Poor Elijah took the standard how-to-teach classes in college, but he spent the better part of the next two decades building houses and unloading trucks. When he finally landed in a classroom, it didn’t take him long to notice the cutting-edge bold reforms debuting in his 1990s teacher in-service workshops sounded nearly identical to the cutting-edge bold reforms his professors had debuted in his 1970s education classes.
The problem was schools had supposedly abandoned those bright ideas about non-grading, permissive discipline and “student-centered” education after they’d been condemned in A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that blamed 1970s school reforms for the “rising tide of mediocrity” that had engulfed public schools and sunk student achievement.
To test his theory that rhetoric was repeating itself, Poor Elijah devised a quiz. All you had to do was decide whether each reform quote came from the 1970s or 1990s. If you can remember that far back, give it a shot.
1. “Clear goals were established that committed the school to enhancing self‑esteem.” What’s that? You guessed 1996? Sorry, no. Try 1978.
2. “The program is ungraded, individualized and self‑paced…and may be pursued in a variety of ways including guided independent study, group projects, educational trips, or apprenticeships in the community.” Hint: Try 1975.
3. “The pilot program … will reflect an emphasis on skills, not letter grades. The class will be project‑oriented. Students will go into the larger community for field work.” Nice try, but this one’s 1993.
4. “Failing grades were eliminated.” No, sorry — 1978 again. Yes, I know, you just read it somewhere.
5. “In schools of the future, students never fail.” Wrong again — 1997. This one sounds familiar, too, doesn’t it?
There’s a reason. Welcome to 2019 and yet another “innovative approach to education” that guarantees “dynamic classes” and community-based “learning opportunities” that deliver “relevant” knowledge, “maximize student success” and “better prepare the next generation for career and life.”
Would someone please find me a school that trumpets its lethargic, sluggish classes dispensing irrelevant knowledge. Find me a school that deliberately sets out to limit students’ success so they’re less prepared for work and life.
I’m sure 1970s reformers, the ones who taught my education classes, had good intentions, too. That didn’t alter the reality that their efforts and methods delivered “mediocre educational performance” and “squandered” a decade-worth of earlier “gains in student achievement.”
One of the hallmarks of that era’s reforms was the “open classroom” concept, which promised to break down the educational barriers between students, teachers and subjects by literally removing the physical barriers between classrooms. Maybe you experienced one of those newly constructed, 1970s state-of-the-art schools without classroom walls. Remember how students and teachers in those schools promptly discovered they couldn’t hear themselves think? Remember how students’ minds and bodies wandered more than ever? Remember how schools quietly ran out and bought truckloads of room dividers and filing cabinets to take the place of the walls the experts had insisted we’d be better off without?
Now consider a high school principal whose “innovative approach” in 2019 features “removing walls between classrooms” and resuscitated plans to “combine subjects and teachers.” In a move that should sound familiar, teachers won’t be teachers anymore. Instead, they’ll be “facilitators” and “negotiators of learning.” Classrooms will become student-centered gatherings that “increase student voice,” where “students own their learning” and “explore deeper the particular unit that interests them the most.”
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t believe in basking in the spotlight or ruling like a petty despot. I encourage my students to think out loud, and I often remind them to talk to each other instead of just to me. But if I have the most knowledge to offer and skill to impart, which I should, this will rightly place me, the teacher, at the center of teaching and learning.
Under the new regime, academic content disciplines will disappear, again, to be replaced, again, by interdisciplinary “cross-curricular courses,” organized around “thematic educational units,” another non-innovation. Instead of specific courses in social studies and English, for example, students will be treated to a combined course in “humanities.” Based on interdisciplinary education’s track record, this should ensure more students graduate without mastering the fundamental content of either social studies or English.
Math and science will also be combined to promote “the transfer of skills and knowledge between the two disciplines.” Classes will address “four thematic units — what is life, what is death, how is the world going to end,” and “how you can save the world.” Through these novel math and science themes, students are somehow expected to explore the “real-world application of math” as they determine “the math skills that are relevant.” Advocates also “hope to inspire more interest and excitement” about math and science, apparently without getting bogged down in a systematic, comprehensive study of actual math and science.
Risk spoke clearly about student choice and content-light classes, describing the resulting secondary school curricula as “homogenized, diluted, and diffused,” a “cafeteria-style curriculum” where “appetizers and dessert” are “mistaken for main courses.” The report concluded that “this curricular smorgasbord, combined with extensive student choice, explains a great deal about where we find ourselves today.”
The schedule gets a “redesign,” too. A daily 40-minute “flex period” is set aside for “multiple purposes, including school meetings, advisory programs and unstructured time for students to meet with teachers.” In addition, cutting-edge 85-minute “free blocks,” formerly known as study halls, allow students to “complete work they need to do.” Free blocks also enable students to “be where they need to be,” whatever that means.
Like all reform manifestos, this one is generously seasoned with jargon, from “paradigm shift” and “critical thinking” to “electronic portfolios” and “competency-based grading.” Teacher workshops are creatively rechristened “educational cafés.”
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong, or right, with change. Some schools and teachers do need to “shift” the way they “operate.” But something is wrong when old by default means obsolete. Something is wrong when the gauge of educational truth and instructional virtue becomes “students no longer sit in rows.”
Something is wrong when past proven follies are peddled as if they were new without regard for that past and their forgotten failures.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly.