To reform schools, reform us

Anne Wescott Dodd

January 31, 1992|By Anne Wescott Dodd

THE DECLINE of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores indicates that the first wave of educational reform has failed. Simplistic bureaucratic solutions to a complex problem -- increased requirements and higher standards -- forced educators and students to comply, but not to care.

And recent efforts to change the way schools are organized may also fail because too many people believe that they are restructuring when all they are really doing is rearranging the status quo.

Our schools will improve only when we realize that although we must revive traditional values, we also need to think about teaching and learning in a new way. Relationships count more than requirements, education more than graduation and reality more than rhetoric. Real learning is a complex, idiosyncratic and personally meaningful process which does not happen only in schools. Because the most powerful teachers our children have today are the adults they see in their daily lives and on TV, we need to reform ourselves as well as our schools.

When teachers limit teaching to telling, testing and endless drill, students do not invest much energy in learning. Few students view learning as intrinsically valuable or personally empowering. Forced to play a passive role, most do just enough to get by -- to play sports, pass, graduate or just to keep parents and teachers off their backs.

College-bound students play the school game to get good grades, not to gain knowledge. Other students, especially those from culturally different or economically disadvantaged families, refuse to play the game at all. Teachers, rather than changing their methods, rationalize their inability to motivate students by blaming them for not trying or their families for not supporting education.

Some people think we can fix what's wrong by turning back the clock, but in the good old days both the world and the schools were different. Handicapped children were at home or in institutions, not in school. People without many skills or much education were working in factories and on farms, not hanging out on the streets. And many adults who dropped out to go to work were self-educated: They read books, magazines and newspapers. They not only encouraged their children to do well in school; they showed by their example that learning was important.

Many blame the lower verbal test scores on TV, and rightly so. The College Board itself has pointed out that the best preparation for verbal tests is wide reading over a long period of time. Yet our children do not read. While children used to re-read a favorite story until the pages were worn, children today re-run the video-taped version of "Robin Hood" or "Cinderella" until the tape breaks. They sit mesmerized in front of a flickering screen watching daytime soaps and sit-coms or action shows at night.

Children, who once relieved boredom or stress by reading about other times and places, learned through literature not only how to solve problems and empathize with others, but they also internalized the meanings of many words and the infinite number of ways these words can be combined to express thoughts and ideas. Today's kids also seek to escape, but their addiction to video games or drugs does not translate into higher verbal test scores.

TV, however, does more than affect test scores. We have given it more power than schools to teach our children and shape our society. TV convinces us that we are not good enough, attractive enough or smart enough to do anything through our own wit or will. We can't be cured, happy or satisfied unless we purchase a pill, product or service. TV shows us that even the most difficult problem can be solved in less than an hour, that violence and selfishness are to be expected if not approved and that we can become wealthy at the expense of others or by winning the lottery.

TV has victimized us all by obliterating traditional values. It rarely teaches us or our children that integrity and ideas, commitment and hard work, patience and persistence, love and loyalty have any value. The "good life" TV sells and we have bought is the antithesis of the life we say we want for our children.

We do nothing to reform this powerful teacher of our children. Instead we ask our schools to do an impossible task and then expect that they can do it without our help.

School reform is clearly needed because schools must become places where all children are taught by caring teachers who make them feel valued and know how to actively engage them in learning. The old methods will not do. Because teachers must learn new ways of teaching and relating to students, classroom change, not school change or test scores, should be the focus of educational reform.

But school reform is not enough unless we also reform ourselves. We must as individuals and as a society begin to practice what we preach. What we do speaks louder than anything we say. Because TV is so pervasive and powerful, we must take action to get both advertising and programming to reflect the values we want our children to adopt. And we must not forget the power we have as role models. When children see people they love and respect reading books and continuing to learn formally in classes and workshops or informally in our homes and workplaces, they, too, will choose to be lifelong learners.

Any society that shows by its word and deeds that literacy and learning are loved need not worry about its test scores or its future.

Anne Wescott Dodd is an educator in Brunswick, Maine.

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