How Has School Changed in the Last 50 Years?

How Has School Changed in the Last 50 Years?

changesSchools today are faced with testing and academic requirements foreign to schools 50 years ago. Along with these challenges, they must navigate ever-changing technology and the needs of students. This makes learning in classrooms today much different than in the past.


If a teacher mentioned testing 50 years ago, a student assumed she was referring to the Friday spelling test. Today students hear “testing” and immediately anticipate high stakes, standardized, often computerized tests. The purpose of testing 50 years ago was to test student’s knowledge on what the teacher had taught — and to be able to translate that knowledge into a grade for a report card. Testing’s purpose today is still to show what a child has learned, but it also has high stakes. Teachers are evaluated based on student test scores. Whole schools, districts, and states are evaluated based on student test scores. Funding depends on test scores.

Standardized testing now begins as early as kindergarten. It is done multiple times during a school year. Teachers and parents are instructed in ways to encourage students to perform their best. Tests are often taken on computers rather than pencil and paper. The purpose of testing has changed and with it, the way it is done.

Academic Requirements

50 years ago, kindergarten was not even required in most places. Then it slowly became a structured way for children to learn colors and practice their alphabet. Today children are expected to be able to read, to add and subtract, to write sentences — all by the end of kindergarten. Academic requirements have increased at every level. Bright students are even expected to take algebra before even entering high school. Fifty years ago, they would have taken it midway through high school.


Technology was nonexistent in classrooms 50 years ago. Typewriters were seen in some high schools, but mostly as a way to train future secretaries. Now even the youngest children are using computers. Teachers are not using classic overhead projectors. They have smart boards or computer screens projected onto the wall. Many high schools, and even some middle and elementary schools, now ensure that all students have a computer to use. Textbooks are virtual instead of paper copies. Students can submit homework electronically. Technology is vital to everyday learning in a classroom. Schools prepare students to be fluent in technology by the time they graduate. Keyboard skills are not only considered worthwhile for secretaries but necessary for all students.

Federal Influence

Federal government funding and influence affect how schools operate today. Fifty years ago, schools ran largely independent of the federal government. Today, programs such as Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind have provided powerful incentives for schools to achieve at high levels. Many states have adopted the Common Core standards, thereby setting bars for all children to meet by the end of each grade level. Fifty years ago, a teacher’s classroom was his domain. It was up to him to decide what exactly his students would learn that year. Teachers now must follow set lists of standards for what they need to teach students each year.

Wrap Around Care

In the past, parents entrusted their children’s education to a teacher from 8am to 3pm each weekday. Today’s schools are often tasked with doing much more than educating for seven hours. Schools offer before and after school care programs and extracurricular activities. Schools are often expected to make sure their students are well-fed, offering both breakfast and lunch. Counselors and psychologists help students navigate social and family problems. Special education and English language learning professionals assist teachers. Schools have always helped educate children. Today’s schools are helping raise children.

The tasks of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic remain the same in schools. But even this is not as straightforward as in the past. Testing and high academic standards have transformed schools into very different institutions than 50 years ago. Students today need headphones and computers, not slide rulers and graphing paper, to succeed in school.