Should We Consider Returning
To The Little Red School?
By James Donahue
Alarming new reports conclude that the American education system is failing
to meet the standards of at least 11 other world nations and that an alarming number of U.S. students are not graduating from
This news is breaking at a time when the nation is locked in its worst
financial crisis since the Great Depression, states are going broke, and state and federal dollars for education are being
severely cut. Consequently schools are cutting back on teaching staff, doubling up class sizes, cutting school hours to four
days a week and halting extracurricular programs like music, sports and school trips.
Because of the high cost of gasoline school districts have
already been struggling with spending cuts just to keep their fleets of big gas-guzzling buses on the road. Bus routes are
being reduced so children are walking farther to reach pickup points.
As the education crisis intensifies, school boards are choosing
to no longer buy textbooks and essential teaching tools, and more and more teachers are getting pink slipped.
And there go all of the arguments used in the 1950s and
1960s for closing the one and two-room country schools and consolidating districts to provide a better education for all children.
We remember the big debates as one-by-one the little red
neighborhood schools of our youth lost ground and eventually closed their doors. Many of the buildings fell to ruin. Some
were fondly bought up by local historical groups and preserved as extensions of museums. Others were sold and converted into
If you drive around the countryside even today, you can
still find the remnants of the “little red” school buildings. They had a distinct look that even conversion to
other uses could not hide. And there was one in just about every neighborhood, within easy walking distance for every child.
The one-room schools are remembered for their old pot-bellied
wood-burning stoves, the hard wooden desks with attached straight-backed chairs and the big blackboards that filled the wall
behind the heavy oak or maple wood desk used by the teacher. There was sometimes a shelf under the student desk, or in later
years, the lids to each desk for students lifted to expose a storage area for books, papers, pencils and other things children
All classes were held in the same room, and one teacher taught everybody.
In some schools the children attended class there from first through as high as the eighth grade. It was possible for a single
teacher to give a child all of the educational training he or she would ever receive. In those days an eighth grade education
was considered enough to prepare children for the world.
What was neat about that system of education is that children
who didn’t get it the first time around, heard the same lesson over and over and by the time they left that school,
they had it all down pat.
I knew a lot of people who functioned very well on the education
they received in those schools. They knew the basics for left brain activities in the world. They could read, write and spell,
and they had enough training in mathematics that they could calculate numbers quickly in their head and do well on just about
any job as a clerk, farm worker or factory.
High school was desirable, but a student had to travel some
distance from the country to attend. And often the demands on the farm made it difficult for children in many families to
get any more education than the eighth grade. Those who went on, however, achieved new pinnacles of scholastic achievement.
That was when education was highly regarded. To go on from there to college was a goal that only the brightest and best students
dared to achieve.
The big movement just after World War II was for consolidated
school districts that offered a complete education, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Intermediate School offices were
established to oversee regional school districts and provide training in specialized job skills like automobile mechanics,
computer and office employment, welding and a variety of other functions needed by local employers.
Students attending such schools chose early which direction
they wanted to go in life. They either chose vocational skills near home, or took the college preparatory courses and made
that dash for admission to a college or university after high school.
That seemed to be the perfect solution to meet the needs of society in
those days. There was a nook for every child, no matter how they graded during their primary school years. But over the years
troublesome flaws developed. Teachers unions were formed and the unions bargained for benefits including tenure, or a secured
position after being on the job for a specific number of years. Once achieving tenure, it was difficult for school administrators
and school boards to weed out bad teachers or pressure them to do a better job once they slipped through the cracks.
As the cost of operating these big school systems and erecting new buildings
rose, the burden fell on local property owners to approve special millage issues. In many cases the voters balked. Schools
began relying on state and federal finance programs to balance their budgets. Once government money began flowing, it came
with strings. Local districts no longer had the final say in how the students were to be taught.
That was when experimental ideas like the “New Math,” a twisted
system of teaching numbers that boggled the minds of parents and apparently that of the students. After that came out we noticed
young graduates couldn’t do such simple tasks as count proper change when clerking stores.
Schools swayed from phonics when teaching reading and spelling. You see
the disastrous result of that every day when reading e-mails and other text writings on the Internet. Proper spelling and
grammar is a lost art. There hasn’t been a really great American novel published since the days of Steinbeck and Hemingway.
The Bush “No Child Left Behind” education act was among the
worst programs ever forced upon the local school districts. Teachers were forced to devote all of their time making sure students
were able to pass a battery of government prepared tests. They could answer the questions, but it is questionable whether
the children learned much.
While all of this was happening, the building financial crunch forced
both parents to go to work to keep the family afloat. Consequently parents had little time to attend school board and Parent
Teacher Association meetings or take an interest in the quality of education offered at the local schools.
The stores overcame the problem of employees that could not make change
by installing computerized cash registers that did the mathematics for them. Most published book writers today are famous
figures that hire ghost writers to prepare their manuscripts.
(It would be unfair to say that good writing is a lost art. There are
many excellent writers at work at some of the nation’s best newspapers and magazines. We appreciate their talents every
day when reading their well thought-out columns on line. But they are getting few and far-between. For the masses, the task of writing a simple letter appears to be a lost art.)
The basics of education: learning reading, writing and arithmetic, was
taught well in the old country schools. The big idea of consolidating school districts and depending on district property
owners to finance elaborate buildings, establish elaborate education programs and put massive bus fleets on the road seems
to have brought about a general dumbing-down of Americans.
It appears that our public schools have been transformed into education
factories that are operating like the tread-mill depicted in the classic Pink Floyd music classic, The Wall. We are pushing
our children through the system and graduating them without bothering to find out if they have ever learned anything. The
Bush education plan was a poor attempt to put a fix on this flaw, but it was poorly instituted and Congress failed to finance
Disciplinary problems among such large numbers of youngsters has been
so overwhelming, many teachers spend much of their time just keeping order and getting through each school day. I knew one
former teacher in the Detroit school system who said he sometimes feared for his life and began keeping a handgun in his desk.
He left the teaching profession and chose another vocation. That was at least 30 years ago.
Now with limited resources and students packed in crowded
classrooms, teachers will have even less time to do the job they are hired to do.
It is perhaps ironic that my father and my father-in-law
both served on local school boards back in the days of the consolidation battles. These men were on opposite sides of the
fence. My father, who sat on a K-12 school board, supported the idea of closing down the country schools and bringing all
of the students into a single district. The concept, at least on paper, seemed right to him.
My father-in-law served on a local country school board
and argued against consolidation. He thought control of schools should stay in the neighborhood, and that larger districts
would be wasteful and inefficient. It now seems that he was quite right.