The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Education is when you read the fine print.  Experience is what you get if you don't."... ...Pete Seeger.

Commentary of the Day - January 6, 2004:  Valor, Common Sense, and the Right Answer.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Modern crises, like the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis, have come and gone.  Then for a while we suffered our spate of "gates" --  Watergate, Iran Contra-gate, Whitewater-gate, Monica-gate.

But here at the little red schoolhouse, we've been living through a crisis-gate for over thirty years.  We call it Public School Reform.  The current bout began in the early 1970s when well intentioned theorists decided that schools needed to jettison course content, discipline, objective grading standards, and their academic mission in favor of student-directed curricula, self-esteem, guaranteed success, and social services.

Ever since, everyone has been wondering why kids don't seem to be learning as much as they once did.  About twenty years ago A Nation at Risk alerted us to the failure of the 1970s reforms.  Most education theorists responded by renaming and reinstituting all their failed bright ideas in student-directed curricula, self-esteem, guaranteed success, and social services.  Not surprisingly, this hasn't helped.

Other critics concurred with A Nation at Risk's call for renewed academic rigor, higher standards, and a return to more traditional school objectives and methods.  Many of these folks currently support No Child Left Behind and its "Reign of Testing".  Meanwhile, 1970s fans warn that we're about to undo the past thirty years of school reform, which hopefully we are.

Despite their differences, both sides agree on two important points.  Both call for higher standards, and both guarantee that if we do things their way, all kids will succeed.  Unfortunately, both sides are wrong.

Good teachers are born.  To the degree that they're made, they're made by their experience in the classroom.  The classroom we're talking about isn't their education school classroom.  It's the classroom where they teach.  Experience with students is the best teacher of teachers.

Despite the mixed blessings and curses of education school, all teachers have to pass through it for at least a few courses.  What they've heard there for thirty years has been a rehashing of 1970s dogma.  As time and tide have washed veterans from the classroom, they have been replaced by a new generation of teachers who, through no fault of their own, have been weaned on bad ideas.

For many, classroom experience and the inconvenience of real students quickly teach them the error of their education professors' ways.  Others adhere to 1970s "progressivism" because they genuinely believe in it.  In the middle lives a great mass of teachers caught in the divide between what they were taught in education school and the contrary lessons they've learned in the classrooms where they work.

It's tough to discard the pronouncements of experts, even when their expertise is largely theoretical and unsubstantiated.  That might help explain the results of a recent study conducted by the Manhattan Institute and the University of Connecticut. Surveyors questioned a national sample of fourth and eighth grade teachers regarding their "educational philosophies," "instructional methods," "priorities," and attitudes toward school reform.

Less than half agreed that it's the teacher's job to direct learning in the classroom and determine the skills and knowledge kids should learn.  A majority practice "student-directed learning," the progressive education school format where students' "own interests matter more than a preset curriculum," and "students decide what will be learned" and "how it is learned."  Student-directed learning is the kiss of death for comprehensive, meaningful academic competence.  That's because, believe it or not, there's a limit to the perspective and scholastic wisdom of eight-year-olds, or even eighteen-year-olds.

Consistent with this student-centered tilt, respondents also discounted the value of content.  Three quarters endorsed the 1970s notion that "learning to learn" is more important than learning specific skills and knowledge.  Just one in seven agreed that "teaching students specific information and skills" is a teacher's "core responsibility."  Barely a fourth ranked "the right answer" as deserving "primary emphasis."

Having thumbs, using tools, and learning are all important human attributes.  But "learning to learn" isn't supposed to be a substitute for learning science or language or history.  It certainly isn't a substitute for coming up with the right answer.

Most respondents rejected the idea of consistent, uniform, standards. Instead, in the 1970s tradition that brought us decades of rampant self-esteem and grade inflation, they score each student based on his own individual ability.  This sounds swell from a self-esteem perspective, but unfortunately it renders everybody's grades meaningless.  It's great to be the best "me" I can be, but it doesn't help to know that my surgeon got an A in surgery because he's an excellent surgeon compared to himself.  I need to know he's excellent compared to other surgeons and compared to some meaningful, objective standard.

Survey results are always problematic.  That's because too many surveys have proven themselves conspicuously inaccurate.  Based on the teachers I've run across, the numbers above sound exaggerated.  Even so, the 1970s views that the data reflect do exist, and they're particularly alarming since they represent what many new teachers have been taught and what they are still being taught.

It's tough for teachers to resist the mandates and dictates of the "experts on high", especially in the light of the pressure often brought to bear on us to toe the school reform line or else.  It might help, though, to remember that most parents don't want us to surrender our classrooms to our students.  Most parents do send their kids to school to learn school things.

And, most parents do believe in right answers.

© 2003, Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  The IP agrees, for the most part, with Poor Elijah's comments; but there are two points that he thinks need some further discussion.  First, the IP has little use for "learning to learn" as it is preached in the schools of education; however, he does think that it is appropriate to teach students good study skills and good study habits.  In addition, it is important to teach students in the upper grades how to obtain and evaluate information beyond that presented in their textbooks (i.e. how to use the library, the Internet, etc. to obtain information, and how to determine the value of that information).  Second, Poor Elijah has not addressed the serious decline in the quality of teacher candidates in the last three decades.  Today, the typical prospective K-12 teacher is far more likely to come from the bottom third of his or her college class than those of 30 years ago.  Thus, they are more likely to accept without question the dogma presented in their education classes.

Return to main commentary.

© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.