The answer to the question is both yes and no. Yes, that changes in schooling have occurred is clearly evident in data collected over the century on the consolidation of thousands of school districts, the growth in student enrollment, increased number of days states require students to attend school, shrinking class sizes, rising high school graduation rates, and similar outcomes. Moreover, standards for becoming and staying a teacher have changed substantially, albeit incrementally, over time. [i]
While many critics of U.S. public schools repeat the inaccurate statement that teaching then and now is basically the same, the facts are clear that classroom practices have also changed.
Photos of classrooms between the 1890s and 1960s, for example, show both change and stability. Because snapshots are but a moment in time, showing many photos of teacher and student work in classrooms over decades can only hint at both constancy and change.
Photos taken in the late-19th century of classrooms through the 1960s surely give the impression of stability in teaching and learning. Rows of desks face blackboards and a teacher’s desk. Students sit with hands clasped listening to the teacher or taking notes and doing assignments. Yet there are other photos that show children working on activities at their desks, others at the blackboard doing math problems or diagramming sentences, and a group reciting to the rest of the class or even clusters of students around the teacher desk.
The apparent stability in classroom arrangements over a half-century, including both segregated classrooms and rows of desks, however, ignores the demographic, organizational, and governance changes that have occurred in public schools. While the photos do reveal much teacher and student activity during lessons, snapshots at one moment in time cannot capture changes in actual classroom practices that occurred during these years.
Educational historian Jack Schneider, acknowledging both constancy and change in public schools, described both over the past century:
If we could transport ourselves to a typical school of the early 20th century, the basic structural elements — desks, chalkboards, textbooks, etc. — would be recognizable. And we might see some similar kinds of power dynamics between adults and children. But almost everything else would be different. The subjects that students studied, the way the day was organized, the size of classes, the kinds of supports young people received — these essential aspects of education were all different. Teachers were largely untrained. Access to education was entirely shaped by demographic factors like race and income; special education didn’t exist. Latin was still king. It was just a completely different world. To say that schools haven’t changed is just an extraordinarily uninformed position.[ii]
What Schneider points out clearly in his op-ed piece are the organizational similarities in schooling and classrooms dynamics over time amid incremental changes that have indeed occurred in who could go to school, teacher licensing, curricular content and skills, class size, and staff supports for children. In effect, Schneider points to important demographic and organizational changes but omits shifts in governing (and funding) schools, i.e., charter schools.
As important as it is for Schneider and other scholars to establish unmistakably that both stability and change mark the history of U.S. public schools, what remains missing is the too often unasked question: did these demographic, organizational, and governance changes alter how teachers taught?
To answer that question, in the next post I will elaborate the map that Schneider laid out of changes in schooling and then connect those demographic, organizational, and governance changes to how teachers taught during these decades.
[ii] Jack Schneider quoted in Valerie Strauss, “Betsy DeVos Insists Public Schools Have Not Changed in More Than a Hundred Years. Why She’s Is Oh So Wrong,” Washington Post, October 25, 2019.