The debates over what American public school teaching should be about go all the way back to the beginning of American public schools in the early 1800s, and some of those arguments reverberate today.

Even, maybe unknowingly, in Idaho.

A book by veteran education writer Dana Goldstein called “The Teacher Wars,” published six years ago, showed how the purpose and approach of teaching in America has changed over the last couple of centuries. And it has changed even if, as the saying goes, the issues keep rhyming.

One of the earliest debates had to do with whether public schools should have mostly male or female teachers. In those days (again, we’re talking about the early 19th century), some advocates for a hard fact-based, rote-memorization approach to teaching — drawn in part from the stringent public schools in Prussia — advised that men generally take the role of teachers, arguing they could better handle that kind of instruction (along with stringent discipline).

But the prevailing side urged a mostly female teaching corps. It won out in part because local and state governments could get away with paying female teachers less (thus using fewer tax dollars) but also because female teachers were thought to be better at shaping character and building morals, with some fact-based education included on the side. The idea of schools as a key shaper of students’ moral character, and their ability to function properly in their society, is an old concept in American history, going back to the earliest public (and even informal and non-public) schools.

The issue of what American public schools are supposed to do for students is an old, old debate, the contours of which change with time and the shape of society. And now it revives in the Idaho Legislature

Last fall, Gov. Brad Little’s education task force offered five core recommendations, one of which was to provide a budget for help with the “social-emotional” aspects of student development. Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra signed on with that. The amount is not large; out of a $2 billion budget for public schools, the “social-emotional” effort would take $1 million — about0 .05 of a percent. A story in IdahoEdNews explained the funds would “go to training for teachers to help them identify at-risk students, intervene in a crisis and help address risky youth behaviors while creating a healthy classroom environment.”

The amount was small — really indicating something more like a pilot project — for doing work with students and concerns that schools already have to deal with, just in less structured ways.

But it drew response.

Rep. Barbara Erhardt of Idaho Falls said, “We’re talking about more time spent, um, in an area with kids and teachers that really is a role that should be dealt with in the home. It seems like everything is flipping.”

Rep. Tony Wisniewski of Post Falls harkened back to the 1960s, when kids would be taken “behind the woodshed, if necessary” for some character development.

Of course, times have changed. Students still do come to school from home, and many of them do get the core of their social and emotional help from their parents. But some don’t, and problems can multiply when younger students carry their internal baggage on to older years.

And the question remains: What should schools do when students arrive and become (or already are) disruptive, or suicidal, or otherwise seriously troubled?

It’s not an easy question, and never has been. The new Idaho proposal is really only a matter of taking an initial stab at it. Provided the Idaho Legislature lets them.

Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor who blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. His email address is stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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