Education’s good old days? Please, you’ve been sniffing too many chemical-soaked mimeograph sheets

If you spend any amount of time on Facebook, eventually you’ll see a copied-and-pasted status update that looks something like this: “If you learned long division by hand, bicycled to school in the rain, drank lead-tainted water directly from the hose, played fast-pitch baseball in the dark with shiftless strangers, skinned your knee and ignored it until it became infected and led to a series of painful brain hemorrhages, sucked mercury from thermometers like marrow from the bones of dead hobos, and lived to tell about it, repost this and be thankful for the good old days.”

The implication, of course, is that kids are too mollycoddled these days, and we’re overthinking their upbringing – why can’t we just do things the way we used to? After all, we turned out fine.

I can’t help but believe that this notion – as well as sharp resistance to it – has contributed greatly to the statewide rift over collective bargaining that’s culminated in the current gubernatorial recall effort.

After all, in the past, kids did just fine under the tutelage of bitter, underpaid nuns and schoolmarms. Why spend more money for worse results? Teachers deserve a pay cut. They’re not holding up their end of the bargain.

I suspect that this attitude is actually fairly pervasive. Commenting on one of my recent blog posts, a reader said this: “Go back to teaching math, science, history and [E]nglish the way it was taught in the 50’s. Students either passed or failed based on work not on some stupid self-esteem.”

Unfortunately, to sustain this outlook, you have to largely close your eyes to history. In fact, you can only think that education was better in the old days if you believe it’s okay not to educate most people.


  • Graduation rates are vastly improved from where they were in the “good old days.” In 1950, 11.1% of adults over 25 had completed less than five years of elementary school. In 1910, that figure was 23.8%. In 2009, it was just 1.4%. In 1950, only 34.3% of adults 25 or over had completed high school. In 2009, that figure was 86.7%. Perhaps even more striking are the educational attainment rates among racial minorities. For instance, in 1950, 32.6% of blacks 25 or older had completed less than five years of elementary school, compared to only 1.1% today. In 2009, 84.2% of blacks 25 or over had completed high school, compared to only 13.7% in 1950.

  • With greater participation in school – particularly among minorities, who are often disadvantaged because of a relative lack of resources – you’d expect test scores to be lower. But scores in the National Assessment of Education Progress test have steadily, if not spectacularly, improved.

    But while it might be hard to claim victory based on some of these test scores (scores of 17-year-olds have not improved nearly as much as those of other age cohorts, for instance), if you look below the surface, you’ll see that there’s improvement among all races since the test was first administered in the ‘70s (and marked improvement among blacks and Hispanics).

    Because a smaller percentage of whites, who tend to score higher on these tests thanks to socioeconomic advantages, are being tested today, the improvement among all races is somewhat masked by the aggregate results.

    So what you have is an educational system that’s educating more kids – in particular, more poor kids who would have simply dropped out of school in the past because they were harder to educate – and getting better results.

  • One major reason why education is more expensive than it used to be is that far more kids are in special education programs. Wanna go back to the way we used to do things? Fair enough. But first, take a look at this fun little description of the “good old days,” from a 1997 New York Times article:

    “Before Congress intervened, public schooling for disabled children ranged from dismal to truly barbaric. As recently as the 1970’s, they could be found strapped into their chairs and screaming, in conditions reminiscent of the Dark Ages. The picture changed with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 – since renamed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act – which ordered the states to provide disabled children with ‘a free, appropriate public education.’ The effort to comply has been hellishly expensive, and disabled students still fail or drop out more often than they succeed.

    “But even with its problems, special education is spectacularly better than in the bad old days. Children who would once have been institutionalized or shut out of school are now educated under conditions that are enviable – even by affluent suburban standards.”

    On top of all this, IQs themselves have increased over time. This is supported both by research and my own observation. I have eight nieces and nephews. I’ve spent varying amounts of time with them, but I’ve gotten to know them all well enough to pretty fairly assess their intelligence, and I would wager that they’re all smarter than I am. Of course, that’s a hard pill to swallow – almost as hard as the lead-based paint chips that were a staple of my diet from approximately 1967-69 – but the truth is the truth.

    I realize that the official sport of middle-aged and old people has always been fearing the modern world and comparing it unfavorably to the old days, but such attitudes shouldn’t infect public policy.

    I suspect the reason Scott Walker thought he could get away with attacking the teachers who educate our children – our future workforce – is that so many people think our educational system consistently throws good money after bad, unlike in the good old days when we all got educated on the cheap and turned out fine.

    The reality is far different. We may have turned out fine, but there was room for improvement, and teachers, by and large, seized the day and helped us make great strides.

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