Old, but hardly outdated

The Education Beat

Advice: Abraham Flexner was responsible for major reforms in Maryland public schools early in this century, and his astute assessment of teaching remains relevant today.

November 03, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

"OUR POSITION regarding the teachers of Maryland may then be briefly summarized: The profession is without standards, without even the possibility of standards."

The statement of a modern-day critic of teacher education in the Free State? No, the statement 83 years ago was from the man most responsible for the form and function of Maryland public schools early in this century.

No one has nominated Abraham Flexner for Maryland educator of the century. But if it hadn't been for Flexner's swift but solid kick in the pants in 1916, Maryland schools might still be in the Dark Ages.

"Of all the reports we've had in the century," said Robert Y. Dubel, retired Baltimore County superintendent and Maryland school historian, "Flexner's was the most influential because of its lasting impact."

Consider the reforms that resulted from Flexner's report, "Public Education in Maryland," which he co-wrote with Frank P. Bachman.

Teacher certification was required.

School attendance was made mandatory for students ages 7 to 16.

The state school board, on which the governor sat, was reorganized to separate it from State House influence, and politics was largely removed from the selection of state and county superintendents. (Flexner had written that Maryland schools were "affected with the vicissitudes of partisan politics," Dubel's favorite line from the report.)

Teachers earned job protection, and Maryland turned its attention to improving the training of teachers, only a few of whom had college credentials.

Flexner was a New Yorker who was already famous by 1914, the year the Maryland General Assembly ordered an investigation. Four years earlier, he had written a report that led to the overhaul of American medical education.

He also was a well-known critic of teacher training. He had complained of education schools' unwarranted devotion to technique and of their removal of important knowledge from the curriculum. Sound familiar?

Flexner's report concentrated on the 23 school systems outside Baltimore. (The city then had its own education laws and operated separately from the state "system.") He found the state's public schools in shambles, with too many unprepared teachers working in substandard buildings, about 40 percent of which were one-room rural schools.

Published in 1916 by the New York City school board, the Maryland report included 25 photographs, many of them of tumbledown "colored" schools and outhouses.

But it's the 1999 reverberation of Flexner's 1916 observations that makes the hair stand on the back of the neck. When I called Baltimore civic leader and state school board President Walter Sondheim (himself the chairman of an influential latter-day study commission) to read passages of the report, Sondheim laughed and asked, "Are you sure that wasn't written this year?"

Here's Flexner on teacher qualifications: "About 10 percent of the elementary teachers of Maryland -- not more -- may be called well-trained; not quite one-third could on a stretch be called fairly well-trained; at least one-third are practically untrained. How could [the teaching body] possibly function as a unit in carrying out a well-conceived educational policy, even if there were one?"

Ouch! Here's Flexner on testing: "It would be unfair to brand all the teaching in Maryland as poor, simply because general conditions make for poor teaching. It ought to be possible to prove teaching good or bad by objective tests; and indeed a promising movement in this direction is well under way. Aside, however, from other obstacles, the technique of testing is perhaps hardly as yet well enough established to warrant a statewide application."

Flexner on reading: "Little or nothing is done in the reading lesson to arouse the imagination; reading is rarely used to cultivate facility in oral expression. Lacking, then, an adequate motive, reading in the lower grades is apt to degenerate into mere mumbling, and in the upper grades to drop out almost altogether. Only here and there does one find a teacher who realizes the possibilities of the subject."

Without realizing it, Flexner was an early proponent of Reading by 9.

More worthy candidates for educator of century

Two new nominations for Maryland educator of the century:

Robert O. C. Worcester, director of Maryland Businesses for Responsive Government, nominates Harry B. Marcoplos, retired head of the worldwide Calvert home-schooling program, and G. Wilson Shaffer, the late Johns Hopkins psychologist, athletic director and dean.

Shaffer, who died in 1992, was an eminent scholar, but he's also known for rejecting an invitation in 1948 for Hopkins' football team to play in the 1949 Tangerine Bowl. Hopkins was one of a handful of schools -- Notre Dame University was another -- that deplored the commercialism of collegiate sports in the 1940s, when Shaffer was athletic director.

That was B. L. -- before lacrosse.

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