According to a frequently quoted “study” the most serious school problems of 1940 were talking, gum chewing, making noise, and running in the halls. Whereas in 1987 the top school problems were drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. Now, Mike Males, former president of the Montana Children’s Trust Fund Board, reports that this “study” was actually an informal survey of opinions taken at a 1987 education conference by a Fullerton, California, police officer.
Males writes that a comparison of 1940 schools with those of today has little meaning. He calculates that a fair comparison could only be made if we excluded from today’s schools all the handicapped, learning-disabled, troubled or pregnant students, as well as three-fourths of all minority and low income students.
In 1940, Males points out, millions of teenagers were simply not enrolled in school, and 49 percent of all children did not graduate from high school. In that year, too, 37,000 teenagers died from violence or disease (triple the 1987 teenage death rate), and 335,000 teenage girls gave birth. U.S. Public Health officials estimated four million cases of venereal disease in 1940 and as many as one million illegal abortions annually. Drunk-driving deaths also reached an all-time high, and the F.B.I. reported that the average age of criminals was 19.
Males reminds us that 90 percent of all teenagers are enrolled in school today and 75 percent graduate on time. In addition, the percentage of minority, low-income, and handicapped students graduating has increased dramatically. Illiteracy today is at one-fifth the 1940 level. Males believes that if problems often seem worse today, it is mainly because our understanding of and information about them is more complete.
Males asks that educators understand that problems among adolescents are more visible in today’s more inclusive schools. He states that reports that perpetuate the good-old-days myth only serves to undermine our efforts to promote student well-being and to resolve educational problems.
“Top School Problems Are Myths” Phi Delta Kappan, September 1992, Volume 74, Number 1, pp. 54-55.
Published in ERN November/December 1992 Volume 5 Number 5