Every Child Left Behind in the English Classroom

Often when critics of public education rhapsodize about the “good old days,” their memories are more nostalgic than accurate, but when it comes to English instruction, the public schools are definitely doing a worse job when it comes to equipping American students with the basics of their own language and its literature.

Defenders of the “good new days” point with pride to the fact that

a century ago, the high school graduation rate was about three percent… [the] graduation rate did not exceed 50% until after World War II (the current on-time graduation rate is 83%… )…until recently it was assumed that no more than 20% of American youth could handle a college curriculum (currently, 62% of all high school graduates are enrolled in college the following fall) .–Gerald W. Bracey, Public Education and Its Discontents 

No one can be sorry that so many more young people graduate from high school than was the case fifty years ago.

However, the fact that 62% of all high school graduates are enrolled in college the following fall may not prove much.

I have taught some of that 62% and know from first-hand experience that many of them are unable handle the college curriculum even in these good new days.

The modern public school provides many services it did not when I graduated from high school in the mid-Fifties. Free textbooks, special education, computer labs, and testing for ADD, for example, were unheard of.

My classmates and I did, however, receive effective instruction in English.

One criticism of the “bad old days” is that the high school curriculum was geared towards the college-bound minority. In my experience, that’s still pretty much the case. From what I can tell, all that most high schools prepare their students for is more education.

It seems to me that after 12 years of schooling, a high school graduate ought to be qualified for some kind of skilled work.

Some schools do provide vocational training that equips their graduates to go to work in medical services or some of the trades. Most, however, devote the bulk of their resources to college prep and special education.

I’m not qualified to speak of how education has improved or eroded when it comes to subjects other than English. For English, however, I can speak. It is not rosy nostalgia that leads me to say that English teaching has declined disgracefully.

The evidence is plain for anyone to see. You see it in badly-written letters to the editor. You hear it in the incorrect grammar of celebrities.

TV dramas, like Law and Order and the CSI series, feature characters who occasionally dazzle their college-educated co-workers with quotations from Shakespeare that in the Fifties would have been familiar to any high school graduate.

I received my secondary education in a state that is the frequent butt of jokes in the media: Arkansas. Yet by the time I graduated from high school, my classmates and I had studied Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Macbeth and been required to memorize long swathes of quotations from them.

In the Eighties I was myself teaching rural Arkansas high school seniors Hamlet and requiring them to understand and memorize many of the speeches. I was also insisting that they write complete sentences, spell correctly, and master conventional grammar.

Children learn what they are taught.

When it comes to English and the treasures of its literature, I’m afraid that just about every child is being left behind in today’s English classroom.

2 comments to Every Child Left Behind in the English Classroom

  • True, every new generation supplants the previous one, in language as in everything else. And old people resist change, even when it brings improvement to their lives.

    Still, for the sake of continuity, and in order to keep our literature accessible, I feel it is important to maintain a standard form of the language. The standard form will change, of course, but at a slower, more manageable rate than if the schools abandon the effort.

  • I have noticed that the old people are longing for “good old days” and the young people are expecting for “new future”. I think it’s normal, because they have different meta-programs in their mind 🙂

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