The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet."...  ...Aristotle.

Commentary of the Day - July 14, 2008: Educator's Digest - Volume 24.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Classrooms may shut down in June, but the education world never rests.  Across the nation administrators, experts, and freelance consultants are culling through their bright ideas, devising agendas and mission statements for the coming year, and writing applications for the grants that will hopefully fund those next new things.  Here’s a summer sampler of what they have on their minds so you know what to expect in September.

No Child Left Behind, the nation's federal education law, may have taken a backseat to the rocketing price of gasoline in the public mind, but policymakers haven't lost their focus.  In an effort to rationalize the billions of dollars and classroom hours devoured by NCLB, the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, recently released a double dose of "good news" that "student achievement is increasing, and the [racial] achievement gap is narrowing."  The evidence underlying this optimistic conclusion was spelled out in Education Week's definitive headline "Since NCLB Law, Test Scores on Rise."

Well, not exactly.  Looking behind the headline, the scores in question are actually the percentages of each state's students that have satisfied their state's own definition of "proficient" on their state's own test.  With reviews of modern assessment typically running somewhere between skeptical and scathing, these often subjectively-derived rubric ratings dressed up as data have been further compromised by NCLB's looming 2014 deadline, by which date all of each state's students must be performing at the "proficient" level, or else.  Since human beings of any age will never all be academically proficient by any date, state definitions of proficiency have eased as the deadline has loomed closer.

Further dimming the rosy first impression, while student scores appear to have risen somewhat on state tests, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "nation’s report card," haven’t shown the same gains.  In 2007 the National Center for Education Statistics found not only "absolutely huge" variations among states' standards, but also that the "gaps" between NAEP data and states' own testing results "have grown to unprecedented levels" since NCLB became law.  Many states claiming more widespread "proficiency" have simply "set less stringent standards for meeting that threshold," leading to grave doubts as to whether gains on state tests are "real or illusory."  Even if the improved scores were in any way meaningful, the report concludes that it's "impossible" from their results to determine whether NCLB has "produced gains or decreases in student learning."

NCLB’s excesses aside, the present decade has seen schools beginning to veer back from the touchy-feely, content-light "reforms" that have governed public education since the 1970s.  Perhaps students are learning more now because more schools are rightfully refocusing on core academics.

Don't start celebrating yet.  The experts who helped bring you the past thirty years of education decline are attempting to capitalize on the understandable dissatisfaction with NCLB and to resuscitate their old bankrupt reforms as if they weren't responsible for the scholastic disaster NCLB was commissioned to repair.  One resuscitator calls for "new forms of school and schooling."  He faults "traditional" schools because they "cannot ensure that all students will learn."  In short, he rejects nearly everything about NCLB except its impossible objective.

Dismissing high school as "obsolete," despite the battalions of students who haven't mastered the language skills, mathematics, and content knowledge being taught there, he advocates "changing the paradigm of schooling from one of teaching to one of learning" by "capitalizing on the interests and considerable skills of young people."  He sees a central role for individual study, projects, cooperative "teams," and independent "research."  Rather than teaching, "teachers' work can be upgraded to planning, advising, evaluating."

In other words, he wants students to direct their own education while people like me "facilitate."  He wants to do away with the "course and class model" where teachers who know something explain it to children who don't.  He maintains that if students pursue their interests, they'll somehow wind up educated.  He regards "the mastery of subject-matter content" as passť.  He wants children to "think critically and creatively" without giving them anything to think about.

He calls all this "innovation."  I call it a recitation of every folly that’s plagued and damned public schools for a generation. 

Finally, here are a couple of snapshots to illustrate two divergent points of view about why we have schools and how we need to fix them.  In Washington this spring, Common Core, a nonpartisan group of "scholars and educators," expressed their concern about many students' "disturbing lack of critical content knowledge" and called for a "stronger liberal arts and science curriculum."  They cited NCLB's mandated focus on reading and math for "draining the content from our curriculum," contending that history, science, the social sciences, foreign languages, and the arts are all "essential to providing a complete education."  This first photo, then, shows a classroom full of students reading, listening to their teacher, and discussing what they're trying to learn.

In contrast, the second photo captures a student "traveling off-trail in a dense forest on cross-country skis."  He and his fellow "classmates" are engaged in "experiential education," specifically a "semester-long trek up and down the state of Vermont on skis and by canoe." Learning "how to maneuver through a tangle of hemlock trees" is only "one of the many new skills" these students acquire during this half year of high school.  They also learn to make jerky and sausage, dehydrate fruit, sew mittens, and use a compass.  This purportedly shows them "how academics are connected to their lives."

I have no quarrel with children learning woodland lore, survival skills, and self-reliance.  That's why I joined the Boy Scouts when I was a kid, and why I live in Vermont.  I simply don't regard those skills, as worthwhile as they may be, as the reason we have public schools.

I recognize which education snapshot makes the better photo.  When it comes to picturesque, my classroom can't compare with the Green Mountains.  When it comes to public education, we need to decide which matters more -- how our well our students photograph, or how much they learn.

© 2008, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: Poor Elijah's common sense view of education "reforms" is not likely to win him many friends in the education establishment, but parents can take heart in the knowledge that there are many teachers like him who haven't given up on knowledge-based education.

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