The Problem With Schools These Days

THE ever-more-frequent articles about what's wrong with our schools, anyway, have their built-in ha-ha's, and so do the letters to the editors they engender. I doubt if anything's wrong with our schools that a little education can't help, and I smile at the suggestion we need more public participation. We used to have that, and I know something about what happened to it. As a sprout I had a great yearning to be the next Richard Harding Davis, with a touch of Richard Halliburton, and while still in school I was already our weekly newspaper's authority on town meetings. I covered the meetings in the five towns of our circulation area, and had a spy system so I could do more than one at a time if any coincided. There was only one year that I got a board of selectmen elected in the wrong town. So there came a March in the 1920s when a curious thing happened.

In those days towns were jealous of their own identities. I recall an incident in a Freeport town meeting when an advocate of something or other said, ``... and they've been doing this in Yarmouth for a number of years with good success.'' At this one of the Ringroses asked to be heard, and he said, ``Why do we have to know what they do in Yarmouth?'' That defeated the motion. And each town then ran its own school system and there was maximum public participation. Consolidated schools were yet to be.

So it was curious when I heard three school superintendents in three separate town meetings give the same speech imploring fatter appropriations for teachers' salaries. All three speeches ended with the same plea - ``If we want to attract better teachers, we've got to pay better salaries.'' The speech had been written in the state house and had been sent to every superintendent in Maine by the State Commissioner of Education. This was the first in-sinuation of its kind into the local educational authority, and our schools have been on the skid ever since. Everybody believed in schools then, so the plea worked. Nobody supposed the honored superintendent of schools would give a speech he didn't write. All three towns increased the appropriations for school salaries.

That next fall the schools opened, and I looked at the roster of teachers. In those three towns, one teacher had died, one had retired, and two had moved out of town. All four had been replaced. Except for those four, the added money had merely attracted the same old teachers.

The story I wrote about this at least had the virtue of being droll, and took comfortable notice that the same old teachers had been pretty good anyway, and deserved something extra. It also touched on the duplicity involved and wryly suggested the state superintendent should be given a bigger desk to put his feet up on.

I guess I was wise beyond my time. But it wouldn't be too many years before the state superintendent would be running our local school systems and traditional public participation would be impossible. This would be followed by the era of articles about the trouble with schools and the need for participation.

The first intrusion into the schoolroom was in the area of manual training and domestic science, but this was followed closely by the crying need for ``physical training.'' The bait for this was the state legislature's generosity with ``matching funds,'' highly recommended by the state school superintendent. There were thoughtful citizens in the town meetings who pointed out that nothing comes free, and if the state giveth the state can taketh away, but they didn't prevail and the new culture did. Girls began making cupcakes with 1/4 of an egg, and boys turned out numberless necktie racks with black walnut stain. It was a giant stride forward and the schools haven't been the same since.

At first, the duties of the physical training teachers weren't too well bounded and described, and mostly they opened all the windows and led calisthenics - one, two - one, two - one, two. Then they began urging brushing the teeth, grooming the nails, and washing the hands before lunch - lunchbucket lunch; the taxpayers' hot lunch program hadn't been thought up yet.

Later, they became athletic directors and supervised the coaching staff. Now children rode home from school on the buses, too pooped to do their small chores. Letters to the editors deploring the schools became the Great American Indoor Sport.

Long years ago when public participation in school affairs was the usual thing and was not decried by the experts, one Henry (Hank) Estabrook farmed a desolate part of The Hardscrabble, and he believed heartily in education, thinking it would help his children to a better life.

One day his boy Peter came home and said the teacher spanked him. Hank was furious about that and hitched in the horse and drove right over to the schoolhouse, catching the teacher before she locked up. ``You whipped my Pete?'' he demanded. She said she did, that he was naughty and inattentive. ``Well,'' says Hank, ``Don't you never lay a hand on him again! You come and tell me, and I'll belt him. I'm stronger than you be.''

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