As a Canadian who attended seventh and eighth grades at M.E. Fitzgerald School in Cambridge, MA, I never knew the reasons for the differences I observed between the educational systems in the U.S. and my home country.
Thanks to the book School: The Story of American Public Education, I think I now have a better understanding.
On my first day of school in the U.S., the first thing I noticed was the framed portrait of John F. Kennedy that hung in the school’s entrance.
As I made my way to class, I glanced into the classrooms and saw an American flag hanging in every room. When class began, students stood with hand on heart, faced the flag, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance in unison.
I stood for the Pledge of Allegiance when everyone else did, but didn't put my hand on heart or say the pledge, on my parents’ advice. It was reminiscent the feeling you get when you watch the Olympics and they play a national anthem you’ve never heard before: you can’t help but realize how culturally insulated we are.
My fantastic teacher, Mr. Harrington, said he felt I was being left out and he hated it when students couldn't recite the pledge in perfect unison, so he gave me the permanent job of standing up at the front of the room and saying, "One, two, three..." so everyone would start (and, he hoped, finish) the pledge at the same time.
The lesson: if you want the Pledge of Allegiance done right, get a Canadian to count you in.
This experience was my first look at the U.S. educational system in the very place it began. School: The Story of an American Public Education also starts in the 13 original American colonies, where “only larger towns in New England were required by law to build schools” and follows the thread to the new millennium, where “business-minded reformers” have overseen a move toward standardized tests and accountability.
Along the way, we learn about the key educational philosophers (Mann, Dewey, Wirt, Jefferson, and Hughes), the variety of school models (public, private, charter, dame, common, frontier, progressive, home), and the contentious issues that help characterized the system in place today: diversity and assimilation, equality, government control, standardization, and the influence of big business.
In each case, the systems and debates happened in response to the events and dominant political and societal views of the day:
In Part One, 1770-1900, we learn about the formation of the common school, a response to anti-British sentiment, Protestant doctrine (and a Catholic backlash), illiteracy, and the philosophies of Thomas Jefferson (“Education will enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom”) and Horace Mann (“All citizens” are responsible for the education of all children).
Part Two, 1900-1950, looks at the U.S. educational system’s attempts to educate and Americanize immigrants and get kids out of factories and into schoolrooms. Though the goal to provide universal education is laudable, the push to incorporate IQ testing in the 1920s saw some immigrant groups, the poor, and children with disabilities classified as write-offs.
(My favorite anecdote is Bel Kaufman’s recollection of being placed in the first grade, unable to speak English. She needs to leave the room, listens hard to the other kids, and finally asks, “Moooromm” – her best approximation of “May I leave the room?”)
This section closes with the U.S. (and the educational system) reacting to a shocked populace when the Soviets launch Sputnik, leading to a new emphasis on science (and anti-Soviet sentiment), much as the original settlers once saw a need to educate its populace in opposition to British rule. Teacher to students in 1957: “If you don’t do well, we are going to lose to communism!”
In Part Three, 1950-1980, the importance of equality for women, people with disabilities, and people of color comes to the forefront, with education playing a key role in “the sweep of civil rights legislation” (P. 162), which includes the Civil Rights Act, Title IX, the Bilingual Education Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The educational system created for white, Protestant males finally became open to everyone in theory if not always in practice, showing how hard it is to dispel discriminatory attitudes and practices once they’ve been adopted by a society.
The book quotes former Topeka student Don Oden: “The school board at that time felt they were giving us…that separate but equal type of thing – which really turned out to be separate but unequal.”
In Part Four, 1980 to 2000, we see the impact of business on schools based on the template of corporate America (“Ford, IBM, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard”) and the publication of A Nation at Risk, a flawed assessment of the state of public education commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education.
As we get closer to the present day, we see the rise of home schooling among the religious right, a promising experiment with charter schools, “a new form of public school," and progressive schools “designed to enhance student achievement as well as critical thinking skills.”
Yesterday and today
As I read the book, my memories from public school in Cambridge came rushing back. I recalled taking pride in the misery of my classmates when the geography teacher yelled because, “the only person here who knows the 50 states is a Canadian!”
I remembered the Pledge of Allegiance arrangement, the cultural diversity in the classroom, and the new slurs I sometimes heard other children use in the playground. I remembered certain children looking a lot poorer than others, and many of my friends having one parent (uncommon in my circle of friends back home).
At the time, I didn’t understand that the school I was attending was designed for someone like me: a white, able-bodied male of Protestant upbringing and middle-class parents. That I was Canadian was barely noticeable and mostly a cultural difference that only I felt on the inside.
What would the experience have been like had I been a member of a disadvantaged group in an earlier era? This book’s stats gave me some insight:
- “Black literacy soared in the decades after the Civil War from five to 70 per cent.”
- “Two-thirds of Mexican-American students in Los Angeles were classified as slow learners, and even mentally retarded, on the basis of I.Q. tests.”
- “Less than one per cent of all medical and legal degrees awarded in 1970 went to women.”
- In 1972, “72 per cent of disabled school-age children were not enrolled.”
On a larger scale, it gives me pause to note that the business models held up as the template for U.S. education in the 80s have all declined to shadows of their former market dominance. As go the business models, so to go the schools?
In the teacher’s warning to students of “Ivan in the Soviet Union studying math," I heard echoes of U.S. critics reacting to Obamacare with calls of “socialism.” One thing that rarely gives Canadians pause is “socialism,” especially as it pertains to healthcare.
Apart from the often mind-boggling and disturbing statistics, I love the book’s photographs and illustrations, which are delightful, shocking, and thought-provoking in equal measure and show how far education has come since the days of cramped classrooms, school kids riding a cow, a child holding a sign saying, “To Hell with the Kaiser,” and an early Protestant textbook showing “The Pope, or Man of Sin.”
As I read about the debates and arguments about education over the years, I was reminded of the quote that kicks off the book Critical Issues in Education (Nelson): “If you like arguments, you will love the study of education.”
School is a well-balanced chronicle of these arguments, and it achieves its main goal of telling “the story of American public education” (even if the critique is soft at times). As it is, I identified with the book more as a seventh-grade student in Massachusetts than I do as a present-day educator in Canada. The culprit: location, location, location.
The book ends with the million-dollar question: “Will we give all students what they need to succeed or stand by and see their opportunities limited?”
I think that every teacher, parent, and upstanding citizen wants to help students succeed, but no one is really sure how to do it. In some ways, it’s reassuring to find out that this is the way it’s always been, in other ways it’s depressing: if we’ve never been able to figure out how to best educate our kids, what are the chances that we’ll be able to do it now, especially given the partisanship climate that pervades the present state of U.S. politics?
When I finished the book, I did feel much wiser about the link between where American education has been and where it is now (especially in light of the Chicago teachers' strike), and my very narrow window into that world in the early 80s. What seemed to my foreign eyes to be a surprising blend of learning and politics is less surprising when you read that a key aim was to, in Noah Webster’s words, “Begin with the infant in the cradle (and) let his first word he lisps be Washington.”
Most importantly, School showed me my place as an instructor in a long line and tradition of many, many more. When I was finished reading, I wanted nothing more than to be the best teacher I can be in my classroom – the one element over which I have some degree of control.