The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

The older a man gets, the farther he had to walk to school as a boy.... ...Source unknown.

Commentary of the Day - September 9, 2000: Do We Ask Too Much of Our Schools?

The following comments by Jamie Vollmer, an education consultant from Iowa, have been circulating on the Internet and among teachers recently.  Mr. Vollmer's background is not in education but in the business world.  Nevertheless, he has raises some points that are worth considering.

Schools cannot do this alone---by Jamie Vollmer

America's public schools can be traced back to the year 1640.  The Massachusetts Puritans established schools to:
1.  Teach basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, and
2.  Cultivate values that serve a democratic society (some history and civics implied).

The creators of these first schools assumed that families and churches bore the major responsibility for raising a child.  The responsibility of the school was limited and focused.  America's schools stayed focused for 260 years.

At the beginning of this (20th) century, society began to assign additional responsibilities to the schools,  Politicians, business leaders, and policy makers began to see the schools as a logical site for the assimilation of newly arrived immigrants and the social engineering of the first generation of the "Industrial Age".  The trend of increasing the responsibilities of the public schools began then and has accelerated ever since.

From 1900 to 1910, we added nutrition immunization, and health to the rest of school responsibilities.

From 1920 to 1940, we added vocational education, the practical arts, business education, speech and drama, half day kindergarten, Phys. Ed. including organized athletics, and school lunch programs.  (We take this for granted today.  It was, however, a significant step to shift to the schools the job of  feeding America's children 1/3 of their daily meals.)

In the 1950's, we added safety education, driver's education, expanded music and art education, foreign language requirements were strengthened, and sex education was introduced (topics escalate through the 1990's).

In the 1960's, we added Advanced Placement programs, consumer education, career education, peace education, leisure education, and recreation education

In the 1970's, the breakup of the American family accelerated, and we added special education (mandated by federal government), Title IX programs (greatly expanded athletic programs for girls), drug and alcohol abuse education, Head Start, parent education, behavior adjustment classes, character education, environmental education, and school breakfast programs appear.  (Now, some schools are feeding America's children 2/3 of their daily meals.)

In the 1980's, the flood gates open, and we add keyboarding and computer education, global education, ethnic education, multicultural/non-sexist education, English-as-a-second-language, and bilingual education, early childhood education, Jump Start, Early Start, Even Start, and Prime Start full day kindergarten, pre-school programs for children at-risk, after school programs for children of working parents, alternative education in all its forms, stranger/danger education, anti-smoking education, sexual abuse prevention education, health and psychological services are expanded, and child abuse monitoring becomes a legal requirement for all teachers.

And, finally, in the 1990's, we have added HIV/AIDS education, death education, expanded computer and Internet education, inclusion, Tech Prep and School to Work programs, gang education (in urban centers), bus safety education, bicycle safety education, and gun safety education.

And in most states we have not added a single minute to the school calendar in five decades.

Without a doubt Mr. Vollmer has identified a key reason for the poor performance of our public schools.  In the jargon of the military it is "mission creep".  We have given our schools and our teachers ever greater responsibilities.  Although a few of the added missions we have given our schools may be questionable, most serve important educational or societal goals.  Indeed, many are functions that once were carried out within the family.  And though we may lament the changes in family structure that have led to these added school responsibilities, most of us agree that these are necessary functions.

There is little likelihood that our public schools will be relieved of these extra burdens any time soon.  These additions to the curriculum have taken their toll, however, on the time available in the school day for instruction in the basics - reading, writing, mathematics, and science.  We can make a change that would improve the situation greatly.  We need to increase the amount of time that our children spend in school.  The American public school calendar was designed to accommodate the needs of the predominantly rural, agrarian population of the 17th and 18th century.  Most industrialized countries have a much longer school year than we do, and many have a longer school day.  We need to consider this obvious improvement in the way our schools operate.

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© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.