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On the 'Cult of Efficiency' in Schools

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Recent studies stressing the importance of "cultural literacy'' and the mastery of content rather than process do not advance the reform of humanities education, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the education and human-resources program at the RAND Corporation.

Such arguments conform to the widely accepted notion that schooling should be the instrument of economic growth and political stability, she said in a speech to the fellows of the Council for Basic Education's Independent Study in the Humanities program.

But that utilitarian outlook, she argued, reduces knowledge to facts and skills that can be "counted and tested, like so many beans in a jar.''

The following are excerpts from her speech, reprinted in the winter issue of the CBE's Basic Education: Issues, Answers & Facts:

Well we might ask what the point of such a system is. It certainly does not encourage the search for meaning in human affairs. It contradicts the fundamental notion of humane studies. It is, however, good for bean counting.

And this is the most serious and pressing threat to education in the humanities. As education becomes rule-based, it is bureaucratized, and thus inevitably further dehumanized. ...

These efforts are based on a frequently well-intentioned but misguided view of education and of teaching: that teaching is essentially the imparting of information to passive students. ...

The hidden issues are the goals of education. Is education an activity provided, indeed obligated, by the state to acculturate and socialize its citizens? Or is it a means to individual empowerment?

If the former, the state through its political mechanisms should define what knowledge, what content, what view of culture, history, and politics should be taught, and allow no other. If the latter, then the schools should be, as Lawrence A. Cremin puts it, "free to criticize the society that supports them.'' ...

This is a difficult case to make at times when the cult of efficiency seems to demand education for vocational purposes only and when the political system seems to prize accumulation of testable skills and facts over the acquisition of understanding, moral perspective, and capacity to value and evaluate.

In the spring issue of Teachers College Record, Robert P. Taylor and Nancy Cunniff suggest that new applications of computers in education offer powerful alternatives to "textual tyranny'' in schools.

The traditional dependence on printed texts for both teaching and assessment is "limiting and unnecessary,'' the authors write in "Moving Computing and Education Beyond Rhetoric.''

As an example of the usefulness of the new technology, they cite the capacity of computers to generate graphic representations of ideas or problems.

In the following selections, Mr. Taylor and Ms. Cunniff--an associate professor and a doctoral candidate respectively at Teachers College, Columbia University--explore the value of such an application for art and mathematics classes:

Though an art student learns best by being able to recolor 10 versions of the same colored design traversed on the way to completion, the time required to produce these would be enormous, and the cost of photographing or color copying every member of an extensive set of versions would be inconceivable within a school budget.

Although the calculus student might understand the meaning of a function and its first and second derivatives best by seeing, for each of a group of related functions, the three curves corresponding to f, f', and f'' at 20 different value points, the time required for student or teacher to produce the appropriate rendering means it cannot be done, no matter how valuable it might be.

The computer's graphic capability changes this dramatically. ... With software now available and increasingly with that beginning to appear, teachers and students can render all sorts of relevant images at high enough speed to make the analysis of a class of cases or flurry of versions perfectly reasonable as a basis for either class demonstrations or homework assignments.

The accuracy of computer-generated images is well beyond what even the best teacher can do by hand, and the capability to store a developmental sequence of versions or a set of cases is far in excess of the best set of notebooks any teacher or student has traditionally been able to maintain.

There is no precedent for what is now available. It is a resource exclusively spawned by and supported through the computer. It awaits only more thoughtful application.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, endorses the notion of year-round schooling.

In the March issue of Conservative Digest, he enumerates the possible benefits of an extended academic year and addresses what he calls the "perceived disadvantages'' of such a calendar.

Mr. Finn describes the advantages of a 240-day school year for educational equity in the following excerpts from "Part-Time Schools Aren't Good Enough'':

All students--rich and poor, slow learners and gifted--deserve full opportunity to meet the higher standards being set in our schools. But that means giving some youngsters more time and extra help to succeed. Year-round schools can do this, and can thus be a powerful benefit for disadvantaged and minority children. Immigrant youngsters struggling with English might use the additional days to improve their language skills. A longer school year would give students with learning difficulties more time to master subjects.

Average students would benefit too. They could use the extra time to pursue such subjects as driver's education, typing, art, or work-experience programs.

Gifted students might use the additional time to accelerate their academic subjects, maybe even to graduate from high school a year or two earlier. This would give them extra time to pursue a special interest or to earn money for college.

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