11 reasons why U.S. education is better today (Viewpoint)
To listen to a high percentage of my generation’s population, public education has gone to hockey sticks in a hand basket.
Nobody is calling us Boomers the Greatest Generation, but we like to flatter ourselves as the Smartest Generation label. We knew how to spell. We knew Washington was our first president. We knew our multiplication tables. My gosh, we knew how to write legibly.
It’s tiresome. It’s misplaced nostalgia. But most of all, it’s wrong.
Calling public education perfect is absurd, but regarding it as a car that drove off the cliff is just as wrong. Every generation likes to think its education was more serious, comprehensive and just plain better than the next. This misguided disdain is best expressed by the song in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” that goes “What’s the matter with kids today?”
For all its flaws, our education system may be better than ever. The flaws that exist almost universally originate in homes of split parents, inattentive parents, helicopter parents, parents threatening lawsuits for small disputes, and parents unwilling to accept their parental responsibilities. When schools don’t fix all that, schools get blamed.
Even if our system is not at its all-time best, here are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why it’s far better than, say, when I went through it:
1. Special needs. The Boomer generation ignored them. Donating to charity was easier than taking on the daily challenge of working with kids who didn’t fit the prototype. Today it’s a challenge, it’s imperfect and it’s expensive, but at least the vast majority of systems are trying.
2. Computer training. This was coming into vogue when I was leaving school in the 1970s. Today’s world requires skill and knowledge in technology. If kids learn that instead of memorizing the 50 state capitals or quoting Shakespeare, I’m fine with that. It’s No. 1 on the new emphasis for skills applicable to real life.
3. Vocational training. At long last, this arm of education is getting some of the respect it deserves. In the old days, “vokie” was not a compliment. Vocational kids were stereotypically and unfairly deemed as those unfit for college.
Educationally, we need to do much more here, but in Massachusetts, we’re at least aware of that.
4. Expanded services. In an ideal world, schools would not have to serve breakfast. I don’t think schools should have to teach sex education. Every crisis at home should not be thrown onto the faculty’s desk. But they deal with all this, because somebody must.
5. Guidance. Related to number 4, but more. Guidance offices were once sanctuaries for coaches and others who wanted to avoid the classroom. There’s probably still some of that today, but more guidance counselors actually try to provide counseling – not just for the athlete looking for a scholarship, but for the average kid who needs some guidance on important decisions.
6. Girls sports. This shouldn’t even require explanation. What’s obvious today – equal opportunity, duh – was scorned before Title IX in the 1970s. Good riddance to those good old days.
7. Diligent teachers. Maybe this should be Number 1.
I am not a fan of teacher unions, which evolve into political lobbying groups more often than not. I am a huge fan of teachers.
Some just do it for the money. Some are burned out. Some are just bad, but that can be said for any line of work.
Most teachers care. Their responsibilities go far beyond school hours. Their pressures include pressures they put upon themselves because they know their vital effect on young people.
I was lucky to have some terrific public school teachers. I also had some lazy stinkers. That’s every generation, not just this one. And whether old-timers believe it or not, inept teachers can no longer be hidden – there is far more accountability than ever before.
8. Anti-bullying. I know. Not every juvenile dispute is bullying and the term is tossed around too freely. But at least we’re dealing with a very real issue – which, in the not-so-good-old-days, we didn’t.
9. Individual review. Standardized tests should be kept, but they should not be the sum and substance of judging kids who are not standardized creatures.
Let’s say a teacher has five classes of 20 kids each. That’s 100 children. It’s an enormous task to examine the individual progress and struggles of each, but I’m convinced the effort is far more than in bygone times, when 20 kids in a class were expected to toe a one-size-fits-all line.
They swam or sank. Many sank. Why was that better?
10. Relevant social studies. History and civics are finally starting to get the attention they deserve, after decades of neglect for which this country is paying a deep and profound price.
And yes, yes, yes, political correctness and slanted instruction poisons too many classrooms. Teachers must remember they exist to allow kids to grow up as independent thinkers, and not feed them a diet of their own ideologies. Many do that. Many don’t.
But when I took history – my favorite subject – we learned practically nothing about black history, except through white people’s eyes and almost all of it about slavery. To learn black history, you had to take Black History 101 (at schools that offered it), where it was treated as a non-essential elective – and often taken only by African-Americans.
Women’s history was invisible. As for 10 of our first 12 presidents owning slaves – well, we knew about Washington and Jefferson, but it was spoken in a whisper. And until about 1970, forget about suggesting the Native Americans had a side to the story.
I’ve devoted space to this point because history is close to my heart and it’s more than just about memorizing dates and battles. If we are beginning to teach it again, we should teach it properly – and fairly. That’s a hot debate topic today, but the old way was no better and in my opinion, worse.
11. Diversity. American is a melting pot. That doesn’t start at age 18. Walk through many school halls these days and you’ll see a greater mix than ever. Why should we hesitate to embrace that?
Public education faces a ton of obstacles and for all the problems it inherits from dysfunctional homes, there is room for internal improvement as well. Don’t tell me it was so much better in bygone times, though. If that were true, why didn’t our well-educated generation pass on its gifts to those who followed us, and why is the world we helped create such a mess?