The “Back When I Was In School” Fallacy – When Lawmakers Claim That Our Schools Are Getting Worse

My grandmother graduated from high school right after the end of WWII. My mother graduated from high school in the late 1960’s. I graduated from high school in the 1980’s, and thirty years later I am watching another class graduate from the public high where I am about finish my 20th year of teaching.

old school
new school

And just in my career, I can emphatically say that it is erroneous to make overall comparisons between what schools are like today and what they were like my first year.

That’s why I cringe when I hear someone criticize schools because students are not performing the way “they did when I was in school.”

Yes, the buildings may be the same. There are football teams. There are extracurricular activities. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are still core foundational courses. There’s even earning a “letter”.

rydell

But there is so much that changes in schools in such a short period of time that for a person who graduated in the 1980’s to directly equate their high school experience with what he expects to be happening in schools today would be erroneous. Too many variables are in constant flux.

This is especially true when speaking about academics. Generally speaking, many people look to various reports and media outlets to gauge how well public schools are performing. Average SAT scores, graduation rates, EOCT scores, and other standardized methods are used to give a snapshot of student proficiency. But it’s erroneous to simply relegate an “educated” opinion about the health of public schools based on nebulous standards and tests that change almost yearly.

Consider the following for high schools in North Carolina:

  • All school systems in NC now operate under a ten-point scale. In the past, a “70” was the lowest passing grade a student could receive in many districts. Now it is a “60.”
  • Some school systems have a minimum grade allowed for a student on a report card: “50.” Couple that with the first condition and of the 51 actual numerical grades that a student can receive, only 10 of those are failing grades (“50”- “59”).
  • Graduation rates are altered. It is interesting to think that those rates can be measured differently from state to state. Does it include students who graduate in only four years? Five years? Who finish at least with a GRE?
  • Definitions of what is proficient on standardized test results changes constantly. Some people may call it a “curve,” but what really is happening is that a “conversion formula” is used to create a final grade. In some instances, that may change from semester to semester. Plus, we have those in power who can’t tell proficiency from growth.
  • In the last two to three decades the nation has seen a rapid rise in standardized tests on federal, state, and local levels. Who makes those tests and how they are graded are rather vague in many cases. Writing tests may actually be graded by algorithms not people.
  • There is the move to all online testing for convenience and economic reasons takes away from the kinetic advantages of using pen and paper.
  • Funding for resources in public schools constantly changes. Actually, it keeps decreasing. In NC, schools are receiving less per-pupil expenditures than they did before the Great Recession (adjusted for inflation).
  • Schools are measured differently than they were just a few years ago. In NC, there is the school performance grading system that uses variables like the ACT, which ALL students must take on a school day. The ACT designed to be taken by those students who wish to apply to college. Not all students want to go to college.
  • Those school performance grades in NC and school “report cards” are calculated by a company called SAS. The algorithms they use in coming up with those results are secret. Educators do not know if those calculations use a constant formula.
  • End-of-course tests and standardized finals have changed considerably over the last few years and many do not know who writes them.
  • Many students are now taking more classes as a seven period day is being replaced with block scheduling. That means that students now take eight classes in a school year.
  • And if you think getting into college is the same now as it was in the past, think again.

That’s just a few.

Many politicians and education reformers know that and take advantage of many people’s lack of understanding that comparing current information to historical data goes deeper than the names of the tests.

It allows these politicians and reformers to use “revisionist history.” When the criteria for how we measure schools and student performance are constantly in flux, then the people who control the data can present it in any way they like. And that can skew the truth.

However, there are some constants that do expand across generations in all schools that are true now as they were in the 1980’s.

  • Poverty effects student achievement.
  • Fully funding schools helps students.
  • Treating teachers as professionals helps schools.
  • Community support is vital.
  • Lawmakers should listen to teachers when gauging student needs.

Our public schools are better than you may think.

Probably a lot better.

With the constant dialogue that “we must improve schools” and the “need to implement reforms,” it is imperative that we as a taxpaying public seek to understand all of the variables in which schools are and can be measured, and not all of them are quantifiable.

And not all of them are reported or allowed to be seen.

One thought on “The “Back When I Was In School” Fallacy – When Lawmakers Claim That Our Schools Are Getting Worse

  1. “Our public schools are better than you may think.
    Probably a lot better.
    With the constant dialogue that ‘we must improve schools’ and the ‘need to implement reforms,’ it is imperative that we as a taxpaying public seek to understand all of the variables in which schools are and can be measured, and not all of them are quantifiable.
    And not all of them are reported or allowed to be seen.”

    Fundamentally, I agree with everything stated above, but I would be a little more demonstrative in some wording. First of all, I would say that public schools are DEFINITELY A LOT BETTER than people have been LED TO BELIEVE. The fact is that, when asked to rate their own public school, most of the stakeholders in a school give it high marks. But when asked to rate public schools in general, the same people give low marks. Obviously, this is a function of the biased information that is reported to the media and then spread to the general public by those with political or ideological agendas.

    I would also point out that even when realistic and measurable goals are established to determine the success of a “reform” effort, the timeline of expectations for achieving those goals is almost always unrealistic. So, even reform efforts that show great promise are often abandoned or replaced with the next “reform effort du jour” before they have enough time to have a significant impact. Expecting immediate results from any sort of reform effort is simply foolish. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?

    Good piece overall, though. Thanks for what you do.

    Like

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