[These thoughts were prompted by an exchange with Joel (a thoughtful guy and former teacher) on Yahmdallah’s blog, in turn prompted by an article in the Atlantic Monthly, proposing uniform national standards for public schools, combined with complete local autonomy at the school level (freed of teachers' unions and school boards) to determine how best to go about meeting those standards.]
Joel asked: Would farm kids really be better served by a school that requires three years of math and a foreign language? In short, yes.
Let's look at some history. In the 19th century, most rural children didn't attend a secondary school, for the very straightforward reason that there weren't any available except in cities. Families who could afford boarding school could send their children, but this was a small minority. (By the way, the widespread idea that the 3-month summer break originated in the need for rural children to bring in the harvest is a myth: 19th-century rural children often took breaks in spring and fall, when there was indeed agricultural work to be done, but the long summer vacation is a twentieth-century invention.)
When secondary schools began to be seen as important to the country’s future at the turn of the century, there ensued a debate about the curriculum, which traditionally had been the “classical curriculum,” consisting of preparation for classics-heavy college entrance exams and emphasizing Latin and Greek. Proposed instead was the “academic curriculum,” with less emphasis on classical languages (though usually retaining Latin) and more inclusion of modern languages, mathematics, and history. The academic curriculum was widely popular in both rural and urban areas as an ideal education for American children.
By the 1940’s, though, progressivist ideas had begun to take hold, the proponents of which, galvanized by the increasing use of I.Q. tests, mass immigration from Central Europe, and the entrance of more women to colleges, began to push the idea that the academic curriculum (which they opposed for all but the college-bound, in marked contrast to the express desires of teachers and parents) was wasted on certain people--namely, immigrants, blacks, women, and the rural poor--who were destined for menial or non-employment at best. Despite near-universal resistance from both teachers and parents, educational experts and teachers colleges pushed progressivist education in place of the more popular and populist academic curriculum, and by the 1950’s such never-before-seen “subjects” such as home economics, shop, and secretarial classes were universal in American secondary schools.
Black families and the families of immigrants fought tooth and nail against public schools for their communities that basically provided nothing but “education” in mechanics, laundering, and other non-academic subjects. They largely lost, and while we’re blaming family breakdown and poverty for disastrous school performance, we might ask ourselves where some of the much-lamented cultural indifference to learning originated. (The immigrants were fortunate in that, many of them being from Catholic countries, the parochial school system stepped in and provided academic educations for most of them. Black Americans weren’t so lucky.)
I don’t think we’re moving forward if we look at some group of kids (say, rural farm kids) and say “they won’t need a college prep education.” First, if you don’t provide one, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, it seems very 19th-century to assume that the children of farmers will grow up to work on the family farm; and certainly these days agriculture sure does benefit from college education. I think the folks at Texas A&M down the freeway would be surprised to hear it doesn’t. So yes, I’d say that farm kids would indeed be better served by a school that requires three years of math and a foreign language. Every child, everywhere in the U.S., no matter what his or her parentage, sex, color, or culture, is as entitled to an academic education as any other child.
I do think the Atlantic article doesn't provide a panacea; you're quite right that a lot more things will have to change before education is set to rights in the U.S. But I think national standards are part of that; and I think a serious commitment to providing a college-preparatory education to every child in the U.S.--not just the ones we guess will make use of it--is fundamental to that goal also. It’s time to undo the disasters of progressivist education. And the "common-sense"--but ultimately unAmerican idea--that we can identify which children won't need it, is one of those disasters.