The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Learn the fundamentals of the game and stick to them.  Band-aid remedies never last."...  ...Jack Nicklaus.

Commentary of the Day - January 12, 2009: Predicting the Past.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter  Berger).

Given that a share of General Motors is selling for less than a cup of Starbucks coffee, it's likely our new President will be busy putting chickens in pots and Americans in jobs.  That's good news for public education.  The last thing American schools need is another educator-in-chief with enough time on his hands to foist misguided education policy on the nation.  Unfortunately, experts and policymakers can do more than enough damage armed with rhetoric alone.  They're already turning back the education philosophy clock to the 1970s, those golden years when self-esteem, the whole child, and our current state of academic bankruptcy were born.

We were almost headed in the right direction for about five minutes.  No Child Left Behind, with all its faults -- and its faults are legion -- properly refocused schools on academic content and fundamental skills like reading. Unfortunately, NCLB promptly plunged off the testing deep end, taking its credibility with it.  Now, right on schedule, here comes the education pendulum, hurtling toward the other policy extreme.

Like Rudy Giuliani and his favorite refrain, "nine-eleven," education reformers exploit the magic words, "twenty-first century," as in "twenty-first century skills," or "twenty-first century global competition," or "twenty-first century bridge I'd like to sell you." Not that there's anything wrong with preparing kids for the twenty-first century.  I stopped using parchment and quill pens in my classroom months ago.  But promoting old bad ideas by garbing them in the new century can't help us, especially when our real problem is that most students haven't mastered the skills that mattered in the last century, and that probably will continue to matter, like reading and writing.

Going back a decade when the dawning new millennium had experts on the edge of their seats, the Business Roundtable circulated a glossy brochure depicting what heightened "worldwide competition" will demand of twenty-first century graduates.  They foresaw a new age when carpenters will "interpret blueprints and diagrams," work with building materials, and estimate costs, as opposed presumably to randomly nailing objects together, which it seems is what the experts think twentieth century carpenters have been doing.  Nurses in the future will apparently for the first time "communicate with patients, families, and doctors," while also developing "flexibility," observations that could only be made by someone who's never met a nurse.  Farmers' breakthrough, innovative skills will include "herd management" and "animal husbandry."  They'll also study something novel called agronomy.

My Boy Scout troop awarded animal husbandry merit badges back in 1962.  Vermont's state agriculture college has been offering agronomy courses since its founding in 1865.

Fast forwarding to the present day, boosters cite a national survey where eighty-eight percent of Americans answered yes when asked if schools should teach "twenty-first century skills."  How else would you expect most people to answer a question like that?  No, I support not preparing our children for the future?

The question isn't whether students need an appropriate education, but what reformers mean by an appropriate education.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has compiled a typical reform vision for the future.  The trouble is it looks an awful lot like the equally visionary past that's plagued schools for the last thirty years.  For starters, they're reviving "interdisciplinary themes one of the pet diversions promoted by 1980s school restructurers.

Back then experts gushed that we needed to focus on teaching students how their knowledge was connected, even as they also preached that schools were too concerned with "content."  Inconveniently, you can't connect what you know if you don't know much.  This is a lesson still lost on today's interdisciplinarians, who continue to rave that the principal task of public education is making "real-world essential connections" between "bodies of knowledge" kids have never been taught.  They propose accomplishing this objective by focusing on "themes" like "global awareness," where students employ "twenty-first skills" to "address global issues" as they learn about and from "individuals representing diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue."

All this sounds very enlightened, and I'm all for being able to work with different kinds of people.  I expect it of my students every day.  But global awareness has too often meant talking about how we feel about other countries without actually knowing anything about them, including where to find them on a map.  You can't teach global awareness if you skip geography.

Boosters tell us the twenty-first century demands a new "learning environment," where students receive "human support" and learn in "relevant, real world 21st century contexts."  As a human who's worked in a school for a while, I recognize the recycled jargon of the "whole child," unstructured, cooperative learning, content-light, 1970s reform regime where teachers "facilitate" and children choose their own academic adventures.  I've seen the nonsense that lurks behind buzzwords like "social" and "interpersonal skills."  I've witnessed the catastrophe when "academic and intellectual skills" are displaced by "attitudinal, experiential, and social-emotional" goals.  It's all code for how we got where we are today.

Reformers also tout "multiple measures of assessment," including projects and student portfolios.  These are the same soft, subjective, discredited connivances that for years have artfully masked the reality that too many students know too little. I doubt that fraction raps and feudalism layer cakes are how they assess students in Beijing.

Twenty-first century fans will tell you I'm a dinosaur.  Of course, these are the same people who lament the fact that public schools today are "too dominated by academic achievement."  They claim their version of education "emphasizes deep understanding rather than shallow knowledge" like those old twentieth century schools.

I believe in understanding.  But you can't get there without slogging through the ancient knowledge reformers have disparaged for years as "mere facts."  I agree there's a "profound gap" between what most kids learn in school and what they need to know, now and in the decades ahead.  But that gap doesn't exist because we're teaching the wrong things, except where our schools have clung to the folly that twenty-first century reformers are resuscitating once more as the cutting edge.  Yes, some things have changed.  Pluto's no longer a planet, and kids will need to know more about using computers than I do.  But most of our students aren't falling short because they lack a deep, new understanding.  They're failing because they're too often disinterested in or unprepared for any understanding.

There's nothing new about teaching kids to "talk and write clearly."  There's nothing uniquely twenty-first century about "creativity," "analysis," "interpretation," or "problem solving."  But you can't solve "meaningful problems," which is how rose-colored reformers prescribe that twelve-year-olds spend class time, if you skip the fundamentals because they're too tedious or too last century.

One ardent reformer urges that we "give our students the education they need for their future, not the education we had in the past."  If most students today were mastering a rigorous twentieth century education, the twenty-first century wouldn't look as bleak as it does.

2009, 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: Poor Elijah raises some good points.  One thing the IP learned playing high school football is that if the team hasn't mastered the fundamentals, then the razzle-dazzle plays seldom work.  The same is true when it comes to interdisciplinary learning.  If a student hasn't mastered the fundamentals and does not have a good grasp of the underlying disciplines, then he or she will never really succeed with interdisciplinary work.  That said, the IP does think that 21st century education requires some different approaches than 20th century education did.  For example, penmanship probably is not as important as computer skills for the 21st century student.  And, interdisciplinary work and team work probably are more important now than they were in the last century.  The problem is that these new skills do not replace the old fundamentals, and folks who propose to substitute these newer areas for the old fundamentals are barking up the wrong tree.  Unfortunately, the 21st century student needs to learn more than 20th century student.  How to fit all of that into a school year that was developed to meet the needs of 19th century America is the real problem.


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