San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco, California; November 8, 1998
COMMENTARY / Myth of Education's Golden Years
by Robert B. Gunnison, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau;
Of all the whoppers told by candidates this year, none is bigger than the myth of the golden age of education in California.
Elect me, the candidates declared, and we will restore schools to the days when children were well-behaved and knew how to diagram sentences, speak Latin and find the square root of 39 without a calculator.
But those days exist only in the minds of campaign consultants and the poor, self-deluded politicians.
These candidates try to terrify their audiences with anecdotes about how applicants for jobs can't pass basic skills tests, or that California's colleges must teach remedial math, reading and writing to incoming freshmen.
This is nothing new. In 1941, in a test of 4,200 candidates for naval officers, 62 percent failed math reasoning.
In 1945, only 40 percent of pupils entering high school finished.
Nine years later, nearly two-thirds of incoming college freshmen nationwide had to be taught high school algebra.
Remember the national panic about the state of American education when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957? The panicked nation suddenly discovered it had been ignoring math and science. Something must be done.
The 1960s brought endless protests that schools were abandoning standards, and mindless innovation was running rampant. Adults weren't in charge.
In the next decade, the nation was shocked, shocked, shocked that SAT scores had fallen for a dozen years. Working mothers, television, Vietnam, Watergate, drugs and sexual stereotypes were blamed, of course.
A mere 15 years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, said, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
But wait. Things might not be so bad after all. Consider how far the nation has come in its 200-plus years. It is especially remarkable because education is largely left to local communities. Unlike virtually every other industrialized power, the United States, despite the paranoid cries of the right, takes precious little direction from its central government. Schools are not even mentioned in the Constitution.
In colonial times, teachers were often drunks or seducers. Teaching was not a desirable way to make a living, because wages were so low, in keeping with English tradition. Wages were higher on the continent, however.
A Maryland newspaper in 1776 noted the arrival of a ship in Baltimore harbor that contained "various Irish commodities, among which were schoolmasters, beef, pork, and potatoes."
Schools with grades, based on the German system, were started in the 1820s, and were widespread by 1860. This increased the need for teachers, who until this time had been mostly men.
Women were not up to the task, the conventional wisdom went. But they worked more cheaply than men -- an important consideration for any school board. And by 1900, more than 70 percent of teachers were female.
Even with these advances, teacher training was not much. In 1900, a high school diploma was good enough to land a teaching job. Thirty years later, only 18 percent of teachers had gone to colleges or teacher-training schools with a four-year program.
It was in their classrooms that those naval officer candidates learned -- or, more likely, didn't learn -- math skills.
To understand how little attitudes toward education have changed in America, consider the words of a New Jersey school administrator in 1855.
Teachers, he said, were "miserably qualified for their duties," but they were "even better prepared than they can afford to be."
"The very name of teacher has been, as yet to some extent, a term of reproach," he continued.
And a farmer would pay more to show his horse than he would "to obtain a suitable individual to mold and form the character of his child."