What the Want Ads Can Tell Us About the Educational Wars
The polarization of the educational reform debate has been noted by many commentators, some of whom have written in this newspaper. While I have found these discussions interesting and often provocative, the heart of the problem was recently brought home to me not on the Commentary pages, but in pages of The Marketplace. Even though I am not job searching, I read these help-wanted advertisements faithfully, as I suspect most Education Week readers do. We are curious about which schools and programs are looking for what kinds of people, mindful of colleagues whom we might want to alert about an opportunity, and even interested in the possibility that something might entice us. I read Education Week want ads in the same way I read the wedding announcements in The New York Times. I am curious and interested in the "story" behind the announcement or ad: Why did they get married? Where did they go to school? Will the marriage last? What kind of person is this district looking for? Who had the job before? And so forth.
But on May 6, 1998, my weekly foray into The Marketplace told me an even more important "story." Right there on the second page of the classifieds was the key to the fundamental problem in American education. One ad proclaimed, "Multiple Intelligence Director Sought," and right below it was a request for a "Director, Core Knowledge Charter School." The former request comes from a "publicly funded, community school ... grades K-8 [which] seeks an ... individual who can guide the implantation of [Howard] Gardner's multiple intelligence theory into classroom curriculum." The latter comes from a "charter school [grades K-8], founded on the principles of E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum."
Here are two K-8 public schools only a couple of hundred miles apart with diametrically opposed educational philosophies. Mr. Gardner and Mr. Hirsch have long debated and disagreed about the nature of education, children, and learning and have fundamentally different views about what should happen in the classroom.
These ads for two charter schools raise concerns about the whole charter school movement. Community groups are able to create new schools based on any educational philosophy they choose and get taxpayers to support it. What happens to accountability and standards?
Furthermore, I could not imagine these two ads appearing in the Singapore version of Education Week or the Japan, South Korea, or Czech Republic version. These of course are countries which outscored the United States by far on the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Singapore was first, and the others were in the top six on both math and science. They are also countries with centralized curricula, decisionmaking, and teacher training. These countries do not debate Howard Gardner vs. E.D. Hirsch or phonetics vs. whole language. They have answered these questions, mostly by adopting rigorous standards and by formulating a unified curriculum and approach, and they have achieved remarkable results. They never even allowed the debate to begin, what's more to become so polarized and politicized.
In the United States, by contrast, the extremes of phonetics vs. whole language, math basics vs. analytic problem-solving, ability groupings vs. random assignments, and direct instruction vs. cooperative education are hotly disputed. What makes this dichotomization so entrenched and closed to compromise is the political agenda behind these positions.
The educational reform debate has revitalized political polarization. Just when it seemed you could no longer tell a conservative from a liberal, we now have a whole new terrain upon which to sharpen these distinctions. As previous liberals began endorsing conservative economic positions and previous conservatives started adopting liberal positions on individual liberties and rights, for example, it seemed that political ideology was going to matter little. People were becoming issue-by-issue ideologues, with no overarching, general, or central philosophy. But the education wars have returned us to the great ideological conflicts of the 1960s and '70s.
Phonetics, math basics, ability grouping, and direct instruction have been embraced by conservatives as important reform efforts which counter what they see as the leftward swing that has overtaken education during the past 30 years. Even when conservatives do not attach themselves to these positions, they are accused by liberals of being the driving force behind the push for these and other reforms (vouchers, privatization, and choice, to name just a few). Likewise, liberals have adopted whole language, math problem-solving, heterogeneous groupings, and cooperative learning as necessary change ingredients to overcome the failures of American education. Again, the liberals are accused by conservatives of being the ideological change agents behind these and other reform efforts (portfolio assessment and bilingual education, to name just a few) even when they have not embraced them.
Anumber of commentators have addressed these issues and suggested that part of the difficulty is the lack of agreement on the purpose of education in America. The conservatives and liberals have a vastly different understanding of what public school education should accomplish in our society. This dichotomy has been summarized as conservatives seeing school as primarily an academic experience that prepares students for jobs. On the other hand, liberals have seen it more broadly including social, emotional, and creative experiences that prepare students not only for jobs but for being citizens of a multicultural, democratic, and egalitarian society. This lack of a consensus is compounded by the national tradition of, and widely accepted belief in, local control of education. With no national agenda, strong local control, and a myriad of educational reform possibilities, local school boards can be controlled by the dominant local political belief system.
The answer is not simple. We will never, nor should we try to, end local control. But national curricular standards and assessment would be an important goal. If the states could work together more cooperatively, perhaps through the National Governors' Association, to develop comparable standards, we would go a long way toward meaningful educational reform.
These standards should not be determined by the winner of the politicized debates, but rather should be based on serious, empirical research conducted by impartial academic researchers. With these standards in place, we won't have a Multiple Intelligence school competing with a Core Knowledge school and both scoring low on the Fourth International Mathematics and Science Study. Rather, we will have apolitical schools teaching students a rigorous curriculum based on national standards and assessments and the possibility of greatly improved scores on the Fourth Study.
Stephen L. Gessner is the director of programs at the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 40