I'm the Official Computer Guy for my 40th grade school reunion, and as June bears down on us and things kick into high gear, I've been thinking about things that I haven't thought about since, well, 1966. One of the great mysteries is how the school even functioned with 48 or sometimes even 50 kids in a single classroom, with a single teacher. Yet it did function, and functioned very well. The secret, I think, cooks down to this: The school did not attempt to teach us a lot of different things—but those things that it did teach, it expected us to learn.
I don't remember grade school at Immaculate Conception being a great deal of fun, though it had its moments. We were constrained to be silent in class unless called upon, and we were expected to follow a lesson closely without daydreaming. What I do remember is that school was engaging. It got my attention, and (mostly) held it, at least in part because a great deal of class time was spent performing exercises in workbooks. We weren't listening to somebody talk. We were doing. We practiced phonics. We practiced multiplication problems. We outlined sentences. We worked on our handscript via Palmer Method. We did the same relatively limited range of things over and over. There were clear challenges and clear goals. There was a good deal of emphasis on focus and recitation. In a sense the teachers weren't "teaching to the test" because the teaching was the test.
There wasn't a great deal of "interaction" and there wasn't a lot of "enrichment." The only music was singing songs. There was no gym, though there were attempts to create an anarchic softball league on the playground in seventh grade. Poor Mrs. Toffenetti tried to teach us fourth graders French, one hour a week, but later on she was hired full-time and had to give up teaching us French. Art was scribbling on pulpy sheets of paper with crayons, and not too often, at that. (I remember drawing helicopters a lot, probably from watching old Whirlybirds reruns.)
The secret of Catholic education as I experienced it was pretty simple, and entirely secular: Mastery through practice. The school had no illusions that learning was either rapid or easy. It therefore drew a line around language skills and mathematical literacy and hammered on that, and what time was left could be spent on lesser things like geography, history, music, and (yes!) religion. (We went to Mass every morning before school in our cavernous, ugly church, and that was a good part of our training in Catholicism.) The focus, literacy, and disciplined study habits served me well, and allowed me to rocket through Chicago's toughest public high school with almost straight A's.
About the only thing I would do differently if I could magically realign our public elementary schools today would be to teach a foreign language right up front, from first grade. Young kids pick up languages more quickly than older kids. No sports. No music. No history. (I'm convinced that history is utterly lost on anyone under thirty. Time cannot be understood by those who haven't lived a significant amount of it.) Lots of workbooks. No sugar. Focus. Focus. Focus. Practice. Practice. Practice. In eight years I could hand you a generation of kids who would academically plow the rest of the world's students into the soil—especially today, when "self-esteem" appears to be the primary emphasis in education.Yes, yes, yes, I'm just a damned old fascist. On the other hand, when I want to learn something new, be it PHP or the history behind World War I, I buy a couple of books, budget some time, sit down, and learn it. That's what I picked up in Catholic school: Education is work. You do the work, you get the education. It's pretty much that simple.