Tell Me About the Good Old Days

It seems like at least once a day I hear a teacher or other adult say something that amounts to, or implies, “School was a lot better (or kids were a lot better) in the 60s/70s/80s/90s.”

We all know that we have a tendency to idealize the past. I was a student in the 80s and 90s, and I know schools had problems then. I know teachers worked hard, put in long hours, and were underpaid. Classes were large–there were 29 in my 5th grade class. Many kids had serious behavior and learning issues, even in my wealthy, high-performing suburban school system. School 20 years ago was NOT paradise.

But American public schools in 2011 are widely deemed to be failing. According to a lot of people I hear from, kids today aren’t ready for college or the job market. They can’t speak properly or write well. They have no self-contol, no sense of responsibility. All they care about is video games (or rap, or drugs, or gangs, or whatever). To hear many adults talk, most of America’s children are far inferior to the children of decades past, and the problem keeps getting worse.

Here’s my question, for people who have been around longer than I have: what is the cause of this decline? Assuming for the sake of argument that schools and kids were better “back in the day,” what changed? Is it NCLB? The recession? Budget cuts? Teacher or parent laziness? The internet? Cell phones? Divorce/single parent families? Alien force fields?

I sound sarcastic but I’m actually serious. If our schools really are in large part abject failures, more so than before–and many people think this is the case–what is the primary problem here?

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6 responses to “Tell Me About the Good Old Days

  1. Mrs. M,

    I really think it is a combination of several different things. First and foremost, I believe taking discipline out of the schools was one of the worst things we ever did. The consequences that children face for ill behavior now are not as serious as they were back in the day. I for one was a disruptive student in school and found myself on the wrong end of a paddle more than once. However, I was more cautious after that. It may not have stopped my behavior right away, but after many times of being reprimanded by the principal, I started to see things a little differently. This new idea of “in school suspension” blows my mind. I cannot understand what the bad part of being put into ISS is. They still get to do their work, and they are usually in the room with a bunch of other students that do not want to be in the classroom anyway. I have had a couple of students tell me directly that they want to get sent to Alternative school or ISS because they don’t have to do all the same work that is required in the classroom.

    I also see that our students today are seriously lacking in social skills. Instead of talking to one another they are using telephones, emailing, texting, or spending time alone playing video games. Of course we had video games when I was a child as well, but we didn’t spend hours upon hours playing them.

    I also think that parents have gotten lazy about instilling discipline in their children at home. I personally see so many parents that do not really set a very good example for their children. Parents are so busy with their jobs that they don’t have time to stay on top of everything their children are doing. When I did some work in the public schools, more than half of my students didn’t have anyone to help them with their homework in the evenings when they arrived home. They had no one that they were responsible to; therefore, they didn’t do their homework most of the time. The couple of times that I have had conferences with parents regarding their child’s behavior in the classroom, the parents have acted just as badly as or worse than the student. The parents have been rude, disrespectful, and also do not communicate very well. The last parent I tried to conference with went into a tirade about her daughter being sent home for a dress code violation. I couldn’t understand half of what the woman said, and then she informed me that when her daughter was at school, the child was my problem.

    As far as NCLB is concerned, I have had students in my classroom that really needed to be challenged more; however, I was required to stick directly to a specific curriculum and not give the students challenges because the school didn’t want the students on different levels. Also when there are so many disruptive students in a classroom, it is difficult to do fun and challenging activities with those students. The students just do not seem to be able to handle that kind of stimulus in the classroom. Two teachers that I know well have told me that they prefer to use multiple choice tests because they are similar to what the students see on standardized tests that are required by the state. I have also been told that multiple choice tests are easier for teachers to grade when they have so many students in their classrooms. I remember having some multiple choice tests in school, but not as much as students are doing now. I was required to have a writing portfolio to graduate high school in 1993. The portfolio was required for each class I took, including my math and science courses. We were required to have a certain number of writing examples from each class. If portfolios were required of students now most of them would not graduate. Also, I am still horrified when I see students that are passed merely because they are too old to be in a certain grade, but obviously cannot read. Teachers around here are no longer allowed to fail students. This is a decision that has to be made by the administration now. I think that is completely crazy!

    I do know that the better planned a teacher is that there are fewer disruptions in the classroom. However, there are always going to be those certain students that will disrupt the class regardless of how well planned the teacher is. I agree with you that we had behavioral issues in the schools even back in the day. However, the policies that are in place now do not really allow the schools to be able to deal with those students that exhibit behavioral issues. Whether one believes in corporal punishment or not, the idea of consequences in schools seems to be a fading idea. When school systems take away a teacher’s autonomy in the classroom, maintaining control in the classroom becomes extremely difficult.

    These are just a few ideas that I have about the issue. I am excited to read what other teachers think about it.

    • It’s interesting that you mention corporal punishment. I have no personal experience with it at home or at school, and I know it’s been outlawed in MA public schools since at least the 70s. I think it might technically still be legal in GA. I was raised to be morally against any kind of hitting, but I have the same concern as you about there being basically no consequence for students who misbehave other than detention or at worst suspension. We don’t really fail students either, they are passed due to age…until they fail the 10th grade MCAS test. If they don’t pass it by 12th grade (they get 2 tries a year) they don’t graduate. So ultimately they do “fail” but that’s a distant consequence for 4th graders. It’s frustrating.

  2. Hello there!
    I cant believe I found this blog…as I am thinking about coming to teach there in Abu Dhabi! I live in Nashville TN, but have been working as a youth counselor for the past year on a cruise ship. Before that I taught in the public school system for 6 years and was a literacy coach with United Way for three years. For about the past 5 years I have been considering teaching overseas…but at first I only heard about places in Asia hiring. Then my good friend who teaches for APS (Atlanta Public School System) told me that her friend also a former APS teacher was moving to AD to teach…and thought I might be interested too. I would love to talk to you in greater detail about how the transition has been for you, how safe you feel (I have another friend from the Philippines who is really worried about the safety of the area…thought I have not done enough personal research to find out if it’s warranted), and any other advice that you could give or wish to share. Not sure if you check this often…so I will wait until I hear back from you to ask more questions…but I would love to talk to you on Skype if it’s convenient…as I really would like to get more information before making such a life changing decision.

    Thanks sooooo much!
    Shareeah
    p.s- I will read you blog….and prob get a really good look into what life for you there is like! I’m really looking forward to it!

    pps- my fb is shareeahwoods or you can e mail me at shareeahwoods@gmail.com Thanks!

  3. just read more of your blog…and realized that you moved back to the US. Sorry for asking all of the unrelated questions now. However…congrats on your engagement /and finding a school to teach in close to home. it’s pretty crazy the turns and twists that life brings huh? Good luck with everything!

  4. Hi I will be moving overseas from NY to Bangkok to teach and I ran across your blog and noticed you went through what I am going through right now. I have 2 gorgeous persian cats that I love dearly but I cannot take them with me, since shipping them is about $4,500.oo. What did you end up doing with your cats? can you offer any advice or suggestions?

  5. I just started teaching in my first job in the UK 3 months ago (as a trainee) and was talking to some friends about this issue just this afternoon! I do not know the answer and intend to research it! I believe it is a combination of economic growth, the social benefits system and cultural change.
    I, too, am searching for jobs in the international school sector for as soon as i finish training.

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