March 01, 1997 3 min read

Adapt or Perish

Two of this month’s features are like bookends on a century. A hundred years ago, more than 200,000 one-room schoolhouses like those depicted in the photo essay, “One Room With A View,” dotted the American landscape. They reflected the needs of a rural society where the majority of the population lived on farms and children walked or rode horses to class each day. And they were probably adequate for the simpler needs of a simpler society. Youngsters were expected to learn to read (at a basic level) and write (not creatively), master store-clerk arithmetic, and memorize a few facts about history and geography--more than enough to succeed in an agrarian age. Schooling for most Americans ended with the 6th grade.

But even as they reached their peak, the one-room country schools were already becoming obsolete. By the turn of the century, the industrial revolution had arrived. The railroads and telegraph had spawned a cultural and economic revolution. Men were leaving the farms to work in the new factories, and the public high school was created to educate their adolescent sons, who used to spend their days in the fields. In 1899, fewer than 6 percent of children ages 14 to 17 were enrolled in high schools (many of them private); 20 years later, that percentage had jumped to more than a third, with most children in public schools. Immigrants poured into the nation’s cities, giving great impetus to the urbanization of America.

It was clear that the new century would require new kinds of schools. The educational system responded with bigger schools organized like factories. Enrollments grew. Standardized tests were introduced and used to sort and track students by their age and perceived destinies. But in teaching and learning--education’s most important areas--the new schools did not change much. The rote memorization and low expectations of the one-room school continued.

These new schools were considered by many who attended them as joyless and dreary places. In 1913, a factory inspector asked 500 child laborers whether they would rather attend school or continue working in the factory. An incredible 412 answered that they would prefer factory work to the monotony and boredom of school.

Now, a hundred years later, public schools--especially those in major urban districts--are often described in similar terms. On any given school day, 65 percent of teenagers work at part-time jobs. They have little use for school.

Transportation, communications, agriculture, manufacturing, medical practice--all are radically different than they were a century ago. If, for example, the military had changed to the same degree as education, we would be defending the United States with an army equipped for the Civil War.

Social institutions that do not keep up with the society they serve eventually fail. In education, the most striking examples are found in urban districts, where many inner-city schools are unable to meet even the basic educational needs of their students. “Do Or Die” is about the most dramatic and increasingly popular way of forcing these failing schools to change: reconstitution. The reform of choice in San Francisco, reconstitution essentially means replacing the entire staff of a poor-performing school and starting from scratch. Before the ax falls, the dysfunctional school is put on a watch list and given a year to turn things around.

Opponents of reconstitution argue that it is arbitrary, cruel, ineffective, punitive, and unfair--to quote but a few. They assert that schools were not designed to cope with children who bring serious social and personal problems to the classroom. But district officials insist that radical action is essential if a school is not working and the staff cannot fix it. Schools are the institutions we created to educate and socialize our children--in any era, under any conditions--and if they cannot adapt, new institutions are required.

Once again, we are on the brink of a new century--indeed, a new millennium. The rate of change is even more bedazzling. The industrial age has given way to the information age. Education is more important than it has ever been, and schools face challenges and opportunities greater than they have ever faced. We can only hope they will reinvent themselves to meet the future.