Commentary

Confronting The Abrasive Questioning of the Radical Reformers

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As reading scores and scholarship drifted downward in the last few decades, we heard throughout the nation a rising chorus of demands that we "return to the basics." This was a slogan that parents, teachers, and boards of education could subscribe to in good conscience. Educators were only too ready to embrace the concept and brush aside their doubt as to the exact meaning of the term or the efficacy of the program.

Public disenchantment with our schools had never been as insistent, and one did not have to look far to meet it in the press. In an article in the New York Times Magazine, "The Decline of Quality," Barbara Tuchman singled out the poor quality of education as evidence of the erosion of values in our society. "Education for the majority" she wrote, "has slipped to a level undemanding of effort, lacking respect for its own values, and actually teaching very little." Tuchman's assessment, multiplied by hundreds of similar evaluations, had to be answered.

Amid growing public clamor, school boards were under pressure to do something immediately, and they seized on the minimum-competency concept as a strategy to defuse criticism. The idea was implemented, in New York State among others, through a program that would enforce accountability for achieving improvement in the basic cognitive skills. This included minimum-competency tests at a number of elementary and secondary grades and the mandate that failure to attain certain critical scores would result in the denial of promotion and the withholding of diplomas. An even more drastic measure was proposed by the state's Commissioner of Education--to withdraw accreditation from any school in which a fixed percentage of students failed to reach prescribed levels of achievement.

Yet doubts as to the efficacy of this program have remained. Principals and teachers are troubled. They are conscious of the failure of remedial programs carried out in the past under Title I and similar grants by the Ford Foundation. They know that concentration on improving basic skills in clinics, with programmed instructional materials and drills in multiple-choice strategies, is not effective and, in fact, diverts attention from the broader goals of schooling. As one teacher put it, "We are forced to spend much valuable time getting our pupils geared up for the tests. Naturally, they do a little better, but I'm sure they lose ground in other areas of the curriculum."

A recent study by Richard C. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, pinpoints the weakness of most remedial programs. Their failure stems from the fact that the methods currently used "merely drill children to get the words right without getting the message of what they read.... We've fragmented the school reading program, and much of it takes place in isolation from real reading."

In essence, Anderson's study confirms the common-sense judgment that reading is not a self-contained skill, like tying a shoelace or playing tennis. Cognitive skills are inseparable from subject matter and content, once the elementary phonics code is learned. The teaching of reading should therefore be transferred from the hothouse atmosphere of the special classroom to classrooms in the curricular areas where skills are related to content. What is lacking in the minimum-competency program is the recognition of interest and purpose as the strongest motivating forces in the learning process.

These considerations suggest that the "back to basics" movement, as codified in state directives and applied in the schools, has too narrow a focus. A return to basics must include a re-examination of all aspects of schooling--a redefinition of goals, curricula, and teaching methods. Guiding principles are certainly as "basic" as cognitive skills. It is necessary at all times to re-evaluate fundamental ideas and especially so at this critical juncture. Our present challenge is to define what lies "beyond the basics."

Specifically, we must come to grips with the abrasive questioning of every aspect of education--curricula, teaching methods, student accountability--that was launched by the radical reformists of the past two decades, among them Charles E. Silberman, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Neil Postman, and Christopher Jencks. To them, every element of traditional schooling was suspect--compulsory attendance, directive teaching, testing and grading, and structured courses of study. They caught the ear of the public, school boards, administrators, and parent groups, and gained influence at the highest levels of school administration as well as at the grassroots level of everyday classroom practice. The long-range effect of their unsettling ideas contributed in obvious and subtle ways to the decline of scholarship.

Their clear objective was to derogate the teacher's role and to undermine established classroom procedures. This is seen, for example, in Silberman's caricature of the "dullard who sits or stands in front of the room, feeding inert ideas to passive students, as if there were so many empty vessels to be filled." It is seen, also, in John Holt's caustic pronouncement: "I think that, in more cases than not, it is an act of instruction that impedes learning. I do not believe that testing and grading perform any useful function in learning; in fact, they corrupt and impede the learning process." Christopher Jencks adds to the chorus of derogation by belittling the standard curriculum: "In the absence of empirical evidence," he asserts derisively, "some educators simply assert the intrinsic value of knowing geography, reading Dickens, or mastering Newtonian physics."

To refute such patently false statements, we must be clearsighted in pointing out their fallacies. For example, let's look closely at one of the ideas in John Holt's credo. Our schools, he says, would be greatly improved if we "could abolish the fixed curriculum in its present form." Holt would replace traditional subjects with a program largely based on study of contemporary social problems. "The most important questions and problems of our times," he writes, "are not in the curriculum, not even in the hot-shot universities, let alone the schools. Check any university catalogue and see how many courses you can find in such questions as Peace, Poverty, Race, Environmental Pollution, and the like." Holt does not make clear whether there would be room in his proposed curriculum for other areas of scholarship.

Whatever may be said in favor of Holt's point of view, it should be obvious that his proposals are shallow and impractical. They exemplify the fallacy of assuming that a valid opinion can be formed without a background of factual and theoretical knowledge. Let us consider, for example, a course in a "hot-shot university" or a high school on environmental pollution such as Holt would favor. The course, whether a seminar or lecture course, would necessarily deal with industrial wastes polluting our rivers, exhaust emissions from automobiles and factory smokestacks polluting our atmosphere, and oil spills and atomic wastes destroying the ecology of our lands and waters. Students would be eager to listen, to do research, and to find solutions.

Somewhere in the course, however, they will run into a serious difficulty, namely, the need to have a considerable body of knowledge in chemistry, physics, and biology. How otherwise will they be able to understand what permafrost or radiation poisoning or biodegradable effluents are? They will discover to their dismay that the informed thinking that is necessary to deal with emerging problems requires more than a superficial acquaintance with the topic under discussion. Their legitimate anxiety about the destruction of our ecology will be no more rationally founded than were the fears of medieval peasants of the demons and malign spirits that caused the Black Death.

In our search for definition of basic goals and priorities, we might find support in Thomas H. Huxley's stand in a controversy, somewhat similar to our own today, that concerned British educators in the 1870's. The issue then was whether secondary schooling should be made available to all children--the children of the spinners and weavers and tillers of the soil as well as to the children of the upper classes who were able to obtain a broad cultural education at prestigious private schools. Huxley, always in the fore-front of liberal thought in science, politics, and education, insisted that a well-rounded education was the birthright of all youth, regardless of economic or social status. A healthy society, he believed, required in its citizens more than rudimentary skills. "Make people learn to read and write and cipher, say a great many people, and the advice is sensible as far as it goes," said Huxley. "But it is very much like making a child practice the use of the knife, fork, and spoon, without giving it a particle of meat."

A return to basics must undertake to provide the nourishing meat as well as the tools of education.

Vol. 01, Issue 20, Page 24

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