Correcting Misconceptions: The Good ‘ol Days When “We” Went to School

Been so long, I almost forgot my WordPress password.  Things over at Twitter @jscotkey have proved even more fun that I anticipated, especially if you include phrases like “horribly depressing news” and “anxiety” in your definition of the word “fun.”  So meet me over there someday, if you’ve a mind to.

The little ditty below doesn’t fit the 140 world, so I’m running it here.  As everyone knows, whenever “we” did something it was better than it is being done now.  Music was better.  The air might not have been cleaner, but it smelled better somehow.  Just as the best high school ever just always happens to be the one we are currently attending, there’s a tendency for us to think things have just gone to hell recently and aren’t like the good ‘ol days.

This is especially true with a certain subset of humans (although “bots” are most likely involved as well) who tend to rabidly follow education news, especially news about public schools where there still exists those quaint entities known as “unions.” They follow this news not because of a desire to become union card-waving public school teachers themselves (Heaven Forbid!), but instead because they remember the “Good ‘ol Days” and decry how things have just gone to Hell since they walked the 20 miles in the snow to their one-room schoolhouse.

These “Fightin’ Keyboardists” assail public school education as a colossal failure made inevitable by increasing governmental incompetence and increasing powerful and paranoid communist unions bent on destruction of our American Way of Life.  When one feels up to it, one might read some of the Internet commentary by these Fightin’ Keyboardists.  It is full of

  • “When I went to school, I don’t remember anybody not graduating!”
  • “Kids can’t read today, unlike my old school where kids actually learned and turned out people like me!”
  • “Unions have control of our educational system and are continue to drive it into the ground.  Look at those test scores!”

And so forth, and so on, and so infinitum.  Not wishing to cite a certain person of a certain political ideology, for it is an immediate “Godwin’s Law” violation to do so, I’ll just mumble that others have noted the retelling of a lie enough times tends to make folks understand that lie to be the truth.  With that in mind, below are four corrections to misconceptions many have today concerning public education in this country.

One additional note before we get into the list.  A big key to perpetuating the perception of public school failure is to keep changing the test, cut scores, etc. to make certain there’s never a true apples-to-apples set of data over time.  It might seem counter-intuitive, but NAEP’s unchanging long-term status, despite being a “standardized test” itself (and therefore lumped in as “evil” by those opposing use of such tests), is the best evidence that “failure” relative to the good ‘ol days is just a bunch of bullshit.  As for whether all such tests are, by their very nature, bullshit, is a great discussion for another time.  Here we’re simply using the same level of argument employed by The Fightin’ Keyboardists:

1.  If you’re over 30, public school is much more rigorous and academically challenging today than when you attended public school.  While not a perfect indicator, the numbers from the College Board on Advanced Placement classes and scores show the dramatic rise in offerings/scoring over ten years from 2003-2013 (latest such report).  For instance, the number of tests receiving scores of 3 or more has more than doubled in those ten years. Moreover, The National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment finds that “Dual enrollment had an annual growth rate of over 7% during the intervening 8 years since 2002-03.”

2.  Graduation (“completion rates”) rates are actually higher and drop-out rates lower than when we went to school.  Here’s a screenshot of one page of  this 2009 report on the subject from the U.S. Department of Education.  Note that improvement in dropouts shown here is true throughout the ethnic demographics.  As might be expected from the graph below, the report also notes rising “completion rates” (think “graduation”).  Tracking graduation rates is truly one of the hardest research questions (and education has plenty of them), but this report and others show that dropping-out has always been a concern.  Even back in the “Good ‘ol Days.”

dropout rates 1972-20093.  Test scores have improved since you and I went to school way back when. Here’s the most recent long-term NAEP report, with scores in Math and Reading going all the way back to 1971.  Note that even the flattened 17 year-old scores are still that, not going down, while the younger kids scores are dramatically higher than the good ‘ol days of “Bullwinkle” and “Johnny Quest.”  Of the four corrections sought here, this is the one with perhaps the biggest disconnect between general perception and actual reality.  This is especially true for those of us from the Fightin’ Keyboardists demographic (i.e., 50 and above).  I graduated high school in 1979, right alongside many of the Fightin’ Keyboardists.  I sat beside them and they tried to copy my answers in English class (fortunately, my handwriting was so poor that they were stymied).  Students were “dumb” back then, too.  In fact, more of us were “dumb” than today.  Deal with it, old people.

4.  Unions are not the problem when it comes to academic performance.  Returning to NAEP and its 8th Grade reading scores in 2013, just to pick one test example, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont (all very strong teacher union states) score 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th highest respectively, while weak teacher union states like Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi…well, you know.  I’ll admit this is “Fish in a barrel” easy from an argumentation standpoint, but NOBODY IN CHARGE OF ANYTHING will simply point this simple fact out a few billion times in a few billion public settings.  I’m not asking for someone to make the observation that, “Hey, if stronger unions mean higher scores, we should probably have REQUIRED union membership in New Mexico!”  Oh no, no, no.  That would be crazy talk.  Let’s just leave it at “no correlation” between Unions and scores, for now at least.

Those wishing to follow-up with others, far more eloquent, noting the disconnect between the perception/rabble-rousing of “failure” and the actual reality might start here at Diane Ravitch’s blog and go from there via the typical Internet surfarama experience.  I’ll admit I tend not to read Ravitch and her like-minded advocates, merely because I know I’ll just end up:

  • Nodding my head in agreement until it falls off;
  • Finding things that fit in my hand; and,
  • Throwing those things through any wall, window or skylight that happens to be nearby.

Still, there’s plenty of stuff out there that makes a far better case than outlined here.

Meanwhile, enjoy your last week before #PARCC, New Mexico teachers, although you know the Library really has already been closed for weeks now, what with all the “practicing.”  We’ve been in the icy grip of #PARCC for weeks now.  Still, we’re gonna make it through this.  We really are.  Really.  Besides, my guess is that we have students right now who will someday be able to tell young whipper-snappers decades from now, “Yup, public schools really were worse back when I went to school. Back in the days of the PARCC Testing Wars.  You should have been there.  It was awful.”

Hmmm…I don’t know if that look into the future is making me feel any better.

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One thought on “Correcting Misconceptions: The Good ‘ol Days When “We” Went to School

  1. Well said, Scot!

    I, too, graduated from high school in ’79 (Highland). My two children, 16 & 22, have had a far better education in the public schools than I received in the “good old days.”

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