THE MYTH OF SCIENTIFIC LITERACY, by Morris Shamos. (Rutgers University Press, $27.95.)
LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen. (The New Press, $24.95.)
Since the apocalyptic A Nation At Risk warned in 1983 of an impending educational meltdown, an increasing number of educational analysts have identified a lack of rigorous standards as the scourge of American schooling--a scourge that has led to the proliferation of easy courses in which students are more placated than educated.
The remedy, they argue, is the establishment of uncompromising state and/or national standards that all students must strive to meet. Yet, as these four books cumulatively suggest, establishing far-reaching standards in a democracy is no easy matter, even on a local level, and those who make the attempt are likely to be accused of elitism, immorality, or simple wrong-headedness.
A case in point is the controversy surrounding the Littleton, Colo., schools, related in Robert Rothman's Measuring Up. The Littleton schools had been successful by all traditional measures--their students scored well on standardized tests--but teachers and administrators wanted new assessments that would enable them to see what their students could actually do. This meant that Littleton students would go far beyond pencil-and-paper exams; they'd put together portfolios and conduct wide-ranging projects, instead.
Most teachers and students liked the new standards and assessments, which were implemented in 1991. But critics saw them as a debasement of traditional standards, a lapse into subjectivity. They feared that in the absence of objective criteria anything a student attempted would soon be deemed "good enough.''
The critics eventually prevailed in Littleton, but Rothman, citing the adoption of similar performance-based assessments by a number of states, clearly believes they are the wave of the future. Flawed as these assessments may be--problems of high cost and low reliability still must be worked out--Rothman nevertheless argues that they are essential to the development of a more meaningful curriculum.
Dianne Ravitch, a Brookings fellow and senior scholar at New York University, is also an advocate of performance assessment. However, in her book National Standards in American Education, she is much less sanguine than Rothman about its prospects for widespread implementation. While educational leaders attack traditional drill-and-practice learning and decontextualized memorization, Ravitch cites poll findings demonstrating that when "the public endorses high standards, it means a return to traditional education.'' Even those Americans who see the advantages of a thinking-oriented, problem-solving curriculum still want the emphasis to be upon the basics. What's more, Ravitch notes, they want to see how their children stack up against others on objective measures--not performance assessments.
All of this may leave reform-minded teachers in a bind: They can squelch their better instincts and please tradition-bound parents, or they can risk alienating this critical constituency. One thing is clear: Changing the ways students are taught and assessed demands that educators win over the hearts and minds of a very entrenched public.
None of this is particularly encouraging, and darkening matters even further are two books that look at standards in specific disciplines. In The Myth of Scientific Literacy, physics professor Morris Shamos draws upon his vast experience as a once-hopeful curriculum developer to argue that standards entailing an understanding of important scientific concepts are beyond the reach of all but a small core of youngsters. Science today is simply too complex, Shamos asserts, demanding a level of mathematical competency that few students have the ability or the will to acquire. Furthermore, scientific knowledge is counter-intuitive, building upon principles that seem to contradict ordinary experience.
For those of us who suffered through high school science, Shamos' assertion that scientific terms and facts are quickly forgotten will hardly come as a surprise. More surprising are his findings demonstrating that increasingly popular "hands-on'' science activities also have few lasting benefits. Shamos concludes by suggesting that about the most we can impart to students is an appreciation for the scientific enterprise--an admittedly "soft'' standard.
Equally discouraging is Lies My Teacher Told Me, in which University of Vermont professor James Loewen amasses evidence demonstrating that the majority of American history textbooks, which determine the nature of most classroom instruction in the subject, shamelessly dissemble for myth-making purposes. Essentially, they present history as a succession of great presidential administrations, ignoring or distorting the roles of class, race, and religion in American life. History teachers hoping to set a standard of critical inquiry, Loewen asserts, are best off discarding their text.
Yet Loewen's book brings us back full circle to the need for some kind of state or national standards. Without them, textbook publishers, lobbyists, and zealots will set standards that have more to do with marketing savvy and political expediency than with educational value. Of course, establishing standards in a country that has long insisted upon local control of the schools raises the specter of governmental intrusion, which is why any such national effort--such as President Clinton's Goals 2000 initiative--is likely to remain voluntary. Rothman suggests that standards be set at the state level, with voluntary national standards serving as "touchstones.'' Whether such touchstones will have enough authority to induce change is unclear.
Still, despite the many obstacles, the creation of some form of state or national standards seems a worthwhile goal. As Ravitch puts it, students "cannot learn what they have not studied.'' As obvious as this seems, it is a point worth making in a nation where many tracked and disenfranchised students never learn to analyze a text, tackle higher-order mathematics, or present a point of view. Simply declaring a new set of standards cannot guarantee that our most disadvantaged students will accomplish these things, but it might ensure that they are exposed to a rigorous curriculum that, up to now, has been reserved for only a few.