Back to School: Then and Now

Back to School: Then and Now

It’s that special time of year again, when summer ends and the new school year begins. Whether you’re heading back to school yourself, or have children or grandchildren who are starting the new school year, there’s something about the beginning of September that is bound to stir up some childhood memories.

While there are many points of commonality between then and now, there are still some stark differences in the ways in which students were educated in years past versus more recent generations.

Taking Attendance

In the early 1900s, only about half of children ages 5-19 were enrolled in school. At that time, they were mostly needed to help out working on family farms or in the growing numbers of factories founded during the Industrial Revolution.

By the 1970s, however, school attendance increased to over 75%. Today those numbers are well over 90% in developed countries. In the developing world, however, it is estimated that over 264 million school-age children still do not receive any formal education.

Expanding the One-Room Schoolhouse

In the 1800s, many rural schools had a single classroom, with one teacher conducting grades 1–8. Those studying their ABCs — the Abecedarians — sat in the front rows, while older students sat towards the back. Exercises were written on black slates with chalk, while assessments took place at the front of the classroom, where students would recite what they had memorized. Students brought their lunches in tin pails from home.

Octagonal Schoolhouse In New York 1890

One-room Schoolhouse circa 1890 (Credit: Mary Helen Cissell)

Today the average US elementary school has 624 students, with a campus that provides approximately 188 square feet per student. The average cost per student per year is around $43,693 including all the books, technology, coursework, etc.

Walk or Ride?

Back in the day, it was common for children to walk or ride their bikes to school, even as far as four or five miles, no matter the weather. Most children today have heard their parents or grandparents share a few tales about the challenges posed by these intrepid walks to school.

Back to School: A VW bus from the 1960's

A VW bus from the 1960s (Credit:

Today, most children get to school via bus or carpool. Interestingly, more schools are encouraging students to reconsider walking or biking to school so that they will get more daily exercise.

There’s even a new phenomenon known as a walking school bus, where students are supervised by a parent who walks with a group of kids to school together. This way, protective parents ensure that students are safe, but are also getting more exercise.

Dunce Caps to Time Outs

Standing in a corner wearing a dunce cap and enduring harsh teacher reprimands are a thing of the past. “Time-outs” and a greater focus on positive reinforcement have become the mainstay of newer educational philosophies of child discipline. Furthermore, there is a shift from typical standardized tests at the end of school terms to a greater focus on creative and critical thinking, meant to prepare children for the ever-changing job market.

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

While reading, writing, history, and math will always be the core of many educational curricula, there are vast differences in what children studied back then versus today. Gone are the home economics classes of the 60s and 70s which focused on preparing dinner, baking a cake, or sewing on a button.

Back to School: Home Economics class, Bethel Springs School, 1949

Home Economics class, Bethel Springs School, 1949 (Credit: Mennonite Church)

Contemporary schools rarely place an emphasis on penmanship and many no longer teach cursive writing. Some of these courses have seen a comeback — some schools have reinstituted home economics classes, now called family and consumer sciences, which focus on nutrition, child development, food service, and hospitality. Many other types of coursework from the 60s and 70s have been abandoned today and, in their place, is a new focus on technology, such as researching a paper online or utilizing new online teaching modules and lessons.

Whether you’ve been bombarded by a multitude of Back-to-School advertisements or seen groups of students with brand-new backpacks and crisp, clean school uniforms crossing the street, we just can’t help but take in the scent of freshly sharpened pencils this time of year. Craving a fresh reminder of your school days? Give this back to school quiz a go.

What are some meaningful memories from your own school days? Tell us more in the comments below!


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  • Naman Modi

    September 7, 2018

    Nice blog, I found useful information on topics. I actually benefit from the blog, thanks for sharing.