Schooling in the "good old days" was very different

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Times have changed in public schools -- times have changed a lot. Yes, we have computers nowadays, and smartboards, and tons of standardized testing, and so much more knowledge about how people learn and the best techniques for educating young people. But everyday life has changed for students too, not to mention many of the principles underlying education itself.

If you were to go back to, say, the 1800s, chances are you’d encounter a one-room schoolhouse. Most people back then lived in small towns and the countryside, and schools were funded by local farmers, many of whom were very poor. There just weren’t the resources to construct big schools with lots of classrooms and resources. A one-room schoolhouse, heated in winter by a single woodstove was the norm. Forget binders and duotangs, paper and pens were too expensive -- instead they’d use little slates, like iPad-sized chalkboards, and chalk. Often they’d only have a handful for the whole class so the kids would have to share. All the grades, meanwhile, would be in the same room, with the younger kids at the front and the older ones at the back. Standard practice was for the older kids to help teach the younger kids. And the emphasis was on memorization; none of this “teaching kids how to learn” stuff, mostly it was “now repeat back what I told you.”

Teachers weren’t paid so well in the 1800s, and would often be housed and fed by locals. They’d have to move around so that everyone could share the burden. Sometimes a home and host family would be nice, and sometimes it wouldn’t. There are lots of stories of teachers having to live in miserable conditions, especially in winter. At the same time, teachers had the right to punish kids not only with detention and extra work, but with physical violence too, usually in the form of hitting them (mostly on the knuckles) with a ruler or something similar. Very different from today’s world!

As late as the 1960s and 1970s, expectations were very low for most students. Nowadays, around 12% of Americans lack a high school diploma -- but as recently as 1970 that number was almost 50%. And in those days, far fewer high schoolers progressed to college -- back in the 1950s, less than half of graduating American high schoolers moved on to postsecondary education, but these days the number is over 70%.

This is not to say that getting an education is a walk in the park nowadays -- that is certainly not the case. But for all the struggles encountered today by students, teachers and parents, it’s hard not to admit it: things could be worse.

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