117,000 school districts in the United States. By 1990, the number had decreased to just over 15,000. Funding for schools also changed. In 1940 local property taxes financed 68 percent of public school expenses. By 1990, 63 percent of school funding came from the federal government. As government funding increased, so did government control of curriculum.

Progressivism came under question during World War II, when the Army found that recruits knew too little math to accomplish basic bookkeeping or compute gunnery projections. This led to the Life Adjustment Movement, which assumed that most students would never go to college or enter a skilled occupation. Instead, students needed school programs that focused on practical problems such as consumer buying, insurance, taxation, and home budgeting. However, the huge technological, scientific and engineering advances made during the war in areas such as radar, cryptography, navigation, atomic energy, and medicine, made mathematics and science education appear imperative. America realized that it needed engineers!

Memorization, which had been the lynch-pin of the One Room Schoolhouse, ceased to be a significant part of American education during the late 1960s and 1970s, a time when society questioned authority. During this period, the Open School Movement began to dominate educational philosophy. Like the Progessivism of the 1930s, this movement believed that students should determine for themselves what they would learn, and when. The Open School Movement got its start with Summerhill, published in 1960. Its author, S. Niell claimed that "Whether a school has or has not a special method for teaching long division is of no significance, for long division is of no importance except to those who want to learn it. And the child who wants to learn long division will learn it no matter how it is taught." By 1970, some 200,000 copies of Summerhill were being sold every year. It had become required reading in 600 university courses.

But by the late 1980's it had become clear that the Open Education Movement was not meeting the educational needs of all students, especially children whose parents could not afford outside tutoring and lacked enough education to support homework. Professor Lisa Delpit, an African American educator who taught in an inner city school in Philadelphia explained, "White kids learn how to write a decent sentence. Even if they don't teach them in school, their parents make sure they get what they need. But what about our kids? They don't get it at home..." The pendulum was set to swing back towards a more rigorous, standardized curriculum, which is what No Child Left Behind and then the Common Core were intended to create.

Anyone paying attention to education knows that the Common Core State Standards, often shortened to CCSS, are a touchstone of controversy. The CCSS claim to be a clear set of expectations for what knowledge and skills a student needs in language arts and math at each grade level in order to be prepared for success in college, career, and life. Supporters say that CCSS allows students across the nation to have access to the same level of education. Detractors say that CCSS forces all students to learn the same information, regardless of whether that information is pertinent to that individual. There is no accounting for different learning styles or disabilities: all children are expected to pass the same test.

In the novel The Teacher's Funeral, A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck draws a humorous picture of what school was like for Russell Culver, a fifteen year old boy living in a tiny Indiana farm town in 1904. When the teacher of his one-room school dies, the local school board hires Russell's older sister, Tansy. There is plenty of memorization in Tansy's lesson plans, and quite a bit of rigor. But that doesn't mean that they are subjected to the standardized, one-size-fits-all assessments that are common today. Witness this excerpt from when T. Bernard Whipple, the Superintendent visits:

     "And do you know your letters yet?" T. Bernard Whipple hung over (Beulah Bradley, the six year old, littlest student).
     "G is for the gopher, digging in its burrow. H is for the patient horse, plowing in its furrow."
     "You are a regular scholar, Beulah. In two or three years you'll be learning your multiplication tables."
     "Six eights are forty-eight," (she) mentioned.
     Mr. Owen stared down at her. "You know your multiplication tables already? Miss Culver, the child is only in first grade. The multiplication tables don't come until - "
     "I am here to help her learn, "Tansy said, "not to keep her from it. She is the brightest button in the box, and what the others learn, she picks up." The superintendent looked out upon us for another victim. His eye . . . jumped to Glenn.
     Glenn. The superintendent had gone from the youngest of us to the oldest, from the smartest to the -  . . . .What schooling Glenn had mastered wasn't going to detain us long.
     "This here's science." Glenn swiped at the ceiling and the mud dauber's nest broke loose from the rafter and fell into his hands.  "See these here cells like a comb of honey? The mother mud dauber lays and egg or two in ever' one of them cells. Then she goes to work and stings a spider with her pizen. She don't kill that spider, but she stuns it. Then she sticks that spider in the cell with the egg and shuts it up tight. As the eggs hatch, they've got plenty of spider meat to feed them on."
     We were all silenced by this knowledge. It wasn't school-learning from Tansy, of course. But Glenn was a country boy. Few of nature's ways were mysteries to him. On the other hand, the superintendent was a town man.
     "You learned that at school?" the superintendent inquired.
     Glen shrugged. "Where else?"
     "Well, I am glad to see that the study of natural science is not neglected," Mr. Whipped admitted. ...(and) his gaze fell on Flopears.
     "Boy," Superintendent Whipple barked, "what's your long suit?"
     "Who, me?" Flopears pointed to himself. "My what?"
     "Well son, tell us.  What are you best at, numbers or letters?"
     Flopears tried to think. "Is them my only choices? I reckon I like pictures best." He flipped open his notepad. You could have knocked us over with feathers. Flopears had captured us all in his notebook. We'd gotten him wrong. He wasn't a dunce. He was an artist.
     T. Bernard Whipple cleared his throat. "I am glad to know that the study of art has not been neglected. With that, the superintendent reached for his overcoat. It was done with, and Tansy had 
passed her trial.

Times change, and the educational pendulum swings, but some things remain true: the best education involves a bit of humor and a lot of flexibility.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a seventh grade social studies teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the author of three works of middle grade historical fiction. Her most recent book, Tweet Sarts, is a contemporary middle grade novel with a Valentine's day theme. You can read more about all her books on her website.
For more information on the history of American education, go here.
For stories from men and women who taught in one room schoolhouses, go here.

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