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June 6, 1996

A retiring University educator looks at the state of education

Now that the 1996 presidential campaign has begun, all it takes is a look at the evening news on television or a daily newspaper to realize that most politicians will say or do practically anything to get elected.

Among the favorite whipping boys of politicians in recent elections has been the nation's education system. Playing to the cameras and the fears of voters, politicians on both the national and state levels have repeatedly attacked schools, teachers and programs as failures.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Ridge feels the education system is so bad that tax money should be taken away from it and given to parents in the form of vouchers that they can use to send their children to private or religious schools.

But that's politics. Do educators themselves believe the nation's school system is a failure? Do they think that kids today are receiving less of an education than their parents did in the 1950s and 1960s? "There's a two-part answer to that," says Roy J. Creek, director of Pitt's Falk School. "In absolute terms, education today is better than in the past. In terms of meeting today's needs, though, it's probably not doing as well as in the past." Creek is looking at the U.S. education system from the vantage point of more than 40 years in the field, including 35 years at Falk School, from where he will retire in August.

Located on the upper campus across from the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Falk is part of Pitt's School of Education. It was founded in 1930 under a charter between the University, Leon Falk Jr. and Marjorie Falk Levy, and named the Fanny Edel Falk Elementary School in honor of the donors' mother.

The original charter designated Falk as a progressive experimental school for demonstration purposes, but was amended in 1946 to include practice teaching.

Falk School today offers classes for students from kindergarten through eighth grade and performs the major functions ascribed to laboratory schools, including the development of innovative teaching practices, development of educational theory, the preparation of new teachers and the in-service education of experienced teachers. Creek joined the Falk faculty in 1961, but began teaching in the 1950s, the decade so many people now point to as an ideal. But Creek disagrees, saying that schools today are better than they were in the 1950s in a number of major ways. To begin with, he notes, they are no longer segregated and there are fewer "extraordinary discrepancies" between rich and poor, suburban and urban schools than there were 40 years ago.

When Creek graduated from high school in 1950, he says, it was accepted that students in wealthy suburban schools were receiving a far better education than students in urban or poor rural schools. While Creek does not pretend that the gap between the haves and have nots has disappeared, he believes it has narrowed considerably. He sees more poor and lower middle class people looking toward education as a way to improve themselves than when he started in the field, and consequently better programs have become available in rural and urban schools.

"For all the criticism that urban schools get," Creek says, "if you go into some urban schools, there is some pretty good work going on." There also are kids graduating from high school today who never would have graduated 30 or 40 years ago. The dropout rate in 1950 was 47 percent, according to Creek. Today, roughly 80 percent of the kids who enter high school graduate, which is part of the reason schools are not meeting society's needs as well as in the past. Among that additional 30 percent of kids who stay in school today are many who are there simply because they have nothing else to do. The decline of America's manufacturing base has deprived kids, who in the past would have dropped out of school to work in a factory, mill or mine, of the opportunity to obtain a well paying job with relatively little education.

In the 1950s, the education system did not have to deal with large numbers of kids who lacked motivation. Today, those kids show up as high school graduates who have difficulty reading and doing basic math — anecdotal evidence for politicians that the nation's schools have failed, even though they are providing an education for more children than ever before. The presence of so many marginal students also leads to what Creek believes is the main problem with the education system: its inability to meet the needs of contemporary society, at least in terms of business, industry and the job market.

"That we are not able to meet many of the needs of the striving middle class or lower middle class who would have been industrial workers 30 or 40 years ago, to that extent, we [the education system] come up short," Creek says.

Although there always will be some sort of hierarchy in education and students who don't fit into the job market, of necessity today students need to obtain some type of education or training beyond high school in order to succeed. They don't necessarily have to attend college, according to Creek, but they need additional training in some field, whether it be computers, the culinary arts or horticulture.

"Students need to go beyond what schools are providing," Creek says. "But it's a tough call whether the schools aren't providing enough or that the demands on individuals are more than they have been in the past in terms of being prepared to do things." The main reason Creek feels that schools are coming up short in meeting the needs of society is because those needs change so rapidly. America is a far more technological society today than it was in the 1950s. Earning a good living in the 1990s requires far more technological knowledge and other skills, he notes, and individuals must assume more responsibility for their own education.

As an example of how fast educational needs change in today's technological society, Creek points to a young man he knows who obtained a certificate from a computer institute and now works for IBM. Every few months, the young man has to attend refresher courses sponsored by the company because technology changes so quickly.

There is no way anything as large as the nation's education system, with all of the outside pressures it faces from parents, taxpayers and politicians, can adapt to accommodate such rapid change, according to Creek. Costs also make it impossible to keep pace with changes in technological fields even on the college level.

"The investments by industry in technology are so out in front that it's very difficult to keep up," Creek says. "We get computers in here [Falk School] and before we know it they're outdated. The technological revolution is a money pit. You never have enough money to buy more hardware or software.

"And then," he continues, "there is the question, do you wait until the next version comes out or do it now? Most schools, even those in good financial shape, struggle to keep up." Despite all of those problems, though, and contrary to the image portrayed by politicians and the media, Creek says, most people actually believe that their local schools are providing their kids with a good education. Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators, annually conducts a poll in which it asks people to rate their school district and education in America in general.

"Invariably, the people rate their own school district well, but do not rate education generally very high," Creek says. "For instance, if they rated the education system in America a 'C,' they would rate their own district an 'A.' "The perception is that American education is really in bad shape," he adds, "but when you ask people about their own school there is a much higher level of satisfaction. Much of what people are responding to are the perceptions that they have gotten from the media and politicians. So one wonders, if all the local schools can be good, how can the system be so bad?" As for kids today being worse than kids in the 1950s, Creek points out that 3,000 years ago Socrates complained about the unruliness of young people in Athens and warned that they would be the downfall of Greek civilization.

While not denying that it is frightening to hear stories about youngsters carrying firearms into schools and gunning each other down in the streets, Creek also notes that kids were killing each other with guns in the 1800s. The difference is it was not sensationalized on television. "I think kids are the same as they've always been," he says. "I also think that education is improving and it will continue to improve. The tough question is will it keep pace with societal demands? The decline of semi-skilled jobs has created a huge task for our education system, one that it was not geared up for." Creek will be replaced as director by William McDonald, who has taught at the school for 27 years. McDonald will assume his post in July. Creek will stay on through August to aid in the transition.

–Mike Sajna

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