Reforming the city's schools Change: The never ending war between traditionalists and progressives over curriculum and teaching methods threatens successful reform in Baltimore schools.

November 09, 1997|By KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

The new Baltimore City school board and interim chief executive officer have passed their first tests with high marks. The Transition Plan for systemwide reform adopted in August reflects energy, openness and a commanding vision that places top priority on early reading and math improvement.

But now comes the hard part: translating change at the top into reform in the classroom. Historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban, in their proclaimed book "Tinkering Towards Utopia: A Century of School Reform," concluded, "Change where it counts the most - in the daily interactions of teachers and students - is the hardest to achieve and the most important." This is particularly true in the struggle to lift the academic performance of inner-city children.

Many elements - among them teacher recruitment and training, class size, discipline and safety, and parental involvement - go into quality instruction. But none is more essential than the curriculum that sets what is to be taught and how to teach it.

There is growing awareness that curriculum must drive education reform. Witness the national debate over standards that would define rigorous curriculum content. In urban districts such as Baltimore, the staggering mobility of inner-city students adds urgency to the task of prescribing what is usually called a "common core curriculum."

Inner-city elementary students transfer from one school to another an average of two to three times a year. Five transfers a year are not unusual. Yet schools go their own pedagogical ways. The trend toward school-based management in the past decade has reinforced the long-standing practice of teacher independence in the classroom. Different content is taught in different sequence using diverse teaching methods and materials. Even teachers of the same grade within a school often differ markedly in their approaches.

To combat this chaos, the state law creating the new city regime requires a "citywide curriculum framework" as a key part of the master plan. But that mandate is easier said than done and could wreck the board's honeymoon with staff and parents.

The history of American public schools in the 20th century is littered with casualties of the never-ending war between traditionalists and progressives over curriculum and content and teaching methods. The fight pervades every aspect of instruction, but it is most evident in controversies over the "old" vs. the "new" math, and phonics vs. whole language in reading instruction (as The Sun documented in its "Reading by 9" series).

Moreover, in these ideological times, both sides charge the other with selling out educational policy to partisan politics.

Progressive academics such as David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, in their book "The Manufactured Crisis," attribute the resurgent interest in back-to-basics, rote methods and standardized testing to the conservative ascendancy. Higher-order skills are opposed, they say, by conservatives who fear students will grow up to challenge "economic and political centers of power." A teacher in Maryland thought her district's switch from whole language to phonics came about because "conservatives want to see a student body that is passive. Phonics is a very controlling methodology."

Prominent conservative educators such as Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn blame liberal unions, college professors and social culture for the demise, as they see it, of high standards and demanding literate content. In his new book "The Schools We Need," noted author E.D. Hirsch rails at the fuzzy-headed and failed policies of the liberal-progressive education establishment.

In turn, Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading progressive, blasts away at Hirsch in her recent book "The Right to Learn" for caricaturing the "equity pedagogy" that includes learner-centered, critical-thinking instruction and vast teacher latitude in the classroom.

And so the war rages. Fortunately, the reality on the educational front lines is much less confrontational and polarized than the public debate. Researchers and practitioners report that most teachers teach in hybrid ways - for example, blending phonics and whole language. Moreover, there is wide agreement that traditional teacher-directed instruction works best for younger students, especially those from disadvantaged families, with progressive learner-centered approaches gradually increasing over the years.

The fusion is likely to continue. The traditional Hatfields are gaining ground on the core content and phonics, but Maryland and other states are deploying the problem-solving and critical-thinking tests advanced by the progressive McCoys.

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