When I was 15, living in Ohio and in my sophomore year of High School, my father came home one day and told the family that he had been hired at a newspaper in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I had grown up my whole life in this town, and it was the only school system I knew.
We moved South in November, 1966, so the subjects I was studying and the textbooks I was using were very familiar to me. I imagined that it would be much the same in my new home.
It was not.
I found that the levels of education in Vicksburg, Mississippi were entirely different than they were in Fairborn, Ohio. For one thing, the math that we were studying was the same math that I had taken in ninth grade. What we were doing in science was even further behind, being on the level of my eighth grade class. But it was History – my favorite subject – that really threw me a curve.
We were studying American history both in Ohio and Mississippi. But where I had read the unit on the Civil War back in October, it was only just beginning in Mississippi. Moreover, we had spent two weeks on the Civil War back North. In the South, we spent an entire six weeks on the subject; three weeks on the Siege of Vicksburg alone.
My parents inquired about this and were told that this was common throughout the state and that it had been the locally-set standards for as long as anyone could remember.
One of the absolutes of American Education has been the sovereignty of local Boards of Education over the district which operates within community where the schools are located. It has been a canonic commandment that our schools MUST have local control and anyone even suggesting that must be a communist, a fascist or both.
At the same time, it has also been an absolute that, constitutionally, in every state I know of, the State is responsible for seeing to it that young people receive a fair and equitable education which adequately prepares them for a productive future.
This does, as it always has, sets up a conflict. On the one hand, the local district demands the right to decide what its students learn and resists any requirements set down by state or federal agencies as dictates issued from the mouths of tyrants.
On the other hand, the governments – state and federal – are held accountable for the quality of education within their respective regions and are pressed by the voters – nearly always the very same people who tell them to keep their hands off our schools – to see to it that education is improved and once again leads the world in its quality.
Yet, on a third hand, the governments on state and federal levels, responding to these demands and using the only tool it has available, tells the local districts that they are going to abide by this act or that bill if they want to see any of the money the government has to give to them. Districts are told that, in order to receive state mandated money, they will be required to meet X standards. Likewise, the Federal government tells the states legislators AND the local districts that, if they want any of the Federal money, they will meet Y standards. The Xs and Ys sometimes, but not always, are compatible, and so, the districts, and the states, must choose which money to do without.
This, to me, seems not only an absurd farce with young people being the hapless victims of a parallel tragedy, it also seem quite stupidly ineffective.
When this nation was first born and while it was in its infancy and childhood, it was very necessary to let local authorities have control over the day-to-day operations of many things, education high on the list. The Federal governments had little or not resources with which to deal with the problems faced by a school in a village of 100 people situated in the jagged hills of Ohio or the snow-covered mountains of Maine. Even as the country grew westward – especially as it grew westward – communications and travel to the West was arduous and risky and it seemed best to simply let the towns decide for themselves what their children needed to learn. In fact, education was something that was an extension of parenting, in large part, and, just as the government did not want to intervene in the home, neither did it wish to come stomping into the classroom waving a big stick.
All was well . . . until we became the nation we are today.
Today, we travel across the entire nation in a matter of a few hours. A person on the West Coast can contact a person on the East Coast in a matter of seconds – literally – in an ever-expanding array of methods. With the development of the Internet, we can – and do – have classrooms situated in Chicago, serving students in New York, California, Louisiana, and even in foreign countries, all with a living, breathing teacher able to communicate with each student nearly as quickly (and some would say as efficiently) as if they were all sitting physically in the same room.
More than this, however, is how our society has changed. This is the single most critical reason why the education system we set up 200 years ago and which we cherish as sacrosanct today, simply has been shown to crumble.