September 23, 2013

Good Mon. Snow here yesterday and frost this morning. The snowfall is barely measurable, but winter seems to be upon us. I rearranged a bunch of stuff and got my car into the garage over the weekend, which made me feel superior to the neighbor across the street who has two white carport tents where his front lawn used to be.

We watched an extremely interesting four-part documentary on the history of public education in America. It was aired on PBS in 2001, with Meryl Streep narrating. It traces the history of public schools from the founding of the Republic up to the present. The first three programs covering 1780-1890, 1900-1950, and 1950-1980 are fascinating (apparently nothing happened 1890-1900). The first program details the gradual progression from one-room school houses in small towns and settlements where the average child (slaves excepted) might get a year or two of the three R’s, through the end of the westward expansion, when most children got as much as 5 years of education. Only the elite classes sent their children longer and then sent the boys to college (no girls allowed).

With the great immigrant migrations of the second half of the 19th century and onward, public school was seen as a way to make newcomers into Americans, teaching them the English language and American history and government, as well as basic math, reading, and writing skills. Because public schools inculcated firmly Protestant values, many Irish and Italian immigrants attended “parochial” schools that reflected their Catholic heritage. At the same time, the demand for school teachers opened one of the first professions dominated by women. In the first half of the 20th century, school attendance came to be almost universal, and many women went to college and began entering some of the professions, though men still resented the intrusion.

From 1950 to 1980 the nation experienced the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the Civil Rights act of 1965, the Federal Aid to Education Act of 1966 (which gave the feds a carrot and stick to encourage integration of schools), the Women’s Rights movement, and progress toward rights for others traditionally denied adequate education. The program tells the story of the drive by Mexican Americans to get equal access to education for their children. The last program addresses the issues of forced busing of students to achieve integration and the rise of charter schools (and vouchers), for-profit school administration, and home schooling. Despite the turmoil created by these challenges to what is now traditional public education, 90 percent of America’s children attend public schools. The program touches on many related issues, particularly how the schools are blamed for problems in society at large. When Sputnik seemed to show America falling behind the Russians in science, it was the schools’ fault. When the Japanese seemed to be pulling ahead of American manufacturing, the schools were blamed.

Currently American public education is often criticized for not producing literate and numerate graduates at a high enough level for the US to compete in international business and technology development. Widespread testing of students became much more common during this time period. At the same time, local government does its best to ensure that education policy and textbooks are controlled locally, producing broad variations in methods and outcomes. Anyway, well worth watching. As one commenter in the program said (with pardonable exaggeration), “School-age Americans are 20 percent of our population, but they are 100 percent of our future.” From the public library.

School Story of American Public Education


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