If you are old enough to remember the sit-com “All In The Family,” you will recall the opening song, “Those Were The Days.” It was a satirical bit of nostalgia, the joke being that those good old days weren’t, in fact, as good as Archie Bunker would have us believe. (“We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” Seriously?) Alas, this misguided drive to make things great the way they used to be is again rearing its ugly head, this time in an effort to turn back the clock on education.
There is no doubt that our schools, and our education system as a whole, have a long way to go in giving our children the education they need and deserve to thrive. And in recent years, there have been some demonstrable declines in achievement, along with stubbornly persistent gaps between majority white children and children in various other racial and ethnic groups. But as an article in the Washington Post points out, things weren’t truly better in some mythical past. As the infographic below shows, the percentage of children completing high school has risen dramatically since the “good old days” of the 1950s. And since 1971, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing began, test scores rose consistently until the past couple of years, with the biggest gains coming among black students. This progress, of course, came in the context of those supposedly “failing government schools.”
Most of these trends have come in parallel with a marked decline in childhood poverty. In 1958, 27.3% of children were living below the poverty line, compared with 17.2% in 2018. There is a strong correlation between poverty and educational achievement, as shown in the graph below. Again, in recent years there has been a stagnation in the decades-long decline in childhood poverty, an increase in child homelessness, and a widening of the wealth gap, which are likely to be strong contributing factors to the educational achievement trends over that same time period.
Not only have public schools by and large done well, as shown in these data, but other important improvements have come about not despite but because of government action. Schools today throughout the country remain disturbingly segregated, but until the 1950s and 60s, schools in most of the South were segregated by law. Current inequities in funding must be addressed, but they pale in comparison to the past. One example (I saw this at the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum – a must-see if you are in Jackson): in 1952, per-pupil annual spending on education in Mississippi was $464.49 for white kids, and $13.71 for blacks. Title IX was also a game changer. Before its passage in 1972, 1 in 27 girls participated in sports; that figure is now 2 out of 5. To quote the “All In The Family” theme: “And you knew what you were then. Girls were girls and men were men.” Do we really want to go back there?
The word nostalgia has a modern positive connotation these days that differs from its historical sense. It comes from the Greek roots “nostos,” return; and “algos,” pain. A 1770 definition called nostalgia a “morbid longing to return to one’s home or native country, severe homesickness considered as a disease.” Selective memory and biased experiences may create a false sense of “the good old days.” But we cannot solve today’s problems – we cannot make a better future for our kids – by moving backwards toward a non-existent better past.