I am the product of a California public school education, from the day I entered kindergarten in Los Angeles to the day I graduated high school in 1968. I received a very good education—not a spectacular one, but a really very good one. I wish I had been taught a second language starting in grammar school, and that the curriculum had more science and math classes, but overall, I feel I was educated.
Every semester, there was at least one field trip. We went to museums and to classical concerts. I saw my first opera in the 4th grade: Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” And there was a Glee Club. In elementary school, we had an art teacher and a music teacher. We never had to sell candy door to door to pay for those. I was blessed—and I have to say in my case, it was truly a blessing—to have one great teacher after another. I remember my kindergarten teacher—Mrs. Bebalar, my 5th grade teacher Miss Farmer who invited the class to her wedding, and my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Schultz, who one day expressed her frustration with me and put her face close to mine and asked, “Do you realize what a talented artist you are?” No, I hadn’t, until she put the idea in my head. In Junior High, I had a huge crush on my art teacher, Dael Peralta. She took all the tiny brushes I used to paint with and made me paint with big fat ones to get me out of my too-tight style. She also introduced us to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, playing their records while we worked. Me and three other students remained friends with her for many years after we’d graduated, eventually all bringing our children to visit her.
In high school, I joined the acting class and was always in the school play. The teacher, Bill Gordon, held acting classes in the summer too, and we would rent a real theater to put on plays. His philosophy was that high school plays should never be those considered to be “appropriate for teenagers,” so we put on plays like Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall.” He worked with each if us on the Stanislavki Method, helping us reach inside ourselves to find the emotions driving the characters. And since this was the 60’s, I once ditched school to attend an anti-war rally in downtown LA. As luck would have it, I was interviewed by the local news station and that night appeared on TV. When I went back to school the next day, everyone—including the principal, had seen my interview. I could have gotten detention for playing hooky but instead, the administration looked the other way and when I went to class, each teacher congratulated me.
My education was far from perfect, and some of the pedagogy of the times didn’t serve me well. For example, it was decided that I was college material. In those days, Junior Highs and High Schools had guidance counselors, and they chose all your classes. Since I was deemed to be headed for college, I was forced to study Latin, while my friends learned Spanish or French. Actually, Spanish was only offered for the “slow” students. Imagine that bit of racism holding up today! Also—and this is something that really irks me to this day—I was not allowed to learn typing. The theory about that was explained to me thusly: “You don’t want to be a secretary do you? Only secretaries need to know how to type.” I understand their impulse, but, HUH? Did they ever consider how much typing would have helped in college?
When my son was ready for school, my husband and I had heard that the schools were not as good as they were when we attended. We lived in the San Fernando Valley, and at that time there was a large influx of kids who spoke only Spanish. Classes were to be taught bi-lingually. We had absolutely no problem with that. However, in Kindergarten, we learned that our son had a slight learning disability based on some issues related to his eyesight. It’s a long and complicated story, but bottom line, he really needed smaller classes. We enrolled him in a private school. But many of his friends were in the public school system and from what I could see, many of the programs that I grew up with were cut and class size was bigger.
I should pause here to talk for a moment about the state of public education in my parents’ time. They went to schools back East, in the 1930’s. And there were many, many immigrants from all over the world in that time and place. In those days, the concept of the “melting pot” was the norm; the notion of the “salad bowl” had yet to be considered. Public schools embraced the melting pot and served as giant cauldrons of assimilation. There were no ESL classes and everyone learned English. But not only English—multiculturalism was unheard of. I see this as a net negative, but I will say this much: kids learned American history (albeit not Howard Zinn’s more authentic variety). There were shared values. I am not romanticizing the good old days—there was PLENTY wrong with segregated schools and with the nativism that was engendered. But I believe that on a purely scholastic level, the public school system was up there with some of the best.
Fast forward twenty years, to when I remarried. My husband has two daughters, and at the time we were married one was in elementary school and the other in Middle School (the new name for Junior High). They attended schools in strictly middle class neighborhoods. (I mention this because, in California at least, schools are funded by property taxes. That funding guarantees that schools in poorer areas will be sub-par, unless they get extra funding. One would assume that in a Middle Class district there would be sufficient property taxes for decent education. In my opinion, that should be illegal and unconstitutional, based on the Equal Protection Clause.) Their education is appalling.
For one thing, the school day is shorter. I went to school from 8am to 3 pm, and the only days off were national holidays. The girls’ school day now ends at two o’clock. There are more holidays, and worse, about a dozen or more “teacher days” each semester during which classes are canceled. My first clue to just how dire the situation was occurred right after I moved in with my new husband. I have shelves and shelves of books and of course a few of them are dictionaries. One day, the older girl (then in Middle school) pointed to the thickest book on the shelf and asked me, “Is this whole book all about random houses?” I’m not kidding—and neither was she. She thought the Random House Dictionary was a book on architecture! Now, of course I blame her parents. My husband especially, because their mother is from a very small farming area in Spain, and doesn’t speak fluent English. But you would think that before she got to Middle School someone would have introduced her to a dictionary. Another time, the daughter in high school asked me (while measuring pancake mix) if 1/3 was smaller or larger than ¼. At the same time, what’s completely mystifying to me is that in elementary school, they have more homework than I did. Hours of work. Yet when I read the assignments I am shocked to see the grammatical errors and poor instructions from the teachers. THEY have received a bad education too. It is really a case of the blind leading the blind.
There are no guidance counselors. In the elementary school there are rarely field trips; these girls have never been to a classical concert. There are no sports teams, no band classes, no art instruction. And the high-schooler had one period a day where she “works” in the office—no teaching. They are not unintelligent—just amazingly uneducated.
I realize that all of this is purely anecdotal, and merely based on my personal observations. As such, it tells us very little about the state of education in the United States. But we have read the statistics:
In the year 2000, there were 76.6 million students enrolled in schools from kindergarten through graduate schools. Of these, only72 percent aged 12 to 17 were judged academically “on track” for their age.
In 2008, there was a 77% graduation rate from high school, below that of most developed countries.
Among the country’s adult population, 27 percent have received a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The 2010 unemployment rate for high school graduates was 10.8%; the rate for college graduates was 4.9%.
In math, our 15-year-olds’ scores now lag behind those of 31countries. In science, our eighth graders’ scores now lag behind their peers in eight countries that had also participated in the original assessment. In reading, five countries have improved their performance and surpassed our 4th graders.
The three-yearly OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.
One last observation. I went back to school to get my BA when I was 50. I was terrified that I would be unable to compete; that I would find myself too rusty. It only took me about a week to find out how preposterous my fears were. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I was one of the VERY few students who could write a grammatical sentence. Now, I didn’t attend a prestigious university. I went to California State University, Northridge. However, the California State system used to have a reputation for being among the best in the nation. I really hope that is no longer the case, because if so, we are in deep trouble. Most freshmen enrolling need remedial classes in writing and math. There are tests we all were required to take to determine that. Ask any professor there and they will tell you how woefully unprepared students are for university classes.
There are myriad reasons given for the dismal state of education in America: Lack of funding, parental involvement, the expectations of teachers and of society, poor pedagogy, and even anti-intellectualism. I am sure those all play a part, but quite honestly, I am not sure that any of those factors are demonstrably different than they were when I was a kid. Maybe what HAS changed is not anything specifically related to education, per se, but our entire way of life, with the toys and distractions and media noise. And perhaps a loss of hope that a good education will secure for us a better life. If that last thing is true, we are a very unhealthy society. That is some serious pathology.
The implications for the health and welfare of our country are alarming. We see it every day in the news—a downright ignorant electorate. An electorate with no critical thinking skills, an electorate that reads no news, is an electorate that is fat and ripe for becoming a society of peasants. And by peasants, I am not speaking of some sentimental ideal of salt-of-the-earth primitives who are close to the earth, living in harmony with nature. No, I am talking about the reality of the real peasant life: Crude, boorish and fearfully superstitious. Nativist and racist. Groveling at the feet of their corporate “betters.” And the Right knows this and is at this minute working to dismantle the Department of Education—working as I write this to give total control of our nation’s future to states like Texas, which has literally re-written history texts to conform to Conservative lies. That is the future we face unless we wake up and expend the determination and energy required to turn this around. It is not hyperbole to say that our very democracy depends upon it.
President Obama has made education reform one of the centerpieces of his Administration, and I feel guardedly optimistic that it will have an impact. He is not proposing phony quick-fixes. To learn more about what the President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are working on you can go here.
“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” George W Bush, Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000
Mr. Bush, your very election to the highest office in our land has already answered that question.