THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF THE NEW YORK PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Wolfthal, Maurice

Students aren't what they used to be. In the Good Old Days everyone learned. At least everyone learned to read. Immigrant children from Europe at the turn of the century worked hard at school...

...Testing of the fourth grade a year later indicated that "Dramatic differences in scholastic achievement have been found among the city's public schools...
...Every year between 1956 and 1959, tens of thousands of students were left back, most of them for reading retardation...
...Did everyone in the Good Old Daysóan unspecified time in the pastólove learning, or has nostalgia draped a veil over the illiterates of yesteryear...
...In 1893 J. M. Rice wrote: "The spirit of the school is, 'Do what you like with the child, immobilize him, automatize him, dehumanize him, but save, save the minutes.'" MASSIVE ACADEMIC FAILURE was a fact of life...
...Even the third-year reading is miserable...
...They've been spoiled by television, rock and roll, permissiveness, and welfare...
...First, because school populations are not comparable...
...Similarly, in 1911, poor student performance prompted "a despairing teacher in this city's public schools" to send to the Times samples of atrocious writing by students in grade 8A...
...Periodically the Board of Education announced that thousands of children were being left back, but when standardized scores began to be published on a regular annual basis, it became obvious that the citywide average was declining...
...From the large number of children who, at the turn of the century, were made to repeat a grade, it is easy to surmise that the average reading level was not very high...
...High Points, April 1948, April 1955...
...Then scholarship and intellect, or at least literacy, would flourish once again, as in the Good Old Days .. . So goes the common lament...
...Furthermore, it was clear from the published Reference Notes The New York Times, 1859-1975...
...In 1970 scores showed that an increasing percentage of students were reading below level, but some schools maintained averages two years above grade...
...Of children entering the academic high schools, 55 percent were reading below level, some as much as five years below...
...School and Society, May 1952...
...There is little doubt, however, that poor reading was a key factor in school failure...
...Penn State College announced that between 8 and 25 percent of American schoolchildren were retarded in reading, and the Times, citing the American Council on Education, reported that "even college and high school students in large numbers are seriously deficient in reading...
...It is very discouraging, when a pupil has reached the seventh or eighth year, to find that he or she doesn't know how to write a sentence without making a mistake in grammar, and yet that is what happens every day in the public schools of New York...
...This was true because reading ability has always been crucial to success in academic subjects, and because reading ability per se was often the yardstick for promotion...
...No wonder, when they get to the higher grades, their teacher has to spend a lot of time in work which ought to have been finished long before they were turned over to her...
...Immigrant children from Europe at the turn of the century worked hard at school and succeeded...
...statistics that schools in different neighborhoods continued to achieve at very different levels...
...Colin Greer, The Great School Legend...
...That same year, T. C. Mitchill of Boys' High School expressed outrage "that many public schools are graduating boys who are to all practical intents almost as illiterate as when they entered school...
...The City College of New York was offering a program of remedial reading to the city's children...
...The public schools were not able to break that pattern of unequal reading achievement in the 1960s...
...Every year thousands of children were "left back" for lack of progress...
...In 1890 the average daily attendance was one half the register...
...In 1934, 8,000 to 9,000 elementary students took part in a remedial reading project...
...Poor attendance was not the only problem plaguing the early years...
...In many cities the children read better at the end of the second year than they do in New York at the end of the third...
...The Board of Education's high school journal, High Points, cautioned in 1948 that although the citywide average was slightly above the norm, there existed a "large number of children who need help in reading...
...The newspaper reprinted some of the work and asked how these childrenó"judging by their names, they are of English, German, and Irish extraction"ócould ever have been promoted...
...Among those who did attend, truancy was rampant...
...The tragedy, then, is not that the citywide average is going down (a phenomenon due more to the departure of the middle class from the public schools in the last two decades than to anything else), but that the schools continue to be unable to translate equal opportunity into equal academic achievement...
...In New York City, the New Stanford Reading Test was given to 6B and 8B pupils in 1940...
...In an era when there was a great demand for young unskilled labor, many of today's students would not have been in school at all...
...In 1935 the Times reported that there existed "wide variations in the reading ability of the city's school children...
...But is this vision of a paradise lost an accurate one...
...They can't read because they're lazy and good for nothing...
...Similarly, in 1906 the Times bemoaned the fact that "Over half of all pupils registered in the New York public schools have not progressed further than the Second Reader...
...Teachers College Record, May l933...
...It is time to stop wallowing in nostalgia and start finding ways to educate all children.q...
...Classrooms were often hugely overcrowded, and schools often ran on double session...
...In 1944, the Division of Instructional Research of the Board of Education attempted to discover why, in the elementary and junior high schools, "pupils with average intelligence or better show retardation of several years in reading...
...In his study, "The Economic and Social Correlatives of School Progress in New York City," J. B. Maller concluded in 1933: The public schools in New York City differ greatly from one another with regard to scholastic progress...
...Indeed, J. M. Rice, who observed public schools in several cities, wrote in 1893: In New York City the primary reading is so poor that the children are scarcely able to recognize new words at sight at the end of the second school year...
...In 1955 High Points indicated that an extreme gap in reading ability existed among junior high school graduates: "Some are virtually non-readers while others read on a college level...
...Jacob Riis, journalist and muckraker, estimated that in 1891 more than 50,000 school-age children between 5 and 14 received no schooling at all...
...Thousands of army-age Americans, upon mobilization, were found to be unable to read at a fourth-grade level...
...In 1965, for example, when more than half of all children in grades two through eight were reading below level, there were at least 12 schools where 50 percent of the fifth grade scored 9.0 or better...
...In 1904, 1905, and 1906, the New York Times reported that an estimated 25 to 50 percent of all students were between one and seven years too old for their grade...
...For this reason, the Times, in 1859, opposed a plan of the Superintendent of Public Education to rate teachers and schools by rating the progress of their students...
...In 1967 fifth-grade students at one school averaged 4.1 while those at another averaged 8.4...
...Of those who started high school, half did not finish...
...One public school principal lamented in 1905: It makes me so mad to look at them sometimes that I feel like crying...
...As for reading achievement, glib comparisons cannot be made between then and now...
...It is time to acknowledge that the schools have consistently failed to educate a large proportion of children, that from the start there have been dropouts and poor readers, and that since their inception the public schools have met with only partial success...
...Board of Education of New York City, "Fiftieth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Schools," 1948...
...There are some schools in which the rate of progress is many times higher than in other schools...
...And although the truancy rate later abated, the 50 percent dropout rate for high school students remained constant well into the 1940s...
...So vast was the gap separating the children of the 6th Ward from those of the 18th Ward, for example, that "No matter how faithful the teaching, no matter how admirable the processes by which wild and ragged urchins from the street find their latent intellects developed in the schools about the Five Points, it is impossible that these schools should ever be rated as high as schools and teachers in more favored parts of the City...
...In 1975 it was found again that "As in other years, schools in middle-class areas posted far higher pupil scores than those in economically disadvantaged areas...
...Furthermore, half the students commonly left school at 14, the legal working age...
...If only we could keep them in the same grade year after year, if only we could bring back corporal punishment, then they'd shape up and learn to read...
...In 1909 academic failure was the subject of Leonard Ayres's book, Laggards in Our Schools...
...Two years later the Times ran an article headlined "Why Do So Many Children Fail At School...
...It is so often heard, inside the schools and out, that it is taken to be gospel truth...
...Reading failure continued to plague the schools throughout the 1950s...
...Let's look at the general record of achievement in the early years of the New York public schools...
...On the eve of American entry into World War II, it was found that poor reading was a national problem...
...Second, the early history of the public schools provides little in the way of standardized test scores for statistical comparison...
...Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars...
...Untold thousands of children from Europe never even registered...
...TO SUM UP: Even as the citywide reading average declined, students from higher socioeconomic groups continued to surpass national norms by wide margins...
...Any statement concerning achievement in New York City schools without regard to the wide variation among schools is meaningless and misleading...
...It estimated that over 10,000 students entering high school in 1954 were two or more years behind in reading...
...In a poll of the High School Teachers Association in 1955, 706 teachers said 212 their students had little reading ability, 314 said their students had a medium ability, and only 15 said they had much ability...
...The Times estimated that New York had so many adults who could not read that "We have enough illiterates to make a city the size of Denver...
...It is time to stop maligning the students of today by comparing them to a glorious past that is more myth than reality...
...More than 70 years later, the public schools were still incapable of producing scholars equally in all parts of the city...
...Why can't kids today be like them...
...In 1958, Joseph Loretan, Associate Superintendent of Schools, revealed extensive reading disability among elementary school graduates...
...Pedagogy was frequently criticized for regimentation, bureaucracy, and rigid discipline...
...Bring back white shirts and ties, separate schools for boys and girls, the Pledge of Allegiance, and prayer in the schools...
...AS FOR STATISTICS, the citywide average for grade 8B was found to be below grade level on the Stanford Achievement Test in reading in 1929, as were both grades 6B and 8B in 1933...
...In 1944 Western Michigan College was offering remedial reading to its own students, and the Times reported that "From 15 to 18 percent of college students throughout the country have an average of ninth-grade reading ability or lower...
...Forum, January 1892...
...It is quite probable that reading failure was even more prevalent among children entering the vocational high schools...
...The gap in achievement between students in 211 different parts of the city was extreme...
...Jacob Riis, The Children of the Poor...
...In 1943, 90 percent of all students entering the public high schools were reading below grade level...
...In 1973 fifth-graders at one school averaged 2.9 while at another school the average was 7.8...
...That year the eighth grade at one school averaged 5.8, while at another school the average was 10.9...
...Once again extreme differences were found within the city...

Vol. 27 • April 1980 • No. 2


 
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