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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians.  It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, teach them to think straight, if possible."...  ... Robert M. Hutchins.

Commentary of the Day - July 20, 2005:  School Reform - Left, Middle, and Right.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

The story of modern education reform reads a lot like Tennyson's poem about the Light Brigade.  Pundits to the left of us, pundits to the right of us, pundits in front of us.  Into the valley of dogma rode America's schools.

On the right, critics have justly charged for years that schools have too often sacrificed academic standards, curricular rigor, and sound discipline in the name of self-esteem, student empowerment, and a misguided tolerance for misbehavior.  They blame a parade of bandwagon follies like whole language, content-light history, and fundamentals-free math for students' declining skills and knowledge.  Unfortunately, their valid criticisms culminated in No Child Left Behind, a staggeringly ill-conceived amalgam of unreliable testing, unattainable objectives, and draconian penalties.

Arrayed at the center of the battle line, you'll find contingents like the National Governors Association.  When its members aren't condemning NCLB as an unwarranted, unconstitutional, unfunded mandate, they're proposing to go NCLB's impossible goal one better.  Instead of just demanding that every American student be academically proficient by 2014, the governors want them all to graduate "college ready."  Their blueprint revamps high schools so they offer three levels of instruction, a cutting edge innovation that is basically the way high schools worked until modern reformers started innovating them.

By the far the biggest reform battalions have mounted their assault from the progressive left.  After proclaiming that there's more to education than learning facts and sitting in rows, they proceeded to transform schools so nobody was learning any facts or sitting down anywhere at all.  Teachers became facilitators, while student-centered classes, watered down curricula, and social skills became the order of the school day.  Their calamitous reforms took root in the 1970s, and public education's been reforming ever since as a result.  Along the way progressives have stuck to their guns and insisted on fixing things by renaming and repeating their mistakes.

One reform "coach," Professor James Beane, issued a telltale "challenge" at the April gathering of the New England League of Middle Schools.  His keynote address sheds light not only on the flawed approach that has plagued the middle years, but also on the persisting, ruinous legacy of progressive reform in elementary and high schools.

The professor clearly identifies what makes curricula "good and right and just."  He reports that "educators and politicians" want standards based on "traditional academic subject areas."  Believe it or not, he doesn't think that's a good idea.  He wants a "kind" curriculum that's more concerned about "joy," "excitement", "equity," and "standards for democratic living."  He's beside himself that schools "have come to be focused almost exclusively on discipline-based academic content and skills."

First, he's considerably and lamentably overestimating just how focused schools presently are.  Second, I'm all for joy, equity, and kindness, but it isn't hard to understand how a school that doesn't focus on academic content and skills is likely to produce graduates that aren't especially good at academic content and skills.  Infect a generation of schools with this pernicious philosophy, and you wind up where we find ourselves today.  As for "democratic values," the best way for schools to help preserve the nation is to equip the next generation of citizens with the knowledge and skills they'll need to inherit the republic.

The professor's objections extend beyond "subject-centered" curricula.  He's also against "direct instruction," "drill," "worksheets," and what he terms "hard-nosed testing."

Admittedly, learning has to involve more than drill and worksheets, but without them you graduate kids who don't know how to multiply.  Practice might not by itself make perfect, but you'll never get close without it.

No, testing isn't the only way to determine what students have learned.  That's why kids should write essays, exchange ideas, and perform experiments.  But reformers have wasted too many years pretending there's no such thing as a right answer.  Hard-nosed or not, three times four isn't seven, the moon isn't made of cheese, and Tom Cruise wasn't our first President.  It sounds swell to talk about "higher order" thinking skills, but before you can think, you need to know enough to have something to think about.

As for direct instruction, I recognize the value of letting students explore their way through a problem on their own.  But I'm not a facilitator.  I'm a teacher.  My classroom isn't student directed.  I direct it.  That's because I know more than my students do, and hopefully I know how to explain it.  The day they can learn just fine while I take a back seat is the day you don't have to pay me anymore.

The professor wants to banish all traces of "boredom and irrelevance."  Unfortunately, we can't afford to learn and do only those things we find entertaining.  Everything that needs to be known isn't fascinating, and contrary to the professor's assertion, doing necessary things even when they aren't fun does "build character."

"Relevance" is another keynote throwback to the 1970s.  Unfortunately, everything seems irrelevant if you don't know enough to know what it relates to.  It's absurd to let kids decide what things are important enough that they need to learn them.  The "rhythms and patterns of their young minds" deserve consideration, but neither six-year-olds nor high school seniors are equipped to reinvent the liberal arts and sciences.

The professor rightly condemns programmed curricula that dictate in daily detail precisely how and when specifically scripted lessons must be taught.  That kind of micromanaging is counterproductive and silly.  Ironically, it's his platoon's choose-your-own-adventure approach to instruction and curriculum that's helped incite extremists on the other side to institute those narrow, limiting constraints.  And it's those narrow limits that in turn propel progressives even further into their sector of education outer space.

Doesn't anybody live on middle ground anymore?

Of course, all three pundit armies do agree about something.  They all insist that all students will succeed.

Somehow, though, their certainty doesn't comfort me.

©2005 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 has identified the major problem with school reform ideas; namely, that much of the discussion has been driven by voices from the fringes -- the true believers on the left and right who believe that they have all the answers to the problems faced by our schools.  Few of the school reform initiatives are driven from the experiences of those who work in the trenches.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.