Sunday, November 23, 2008

Education Reform, NCLB, the Religious Right, and Other (sometimes) Scary Stuff

One reads a great deal concerning education reform nowadays. It might almost seem as if this were some new trend in education. Indeed, it is not. I have been an educator for over thirty years. My field of expertise is reading. After teaching in a regular elementary classroom for a couple of years, I completed a master's degree in reading and learning disabilities. Except for a five year break to attend seminary and serve as a full time minister, I have been a teacher of elementary reading. In 1995, I completed a doctorate in reading/educational psychology. At that point, I began teaching reading methods in a college setting.


Over my thirty years of involvement in education, I have seen many, many reforms. Some have come from the right, others from the left. In the field of reading, when I began my teaching, basal reading programs were in, and we attempted to teach every skill known to humanity. Next, whole language gained quite a following. Next, an oldie, but a popular one, reappeared: phonics. Now we are emphasizing a balanced approached-I think that is likely a step in the right direction.


We can easily extend this discussion beyond the boundaries of reading. When I started attending elementary school in 1960, math was a "drill and kill" activity. The expectation was learning of the basic math facts and procedures whether you understood them or not. It is rather easy to see if you learned under this method. Just attempt to explain "conceptually" why 1/2 divided by 4 is 1/8, and why to arrive at that one must "invert and multiply." I am surprised at how many cannot explain the multiplication and division of fractions at the conceptual level.


When I was about half way through my elementary school education, the so-called "new math" hit the educational world. I remember well spending most of my fourth-grade year (when it started in Kansas City) marking that 5 + 2 > 1 + 3. I liked this math. I was not too good at the old stuff, and I found this a breeze.


People become very opinionated about educational reform. I have seen many a battle over the issue of whole language vs. phonics. It seems like everyone gets involves. Classroom teachers form strong opinions. Politicians form strong opinions and include reform as part their political platform. They know education is a hot button issue with voters. One group that I watch with great diligence is the religious right. It seems as if they have turned such aspects of educational reform as phonics-based reading instruction and support for the No Child Left Behind Act into something resembling religious dogma. It seems to make little sense, turning reading methods into a religious or quasi-religions crusade, but that is what the leaders of the religious right seem committed to support (James Dobson, for example).


I reiterate: educational reform is not new. With that notion disposed of, I would like to suggest three principles of any lasting and useful educational reform. These are characteristics of reform supported over the long haul by much research and dictated by commonsense. I have arrived at these through observation of reform cycles that I have seen throughout my years of work as an educator.


First, education reform cannot be test-driven. Currently, the watchword is accountability. From this perspective, teachers are cagey, lazy actors who need to have their feet held to the fire to make them perform. I have observed thousands of teachers over the years, worked with thousands of pre-service teachers, and supervised well over a hundred student teachers. I must admit, one does rarely encounter a lazy, careless teacher, but it is unusual. The attempt to control teachers and student achievement by means of standardized tests is a misguided approach.


A recent study by the Educational Testing Service, makers of the SAT and nationally used teacher certification exams, revealed that there is much in student performance that cannot be controlled by schools. In fact, ETS discovered four variables: absenteeism, the percent of children living in single parent families, the amount of television kids watch, and how much preschoolers are read to daily by caregivers (especially parents) were very accurate predictors of reading test results used for No Child Left Behind reporting in eighth-grade. It seems that learning involves many variables (the four factors accounted for over two-thirds of the differences in aggregated state testing results). Home factors are things that schools and teachers cannot control.


Instead of testing and testing yet more, a better use of funding would be the improvement of conditions for parents and families. Funding Head Start results in a measurable increase in IQ scores for disadvantaged children. Why not continue to fund enriched environments for Head Start children when they leave the program and help retain ground already gained? Why not fund more "parents as first teachers" programs to go into the homes and teach parents how to help get their preschoolers ready for school? Why not spend more money eradicating poverty-especially since that seems to be the real issue?


Second, an effective reform program would insist on scope and sequence. By scope, I refer to the content taught, by sequence, I refer to when content is to be mastered. This was one of the downfalls of the whole language movement. It taught reading without any real coordination of materials, curriculum, or expectations for mastery in terms of when expected benchmarks should be met. Much more coordination of teaching needs to take place and curriculum guides and agreed upon content are essential.


At the same time, I am not implying that methodology needs to be completely standardized. There needs to be some general guidelines on how to go about doing things. Still, teaching is as much art as science. To address methodology too much turns teaching into a mechanical act, and we know that the relationship, or blending, of teacher and learner are all important concepts. What we need are standards and benchmarks without denying teachers the authority to make hundreds and thousands of critical decisions each day. What we need are flexible standards and flexible benchmarks.


Lastly, we need a new way of doing things. After all of the years of reform, after all the years of researching what works, an amazing trend is notable. Educational critic and researcher, John Goodlad, notes that the most common activity one observes in today's elementary schools is seatwork (i.e. worksheets, quiet work from textbooks, etc). The most common activity noted in high schools is lectures. Both of these approaches are notoriously ineffective. Just consider lectures, for example, how often do you "zone out" during sermons? And, if you do attend, what keeps you "plugged in?"


We have lost the wisdom shared with us by John Dewey so many years ago and supported by study after study. Children learn best by doing. Kids need to make a classroom democracy, not just study government in their civics textbook. They need to come up with ways they can recycle and begin a neighborhood recycling program, not just read about pollution. Education needs to become real. The real is better than the contrived. As psychologist Jerome Bruner has pointed out, doing is better than seeing, and seeing is better than just reading or hearing about something. Probably the best approach combines all three methods.


Reforms come and go. However, on these three principles, we can arrive at a reform that will stand the test of time. All of us want our schools to improve. Isn't it time to skip the political rhetoric of the right (including the religious right) and the left and do what is best for kids? Isn't it about time?

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