Rip Van Winkle and U.S. Schooling.

Washington Irving’s short story about the 18th century ne’er-do-well Dutch-American farmer in the Catskill Mountains of New York who drank whiskey and then fell asleep for 20 years has become part of American literature, the arts, and idiom.

The story of Rip Van Winkle also made it into comic books;

OK, Larry, you’ve made the point that the fictional Rip Van Winkle has become part of American culture since Washington Irving’s story was published over two centuries ago. What’s the connection to modern public schools?

Suppose a teenage Rip Van Winkle had gone through school and graduated in the mid-1970s. He then went to a party and afterwards fell asleep in his car. Rip then awakened in 2023.

I know that this is a far-fetched connection to the story but stick with me.

In what ways had U.S. public schools changed and remained stable since Rip attended schools in the 1970s?

Some changes are obvious. There are fewer school districts in the nation now then a half century ago (e.g., 18,000 then and 13,800 now). Number of students attending public schools went from 46 million in 1970 to just over 50 million in 2018. And high school students that graduated? in 1970, it was 80 percent climbing to 85 percent in 2018.

Federal and state legislation to improve schools has become a staple of reform. On the federal front there was a decided press for school improvement: President’s Clinton’s pushing of curriculum standards in the 1990s; President George H.W. Bush with No Child Left Behind (2002); President Barack Obama’s Push for Common Core standards and Race To the Top programs. At the state level, prodded by Congressional infusions of new money and redirection of earlier funds, nearly all states adopted higher high school graduation standards, increased state testing, and developed an array of incentives and penalties for school districts to vie for and avoid.

And teachers and schools? There were just over 2 million public school teachers in 1970 and a half-century later, there were 3.1 million million. The number of age-graded elementary and secondary schools went from 166,600 in 1950 to just under 100,000 a half-century later. As for getting teachers into classrooms in these decades, there was little change. Districts hired teachers and assigned them to schools where principals placed each teacher in a classroom to work with anywhere from 20-40 or more students during these decades.

What about publicly-funded charter schools? An innovation from the 1990s, charter schools were touted as competitors to regular public schools? Charters would prod conventional public schools to both change and improve. In 2023 there are 7,800 charters enrolling over 3.5 million or 7.5% of all public school students. In other words, after 30 years of hype and drama over charter schools, 92,5 percent of American children and youth still attend regular public schools three decades after charters initially appeared.

Numbers of course, can only suggest the growth and changes that have occurred in this large decentralized system of U.S. schooling since its mid-19th century origins. Thus, these data, offer a mere outline, a partial picture of U.S. public schools over the past half-century. Adding more detail to these fragments are the school issues that grabbed headlines in the 1970s and a half-century later in the 2020s.

Our teenage Rip Van Winkle reawakened in 2023 would have recognized these issues. And probably Rip would have recognized his peers even if they dressed differently as they posed for photos.

The 1970s

Some photos of students from a half-century ago:

And what about the dominant issues of the day? As reported in the media of that decade, the major issues boiled down to the following:

*Desegregation and busing

*Equal access to schools for the disabled

*Bilingual education

*Criticizing and banning textbooks

*The growth of Black studies in schools

*Decline of U.S. schools

With the Convid-19 pandemic beginning in early 2020 and school closures for weeks and months across the country, those closures and re-openings dominated media. With the coronavirus still active and reopened schools for past two years, sorting out the major issues of student “learning loss” and pandemic-connected problems from issues that received less attention is more difficult but not impossible.

The 2020s

Photos of children and youth in 2020s:

Apart from pandemic-related events, as reported in the media, major issues over the past decade (2010s-2020s) identified by Education Week and the Washington Post are:

*Underfunded public schools

*Teachers banned from discussing certain topics (e.g., race and social class) with their students

*More parental influence and control over curriculum

*Guns and violence in schools

*Teaching about climate change

*Student learning loss from pandemic

Some issues from the 1970s remain salient in 2023. And some are new. Media attention has shifted over decades–which is what media does since its over-riding goal is to capture eyeballs and ears. Evanescent media attention, however, does not mean that the problem has disappeared. Only that the spotlight has shifted. While media attention to each of these has flowed and ebbed over the years, the stability of many of these issues is noteworthy. Even to our teenage Rip van Winkle.


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