Those weren’t the days, my friend…

When socializing with colleagues, the topic of conversation often turns to public education policy. A curmudgeon in the group invariably makes reference to “the good old days” marked by rote recitation of the times-tables, a time when all children were little engines of on-demand knowledge acquisition, and all teachers found a way to convey critical knowledge.

There is only one problem with the argument.

As so aptly clarified in Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, such a period of educational attainment is but a figment of the collective imagination. Still, the halcyon days of our past remain a popular myth and are employed as a standard justification for leaving education appropriations as a percentage of the Gross National Product (GNP) right where they have been stuck for decades, somewhere within shouting distance of six percent since World War II. 

Unfortunately, our Oz-like tendency to examine the past through rose-colored glasses is hampering efforts to provide adequate resources to prepare ALL children for the demands of the Age of Information.

As little as fifty years ago, a quarter of our children dropping out of school merited hardly a shrug of concern. Unfortunately, today’s drop-outs need no longer apply to the legitimate alternatives of that time.

The military has always required foot-soldiers for the skirmish line, but the equipment and weaponry of today are more advanced. Unlike the the days of old, marginally-literate high school drop-outs will find it a challenge to enlist in their service of choice.

Back then, the industrial sector welcomed former students to the workforce with the promise of a living wage for work that was often tedious and frequently hazardous. Today, those factories, when not relocated overseas, are automated and mechanized. Now, factories require writers-of-code and programmers for the robotics.

Our society continues to evolve, and technology is proving to be a double-edged sword creating careers for the highly-skilled while rendering many other trades obsolete. In a few short years, we will deal with the arrival of autonomous vehicles on our roads… How many truck, taxi and bus drivers will be put out of work? Who will create the training and the opportunities to replace that lost gainful employment?

The national goal of optimizing education for every child is a paradigm shift for this nation. “Reaching every child” is a laudable goal, but 21st Century schools will never simply arise from the 19th Century agrarian calendar, the 20th Century model of a school-day based on the assembly line, or stagnant funding streams. Our appropriation of education resources has t00 long favored the economic elite while turning a blind eye to the plight of the disadvantaged; that, too, must change.

Essential to our progress as a society, this ideal could be phrased no more eloquently than by the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, when she said, The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.


[The original version of this piece appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on July 15, 2015.]

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