Tuesday, January 4, 2011


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana (born Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás)

I love history and often quote Santayana, a Spanish-American novelist and philosopher, who is said to have remarked that we either learn from history or we repeat it. Those are my words, Santayana's exact words, more harshly spoken, are quoted above.

The current debate on education suggests that America is falling behind the world in educating its young. iIn many large American cities including Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Denver and Houston, students have less than a 50-50 chance of graduating from high school. Employers grumble about an uneducated work force, colleges set up remedial education classes to teach students what they should have learned in high school, and the army warns that over thirty per cent of possible recruits can't pass the basic entrance examination.

The causes of this crisis in education are many. Suggestions on how to improve the situation just as plentiful. I don't want to get into either cause or solution at this point. No, what interests me is a book that I came across in an antique store. The rather dry title is the Twenty-fifth Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, Volume 30, 1925 -1926.

Have I lost you already? Well, that proves Santayana's remark - history is so dry and boring that its lessons are lost to us. And, so we are back where we were.

Anyway, I will labor on. The Twenty-Fifth Biennial Report contains 702 pages. Amidst the reports on population, farm products and animal husbandry, is an article on Rural Life and Community Problems by Edgar Mendenhall, of Kansas State Teachers College of Pittsburg. The point of Mendenhall's  article is his claim that students of rural life are gravely confronted with a lack of quality education. The result is a brain-drain, and exodus of rural students to the cities where the quality of education is far superior. Funny, how the tide of human affairs ebbs and flows. Today's students flee the cities for the suburbs.

Kansas in 1925 and 1926 was a system of one-teacher schools in the country and the graded schools in the city. Citing a study by Dr. F.P.O'Brien of the State Teachers College of Emporia, Mendenhall notes that three quarters of all one-teacher schools had teachers who held their jobs less than one year. Another one-fifth of the teachers had been in the school house for one year. This meant that roughly one in twenty teachers had taught for two years.The obvious reasons for the extremely short duration were uncertainty of tenure, salary, conditions, and opportunity.

And, so it was no great surprise that when standardized tests were given to the country student and the city student that a sizable gap in reading ability existed.And the same gap existed when the same arithmetic tests were administered.

I have always been a skeptic of statistics. Isolated statistics often produce skewed results. For instance, if the pairs of country and city students had been measure on the yard stick of animal husbandry or agronomy, I imagine the city student would have come up a little short.

We learn what is taught to us and we learn what is relevant.This is the message of the 1970's movie To Sir with Love starring Sidney Poitier. Sidney Poitier plays a teacher in a inner-city London school. He is black and educated. The high school students are white and working class. he gets through to them by relating literature and math to their lives. For instance he teaches math by explaining the different weight classes in boxing to the testosterone-prone young males.

Getting back to 1925 and 1926, Mendenhall proposes all sorts of measures including the application of business principles to the management of the rural schools. The idea is to focus on the rural school board and provide a measuring stick of 40 points that board members should be measured by. The categories of measurement include personal traits of the school board. Are they fair-minded, honest, straightforward, etc, or reactionary and prejudiced? What is their training, how do they act as board members, are they involved in the community, do they relate to the superintendent and teachers in a positive way?

This interesting approach to education suggests that learning flows downhill from board member to board, to superintendent, to teacher and then to student. The important principle is that if we expect students to be responsible for their education, then board members should also be responsible for setting standards and establishing the means to achieve those standards.

Mr. Mendenhall concludes his article with a portion of a  poem by James Russell Lowell - A Glance Behind The Curtain.

New times demand new measures and new men;
The world advances and in time outgrows
The laws that in our fathers' day were best;
And doubtless, after us some purer scheme
Will be shaped by wiser men than we.
Made wiser by the steady growth of truth...
Mr. Mendenhall suggests that there can be no more "dillydally" about the matter. That educators must learn by yielding some of our old ideas and surrender old prejudices; that is, if we wish to protect the interests of those we hold most dear, the students of public education.

This article is buried in an old book that dates to 1925 and 1926. I doubt that it has been read in more than four score and five years since its publication by more than a handful of people.

I wonder if Santayana was not right.

Read what Houston schools are doing on Facebook or read about the Project Houston Grad, a project to increase graduation rates.

Image from http://www.kansasheritage.org/orsh/gallery/ . Click to see more images of one room schoolhouses in Kansas.

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