I was involved in a long-ish Facebook conversation last week, where a friend made the observation that he did not think that the various educational proposals made by Governor Cuomo would change too much about schools, as “the basic framework for public education hasn't changed in a couple hundred years, and I don't think it is going to change anytime soon regardless of what he [Governor Cuomo] wants to do”. I’ve thought about this statement for a while now, and like any generalization, I think it’s got elements of truth, and elements that I don’t think hold up to scrutiny. So I thought I would write about it.
How School is the Same
The major similarities that I see in school as most of us teach it these days, and what it looked like 100 years ago are largely structural. The typical school day, broken in to periods, with a particular slate of core courses and electives that a student moves between during the course of the day basically resembles what it did at the inception of the “Traditional Model”. Similarly, the typical vertical structure of a district has been left largely intact, with various levels of administrative personnel above the teacher in a hierarchy that terminates in a building-level Principal, and a district-level Superintendent. Titles may have changed, but I don’t see too many deep alterations over the time period. And I think my friend is right that the Governor’s proposals won’t really change any of that (though I’m on record as definitely wanting to change some of these).
How School is Different
Outside of the above list, I think pretty much everything else has changed. Curriculum has shifted, and continues to shift within subjects (the Biology I teach is quite different from the Biology of 1920). Pedagogical practices are majorly altered in most classes where I think instructors are doing “good work,” with much more emphasis placed on application of knowledge, and an influx of technological practices that is fundamentally different from 10 years ago, much less 100 years ago. More systemically, I think the services that are available for high-needs and special-needs student populations are vastly improved over what the typical schooling was at the inception of public schooling, and that the overarching goal of public education has fundamentally shifted from career training to college readiness (perhaps to the detriment of certain students).
And certainly, the “job” of teaching is vastly different. I know this, because I know how much it has changed over the past 50 years from talking to my (retired teacher) parents about what the job looked like when they started. In 1965, female teachers could be fired for wearing pants, and pregnancy was considered the end of a career in education. In 1962, my father had to sign a loyalty oath to the government to be able to accept his position. Tenure didn’t exist, and teachers were frequently terminated at will, though not for what you might think looking back on it from 2015. Generally, the young teachers who wanted to do interesting things were the ones who were targets. My father can tell stories about the old, established teachers giving him a really hard time (read: profanely insinuating he was a homosexual) for having long hair. My step-father was almost denied an early job for having a full beard.
It’s easy to forget that this was the rule, not the exception, in what being a teacher looked like half a century ago. And I think it’s important to remember that none of the progress that has been made since is guaranteed to last (just ask any colleague from Wisconsin). Which is why I’m of the opinion that it’s incredibly important to let the Powers That Be know when they are pursuing regressive policies (and, certainly, to support them when they are doing good work). Things are certainly different now than they were, and I like now a whole lot more.