A few weeks back, Vice President Mike Pence announced that a total of 5.1 million Americans had been tested for COVID-19. You may not have noticed as his report was somewhat overshadowed by the president’s prescriptive musings the previous day about ingesting disinfectants and bathing COVID-19 patients’ internal organs in a “powerful light.”
Anyway, at Mr. Pence’s next Rose Garden appearance, a reporter pointed out that the vice president had promised five million tests “next week” back in early March. What had happened, the reporter inquired, that the testing total had just made it to five million in the last week of April?
The vice president replied that the question “represents a misunderstanding” shared by the reporter and “a lot of people in the public.” Apparently, at the White House, there’s a “difference between having a test versus the ability to actually process the test.” When the vice president crowed in March about having millions of tests for the pandemic virus that was already killing Americans, he didn’t mean usable tests that could produce actual timely results.
In fact, those “old model” lab tests were so slow, “we’d still be waiting on those tests to be done.”
It would have been nice if he’d mentioned that in March, by which I mean it would have been nice if he hadn’t concealed it.
I offer all this as a sample of the cynical duplicity and outright deceit that currently inhabit the White House. But our “misunderstanding” also offers a broader reminder that — even with good intentions — vague, cosmetic language, especially when it’s voiced authoritatively, can put a deceptively pretty face on hazard and folly.
Education reformers specialize in good intentions and vague, cosmetic, authoritative-sounding language. Unfortunately, their ardor and zeal typically exceed their experience and knowledge.
I’m not talking about the species of knowledge you find in teacher textbooks and professional journals. I mean the knowledge you gain by reflecting on day-in, day-out, year-after-year classroom experience.
You can’t reflect on experience if you don’t have any.
You also can’t write about it, which explains why most expert-authored education books and articles, and expert-led workshops and initiatives, are of such dubious value to classroom teachers. We wind up taking directions from experts who’ve never done what we do, and who, at best, breeze in and out of our classes with dog-and-pony shows while we maintain discipline and pick up the academic and behavior pieces after they leave.
Reformers, by definition, see themselves as agents of change. Naturally, they regard whatever new way they’re advocating, as a change for the better. Regrettably, education reform often doesn’t improve things. It’s frequently not even new.
Change rushes in when events are in flux. Now that schools are closed, voices on all sides are offering plans for what should happen next. Budget hawks have their sights trained on teacher salaries, class size and consolidation. School choice advocates are advancing their demands for vouchers and privatization. Meanwhile, reformers hope to seize the moment to reinstall their 50-year-old menu of failed innovations.
Consider the proposals offered by two education professors who bill themselves as middle school specialists and teacher educators. Predictably, despite their lack of classroom experience, they’ve published multiple articles and books about classroom teaching, they train future classroom teachers on their college campuses and they direct inservice training programs for current classroom teachers.
How can you be a teacher educator without first being a teacher? How would that work for doctor educators?
The professors regard our COVID-19 school turmoil as an opportunity to free students from the “status quo” and “invent the schools we really need.” The transformed schools they envision would “reduce inequality,” “promote prosperous life outcomes,” and foster “economic and social stability.”
It’s hard to argue against equality, prosperity and stability. It’s also reasonable to expect, as the professors assert, that communities will be more likely to support and fund schools that address their “needs,” especially in tough economic times.
The problem is, the professors equate what communities need with the specific teaching methods, curriculum and philosophy the professors advocate. And here’s where the rhetorical lipstick gets applied to post-1970 education reform’s serial bankruptcies.
It’s easy to take potshots at “traditional teaching practices,” “grades,” “standardized tests” and “completing assignments.” Letter grades have limitations, standardized test results have too often proven embarrassingly meaningless and some instructional practices — and practitioners — are less productive than others.
What’s wrong, though, with “completing assignments?”
The professors contend that students need to engage in “personal learning” they “care about” and find “personally meaningful,” that “has personal meaning,” matches their “interests and passions,” “integrates students’ passions,” is “aligned” with their “personal passions,” and that “they are passionate about.”
Get the picture?
Enthusiasm is wonderful, but much of what we need to do and learn in life, regardless of our age or occupation, has little to do with our passions or what we find meaningful at that moment. The personal learning plans the professors endorse are more a reflection of our age’s narcissism than they are a practical, comprehensive guide to equipping students with sufficient skills and knowledge so they can contribute to the economy, participate as informed citizens, and inherit the republic.
In the name of “personalization,” the professors urge liberating students from an “adult system” that limits them to a “menu” of “teacher-directed curriculum” choices. But it’s been nearly 40 years since “A Nation at Risk” warned us about the academic danger of “extensive student choice.”
Content-light “thematic units” and projects at the middle and high school level, from planting a “community garden” to designing “a new dog park,” have likewise been repeatedly discredited over the years as one reason so many students know so little about so many things.
It sounds fine to appeal to “the common good” and “core community needs,” but do most communities send their children to school to “roll out a composting system” for the school district? Is “harvest(ing) vegetables” your idea of “an essential curriculum?”
“Passion,” “conviction” and “real world impact” are compelling words. We want our students to be “engaged” and have a “voice.”
But before they can play their part in the world, they need to learn it doesn’t revolve around them.
So do we.
We also need to see past beguiling words.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly.