By Pamela J. Oakes
Having worked in an urban school district and now on the policy & advocacy side, I can state categorically that I have been on the front lines of education reform for nearly 2 decades. It’s been 64 years since Brown vs. Board of Education and yet the education achievement gap – that disparity in academic performance between groups of students that shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates – remains relatively unchanged. Back in 1782, a bill establishing formalized public education in Virginia was being considered. The following is text written by founding father Thomas Jefferson in the context of that bill:
“The bill [on Education in the Revised Code of Virginia] proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters): and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall choose, at William and Mary College. … The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the State reading, writing, and common arithmetic; turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek. Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic; turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who. to those branches of learning, shall have added such branches of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to; the further furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools at which their children may be educated at their own expense.”1
I don’t know the outcome of that 1782 Virginia education bill, but the idea of progressive levels of education, with each successive level being increasingly more selective, is for certain still with us. In fact, as much as people decry that our education system is “broken,” Jefferson’s words affirm that not only is the system NOT broken, it is in fact churning out the exact results for which it was designed – a system that rakes the best geniuses from the “rubbish,” creates elite enclaves for the wealthy to educate their children, and ensures a steady stream of uneducated, unskilled cheap labor. No Child Left Behind was never the intent, but rather Most Children Left Behind!
For over 200 years since it was instituted, the core essence of the American education system has remained the same. Would you want to go to a surgeon that was still practicing medicine in the same way as surgeons 200 years ago? How about a dentist? If food service was still abiding by the same standards prescribed 200 years ago, how quickly would it take you to stop eating out! In fact, in nearly every other profession, the standard for excellence is innovation, creativity, cutting edge, outside the box type of thinking. Why then are we content to allow education to exist as it always has? Is it any wonder that we get the results we do?
Whether the issue is Charter Schools, Common Core, Free College, Home Schooling, Blended Learning, Digital Learning, etc., why are we so quick to take sides and demonize and politicize every new educational thought that comes along? Isn’t 200 years reason enough to make a change? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but when faced with two options of 1) replacing an outdated system or 2) putting band-aids on a bad system – shouldn’t the answer be obvious?