What School Days Used to Look Like

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As summer fades away, young Americans get ready, often reluctantly, to return to school. About 56.6 million students will attend public and private elementary, middle, and high schools in the United States for the 2019-2020 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of that number, 50.8 million will attend public schools, the most ever.

In their backpacks, students will carry glue sticks, multi-colored pens and pencils, calculators, washable markers, and personal organizers. They’ll wear the latest fashions from brands like Forever 21, Brandy Melville, and Hollister. They’ll send Instagram messages to friends on cellphones. Students will prepare for fall sports and consider the array of clubs and activities offered at school. The privileged seniors will get to claim parking spaces for their cars. Homework, if they’re still getting any, will be done on a laptop, possibly provided by the school.

Today’s students have a lot of choices and opportunities. It wasn’t always this way. School in the past looked a lot different than it does today. As children across America return to school, 24/7 Tempo has taken this opportunity to see what school days used to look like. We reviewed materials from archival resources such as the New England Historical Society, media sources like the New York Times, and the National Center for Education Statistics to compile our list.

Education and its role in society have been matters of debate and discussion. The classroom concept is a vestige of the Industrial Revolution, when the economy required a workforce with basic skills, according to Prakash Nair, a futurist and architect writing for Education Week.

That may be the only similarity schools still have to the past. Technology has upended how learning is transmitted, though there is some concern about the digital divide and the lack of access to technology for students in poorer districts. Here are the best school districts in every state.

There is some debate about the merits of homework, which in the past could occupy a full evening. And there is concern students are overscheduled with activities such as sports and clubs and are pressured to complete homework in a timely manner. Teachers aren’t the authority figures they used to be, and rarely mete out physical punishment for unruly students.

One of the biggest differences in schools today versus the past is security. Schools have almost become mini-fortresses, with sophisticated locking mechanisms, security cameras, and security personnel. School districts employ these prevention methods to avert the kind of mass shootings that occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the worst tragedies in those states. But not all schools are set up that way. And security is just one factor in identifying a good school. Here are the states with the best and worst schools.