Give school reforms an F Back off, bureaucrats, and let teachers pick instruction methods

September 06, 1998|By Gary Levin

In late August, The Sun ran two articles about the poor basic reading and writing skills of osme public school graduates in Maryland.

The first, published on August 25, stated that one in four Maryland high school graduates who take college preparatory classes can't do freshman-level math when they enroll at state campuses, and one in eight can't read or write adequately.

The next day, another article reported that the state Board of Education "decided to move forward with plans to test teachers on how well they teach reading." Earlier in the summer, the board had decided to implement required reading courses for all teachers (four for elementary and two for secondary).

As we begin a new school year, I find that both articles have rekindled a sense of frustration that I, with many of my teaching colleagues, have felt for many years about the public education establishment and its refusal to value the knowledge and expertise of its classroom teachers.

Though the decline in students' basic skills has been occurring for about three decades, it has accelerated during the 1990s. The general disintegration of many social institutions has been named as one of the main culprits for the problem. However, I believe that the decline has been significantly influenced by a negative '90s trend in education: the move to invalidate tried-and-true traditional teaching techniques and the imposition of unproven instructional methods on our public schools by state and local administrators.

Why is the state going to spend taxpayer money to put all teachers through reading courses? One does not have to look far to find the blind allegiance that those in charge gave to the "whole language" approach to reading instruction. For about a decade, this method has been driving down student reading scores nationwide. Management at the state and local levels, seduced by the results of nonscientific studies, refused to listen to the legitimate concerns of parents and experienced classroom teachers until things got so bad that they could no longer ignore the quagmire they had created.

These same leaders are taking credit for the successful return to phonics. To complete the recasting of history, they have decided to require all teachers to take courses in the "right" method, classes that are not needed, except perhaps for those elementary instructors who might never have been trained in phonics.

Perhaps I am being too hard on state and local administrators. When student scores on standardized tests drop, parents get angry, so education leaders attempt to respond. Unfortunately, they tend to adopt a revolutionary approach (open-space schools) or method (whole language) to show the public that educational gurus are forever vigilant, finding the "right" way to educate children.

The impulsive embrace of the MSPAP program by state administrators is typical. What is its appeal? Instead of testing individual students' ability levels, it evaluates entire schools. Elementary- and middle-school youngsters work mostly in cooperative groups on difficult real-life problems because, the reasoning goes, that is how we should function in real life. Sounds great. But, such a testing procedure doesn't account for a common problem in basic group dynamics: In a group of four or five students of different ability levels, the most able take over and solve the problem, while the less able gladly watch.

What have we learned since the start of this expensive statewide program? First, schools in economically and socially depressed areas don't do well, while those in affluent suburban areas show excellent results. Nothing new here. Once the state finds out which schools are scoring lowest, pressure can be put on those schools to improve. I am not against applying such pressure, but do we need the MSPAP to tell us what individualized tests told us?

And what about the kids who did little of the work? Do we know their levels of individual performance? To supply an answer, I present an anecdote from a friend who reviewed her child's math homework and concluded that her daughter did not know basic multiplication tables. My friend went to her child's teacher and asked about it. The teacher said, on the contrary, the little girl knew her tables; the teacher knew this because the girl's MSPAP-style group had done exceptionally well on its multiplication assignments. The teacher could not say how much the student had contributed to the group's success. My friend had to insist that the instructor test her daughter to find out what Mom knew.

This is only one example of a disturbing trend. Many students are not getting the knowledge and skills they need, leading to calls to dismantle public education. I don't believe radical solutions such as vouchers or home teaching are necessary if educational policy- makers would stop jumping on theoretical bandwagons.

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