In The Press
Last April's report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education is examined in the latest issues of two national magazines, and in both treatments it is found wanting.
While the commission's report helped to put education back on the national agenda, its remedies for the schools are inadequate, says George Leonard in the April issue of Esquire, in an article titled "The Great School Reform Hoax."
"One searches the recommendations in vain for any sign of what it claims to deliver: that is, fundamental reform," he writes.
"Even if everything proposed in this report, and in most of the others as well, were put into effect, ... teachers would still be standing or sitting in front of some 20 to 35 mostly passive students of the same age and giving out the same information at the same time to all the students, regardless of their individual abilities, cultural background, or learning styles," he contends.
Mr. Leonard, an author and education writer, thinks school should be restructured--he provides a model in a portrait of an imaginary school in which the traditional grouping of students in grades by age is abandoned in favor of individualized instruction emphasizing use of computers and promotion of students according to their own pace.
The pediatrician Benjamin Spock, writing in the April 1984 issue of The Atlantic, says the report "has little to do with excellence. Its recommendations--more homework, and longer school days and longer school years--could better be labeled 'A Plea for More Coercion in the Schools.' Yet a chief reason why so many schools achieve so little education of value is that they already rely too much on coercion."
Dr. Spock--the author of Baby and Child Care, for decades the nation's best-known guide for new parents--discusses two "extremes" in attitudes about raising and educating children. The first--he calls it the "coercive" attitude--rests on the assumption that children are by nature irresponsible and lazy, and will only do their schoolwork if forced to within a rigid pattern of penalties and rewards.
The second--"progressive" or "democratic" education--starts with the assumption that children who are "brought up with love, trust, and clear but kind leadership ... are eager to explore, learn, master skills, and take on responsibility. ..."
Dr. Spock favors the second approach. After discussing specific educational practices that annoy him ("I believe that grading is an abomination"), he endorses the idea of a wide-ranging curriculum, strong in both humanities and science, taught in the style of "learning by doing (rather than by being told and memorizing)."
The federal role in education "has emerged from the swamps of neglect to become a major issue in the 1984 elections," notes Martin Morse Wooster in an article chronicling the unsuccessful movement to dismantle the U.S. Education Department. Writing in the February 1984 issue of Inquiry, Mr. Wooster says Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell is largely responsible for the department's survival.
"Terrel Bell [has], with the help of his friends working for what former Representative Edith Green called the 'educational/industrial complex,' not only saved his agency, but expanded its powers," he says.
The Secretary's greatest triumph, Mr. Wooster says, was his "careful, and ultimately successful" effort to derail attempts to dismantle the department. Mr. Bell's plan to transform the agency into a foundation, he says, quoting a syndicated columnist, would have done little more than "change the brass plate on the department's front door."
Mr. Wooster also credits Mr. Bell's National Commission on Excellence in Education with having performed "a masterful operation, grafting the xenophobia of the right onto traditional left-wing desires for massive education budgets."
"No longer was it merely unfashionable to question the need for a Department of Education," he says."It was ... unpatriotic. It was attacking our national defense."
But by assuming that the department--and its budget--are now sacrosanct, Mr. Wooster continues, conservatives and liberals alike ignore several key points about the reasons behind the decline in American education.
First, he says, the nation does not need to increase education spending to beat foreign competitors because America already leads the world in terms of the percentage of resources allocated to schooling. And second, both the left and the right have forgotten that the ideally educated citizen is one who constantly questions authority.
"Our children will not be saved by computer-literacy classes or pleas to preserve the 'national security,"' he concludes. "Children can only save themselves, with the aid of parents and teachers who know that their role should be to open students' minds rather than smother them in cant, dogma, and federal largesse."
Organized education in the U.S. and elsewhere is governed by three metaphors that influence what most teachers do in school, argues the home-schooling advocate John Holt in an article appearing in the April 1 issue of The Progressive.
One metaphor, Mr. Holt writes, "presents education as an assembly line in a bottling plant or canning factory." Students, the empty vessels, are pushed down a conveyor belt, while the squirting machines, the teachers, pour "various amounts of different substances--reading, spelling, math, history, science--into the containers." Meanwhile, management sits upstairs deciding when the containers should be put on the belt and what and how much of the substances should be poured. "The assumption is that whatever is squirted at the container will go into the container, and once in will stay in," an assumption that runs contrary to experience, Mr. Holt says.
The second metaphor "depicts students in school as laboratory rats in a cage, being trained to do some kind of trick" that is given positive reinforcement (smiles, gold stars) or negative reinforcement (scolding, sarcasm, contempt). But the rewards that schools provide, Mr. Holt says, are "necessarily few and deliberately rationed." The negative reinforcements far exceed the positive, and students, like sensible rats, "give up on the pointless tasks assigned to them" and soon "begin to think about the really interesting problem of how to demolish the cage."
The third metaphor Mr. Holt presents describes the school as a mental hospital or treatment institution. Children who do not learn are labeled as "learning disabled" as early as age 5 or 6.
In Mr. Holt's view, "The schools assume that children are not interested in learning and are not much good at it, that they cannot learn unless shown how, and that the way to make them learn is to divide up the prescribed material into a sequence of tiny tasks to be mastered one at a time, each with its appropriate morsel and shock." When schools and teachers fail with this method, they "assume there is something wrong with the children--something they must try to diagnose and treat."
These assumptions are wrong, Mr. Holt says, because "children are passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of the world around them." They like to "observe, wonder, find, or make and then test the answers to questions they ask themselves."
When children are "not prevented from doing these things, they continue to do them and to get better and better at [them]," Mr. Holt says.
Parents afflicted with "tuition shock" can find relief through financial aid, according to an article in the March issue of Money. "Don't assume that you are too well-off to qualify. And don't let pride keep you from applying," the article advises parents.
Statistics from the American Council on Education indicate that about half of all undergraduate students receive financial aid, the article states. At public colleges and universities, the average amount of financial aid received is about $2,000; at private institutions students receive about $4,000, according to Money.
"So generous and widespread is aid, in fact, that it can give your youngster a chance at colleges that may have otherwise seemed too expensive to you. Indeed, the costliest schools are often the best equipped to provide support."
In a related article, entitled "Wait Not, Want Not," parents are advised to lay "long-term" plans by taking the current cost of a target college, picking a rate at which the tuition and other expenses will increase, and computing the projected costs for their children.