The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."... ...Albert Einstein.

Commentary of the Day - January 7, 2005:  A New Year's Toast to Common Sense.   Guest Commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Poor Elijah's never grasped the significance of New Year's Eve.  The last time he stayed up to watch the ball drop, there really was a ball and Guy Lombardo was still with us.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that the sun has started its climb in the sky.  In that spirit here are a few hopeful signs on the education horizon.

When future archaeologists note the surge in American illiteracy in the final quarter of the twentieth century, they will doubtless, and justifiably, trace it to a cult of reading instruction that bore the charmingly organic name, whole language.  From classroom artifacts and scraps of professional quarterlies, they will discover that whole language practitioners believed in teaching children to read without systematically teaching them the sounds that letters make.  Instead, novice readers were supposed to decipher the words they didn't know from the context provided by the other words they didn't know.

The obvious difficulties inherent in this method of decoding explain why more of us aren't working for the NSA as cryptographers.  Those difficulties also help explain why a generation of students exited public schools with unnecessarily poor reading skills.  The good news is that while whole language still has its disciples, their numbers are dwindling as more and more teachers, politicians, and parents are waking up to the common sense recognition that whole language doesn't work.  Even the hype-prone Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development now acknowledges that phonics is "the way to teach most children how to read."

There's a little good news on the math front, too, though it won't be found in recent international test results.  The latest Program for International Student Assessment ranked American students twenty-fourth in a field of twenty-nine nations, a marked decline since 2000.  The more widely known Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study placed U.S. students somewhat higher but still "lagging behind" many European and Asian nations.

Poor math skills can be traced in large measure to an instructional approach that critics have dubbed "fuzzy math."  This "new new math" also goes by a few more respectable sounding titles like Connected Math, Chicago Math, and Everyday Math.  Then there's standards-based math, a rigorous sounding but conveniently flexible term that means whatever the experts who happen to be setting the standards want it to mean.

While traditional programs build advanced abstractions on a mastery of fundamentals, math instruction's big guns, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, have increasingly opted for curricula and methods that accent problem solving and a premature inoculation of algebraic concepts.  Nicknamed "whole math," these attempts at innovation de-emphasize basic skills and discourage or eliminate memorization of math facts.  Instead they substitute calculators for computation skills, organize classes around group work, and replace teaching with student-led "discovery," all of which go a long way toward explaining why many American kids aren't especially good at math.

Texas Instruments, the calculator people, recently invited advocates from both sides to a math "summit."  In a heartening development conferees agreed that elementary students shouldn't rely on calculators.  They concurred as well that students should return to memorizing number facts, and that they should be taught basic algorithms, the rules for computing and solving problems, an acknowledgment that the intuitive discovery method favored by reformers hasn't borne the mathematical fruit its promoters had promised.

Common sense also scored a victory in cyberspace.  A recent University of Munich study of 175,000 students in thirty-one countries demonstrated that academic performance "declined significantly" among students who use computers several times a week at school.

That's right.  Achievement declined.  Their performance was "sizably and statistically significantly worse."

According to the lead researcher, substituting computer use for other types of teaching "actually harms the student."  Frequent home use also precipitated a scholastic decline.  It turns out that achievement gains formerly attributed to home computers appear instead to be products of the other advantages commonly found in households that can afford computers.  The computers themselves more often "distract students from learning."

These conclusions aren't particularly welcome news for technology patrons like Maine, which is currently spending 37 million dollars to hand out laptop computers to every twelve and thirteen-year-old in the state.  They are glad tidings, though, for those who recognize that computers have a legitimate place in education, but that their legitimate place is a lot less prominent and a lot later down the grade levels than technology boosters have been preaching.

Finally, there is even a hint of good news when it comes to middle schools, the nexus of everything that's progressive, student centered, whole, cutting edge, and wrong with education reform.  Innovators initially touted middle schools as the enlightened venue for addressing "the unique needs of adolescents," a successor to bygone K-8 schools and the allegedly repressive "factory model" junior high I attended.  Middle school advocates replaced those formats with an ill-conceived amalgam of content-light curriculum, self esteem, and lax discipline that quickly infected other grade levels.

Now according to the Boston Globe, Boston schools are "moving away from the traditional middle school and toward K-8 schools," which other districts from New Orleans to Philadelphia have likewise turned to as a remedy for "discipline, attendance, and achievement problems."  Proponents anticipate that more consistency with "rules and expectations" will allow "more time to focus on academics."  Both sound like good ideas.

I'm not sure how I feel about K-8 groupings, but it's definitely amusing that middle schools barely thirty years old are now the tradition that's about to be replaced by my grandmother's cutting-edge grammar school.  Beyond the irony, it also gives you an inside look at education reform's illusionist definition of "innovation."  And it reveals how wasteful and destructive our addiction to the endless cycle of education fashions and bandwagons has been.

That's why each of these small steps is a hopeful sign.  It doesn't take the New Year to return to common sense.  But it's as good a time as any to head in that direction.

©2005, Peter Berger
Poor Elijah (Peter Berger) teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer email addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  While the IP agrees in general with Poor Elijah's comments, he does have a few points of disagreement.  It is not at all clear to the IP that the heavy emphasis on memorization that characterized elementary mathematics teaching in the past really helped students to understand mathematics.  Algorithms for multiplication and long division, for example were learned by rote.  Students usually were not taught the logic underlying those algorithms; and, as a result, math seemed like a dose of bad medicine.  While the IP would agree that many of the so-called "reform" programs ignore too much the use of direct instruction in the basics, their emphasis on problem solving is to be lauded.  For it is in formulating the solution to problems that students learn the basics of mathematical abstraction, and that is where the real power of mathematics lies.

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