The Amish support education in a broad sense, but they think that, beyond elementary school, vocational training is sufficient for success in their society.
Most Amish children attended public schools before 1950. Indeed, some Amish fathers served as directors of rural public schools. The Amish were comfortable with small rural schools that were controlled by local parents.
Amish in numerous states protested the national consolidation of small public schools into large districts that occurred in the late 1940s and 1950s. Parents protested these developments because they were losing control over the nurture of their children. Moreover, they considered formal study beyond the eighth grade unnecessary for farming. Finally, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court, in a case known as Wisconsin vs. Yoder, ruled that Amish children could end their formal schooling at the age of fourteen.
Today a few Amish children in some states still attend rural public schools, but the vast majority goes to one- or two-room schools that are operated by Amish parents. A local board of three to five fathers organizes the school, hires a teacher, approves the curriculum, oversees the budget, and supervises maintenance.
About 40,000 Amish youth attend some 1,500 private schools that end with eighth grade. Instruction is typically in English. The teachers are usually Amish women who have not gone to high school but are graduates of Amish schools themselves. Nurtured through periodic teachers meetings and by reading Blackboard Bulletin, an Amish teachers’ magazine, the teachers are largely self-trained. They are selected for their teaching ability and their embrace of Amish values.
Scripture reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer opens each day, but religion is not formally taught in the school. The curriculum includes reading, arithmetic, spelling, grammar, penmanship, history, and some geography. Science and sex education are usually not taught.
With three or four pupils per grade, teachers often instruct two grades at a time. Classrooms exhibit a distinct sense of order amidst a beehive of activity. Hands raise to ask permission to use the outhouse, get a library book, or clarify instructions as the teacher moves from grade to grade every ten or fifteen minutes.
The ethos of the classroom accents cooperative activity, obedience, respect, diligence, kindness, and the natural world. Little attention is given to independent thinking and critical analysis, the values of public education.
The quality of instruction varies considerably across the different Amish settlements. In some communities Amish pupils have scored very well on standardized achievement tests. However, the real test of Amish schools is not how they compare with suburban schools, but how well they prepare Amish youth for success in Amish culture. Schools play an important role in passing on Amish values, developing friendships, limiting exposure to the outside world, and preserving Amish culture across the generations.
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