Most Americans have enjoyed free public education, but many are unwilling to pay rising taxes for schools in this time of hyperbolic political rhetoric. Education is the most expensive item in most state budgets, and it’s the first thing politicians want to cut.
Too often, professional educators are left out of this conversation and choices are made by politicians who want quick results and fail to recognize the importance of preparing the next generation for international technology and the global marketplace.
The history of American education is full of reform movements, but rapid changes in technology are rendering traditional concepts of educational reform obsolete. By the 1600s religious organizations sponsored most learning opportunities, and during the 1700s educational institutions were established for non-sectarian learning at Benjamin Franklin Academy in Philadelphia and universities Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Then, by the 1800s, elementary schools were available in many parts of the United States with textbooks like McGuffey’s Readers setting the standard for students who could go on to state-subsidized universities.
In 1900, teacher training was provided at “normal schools” but no formal teacher training was required in most localities. Young men taught before going to university, and young women could teach until they were married. Schools were funded by property taxes in some states, but education funding was not universally available and many children never attended school.
However, those who completed high school and college had great advantages over those who did not graduate. National standards were to be established to determine when and how a student could earn credit toward their American high school diploma. The National Education Association has established Carnegie Units as the standard for satisfactory performance in high school courses required for graduation. By the start of World War II, less than half of all American adults had completed high school; now 90% have a high school diploma.
Since 1950, American public schools have weathered cultural storms regarding the integration of people of color, the inclusion of Americans with disabilities, and the acceptance of gender ambivalent people. Politicians talked about: “More phonetics”, “Academic Responsibility”, “equal opportunities in education”, “Have a moral compass”, “Objectives 2000”, “Teacher Merit Pay” and “No child left behind.”
However, politicians have not paid attention to the emerging economies in the world and all the technological changes. Americans don’t care what happens in foreign countries or how to prepare workers for competition. We don’t realize that there is an age when our young children could easily learn a foreign language, and then they could sell products to people in other countries.
We don’t recognize the need to be able to use the metric system to be more efficient in producing and selling products where feet and pounds don’t matter. We have far too many people who don’t understand that science isn’t perfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve developed to understand the pandemic and climate change.
It is time for teachers to participate in the political debate on education.