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Madera’s schools march to a different drumbeat

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Captain Russel Perry Mace, an early president of Madera’s school board stands in the middle of the student body at Eastside, Madera’s first school. These students and their teachers faced educational expectations that were much different from those of today.


This writer has been thinking about modern education and how it has changed over the years. He wonders how School Superintendent Todd Lile would have assessed the situation if the district had been forced to live under the same standards with which Madera’s schools had to deal a long time ago.

Let’s return to the early 20th century for a few moments. Back then, county boards of education, not school superintendents, controlled both the content of the curriculum and its implementation. There was no ambiguity. Everyone knew what was expected and those expectations were far different from those of today.

The proof of this can be seen in a document from June 1918, in which the Madera County Board of Education laid down the law for its pedagogues.

Charged with assuring that the county’s children were receiving a well-rounded education, the board established the following rules, which applied to every school in the county.

Any student who sought graduation from the 8th grade had to sit for an examination prepared by the county board and sent out to the schools. The board determined when the examinations would be given and when they would be returned to the county office.

Since agriculture was an important part of the curriculum, it is not surprising that there were a number of questions dealing with this subject. Another important area was bookkeeping. Students were tested on making bills and receipts, using checks, deposit slips, and money orders.

In the geography portion of the test, students had to identify 18 islands, 18 rivers, 16 bays and gulfs, and 32 cities on a world map.

The English section included transitive and intransitive verbs, objective predicates, classes and inflection of adverbs, sentence analysis and diagramming.

Since the singing of “good songs, well selected,” was made a part of the curriculum, the 8th grade exam included some inquiry into the students’ understanding of basic music.

Eighth graders had to memorize the 14th Psalm, The Star Spangled Banner, parts of “O Captain, my Captain,” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Since American History was taught in both the 7th and 8th grades, this constituted the lengthiest part of the test and included questions from colonial to modern times.

It was a tough exam and went out to the schools in 8 parts—all sealed. During the prescribed week, every eighth grader in the county worked on the same part of the test. On Monday morning, they took the geography portion; in the afternoon it was grammar and composition. Tuesday was the time for math, spelling and history. On Wednesday morning, music and hygiene were the subjects, while literature and word analysis occupied the entire day on Thursday.

Once the testing was complete, teachers had to do the grading, but they couldn’t dally around. The board had to receive the exams within five working days after they were administered.

And if that wasn’t enough, the teachers had to give an estimate of each student’s character in terms of “morals and manners.”

“The little niceties of manners,” wrote the board, “contribute much to the success of the individual and to everyone’s joy in life,” therefore, the students were to be assessed on the extent to which they exhibited those “niceties.” This list included the following items.

Punctuality — Was the student on time with assigned tasks?

Politeness — Was the student polite to schoolmates, to teachers, at home, and in public places? Did he or she understand that in conversations, interruption and blunt contradictions should be avoided; that whispering or laughing at lectures or places of worship and the chewing of gum in public places was not only rude but vulgar as well.

Neatness — Was the student neat, both personally and at work (desks, books, papers, etc.)? Just as important was kindness to parents, to the aged and infirm, to the unfortunate and to enemies. In short, was the Golden Rule the order of the day?

Besides all of this, the teachers had to determine to what extent kindness to animals, thrift, and a reverence for things sacred were a part of each student’s character.

Clearly public education has changed. The content of the curriculum is certainly different, and very few today would dare to take on the responsibility for prescribing public morals, and perhaps it can’t be any other way. In an age of situational ethics, it would be impossible for schools to give kids a grade on the “niceties” that seemed self-evident so long ago.



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