I have been involved in education for 67 years, from 1939 when I entered kindergarten at LakesideSchool in Pittsburg, Kansas, until 2006 when I retired as an adjunct instructor in English at the Valdosta (GA) attendance center of Georgia Military College.
I am skeptical about the move to standardize K-12 education in the United States, commonly known as Common Core. Back when….way back when, education was a matter of local interest, and citizens of each community supervised education through their local school boards. At some point, the states became involved and standardized such matters as the length of the school year (usually 180 days per year) to the approval of school textbooks for each subject.
How each school district allotted their 180 days of school was up to each local school board. In agricultural communities, school days were planned around planting and harvesting. In many northern communities, the school days were planned around the seasons of bad weather. In the first community in which I taught in Western Kansas, we built a one week Easter break into our school calendar. If we had a snow day, we would lose one day of that Easter-break week.
The curriculum was mainly left to individual teachers or subject departments in larger school systems. Text books were selected by individual teachers or departments from the state approved list of school texts. State standardized tests came in the 1970s and 80s. On the surface, this kind of operation appears to be haphazard, but it is not. If a school district did a good job of hiring teachers and administrators, it was far from haphazard. My first superintendent once said to me, “I don’t know anything about education, but I know how to hire people who know how to teach.”
Each teacher from kindergarten through high school was generally autonomous, but each teacher was called to an accounting over a period of time. The question would be asked by the parents and administrators, “Did the third grade teacher prepare little Johnny or Janey for the fourth grade?” “Did the high school prepare our graduates for the work world or entrance into college?” If teachers were not doing their job, they were usually let go after having a chance to improve. This accountability went from grade K through graduate school at colleges and universities.
There’s no denying that there were slackers among the teaching force in every local school system. There were people who got on the county payroll because of nepotism, and there were people who were teaching because they couldn’t work, as was a popular saying many years ago. But parents and the public became aware of them, and they, and perhaps their mentors, were fired.
But there were also innovators in the sciences, in math, in the fine arts and music, in the discipline of written composition that inspired their students to reach far beyond what even the teacher could dream of doing. Vocational education schools sprang up during this time period in carpentry, nursing, auto mechanics, printing and in many other areas of human endeavor.
This was the system of education that was in place in America for more than a hundred years and it served us well. During both World War I and World War II, young men, educated through this system, acquitted themselves nobly on the battle fields of the world and in roles of military leadership. And the women…the women stayed home and filled vital industries with valuable workers. Those women, who longed for adventure, could join the women’s branches of the armed forces to work in offices around the world and as nurses even at the battle fronts. There was even a cadre of women who learned to fly and ferried air planes from the States to England.
Then after each of the two world wars, ordinary men and women built businesses, designed clothing and tractors, invented medical testing equipment, erected hospitals and places of learning. To be sure, there were unique individuals like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates, and they are responsible for the productivity spikes that appear in our statistics. But American business and industry was mainly built by regular folks who had ideas and couldn’t rest until they put their ideas into practice. Some of them failed, but many of them succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination.
All of this was before somebody decided that in order for the children of this country to be properly educated, there must be national standards, a national curriculum, and lock-step performance testing. For without these, we will never be able to catch up with the world in math, science, and engineering. Remember, we led the world in those disciplines when our educational system was “haphazard.”
Common Core is like a mole cricket that inhabits our lawns in the South unless we stay on guard against them. They bore into the sod and destroy grass from beneath the surface until we kill them. Common Core will bore into the heart of each community school system. It will pit parents against school authorities. It will pit local school authorities against state departments of education. It will create friction between states and the federal government. It will cause a lowering of standards in each school and in each state in order that the schools will be able to hold themselves up into the national spotlight.
The academic experimenter will no longer be able to enjoy the thrill of watching some off-beat system he/she has developed inspire students to reach for the stars. The teacher will no longer have time to take his students outside on a warm spring day, seat them in a circle on the ground, and read the poetry of James Dickey to them, for if he does, he will be taking time away from preparing them for the next phase of national testing.
Like fine wine, teaching and sharing a heritage grows sweeter and more reliable with the years. Our educational system has served us well for many generations. Please don’t damage it any more than it has already been damaged or allow it to be destroyed!