"Oh, that's such an old complaint, people have always been saying the schools are failing, every generation repeats it.", which has some truth to it, but like the crack that 'It's not paranoia if people really are out to get you', if you look at the history of the school systems since we instituted them, they actually have been getting measurably worse and worse (by their own criteria) at delivering the Education they promised from the very start, and while progressively delivering less and less of the quality they promised, they've been doing more and more of what they weren't supposed to be doing unto us at all. That those failures have been occurring consistently, nationwide, over successive decades, is an indication that the problems with our school systems have far less to do with the incompetence or bad intentions (though, some of that surely exists, see previous post) of particular localities, administrators, teachers, students, or parents, than it has to do with the fundamental changes to why, what with, and how, we've expected our school systems to 'educate' our students.
Because the problem is systemic in nature, it can't be solved by trying to treat the endless series of bad effects it spawns as if they were isolated bugs to be fixed & forgotten. A consequence of not seeing that our school systems problems are inherent in its very design - in both theory and structure - is that we enable those fundamental flaws to hide safely behind the far more visibly distracting effects of 'we've gotta improve our reading and math scores!', and each such 'fix' leads to still worse problems, each inviting still further fixes, and all serving to make the system which actually caused them, to grow ever more stronger and entrenched. We've taken up that invitation and we've travelled so far down that path, that the actual problems have become more hidden, harder to identify, and easier to mistake as being problems of policy only - hence the ever growing number of gilded Band-Aids we've applied to the arterial bleeds in the quality of We The People's education.
To be fair, it wouldn't be easy to compare our traditional system of education, to the 'progressive' school systems that replaced it, even if we tried - and oh, we have tried. On this one issue, the problem doesn't come from the 'Progressive Education' side of the comparison, as they've always favored having as much of a uniform, centralized, common set of 'standards' as they could possibly get away with - that's their selling point, there's little to no difficulty finding schools that are representative of 'progressive' practices, to compare to the practices of traditional education. The problem comes from trying to find even a single representative example from the side of traditional education, that you'd compare it to. Even in those aspects you'd expect to be fairly easy to compare, in their books and so forth, what would you compare a Common Core 'Social Studies' textbook to....Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War"? de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America"? Even the textbook histories of the 1904 (I've got my Grandpa's school textbooks - here's a link to a later edition of the American History, and English History, which are already showing the 'progressive' factoid'izing of history, but are still vastly superior to what we have today ), were vastly different in form and quality and are not very comparable. And if we skipped over comparing the actual materials used, and tried comparing a measure of their respective results, such as with this often meme'd quiz from Salina, Kansas, in 1895 , that comparison would also leave you with a false impression (more on that in a moment).
|Is it just about the questions?
One of the problems is that even if you could find the graded quizzes used in that particular school, or even a list of the materials and lessons used in getting them, it was very likely not what was used in the next school down the road, let alone in the next town or state. And before you decide to score that as a point for the 'Progressive Education' side, it is extremely important to point out that that was not a bug, but a feature of the traditional system of education, and one of its most important and valuable features, at that. In each location, the individual parents and trusted advisers, in conjunction with the teachers they hired, decided upon what materials would be used, to what extent, and what results were expected of them, and that varied as much from location to location as the people in them did.
If that traditional feature still seems buggy to you, consider the cases of (picking a few names out of a very stuffed hat)... George Wythe, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederic Douglass... hugely well educated Americans such as these, came from wildly differing educations, which were drawn from widely varying materials and means, which were selected by their parents, or advisers (living or authored), as it seemed would be best suited to help them to achieve a common goal of becoming educated. Do you recall from a few years back when Finland was all the rage in 'how to do school!' circles (I touched on what usually went unsaid on that in this post, pay especial attention to the comments)? Funny thing about that, if you bothered to look past the meaningless distractions of giving teachers a 'professional salary', insurance, etc., and looked at what the teachers themselves said they actually did which made a difference in educating their students, they attributed it to teachers having full control over their classrooms, beginning with the material they chose to teach from (they had general cultural targets they had to prepare their students for, but weren't told what materials to use or how to get there), the only classroom tests they used were those they themselves devised, if and when they saw a need for it, and they had close one-on-one relationships with the student's parents, and the teacher had final say on who was disciplined, why and how, and who remained in their classes.
IOW, with at least some participation and consent from parents, their teachers were given the power to Teach by those with the proper power to give it to them, and their students, if they were willing, were able to learn. Predictably, shortly after the international spotlight fell upon them, and the proponents of centralization began to realize that a feature such as that was most definitely a bug in their systems, those conditions in Finland began to degrade. Similarly, go ask a teacher in your nearest school (public and even private) how free they are to select the materials, methods, tests & policies they'd prefer to teach to their students with (Hint: Not very).
While the material that was used by traditional educational methods could include classical texts, and/or various 'Primer's, and/or the Bible, and/or Shakespeare and/or a myriad of other options, the students who could and would learn to read and think through them, would learn through them to recognize what was admirable and what was tragic or despicable, as well as how to recognize what scenarios were more easily resolved with mathematical solutions and how to reach them and how to recognize the difference. By various non-standard means and materials, traditional schools gave students a familiarity with, and an interest in pursuing on their own, what Thomas Jefferson referred to as,
"...the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c...", which informed their understanding of their nation's history, culture, and government. They were able to do that because they weren't told through a rigid chain of command - of legislators, regulators, administrators - that micro-managed teachers & students on what to 'think' with, and how. Simply having the important goal to become educated, and not confusing that goal with meaningless distractions such as getting high test scores (a very recent, and poor, innovation of progressive school systems) or developing workforce or social 'skills', they - parents, teachers, students - were able to decide on the most effective means of reaching it. And as acquiring the basic elements of the Three R's ('reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic') were necessary, they were quickly gotten out of the way with simple, proven methods, so that the primary goal could be reached. The fact that our school systems fail so miserably at even imparting the basic abilities of the Three R's today - despite a century of their 'Top Men' devoting ludicrous amounts of time and resources to over-thinking how to remake the wheel into glitteringly dysfunctional blocks (see 'See & Say') - and even after making that secondary skill into a primary objective, our colleges routinely have to provide remedial classes in those basic skills to incoming students before they can begin any of their other classes.
That an endless series of 'school reform!'s have consistently failed to ensure that even college bound students have rudimentary abilities in basic skills (let alone the level of education those skills should have led them into), is telling you a lot about our school systems today - how closely are you listening?
And here we begin to see what is comparable between these two systems of education, and that is their approach to education. But before getting into those comparisons, first there's another matter we need to flesh out, which is what I hope you're wondering right now: "what do you mean by 'educated'?" I can't