Editor's note: This is the first of three parts.
It has been a great "trip," so to speak, and it isn't over yet. It was 61 years ago when I stepped into my first classroom as the teacher. During these past 61 years, I have thoroughly enjoyed my work as an educator, every day ... well, nearly every day.
Much has happened in education over that period of time. I have seen schools from nearly all levels: from that of a classroom teacher, university demonstration teacher, school administrator, professor of educational administration, and university administrator. I have seen schools from the standpoint of a school board member, a school board trainer, and a parent and grandparent. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I have seen education vicariously: as many of my readers know, my wife is a retired teacher of 34 years, and my son and daughter-in-law are teachers.
Columnist Robert Heichberger in this 1947 photo.
This columnist has a great respect for education and learning. A well known Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget said it well: "the principal goal of education is to develop within people the capability of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done." Piaget's statement is smartly relevant and applicable as applied to all levels of education.
My entry into the field of teaching had its beginning in September, 1951. It was preceded by generations of some of the most conscientious, dedicated, and competent of teachers, many of whom, received little honor or aggrandizement, but whose influence was monumental. The strength of America's school and of America's teachers is seen in the annals of American Exceptionalism.
Following World War II, the population of the United States increased dramatically , with a post-war baby boom. Higher education also experienced a boom, as Congress passed the GI Bill that provided subsidies for retuning veterans to attend institutions of higher learning. Over 10 million veterans took advantage of the GI Bill.
Appearing in the education lexicon was the term "Board of Cooperative Educational Services." BOCES owes its origin to a state legislative enactment authorizing the formation of intermediate school districts. Passed in 1948, the act was aimed at enabling small rural school districts to combine their resources to provide services that otherwise would have been uneconomical, inefficient, or unavailable. School centralization in rural areas became more and more popular.
As the numbers of schoolchildren grew with the growing population, the demand for school facilities and teachers also increased. More school buildings were required to be built. In fact, hundreds of school systems across the Country, had new school facilities under construction during the late 1940s and early 1950s. As new school facilities were completed, more and higher school graduates, as well as existing college gradates, were seeking collegiate programs leading toward teacher certification.
We began to see some small school districts, joining to form with other districts, in order to better bear the burden of increased capital costs and administration. The one-room schoolhouse, that had been a staple of life in rural America, almost disappeared because it was cheaper to build bigger schools and transport children to central locations. Many centralized school districts were formed in rural New York state. Thus, more and more students now went on to the higher grades after completing the earlier grades.
Indeed, it is fair to say, this period saw a major paradigm shift in elementary and secondary education. We moved from an elementary (K-8) and high school (9-12) arrangement to a K-6, 7-9 Junior high school, 10-12 senior high school organization (1958). The middle school concept came a little later in time, typically around 1968. Parenthetically, if one were to follow the news headlines over the last sixty years, the "shift" began then and it is still shifting!
We have seen changes in teaching strategies, curricular innovations and school organization. The educational lexicon is ever changing. We have discovered some of the "old" becoming "new" again, but with glossier packaging and sharper titles. And there have been the so called "new reforms," reforming what had previously been classified as "exciting new reforms."
To wit, when it was discovered that the ways students had previously learned, was still highly relevant, there has been a "shift" back to the "tried -and- true." For example, it has been rediscovered: engaging students by starting with the concrete, and solving hands-on, real-life problems, turned out to be a great motivator for action learning. Ah yes, the paradigm continues to shift.
When I began teaching, elementary classrooms were basically self contained non-departmentalized, heterogeneously grouped boys and girls. Individualization of learning and teaching to meet the needs of the individual were empathized. Students were taught at their own level of progress and graded accordingly. Child development and learning readiness was epitomized, e.g., It may take 6 months to teach a child (who gets frustrated in the process) to tie his shoe; or, if you wait 6 months, the same child (with no frustration) may be taught the same task in 6 minutes. This epistemic correlation is made with respect to other learning tasks, as well. Point in fact, there has been nothing in the research to refute the abiding principles of "child development and learning readiness." This principle has proven to be tried-and-true.
In 1957, the Soviet Union sent its Sputnik into orbit and "beat us" by being first. At that time, the media was filled with dire predictions and the schools were blamed for losing the competition in the space race. "Johnny can't read" was the headline. And a main criticism was "Students could not compete successfully against their peers because they were being taught as individuals and competition was not being encouraged." By the way, the Soviet Union is no more, and the U.S. is still here. Reports in the media and in the minds of the public, suggested that our schools were in crisis. It is worth noting that as the public saw it, the university's colleges and schools of education were not held blameless.
The reported headlines in the media back in the early 1960s glaringly stated: "Our schools are in Crisis," and "Back to the Basics Needed in our Schools" and "It will take the parents and the public to reform the ills in our schools." And thus, in many school districts, the race was on to do just that, and the race continues to this day. ....
JAN. 16: Part two.
Dr. Robert L. Heichberger is professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Fredonia and distinguished professor at Capella University in Minneapolis. All of the past columns can be viewed on Send comments to: Rheich@aol.com