America’s leaders and learners

As we watched former presidents taking their places for the funeral of President George Herbert Walker Bush, I reflected on the impact presidents have had on American schools in my lifetime.

Education has been a national talking point as long as I can remember.

When I was learning to read, in the 1950s, a book was published saying “little Jonny can’t read,” and all the parents were worried that Baby Boomers would not get enough phonics.

The talk was about how much better education was in Russia. Then when Sputnik started circling the earth in 1958, we knew that kids in the USA needed to study math and science more if we were going to compete in the Space Race.

John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960 with Federal Aid to Education on his Democratic Platform. My citizenship teacher did not approve of the idea because education was one of the powers reserved for states to control under the Constitution.

Later it was Federal Aid to Education that helped to enforce integration of the public schools. Living in Elkins, we never questioned that integration was clearly the right thing to do in our community. I remember black students in my first grade class and did not realize that people in some parts of West Virginia were opposed to integration.

When Textbook Wars came about in Kanawha County in 1968, I did not realize the level of racial prejudice that was inherent in the movement against “liberal ideas” in textbooks.

When I started teaching in public schools in the 1980s, we were told that no enemy of the USA had done as much harm to this nation as liberal teachers who had caused decline and destroyed the public schools.

We were living in Georgia at that time, and I could see that the effort to undermine public education and move public funding to private schools was a backlash against integration.

When George H. W. Bush was in office Americans with Disabilities passed. I remember all the changes for wheelchair ramps and more classes for students with special needs. We believed that every child could learn.

Then the accountability movement came along with “Back to Basics” and lots of standardized testing.

When “No Child Left Behind” was passed under the second George Bush, teachers put reading first, and other subjects were not important.

The Common Corps Curriculum was introduced in the new millennium to help set national standards for what should be tested.

Now that Common Corps is out of favor, we need to reconsider what students really need to know and be able to do.