School reform kills skills

Education: Bureaucratic tinkering has left many pupils unprepared for work awaiting them in the upper grades and beyond, a Maryland teacher charges.

October 24, 1999|By Phil Greenfield

TO HEAR the state tell it, the "crisis of instruction" afflicting our public schools is abating, as teachers across Maryland are posting their "daily outcomes," forsaking fact-based instruction and mesmerizing their students with "critical thinking" activities; all the while brimming with excitement over the new high school assessments about to come online.

Yeah, sure. As a 20-year veteran of the trenches, I am forced to deal in hard realities, not flights of bureaucratic fancy. And the reality is that the Maryland reform package is going to have a devil of a time delivering on its extravagant promises, because it is part of the same wretched policy-making that has been strewing banana peels in my path throughout my two decades on the job.

Maryland's education reformers have discounted and demeaned basic academic skills from MSPAP's inception to the present, and that has become our most debilitating weakness.

The state Department of Education has ordained that factual knowledge and erudition of expression are irrelevant in the modern educational setting. Tragically, literary instruction has become nothing more than information management, as kids learn to write by stuffing relevant details into the correct circle on a diagram. Style and craftsmanship have gone the way of Hula Hoops, 8-tracks and orderly classrooms. The teaching of grammar is all but criminalized, with predictably disastrous results for writing proficiency, reading comprehension and foreign-language mastery. (How can you learn someone else's grammar when you have no clue about your own?)

Nowhere has this contempt for basic skills been expressed more clearly than in the Maryland Functional Tests of Reading, Writing, Math and Citizenship -- dumbed-down affairs keyed to nothing of intellectual consequence. (A sixth-grade reading level has bought a high school diploma since the inception of the program. How's that for "high expectations"?)

MSPAP and its associated reforms constitute a program at war with itself. By playing down rigorous basic-skill mastery in formative elementary and middle school years, the state has allowed far too many children to enter high school unprepared for serious academic work. As knowledge-based high school assessments loom in the near future, thousands upon thousands of Maryland students are incapable of reading these newfangled tests, let alone filling in the correct answers.

A second Achilles' heel has been the state's steadfast refusal to hold young people responsible for their academic performance. The reform-package superstructure has been dominated by enablers who are wonderful at holding institutions (schools, the teaching profession) accountable for student performance but wouldn't dream of demanding anything from the little darlings themselves.

As a result, youngsters across the state have been handed a blank check to fail by this dreadful misreading of human nature. Small wonder that eighth-grade MSPAP scores improved not a whit during the 1990s, and that 75 percent of Maryland's middle schoolers are being judged incompetent readers.

By the time these pupils enter high school, an ethos of indolence has been set in stone -- a mind-set countenanced by the state's insistence that everyone be held accountable for student failure, except the students. Vague remonstrances that mandatory exit assessments will count someday (in, what, 2005?) have had no effect at all on the lazy, recalcitrant souls I run across every day. None.

Social promotion

Another unmitigated disaster has been the ed-hocracy's failure to end the scourge of social promotion before the damage it caused became irreversible. Like smokers reeling from lung cancer who give up their lethal addiction only after they've sealed their own death warrants, the bureaucrats have belatedly come to their senses after years of gutting effective instruction by allowing their "Everybody with a pulse passes" policy to destroy the efficacy of individual accountability in the academic realm. Let others applaud Baltimore City's Oct. 11 call for a rethinking of the question. I can only shake my head in disgust that the egalitarianism-run-amok has been tolerated for so long. We gave in to the self-esteem sissies, and they ruined everything.

MSPAP's "We're only giving Maryland's businesses what they want" mantra has proven both deceptive and academically dysfunctional. Our corporate moguls said they wanted "problem solvers," not "fact spouters," to fill their high-paying positions, so that became the rationale for gutting the knowledge-based curriculum and replacing it with problem-solving activities.

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