The problem with American education is confined mainly to one group of students, the cognitively gifted. Among the most gifted students, SAT scores started falling in the mid-1960s, and the verbal scores have not recovered since. One reason is that disadvantaged students have been “in” and gifted students “out” for 30 years. Even in the 1990s, only one-tenth of 1 percent of all the federal funds spent on elementary and secondary education went to programs for the gifted. Because success was measured in terms of how well the average and below average children performed, American education was 'dumbed' down: Textbooks were made easier, and requirements for courses, homework, and graduation were relaxed.
– Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, “The Bell Curve” (1994)
The recent series published by this newspaper concerning the “minimally adequate” public education funded in South Carolina was well-researched and written. It likely provoked much thought and conversation among educationists in front offices, and teachers in classrooms across the state. No doubt one of the major points suggested by the series — the need for greater local, state and federal financial support for public schools — has resonated with many in and outside the school hierarchy.
Though the need for more money is perhaps true, I am not sure that additional tax dollars pumped into schools will by itself produce the improvements clearly needed.
“The Bell Curve,” from which I’ve quoted above, has pretty much been thrust down the memory hole over the quarter century since it was published. It was criticized for being “racially insensitive” and “politically incorrect.” Perhaps it was. I believe, though, that much of it stated the obvious: Not much learning takes place when discipline breaks down in the schools (as it all too often has), nor does “dumbing down” the curriculum produce graduates better prepared for college and/or the workplace.
A little personal history: I attended and “graduated” from a one-room country school in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1930s — one room, one teacher, grades one through eight, 28 to 30 children ages 6 to 16, on average. The school had no electricity, no running water, no central heat, no indoor plumbing.
My teacher was a giant of a woman — not tall, but broad and heavy. She was a strict disciplinarian. She had to be. Oh — she also had to care for an intellectually disabled daughter.
I sometimes say that one-room school was where I got my education. My academic degrees were acquired elsewhere. As the twig is bent — there’s a lot of truth in that. First steps are indeed vitally important in shaping the intellectual progress of both the “cognitively gifted” and the disadvantaged.
My father was never schooled beyond 10th grade. (He did, however, fill our home with a small library of used books.) My mother had to work at a variety of jobs outside our home to make ends meet. She did not have an easy time of it.
Looking back, it was always the teacher or the professor who made the difference in my education, not temple-like buildings, or ridiculously expensive athletic facilities many public schools and colleges consider priorities today. It was always the teacher, always the professor. Always.
Yes, parents contribute immeasurably, both for good or ill, to their children’s ability to make the most of their educational experience. In a free society, not much can be done about this. Whether one is born into loving, caring and supporting families, or to parents who have neither the will nor the financial means to give their children a decent start in life, depends more than many might think on the luck of the draw. However we may wish it were not so, we have to accept the fact that we and our children are not born equal. If we were, how boring life would be. And if we were all born equal, I might have had a shot at making the varsity in high school and in college — all 5 feet 7 inches and 130 pounds of me. (OK, that was then, not now.)
Equal opportunity in every stage of life — yes! Guaranteed equal outcomes for all — no! Outcomes depend on individual effort, genetic heritage and great and caring teachers, both in the home and in the classroom.
And if you think about it, long and hard, I doubt you’d want it any other way.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.