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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Teachers and pupils had some challenges

Jerry Bowen

The three Rs were just a beginning in the classroom

When our family moved from North Dakota to California in 1950, I was in the eighth grade. It was quite a shock going from a school system with good discipline and challenging education to the loose uncontrolled discord of the school system I attended in the South Bay Area.

Subject matter was anywhere from one to two years behind what I’d already had in the North Dakota school system. I didn’t know until about two years ago when my sister, brother and I were discussing the past that they had felt the same way.

I wondered if people in the late 1800s might say the same thing if they could come back and observe California schools of the 1950s and today.

It is enlightening to learn about the subjects, students and educators of the past. It was all done in small schools, with no air conditioning and often with many grade levels in the same room.

After researching early education, I found that I have a healthy respect for what they accomplished. Let’s hope that today’s standards can live up to the requirements that are important in today’s world.

When the new Constitution of California went into effect July 4, 1879, it provided for a board of education in each county in the state. Each county had a superintendent of schools and four board members. At least two of the members were experienced and certified teachers appointed by the county board of supervisors. In addition, each county’s board of education had the power to examine applicants for teachers’ certificates, prescribe standards of proficiency for a certificate, and to grant certificates to teachers.

The certificates were issued as follows: 1. Grammar school course: valid for four years, authorizing the holder to teach in any high school, grammar school course, grammar grade and primary school. It’s interesting to note here that the grammar school course was a course that prepared students for college. There being so very few high schools at the time, some school districts conducted the grammar school course as an extension of its grammar school. 2. Grammar grade: valid for three years, authorizing the holder to teach any grammar grade and primary school. 3. Primary: valid for two years, authorizing the holder to teach any primary school.

Another control the county board of education had was the power to issue diplomas of graduation from any of the public schools of the county. Diplomas were issued only to pupils who had passed an examination prescribed by the respective board of education.

Prior to 1879, graduation and issuance of diplomas to pupils in public schools had been entirely in the hands of the teacher. After 1879, diplomas were furnished by the state after passing an examination prescribed by the county board of education.

In order to graduate from the grammar schools of Solano County, pupils were required to reach an average of 80 percent in reading, grammar, arithmetic, geography, spelling, Constitution of the United States, bookkeeping, history, drawing, music, neatness and penmanship. The examinations were prepared by the board of education and one member of the board, who together with the principal, conducted the examinations. In order to receive a diploma of graduation in the higher grades, pupils had to pass with an average of 85 percent.

Each subject had a certain number of credits assigned to it. On the written examination, any teaching applicant who failed to obtain 50 percent of the maximum number of credits allowed for any one of the following subjects, orthography, Sheesh, I had to look that one up; It means: “The art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage”, grammar, arithmetic, reading, and methods of teaching would not receive a certificate; and anyone falling below 60 percent in any one of the subjects - orthography, grammar, and arithmetic - wouldn’t receive a grammar grade or a grammar school course certificate.

Teaching applicants for a primary certificate were allowed credits for successful experience in teaching, 170 for one year, eight school months, 185 for three years, and 200 for more than five years. Applicants for grammar grade or grammar school course certificates were allowed 270 credits for one year, 285 for three years, and 300 for more than five years of successful experience. These very generous allowances made it comparatively easy for acceptable teachers to pass the test.

One subject had obvious local importance at the time. The county board of education, in its rules concerning certificates required instruction to be given in practical entomology, with special reference to the fruit pests of California and their remedies. Entomology was a requirement in the second grade of all schools at the time.

Below are a few examples of questions for teachers’ certificates that were taken from the test given in Fairfield 112 years ago. The full list of questions appeared in the Vallejo Weekly Chronicle of July 22, 1892, after the test had been given, I presume.

Entomology 1. Define antennae, mandibles, thorax, spiracles and ocelli. 2. Define and illustrate by examples, oviparous and viviparous.

Music 1. Write four measures of music in 4/4 time, using eight kinds of notes and two rests.

Word Analysis-Defining 1. Give the meaning and radical of caedere; claudere; capere; spicere; plicare. 2. Give the meaning of contro; ultra; sine; sub; per.

Physics 1. A coin placed in a pail becomes visible when water is poured in. Why? Explain.


Write on the subject, “Composition Work in School.” explaining the importance of the work and what the teacher should do in order that success should certainly come from the work.

Geometry 1. Prove that from a point outside a circle two tangents may be drawn of equal length.

Literature 1. What effect did the translation of the Bible into English have upon our language?

Geology 1. What deductions can be made from the fact that the Paleozoic Trilobite was the first animal known to have eyes?

General History

State the effects of the Crusades upon Europe, socially, politically, commercially, intellectually, and religiously.

There were a lot more questions, and I’m sure I couldn’t have passed the test to be a teacher.

In addition, the Educational History of Solano County listed six pages of questions submitted for the examinations qualifying students for graduation from grammar schools. In order to graduate from the grammar schools of Solano County, pupils had to reach an average of 80 percent in reading, grammar, arithmetic, geography, spelling, Constitution of the United States, bookkeeping, history, drawing, music, neatness and penmanship. These were serious tests with two to three hours being devoted to each subject. Some of the grammar school test questions of 1902 given to eighth-year pupils in Solano County public schools for promotion were as follows:

Geography 1. What are the benefits of ocean currents? Why do the polar waters flow beneath the equatorial waters? 2. Mention four things that affect the climate of a place.

U.S. History 1. Name two French explorers and tell what you know about their discoveries in the New World. 2. What nations aided the American colonists in achieving their independence, and in what manner was the support given?

Physiology 1. Name the organs of the nervous system and describe one of them.

Literature 1. Quote ten lines from “Evangeline.”

Grammar 1. Name the kinds of adjectives and illustrate each by an original sentence. 2. Write a sentence containing an adverb phrase; also a sentence containing an adjective phrase. 3. Write a complex sentence; a compound sentence.

Arithmetic 1. My profit at 20 percent on the sale of goods is $1,545. What did they cost? 2. I sent my agent in San Francisco a lot of hay that he sold for $400, charging me 2 1/2 percent commission and invested the proceeds in bran, charging 2 percent commission. What was paid for the bran?

Word analysis 1. Name six prefixes and four suffixes and give their meaning. 2. Analyze: Gradual; emotion; diffident; audible.


Write a composition of not less than 250 words on any one of the following subjects:

Acadian Life; When I Am of Age; The Birds of Our Neighborhood; An Airship; The Philippine Islands; Benedict Arnold.

Hmm, I don’t think I could have qualified as a graduate either! After seeing the examinations given over 100 years ago, I wonder how they compare to today’s testing.