10 Things About the History of American Public Education

While a lot of the country is still enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation, in the Southeast we’re already back in school. We start earlier than a lot of the country and get out earlier too. I’ll talk about why in just a moment. My oldest child started Kindergarten on Wednesday. He’s in love with learning and has really enjoyed school so far. I can only hope his enthusiasm doesn’t wane over the course of the year.

But, with a child in elementary school, my brain has been focused on school-related things lately. Back-to-school shopping (supplies and clothes), Meet the Teacher night, ensuring proper registration for school, etc. In honor of my back-to-school focused brain, this month’s 10 Things post is focused on American Public Education.

Let’s do this.

  1. The reason we start school in the fall in the United States has long been attributed to agrarian needs. However, that’s false–not to mention illogical–and is an excuse the urban elite have been using for decades. Think about it. In farming, there is a lot of work in the spring during planting season and a lot of work in the fall during the harvest. In comparison, summer and winter have moderate amounts of work to be done. Why, then, would farmers send their children to school in the fall and spring? They wouldn’t. And didn’t. Agrarian schools in the early days of public education generally had a summer term and a winter term. However, in densely populated urban areas where summer heat (before the invention of air conditioning) could be stifling, smelly, and dangerous the wealthy would retreat to summer homes outside the city until the weather cooled again. When public education started being federally funded and compulsory, it was decided that all school calendars (both rural and urban) should more or less match up. Guess who won that battle.
  2. As I said in the opening paragraph though, schools in the South often start earlier than those in the North. We start in August and are out before Memorial Day (in late May) whereas the majority of the country starts in September and finishes in mid-to-late June. The South once lined up our start and end dates with the rest of the country, but have changed in the last two decades. The reason? State testing. The South struggles with federally mandated standardized tests–a price paid for racist and classist education policies starting in the Colonial Period and continuing through the Civil Rights Movement–and so by starting earlier, we have more time to prepare for before the testing dates and we end the school year shortly after the testing period ends.
  3. Public school hasn’t always meant free. The first public schools were open to the public–for a comparatively smaller fee than hiring private tutors or paying for boarding school.
  4. The first public schools were connected to specific churches. The objective was to teach children to read so that they might be able to read and better understand the Bible. Moreover, the schools would only admit students who were a part of the specific denomination of the church. Brown University was considered quite progressive and liberal in its early days because, while it was started by Baptists, it would admit young (white) men from other denominations. Women, minorities, or even white men with other religious affiliations–including Catholics–were out of luck.
  5. Until the early 1800s, teachers were overwhelmingly male. The only women who received more than rudimentary education were generally from wealthy families who hired private tutors. They were training their daughters to be better prospective wives for other wealthy men. However, there was a movement in the early part of 19th century that spread the idea that women were much more suited to educating children, even young males, because of their natural maternal instincts. This gave rise to more young girls being admitted to schools, a prevalence of “teaching colleges” where women could specifically study how to be better educators, and new job prospects around the nation.
  6. Home Economics courses are disappearing from most schools, but it was a fight to get them started at all. Women’s groups and charities fought for and funded courses on sewing and mending for young women in public schools. The reasons were two-fold. First, for those young women who would eventually have to find work, this gave them the training necessary to apply for a position as a lady’s maid or other domestic service position. That meant better pay, better working conditions, and better life prospects. Second, some of the young ladies who attended public school institutions were poor and would show up to school in torn or tattered dresses. By teaching them how to sew and mend at school, they were able to better care for themselves and help their families.
  7. School didn’t become compulsory in each state at the same time. Massachusetts was the first state to lead the charge in both compulsory and free public education, as well as the education of women. Other states followed, some more slowly than others. Much of the south, for instance, didn’t make public education mandatory until the early 1900s. Even so, education was only compulsory through the eighth grade. High school attendance became more popular after World War I, and enrollment in secondary schools rose significantly after World War II thanks to the original G.I. Bill that helped pay for military veterans to attend college. Students had a reason to finish high school. They could serve in the armed forces and then the government would pay for them to get a college degree, greatly increasing job prospects and upward mobility. The bill was not limited to men. Women veterans could also claim G. I. Bill benefits. However, only 2% of American veterans of World War II were women. Side Note: The original G.I. Bill expired in 1956, but has revamped and extended time and again. In 1984, the Montgomery G.I. Bill was one of the newest incarnations of the bill. Named for G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, a congressman from Mississippi and a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, who authored the bill.
  8. When public (and free) education (through 8th grade) became compulsory nation-wide, it didn’t mean there were suddenly Elementary and Middle Schools on every corner. Most schools were one room, one teacher, and all the students within walking distance–generally a five-mile radius from the school.
  9. While Black citizens had to fight for access to education, Native Americans were sometimes ripped from their tribes and families and forced to attend residential schools where they had to learn to dress, speak, and act in an “Anglo-American” style. The argument was that it would make Natives “more civilized” and ease tensions between Whites and Tribal Nations. Spoiler alert: It was a horrendous practice and not-so-shockingly a failure. The first Indian Residential School opened in the mid-1800s and the last one officially closed in 1973 (in the United States. It’s my understanding that some Indian Residential Schools still operated in Canada into the 1990s). The Bureau of Indian Affairs must have had the motto of “If at first we don’t succeed, we’ll keep forcing the same policy down your throats for over a century.”
  10. The official color for public school buses in the United States is “National School Bus Glossy Yellow”. While the name of the official paint color has changed, the yellow hue has been more or less the same since it was agreed upon in 1939 at an education conference funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Yellow with black lettering was voted the standard because it is the easiest to see in the dark of the early morning (more modern research studies have confirmed that you are more likely to notice something yellow in your periphery or in the dark than something red). The first school buses were not all motorized, some were yellow wagons pulled by horses. The design has certainly changed over the decades, but the color has remained the same.

American Public Educations has had its ups and downs. In the early 20th century, we had the highest literacy rate in the world. While that is no longer true, we don’t have to view it as all doom and gloom. I am a product of the public education system, and I hold two bachelor’s degrees from a public (though certainly not free) university. I received a quality education (my penchant for typos and my ongoing war with commas notwithstanding). However, I have also been a teacher in the public school system. Most of the pitfalls we (Americans) face are of our own making. The situation is certainly not hopeless, though the most effective solutions won’t be the most popular ones. And until we have someone in Congress who actually has experience in public education, or–heaven forbid–has a child in the public school system, nobody wants to take on that battle.

But I digress.

This post is for writers, as always. The public education system isn’t a bad idea, nor did it begin with bad intent. But the system has never been perfect. And bad decisions have been made along the way that negatively affected a lot of the population. So when you create a world, even if you design a complete Utopia, remember that just because something is a good idea and meant for the greater good of all, doesn’t mean it won’t face or create challenges. In fact, this could serve as the perfect opportunity to flesh out the implicit biases of your characters. What beliefs do they hold that could keep an altruistic venture from succeeding? How could that cause a rift in their perfect society? How does that affect your main character’s worldview or experience?

Not everybody all at once. Raise your hand.

Class is officially in session.

10 Things About Title IX: The Role Sports Play in the Fight for Gender Equality

Note: I don’t usually write about politics, at least not directly. However, this is an example that could be relevant and useful for worldbuilding or plotting in stories. If you say rude or mean things in the comments, I will either ignore or delete them. 

The US Women’s National Team just earned a fourth star for their jerseys by winning the 2019 World Cup. Give me a moment.

USA! USA! USA! USA!

Okay, I’m good now. Mostly.

The USWNT has done a lot to bring attention to the gender discrimination inherent in their pay structures compared to the USMNT (US Men’s National Team). While some people may roll their eyes at this, the truth of the matter is that you can’t claim that the women don’t bring in as much money. The USWNT sells more merchandise than their male counterparts, they sell more tickets, they get better viewing ratings for televised events, and they travel for more paid engagements. Because the USMNT has been in a performance slump for the last few years (for a number of reasons I’m choosing not to elaborate upon because I have neither the time nor the word count for it) while the women have continued to show improvement while also being the best-ranked team in the world and bringing in rapidly increasing revenue to boot, it’s well past time that they get to ask why they aren’t getting paid as much as the Men’s Team.

The struggle for equality in sports is not new. Title IX is not new. In fact, Title IX does not even exclusively relate to athletics. But sports are the most visible way to see whether an institution is striving for equality or whether they’re making excuses.

I should point out that the USWNT is not governed by Title IX because they are not affiliated with a specific educational institution. They are just the reason I began thinking of this post (and I kinda wanted to brag on them a bit).

So, for those unfamiliar with the law, here are 10 things you might not know about Title IX.

  1. Title IX was signed into law in June of 1972 by then-President Richard Nixon. It reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Athletics are ruled an “educational program or activity”.
  2. It took less than two years after signing Title IX into law before a bill demanding its repeal was filed in Congress. When it failed, a bill demanding that certain sports (cough cough FOOTBALL cough cough) be excluded from the Title IX athlete, equipment, and services mandates. It also failed.
  3. Though the application, scope, regulations, and enforcement of Title IX has been debated time and again in Congress (and as recently as 2011), over 80% of voters support it. That is true across political parties, genders, and socioeconomic brackets.
  4. In 1996 Brown University (they got taken to court over it, but they certainly weren’t the only school doing it) argued that they were compliant with Title IX even though they offered significantly less athletic opportunities for females because “girls aren’t as interested in sports as boys.” The courts ruled that an institution cannot use gender stereotypes to opt-out of Title IX compliance.
  5. Not only is it a sad excuse for not complying with the law, but the stereotype of girls simply not wanting to play sports has been proven wrong. Since 1972 when Title IX was signed, female participation in school sports has increased over 900%. Girls want to play. All they need is the opportunity.
  6. Opponents of Title IX have long argued that it is unfair to male athletes because it requires schools to decrease the number of men’s sports to be equal with those of women’s sports. This is wholly untrue. The requirement is that each institution much offer equal opportunities (and, in practice, if a school can show that it is expanding female opportunities and making the effort, even if the numbers aren’t exactly even, they are deemed in compliance). However, individual schools have cut some men’s sports to save money while adding women’s sports and when met with resistance from alumni have perennially blamed Title IX. The truth is that it’s a matter of revenue versus expenditure. The school doesn’t want to lose revenue by adding more expenditures, so they decide to make cuts. If anyone ever argues that sports aren’t a business, point them to the history of the opposition of Title IX. It’s all about the money.
  7. In 2011 it was ruled that Title IX requires allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence to be handled according to University policy for all students, including athletes. An institution can’t just “let the team handle it”.
  8. Title IX applies to any and all educational institutions that receive any federal funding. There is no percentage requirement. The funding does not have to be given toward all sports. If the institution receives federal funds, it is subject to Title IX. However, the level of male vs female participation opportunities does not have to be 1:1. It is based on the overall student population percentages by gender. It is also not solely applied to the betterment of female athletic opportunities. The language of the full clarifications and rulings say the “underrepresented gender”. So if a male feels that he is being discriminated against based on a lack of compliance with Title IX, he can file suit too.
  9. “Athletic opportunities” also apply to more than just spots on a roster. The treatment, benefits, financial aid, quality of equipment, and access to facilities, coaches, trainers, and staff of all athletes are covered.
  10. As you can see by the language of the original law, Title IX applies to any educational opportunity or activity. That means that while Title IX is most visible to the public via athletic representation, it also applies to the admittance of females (or the underrepresented gender) to academic programs too. And as of 1992, if a student–athlete or not–files suit based on a Title IX violation, they can be awarded punitive damages, not just an injunction.

If any program was ever deemed in blatant and repeated violation of Title IX, they can have all federal funding for the institution revoked. To my knowledge, that’s never actually happened. The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, who governs the application of Title IX, usually gives the school a list of things to complete in a given time frame instead. It is simply the threat of being able to withhold funds that the OCR counts on.

Since the 1970s, Title IX has been used to attempt to shine a light on gender discrimination. While the biggest debates over its application involve its relation to sports, Title IX is primarily about gender equality in education.

As writers who create worlds complete with politics, biases, and usually some thematic fight for justice, we can use Title IX’s forty-seven year (as of 2019) history as an example of how issues are often interwoven into other parts of society. If there is an argument over an issue at the highest level of the government in the political entity you create, it will show itself in other places and other ways through every tier of said society. Sometimes the cry for justice doesn’t come from a battlefield or a senate floor. Sometimes it comes from a soccer field, a basketball court, or a high school classroom.

And sometimes even after the cry is heard, you find yourself still fighting the same fight nearly fifty years later. Because equal means equal, not “a smaller discrepancy than before”.

10 Things About The College World Series

It’s June. That means it’s time to decide which university in the US gets to claim they are the best baseball team in the country. My own beloved Mississippi State Bulldogs hosted a Regional tournament and are now hosting a Super Regional series. If they win tonight (I’m writing this during the 5th inning on Sunday night–we’re ahead, but I won’t count my chickens before they hatch), they’ll go to Omaha for the College World Series. If they lose, they’ll play again on Monday and have one last chance.

If you can’t tell, I’m in a baseball state of mind. But I know not all of the writing community knows much about sports. I’ve said before that world building with athletic events can help give your characters something to bond or fight over. It can be a gathering place, an ice breaker, or just something to round out the feel of a full society. I’ve done a post that looks at the evolution and/or championships of other sports, so let’s take a look at baseball.

Here are 10 Things you might not know about the College World Series.

  1. It’s called the College World Series because it is the collegiate version of the MLB (Major League Baseball) World Series. The MLB is called the World Series because of a challenge thrown down between the Pittsburg Pirates (best team in the National League that year) and the Boston Red Sox (best team in the American League that year) in 1903. The owner of the Pirates challenged Boston to a World’s Championship Series. Boston won, but a tradition was born. The named was shortened to World Series and became an official league tradition in 1904. The “World Series” is trademarked by Major League Baseball and licensed to the NCAA for the CWS. Since MLB’s World Series decides the best team in the US (and one in Canada) the actual World Champion today is determined by the World Baseball Classic.
  2. The first College World Series was played in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1947. Eight teams were divided into two single elimination (lose once and you’re out) playoffs. The winner of each playoff competed in a best of three series.
  3. In 1948 the playoffs became double elimination.
  4. The tournament moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1949.
  5. 1950-present the tournament is held in Omaha, Nebraska. In 2011 a contract with the NCAA extended the tournament’s presence in Omaha to at least 2035. Realistically, fans treat the CWS and Omaha as synonymous so moving the tournament would be a big decision for the NCAA.
  6. From 1950 to 2010 the CWS was played in Rosenblatt Stadium. Originally built in 1947 as Omaha Municipal Stadium for a minor league baseball team, it was renamed in 1965 to honor the former mayor of Omaha. Johnny Rosenblatt was part of the initial team to work toward bringing (and keeping) the tournament to Omaha.
  7. The tournament actually lost money for ten of the first twelve years that Omaha hosted it, but a small group of local individuals, including Mayor Rosenblatt, fought hard to keep the tournament coming back.
  8. In 2011 the CWS began playing in TD Ameritrade Park Omaha after Rosenblatt Stadium was demolished. The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium now owns the Rosenblatt land and plans to use it to expand the current zoo grounds while also building a Little League sized park in honor of the site’s history.
  9. In the early 1950s, there were no preliminary rounds (no Regionals or Super Regionals). The eight teams to play in the CWS were chosen by committee from each of the eight NCAA districts. This changed in 1954 when the first preliminary rounds (Regionals) were introduced. The format evolved again in the 1980s (the final championship was a single game and not a series) and the early 2000s (the Super Regionals evolved). The current format has remained the same since 2003 (the championship is now a series).
  10. Former US President George Bush played on Yale’s CWS baseball teams in the CWS in the late 1940s. He was First Baseman for the Bulldogs.

Unlike some of the other sports I’ve done posts about, the NCAA Division 1 Baseball Championship, aka the College World Series, is very closely linked with its longtime location. Fans refer to the preliminary tournaments as “The Road to Omaha”. There are sports all the way back to the ancient world that are associated with a specific place. This might be because of the origin of the sport, or the magnitude of the competition, but it can also relate to the traditions of the spectators. And sports, especially ones that draw large crowds, affect the places that host them. It can boost the economy or drain town finances. All of this can help shape the world you’re building in your story.

College Baseball’s Game of Thrones

The 2019 NCAA Baseball Tournament begins on Friday with the Regionals. The winner of each Regional will go on to play a Super Regional. Winners of the Super Regional will proceed to Omaha, Nebraska to compete in the College World Series. The whole process takes multiple gut-wrenching, heart-stopping, glorious weeks. It’s a thing of beauty. And pain. But in the end the last team left standing gets to claim the title of National Champion until next year when they are challenged for the title in a new tournament.

You might say they are playing for the College Baseball Throne.

Oh wait, Mississippi State (my beloved alma mater) already hosted a Game of Thrones theme night and has that throne. Side note: we’re also hosting a Regional this weekend. I sincerely hope they bring the throne out again.

It’s gorgeous.

Confession: I never really watched Game of Thrones. Don’t come at me with your indignation, I know the plot and most of the details because I don’t live under a rock. Also, I read the first book in the series, but I’ll spare you that rant. It’s a fight for another day.

Regardless of the fact that I haven’t spent the better part of the last several years following the saga of the Iron Throne, the baseball version is amazing. It’s the perfect collision of Sports and Fantasy. It’s the crossover I never knew I always wanted. And I most definitely want it.

I would set it in my living room as a conversation piece. Unfortunately, the conversation would probably go something like this –
Normal Human Person: Is that a throne made of baseball bats?
Me: Yes! Isn’t it great?
NHP: But why is it in your house?
Me: Because it’s a throne. Made of baseball bats.
NHP:…
Me:…
NHP: But why?
Me: Because it’s a THRONE made of BASEBALL BATS.
NHP: No, I get that, but why would you want something like that?
Me: I’m sorry. I don’t understand the question.

The Regionals start this Friday. The Game of Baseball Thrones is upon us. Omaha is coming.

Free Books!

Were more beautiful words ever spoken?

I love to read and so do my kids, hence our affinity for the local library (and the church library, and our “home library” which is actually just the guest bedroom that happens to have several bookshelves in it). Buying new books can get expensive, so getting them for free allows us to indulge our passions even more often.

But getting free books you get to keep? Even better! And if you are like me and mine, you jump at book giveaways. There are two opportunities this summer that we know of that cost absolutely nothing to get started and can result in a free book. I’ll share these with you in hopes that if you know of any more you’ll share them with me.

First, the local library’s summer reading program. For children and adults, if you join the summer reading program, you get a free book to take home (and keep). You have to choose from a set stock, but hey, free is free. And it’s not just for kids. Adults can join the SRP too! And while this is specific to my local library, I know there are a lot of others with similar program kick-offs so check with yours. The worst that could happen is that you end up in a library.

The second opportunity is through Barnes and Noble. They have their own version of a summer reading program. This one is only for kids (as far as I know), but it’s still free books. You have to go to your local B&N and get a reading log to fill out. The child keeps track of how much they read and the parent signs off on it. During the month of August you return the completed reading log back into the B&N location and get a free book for your efforts. I learned about this via an online press release, so if you want to call your local B&N to confirm this is actually happening, I don’t blame you.

Huzzah for promoting literacy! Free books all around! Here’s to a well-read summer!

ADHD is my Writing Partner

When I sit down to write, I’m never alone. And it’s not just because I have kids and am never physically alone. It’s because I have a writing partner. She’s always available whenever I sit down to write. Actually, that’s shortchanging her involvement in my life. She “helps” me with every aspect of my day. She’s my ADHD.

The great thing about writing with ADHD is that I’m naturally creative. My mind wanders and asking “what if” is practically a reflex. I’m not afraid to throw the rules out the window (after I’ve shown that I understand them). And when I’m researching something for a scene, I’m not just focused, I’m hyperfocused. I can spend hours reading articles, watching interviews, scouring historical texts and not bat an eye.

The hard thing about writing with ADHD is that I ask “what if” so often that I keep changing the story and never actually finish it. I can also become so intent on something that I end up burned out or overwhelmed. I can’t just sit down to write. I have to go through a list of coping techniques just to get started. Cut out as many distractions as possible. Have all necessary materials handy because if I have to get up and go searching for something, I might not return to my desk for hours–or at all. Set a phone alarm so that I stop working after a reasonable amount of time. Set small, attainable goals for a given time period so that I have a self-imposed deadline to meet. These things–and my other plethora of tricks–all seem so simple, but without them, I’m only setting myself up for failure.

It’s a gross oversimplification, but when asked what it’s like to have ADHD I sometimes say that it’s like someone else has the remote to the television in my head and they keep changing the channel without my consent. I’ve had to find a way to take the batteries out of the remote. But my ADHD, she’s a crafty one. She sometimes has back-up batteries.

To help give you a better idea, when my sister was diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication, she called me just a few days later in awe. “Kathryn, when I got home today, I realized that I could remember the entire drive home. It was so weird!”

We don’t black-out when we drive. We’re paying attention, but our mind dumps all that information as soon as we’re done using it because it’s deemed unimportant. We don’t NEED to remember that we stopped at the stop sign and waited our turn. It’s not required that we remember sitting at the stoplight until it turned green. We did it and now it’s gone. So we get home and unbuckle our seat belt to realize that we don’t remember actually driving there. But we can probably tell you every song on the radio during the drive, the entire life story of our favorite author, and what event signified the end of the Viking Age. Because that, for some strange reason, is what our ADHD brains choose to retain. It’s not so much “attention deficit” as it is “attention selective” and I don’t always get a choice about what’s selected.

When I was in high school, I would study for major tests with the radio on. Then when I was taking the test, when I came to a hard question, I would think about what song was playing while I studied that chapter. Singing the song in my head would bring back some of what I was reading during the same song the night before. I don’t know if this works for everyone with ADHD, I just know it was a coping technique that helped me.

So when I sit down to write, I have no trouble juggling an ensemble cast and remembering all of their life stories. I struggle with constantly wanting to change them. Writing a fun or action-packed scene is no problem, but writing the subsequent reaction scene is difficult. Finishing is difficult. Remembering to come up for air is hard. Not feeling like a failure when I spend hours at the keyboard and walk away with only half a page of words to show for my effort is a battle.

Whenever I sit down to write, it’s not just me. It’s me and my ADHD. Some days she’s a big help, other days she’s a massive hindrance to my progress. But she’s always there–dependable if nothing else.

Disclaimer: I only reference my ADHD experience and that of my sister because that’s what I am familiar with. Your experience may greatly differ. I have several other friends and family who are diagnosed as well and who experience it a bit differently than I do.

Quality Feedback

I’ve talked with a writer friend of mine lately about some of the feedback she’s been getting on her manuscript. Some of it has been valuable and helped her improve the story in places. Some of it has been…less so. But as a writer, how do we tell?

Not all feedback your receive is going to be good. Not all of it is going to be valuable. And yes, they are very different. We all need constructive criticism to help us improve our skills as writers. Which means we have to be willing to accept it. Easier said than done sure, but when you look at it as an opportunity, it can almost be exciting.

But what happens when you get feedback that you question? There are a few things you can do.

  1. Get a second opinion from a trusted source. Hopefully you have someone who will be honest with you about your work and their opinion regarding what you’ve been told. \
  2. Ask yourself about the reader. Do they typically write/read in your genre? In your age market? Both can make a difference in what their expectations are.
  3. Ask yourself about the outcome. If you use their feedback and implement changes, how does that change the overall story? Are you comfortable with that?

The trick to that last one is that you have to be willing to be objective about your own work to really decide if the change will be a good one. Sometimes that means sitting on the feedback for a day or two and giving yourself time to mull it over. A lot of people get defensive about their work, but if we aren’t honest with ourselves, it will only make the journey take longer.

In the end, the story is still your story. You are the only one who can change it. Look through the feedback. Is it something that more than one reader has pointed out? Then you probably need to take it seriously.

On the other hand, if you find yourself getting feedback that feels wrong, you’ve examined the source, contemplated what the changes would mean for your manuscript and still think it’s just not going to work for you. That’s fine. If it happens a lot, ask why. Maybe you need to be more selective in your readers. It’s not necessarily true that the more feedback the better, if it’s coming from the wrong audience. That’s also when a trusted second opinion is most valuable. They can help you filter out what is usable commentary and what’s not.

But before you can get to the part where you are sifting through feedback, you have to finish your project (totally calling myself out here). Get writing!