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Then & Now
By Linda Perlstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 1999
In America's elementary schools, far more has changed in the last 30 years than just the boundaries on classroom globes. You probably have some idea of that from the last time you tried to help your kid on her division by telling her to "borrow." Duh, Mom, we "regroup" now.

Many tools, of course, are different. The compasses are now safer plastic instead of perilously pointy metal, and there are fancy scientific calculators in math classes. Teachers no longer are smeared with blue ink from making copies on recalcitrant "ditto" machines. Film strips are still around, but the 16mm projector (shut your eyes and you can hear it: "thwucka-thwucka-thwucka") has been replaced, of course, by the VCR. Third-graders long ago stopped spending half an hour a day on penmanship drills. How could they? They're busy learning how to "keyboard," as in computers. And you won't find a potato peeler in the kitchen: Lunch isn't cooked in the cafeteria anymore.

But what's changed the most, longtime elementary school teachers say, is what, and how, children learn-and teachers are constantly struggling to keep up. Regina Mitchell, who has spent three decades teaching in Montgomery County-and is now at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School-puts it this way: "The population has changed, the curriculum has changed, and the style I have to teach has changed. There's no such thing as having a file cabinet of ideas you can run to because you've been teaching 20 years." Things are just changing too fast for that.

Learning is hands-on as a rule these days, with ready-made kits provided for each curriculum. Thirty years ago, learning mostly just came out of books, and the teacher who wanted to use actual stuff to demonstrate concepts usually had to conjure it up herself. Old habits die hard for long-timers like Mitchell: "You can tell the dinosaur teachers-our closets are filled with any container, any this or that, that could become a science experiment," she says. As for the younger breed: "These little kids"-her fellow teachers, she means-"they don't know how easy life is. It's all in a box!"

Students are introduced to more sophisticated concepts at earlier ages-raise your hand if you learned about opportunity costs in fifth grade. The simplistic short stories of the basal readers have been replaced by folk tales from around the world and novels. Children have to think more analytically, explain how they got their answers. What they learn in one class is integrated into another. Years ago, science was science. Now, it's science and reading and math and writing. And standardized tests are no longer a once-a-year nuisance; they're a year-round obsession.

Decades ago, children new to English sat through class while other kids helped them learn the language, word by word; now they get supplemental instruction. Special education kids, on the other hand, had their own classes; now, for the most part, they're included with everyone else. Oh, and don't forget Ritalin. "Back then," says Paula Woods, who has taught in Howard County since 1968 and is now at Manor Woods Elementary, "hyper kids were hyper kids." Herewith some facts and figures to peruse-with your kids-about how schools have, and have not, changed. Expect a quiz..

Linda Perlstein covers education for The Post's Metro section.

THE SCHOOLS 1966 1996
Number of public elementary schools 73,400 61,165
Number of students (in millions) 28.2 32.8
Spending per student $3,167** $6,961
% of students in public schools 86 88
Number of students per class 28 24
% of legally desegregated school districts 89 100
% of districts with both black and white students 56 77
% of black children in school with white students* 16 94
% of teachers using PCs in class 0 69
THE STUDENTS 1966 1996
White enrollment as % of students 86 77
% transported to school at public expense* 40 58
% getting subsidized lunch 36 38
THE TEACHERS 1966 1996
Average salary $30,508** $37,300
Median experience in years 10 15
Mean age 41 43
% with master's degree or above 17 52
Men as % of teachers 10 9
% eating lunch with their students 63 46
% in a union 70 90
% who would become a teacher again 84 67

* Includes elementary and secondary school students, not just elementary as is the case with the rest of the statistics.
** Calculated in 1996 dollars.
SOURCES: National Center for Education Statistics (special thanks to Tom Snyder) and National Education Association (special thanks to Charlie Ericksen). All data are for public schools.

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