Sunday, April 25, 2010

Left Back -- commentary

Left Back, A Century of Battles Over School Reform, by Diane Ravitch, will never be a blockbuster, but it should be. This book should be required reading for all those involved in or interested in our schools. Ravitch is an historian of education, has served in the Department of Education and has edited papers for the Brookings Institute on educational policy.

I was surprised to learn, maybe not so surprised, that the current trends we think will cure our educational woes, such as project based learning or problem solving based learning, are simply being recycled, having been tried before. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It became obvious that policy makers and parents have different agenda. Most parents believe the function of a school is to teach the kids how to read, write, and cipher at least competently enough to gain meaningful employment and operate a household. Those who influenced educational policy throughout the last century had a whole different agenda in mind and often still do.

They didn’t like rote learning, memorization, skill and drill. They argued that students don’t need to learn stuff they can look up. Instead they needed to learn higher order thinking skills, analysis, and problem solving skills. They forgot, or never figured out, that these skills require facts as a starting point. Facts are the building blocks of thought.

Ravitch says, “What was sacrificed over the decades in which the schools were treated as vehicles for job training, social planning, political reform, social sorting, personality adjustment, and social efficiency was a clear definition of what schools can realistically and appropriately accomplish for children and for society.”

Most of what a public school can realistically and appropriately accomplish for children can and should be accomplished by grade nine or ten. The parents of people my age had a better education by the eighth grade, if reading, writing, and math are the goals, than the above average high school graduate of today.

The failed theories of those who led the reform movements of the last century left us with barely literate students applying for jobs with empty high school diplomas. A couple of examples come to mind. Early in my teaching career, I had a straight “A,” 11th grade student, brag that she had never read a book in high school. I had an “A “ student in the 10th grade, when asked to identify the verb in the sentence, respond with “blue.” These examples are not atypical.

We will continue to recycle these worn out reforms until we are ready to face the real problem with our schools. Early in the book, Ravitch inadvertently touches on the real problem, though she never says as much, I assume because she doesn’t see it as the problem, though most secondary classroom teachers know what it is.
Here are some quotes that hint at the problem: “The schools would work their democratic magic by disseminating knowledge to all who sought it.”

“The report urged that young people should go as far in school as their talents and interests would take them.”

“…every subject … should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it…”

Note the phrases “all who sought it,” “as far as their interests would take them,” and “so long as he pursues it.” Each of these assumes a desire on the part of the student. For all of the reforms attempted in the last century, none of them solved, or even dealt seriously with the student who doesn’t want to be there.

Compulsory education until age 18 is a sop to organized labor to keep cheap labor off the market and a way of placating well meaning child advocates who think they are being humane by giving every human a childhood. The problem is many 16, 17, and 18-year-olds are no longer children and don’t really appreciate a childhood which forces them into a classroom six and seven hours a day. I speak from experience, having been one of those students.

It would improve modern education significantly if we allowed students to leave the system when they want to. We need a constructive alternative for those students. The student who doesn’t want to be in school dilutes the process for those who do. He consumes instructional time by being disruptive, and he doesn’t listen well and so needs things explained over and over again. We get all worked up over the high school dropout rate and we solve it by corrupting our system. Surely educators who think we need to teach kids higher order thinking skills, can apply the same to finding a better solution to this problem than forced learning, which can’t be forced at all. I can think of several.

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