Different schools in different times

The Education Beat

81-year-old's report cards illustrate successes of past

June 13, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

QUENTIN E. Erlandson's mother saved his school report cards. He found them the other day and wrote us a letter from his North Charles Street apartment.

"As long as Baltimore and Maryland are evaluating the public education system and are considering changes," he wrote, "I suggest a look back (way back) to what other states were doing quite successfully.

"Look at the curriculum used three-quarters of a century ago in North Dakota and Minnesota. It should help. I don't remember the first few grades, but I was there.

"Amazingly, my mother saved all my report cards beginning with the first grade in 1923. From the very beginning, in the little town of Lidgerwood, N.D., I was taught the three R's with emphasis on reading and the use of the English language.

"In the first grade I had reading, orthography (spelling), phonics, language, writing, arithmetic, music and drawing. The second grade was the same. In midyear I was promoted to the third grade. The subjects were the same with the addition of geography. This in just a little town of less than 1,000 people.

"For the seventh through the 12th grades I attended Marshall High School, a public high school in Minneapolis. For these six years the curriculum evolved into grammar, composition, literature, Latin, German or French, history, civics, biology and advanced courses in mathematics. After graduation I attended the University of Minnesota, graduating with honors in engineering."

We'd love to put the 81-year-old Erlandson's report cards down beside those going home this week from Baltimore area public schools. Most districts now require a longer period of daily instruction in the "language arts," typically 90 minutes each morning.

Erlandson, 76 years ago, spent at least half of the school day in spelling, phonics, language and writing. Note that even in high school he took three language courses. (He also never locked his hallway locker "and never lost so much as a pencil in six years.")

He grew up "10 miles from nowhere" in the southeast corner of North Dakota. In addition to the grades he earned in academic subjects, he was given a numerical grade for deportment. If the grade fell below 80, the report card advised, "there is something wrong," and parents were told to drop in for a chat with the teacher.

Erlandson doesn't remember what schoolbooks he read in the 1920s. But if the Lidgerwood School was typical, he was likely to have encountered "Atlantic Readers," a popular textbook series in the Great Plains schools of the Dakotas and Montana. In "Bad Land," a brilliant account of the settlement of the area in the first decades of the century, author Jonathan Raban describes the content of the Atlantic Readers textbook for fifth-graders:

"There is a story, `Onawandah,' by Louisa M. Alcott, in which an Indian boy dies while rescuing two young white friends from the camp of a hostile tribe. Otherwise, all is sweetness and light, with folk tales from around the world, the lives of Haydn and Giotto, poems by Christina Rossetti, stories of faithful dogs, a lot of nature writing and useful maxims: `When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, an hundred. -- Jefferson.' It is a pleasant book."

Erlandson said he got a "splendid" education in Lidgerwood and Minneapolis ("although I've always been a poor speller"), which has few private schools. When he moved to Baltimore just before World War II, he was surprised to find a profusion of private schools. His son and daughter attended independent schools here.

"I still believe," he wrote, "that one of the big reasons for the degradation of public schools is that those who had the wherewithal (that includes me) and those who had the clout (that doesn't include me) sent their kids to private schools. Meanwhile, The Sun says there are thousands in Baltimore who are functionally illiterate."

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