Today, some argue high schools have gotten worse and we need to offer choice, retain students and base teacher pay on performance; others for a “return to the basics;” still others call for a complete transformation to meet the new demands our children face. All of this led us to several questions, one of which is – so what happened to the average high school graduate 60 years ago?
The world a high school graduate faced in 1958
My Dad, a farm kid from Keystone, Iowa (population 600), graduated from Keystone High in 1958. The Keystone of 1958 had a grocery store, a butcher shop, a Chevy dealership, a John Deere and an Oliver dealership, a few bars, a sundry, a hardware store, a bowling alley and dance hall, a grain elevator, a funeral home, a local bank, a barber and beauty shop, a local doctor and medical clinic, a lawyer, a veterinarian, and a service station. Farms were small, about 200 acres in size. Men who didn’t work in these places made their living as local electricians, carpenters, plumbers, welders, and grain-and-livestock haulers. Few graduates went on to college or left town.
Dad dreamed of being a fighter pilot but this seemed somehow out of reach. He worked part time learning how to be a mechanic at the local Chevy dealership, saving enough to order a new ’58 Chevy. After graduation he joined the army for a year, returned to take a job as a mechanic at the John Deere dealership, got married, and built a new home for his family in town. Most local girls got married pretty quickly after high school and became home-makers or worked in one of the stores in town.
Not including the plentiful farm jobs, there were conservatively 100 jobs in Keystone accessible to high school graduates and dropouts. This meant about any boy graduating from Keystone could easily find work. Some, like my Dad’s brother, graduated right to a line job at Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids. Others headed to Vinton, Cedar Rapids, or Waterloo for good paying jobs in factories like John Deere, Collins Radio, Hawk-Bilt, Rath Packing, Quaker, and Iowa Manufacturing – none requiring additional schooling.
What the high school graduate faces in 2012
Keystone looks quite different today. The service station, sundry, hardware, grocery, and butcher shop are closed now. The Oliver/White dealer is gone. Larger, and thus fewer, farms and advanced farm machinery means fewer hired hands and less need for tradesmen like electricians and carpenters. The John Deere dealership lives but is no longer locally owned. The elevator still operates and the bank survived. Nearby Vinton no longer has factory jobs and Cedar Rapids has far fewer with most requiring additional training. While still clean with lots of pride with many viable small enterprises, Keystone is largely vacant of the one thing a high school graduate has access to – local work that can be learned “on-the-job.” Work today means commuting to Cedar Rapids to jobs requiring specialized and advanced training and education beyond the reach of the high school graduate.
Times have changed a lot in 60 years – how about schools?
Schools had a simple and straightforward job in 1958: give kids some basic skills and exposure to some core subjects. It was also structured to teach them how to be on time, listen to their superiors, and deal with rather monotonous and repetitive work that manual labor and factory work provided. In addition, schools weren’t asked to solve society’s problems like, but not limited to, childhood hunger, broken homes, uninvolved or over-worked parents, drug-and-alchohol abuse, mental health counseling, health screening, and child abuse.
Sadly, the subjects and requirements haven’t changed much. Today, high school graduates take roughly the same set of courses they did in 1958: math, science, English, art, PE, and history. The structure of school is also pretty much the same: kids grouped by age, subjects taught in isolation, an agrarian & factory style school calendar, defined by days filled with worksheets, lectures, quizzes, tests, points and grades. While area schools work to offer college-level options and more classes, we generally see the same sort of preparation as always. In short, we still operate our schools as if those 1958 jobs are still available and as a public we often cry out when our schools try to change away from this familiar picture of “school.”
So what does all this mean?
The way we’ve “done high school” for the past 100 years used to be the right answer, but isn’t the right answer today. Jobs are highly technical and require a different type of creativity and collaboration than most of us were taught in school. Children must now get well beyond “the basics” and tap into their interests to develop a life-long interest in learning.
It no longer works to run children through the same set of courses in the same amount of time in the hopes that most of them get it. They ALL have to “get it” today. We must acknowledge the obvious: not all children come to school with the same background, set of basic skills, and readiness. They also don’t learn at the same rate and in the same way. In 1958 it was okay if some dropped out (US Census data puts the number at about 60% in 1958 – today its closer to 10%) and most others didn’t have the skills to pursue education after high school. After all, good jobs were available to them. As such, it was okay to send them on their way when they finished their coursework – even if they didn’t really learn much of the material – the point was they put in the time, passed the classes, and got a diploma. This is no longer okay. We must question the way we educate our children to discover what is no longer appropriate and then work to create schools that can deliver on the results we want and need.
The 1950’s high school was designed to produce workers for an industrial and agricultural age. It did very well producing graduates who could survive and thrive in that world. We must now create high schools designed to produce learners and citizens who can thrive in the today’s world.
So let’s have a deeper discussion: How can we collectively create such schools? What must they look like? How can we maintain sacred traditions while crafting a more appropriate experience for our children?
Switch to our mobile site