Over the past couple of weeks I have been writing a series on many of the myths that people entertain about public education in this country.
During that journey I have learned a lot of new things, many of which I hope I conveyed to readers.
Myths about any subject come from peoples stories or their experiences. Then either the stories are told over and over again from person to person, or time changes the sense of what really was the truth.
The feeling by some that if schools could just go back to an 1800s philosophy of teaching "The Three R's" is simplistic to say the least. No one alive today can tell us from first hand experience what schools or even society was really like then.
Human beings almost always resort back to their own experience when asked to give an opinion on something. The problem with that is if we are not up on the facts of a matter we may either use old facts to make a judgement or we will use old feelings and memories, which puts emotion into the equation.
I've had some very long and strong experience working in the public education system for 14 years, from the 1970s through the 1980s. So I really thought when I began my research last spring into much of what is going on in schools that it would only be a matter of review.
It wasn't. Since I left working in the public schools in 1987, what happens in schools, how things are handled and the difficulties people face working there each day, have changed immensely.
Examples of what my experience working in schools was like and the reality today strikes me almost every week because earlier this year I became reacquainted with an old friend who worked with me in an elementary school in Salt Lake from 1980 through 1982. While I have gone on to other things, she has stuck it out working on that same campus since 1976. Today there are only three faculty members, including her, who are still there from the time I was employed in the building. In my conversations with her, she has taught me a lot about how things can change and often we don't even realize it.
First of all, when I left in 1982, the school had an economic base of mostly solid middle class households who sent their kids to the building each morning. Now the school is a title one school (largely economically disadvantaged kids).
In 1982 only once in a great while did a kid come into the school that couldn't speak English, and generally the language they did speak was Spanish. She said that now there are a number of language barriers with over a half dozen foreign language speaking students attending. She also told me that at another elementary school in the district there are a total of 28 different languages spoken.
Free lunch, once the exception, is now the rule in the cafeteria.
The requirements for employees have changed too. I remember dragging a kid to the office that was beating on a smaller kid one day. From my time and place that was the logical thing to do. Today there is a good chance I could be in trouble for physically doing that same thing. On the other end of physical contact, teachers can't hug kids either, despite children's need in time of stress to have physical contact from an adult.
The demands on teachers to prove themselves have become greater and greater. The state and federal requirements have become more stringent in what is required. While this may not be all bad, many very good teachers feel constantly under fire by the system, not something I sensed 20 years ago. That can't be good for classroom atmosphere.
Parents have changed too. In more and more families both work. There are also a large number of them that don't speak English (like their kids). Parents today also seem to know "their rights" more than ever. Nothing wrong with knowing your rights, but we all know what that attitude can lead to, too.
One of the things her school is seeing is an explosion of kids with learning disabilities. Whether it's diet, substance abuse by pregnant mothers, or other causes, it's not easy to tell. But it's a trend at many schools. Learning disorders puts a huge burden on regular class teachers and also jams up the pipeline wear special teachers, psychologists, social workers and the like labor to solve problems.
Disfunctional families are becoming an increasing problem too, with kids bringing more and more of their problems to school.
Not everything, however, is negative either. Some real inroads have been made into the problems of bullying and fighting (she said when she started playground fights were common, now they are very rare) and many students have been taught to take the responsibility to report threats and problems on campus.
In another area, sexual harassment policies have really changed how kids interact with one another, for the better.
The facts of life in education have changed and will continue to evolve as societal and governmental pressures increase. What is true today, may well not be true in 20 years, so there will be another generation of myths to cure.
I come away surprised by what goes on every time I talk with her. My experience is so old, little of it applies these days. Most parents are in the same boat. Their experience with school generally relates only to how it was when they went to classes from the 1960s through the 1980s.
It's a new world everyday in education. What was OK yesterday, isn't today.
Personally I'm glad it's a row I don't have to hoe anymore.