State Board President Challenges Popular Myths about Today's Schools

November 19, 1999

In an opinion article mailed to state newspapers today, West Virginia Board of Education President Cleo P. Mathews challenges the popular myth that today's public schools are inferior to the schools of yesteryear. President Mathews shows in her article that today's schools are actually providing a higher quality of education to a larger percentage of students than ever before in our country's history.  

Following are excerpts from her article:  


Were the "good old days" in American education really as great as we would like to remember?  

The popular myth is that the education provided to previous generations was better, that all students learned and only a few children dropped out of school. The reality is much different than the perception. The truth is that today's public schools in West Virginia are providing a larger percentage of students with a higher quality of education than at any other time in our state's history.  

One only needs to examine historical data from the ACT to determine that schools today must be doing a pretty good job. The ACT - one of the few assessments used in the ?60s still being used today - is an entrance exam taken by nearly 60 percent of America's entering college freshmen.  

During the 1966-67 school year, the first year that state-by-state data is available, West Virginia's college-bound seniors scored a mean composite of 19.1 on the ACT, compared to 20.2 during the 1998-99 school year. While this improvement is statistically significant, what makes it even more impressive is that this progress was made with a greater percentage of students taking the test. The diverse population of students taking the ACT today is actually doing better than the select group of students - normally only the brightest and most affluent - who took the test in 1966-67.  

After examining and reexamining data comparing the schools of today with the schools of previous decades, more educational leaders and researchers are becoming vocal advocates for today's schools. Richard Rothstein, noted author of The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America's Student Achievement, a report released in 1998 by the Century Foundation, challenges the popular myth that American public schools are failing and are in desperate need of dramatic change.  

"Although many critics of today's educational establishment yearn for some past golden age and call for a return to the basics, there is no hard evidence to support their belief that the past was golden and no proof that current practices are harmful," Rothstein wrote. "Indeed the various adaptations in educational practice over the years are a reflection of pragmatic adaptations by schools to the conditions of their time and place and to the demands of parents and teachers."  

America's criticism of public schools isn't something new. Each generation believes that it received the best education ever and that the present American education system is in crisis. As early as the 1940s, the American news media began focusing on the supposed crisis in American education. If, as the myth indicates, each generation this century received a better education than the subsequent generation, then the schooling provided to students in the early part of this century had to be vastly superior, didn't it?  

Rothstein cites numerous facts in his report to refute the common misconception that the schools of yesteryear were better, including: only six percent of students graduated from high school in 1900, more than half of the students in 1900 failed to get as far as the eighth grade, reading in the early 1900s meant standing in place and reading aloud, and numerous World War I recruits failed a basic written intelligence test partly because they couldn't comprehend what they read. In his detailed report, Rothstein shows that the so-called golden age of education didn't glitter quite as brilliantly as what some current critics would have the public believe.  

West Virginia's schools have changed dramatically since the 1960s. During the ?60s, student/teacher ratios weren't yet established, fine arts and specialized physical education classes in elementary schools weren't prevalent, elementary counselors were rare and school nurses were few and far between.  

Also in the ?60s, early childhood programs, gifted programs, community service work expectations, advanced placement and college prep courses, before and after-school care programs, character education programs, special education programs, elementary libraries, school psychologists, regular health screening programs, alternative schools, computer and science labs, and vocational education programs were scarce or nonexistent.  

In reality, many of the services, programs and courses taken for granted in today's schools were extremely limited or nonexistent in the schools of the 1960s. Do Americans really want to return to those "good old days" when so many families' and children's needs weren't being met - when students who weren't being served simply dropped out?  

Today, the critics of public schools often point to anecdotal information, vague memories of neighborhood schools through rose-colored glasses, results from tests which weren't even utilized in previous decades and invalid comparisons of America's diverse student population to select populations of other countries to "prove" that today's schools are failing and that they are inferior to the schools of yesteryear.  

Critics point to the cashier who has difficulty making change without help from a cash register as proof positive that all public schools are failing, while totally ignoring the millions of students who take higher-level math and science courses, many of which weren't even offered two or three decades earlier.  

Critics are amazed at a youngster's computer skills, but do not infer that his or her school must be doing a superior job of teaching math, reasoning and logic - skills necessary to be proficient with technology.  

Americans expect more from their public schools than probably any other institution, public or private. Each decade, the expectations (and responsibilities) of schools are increased to meet the needs of an ever-changing American society. Each decade, schools must add new curriculum and programs to meet society's needs and to prepare students to be successful in an increasingly complex world. Just as the teachers and schools of today aspire to meet the needs of today's students, the schools and educators of yesteryear strived to meet the needs of students in a bygone era when a high school diploma or additional training and education weren't always necessary.  

In the middle of the next century, some noted American columnist undoubtedly will write in glowing terms of a bygone era, when all students learned and only a few children dropped out of school.  

In this article read by millions, the columnist will yearn for an earlier time in this country's history, when education was somehow better . . . in the 1990s.

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