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Published in Print: February 1, 2002, as Constructive Criticism

Constructive Criticism

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Children Can Teach Us About Learning and Assessment,by Elizabeth A. Hebert. (Jossey-Bass, 176 pages, $19.95.) Throughout the 1980s and the early ’90s, every school faculty meeting, it seemed, was abuzz about the need to assess students based on what they could actually do instead of on how well they performed on tests. The solution, many argued back then, was portfolios—collections of writing, math work, science experiments, sketches, and so on that embody genuine accomplishment.

Although many schools still keep portfolios, educators are no longer sanguine about their prospects. The reason, Hebert explains, is that portfolios are far too individualistic and subjective to effectively gauge achievement. But when schools began using the portfolio to evaluate each kid, she argues, they missed out on what is most valuable about the tool: the way it helps a student explore interests and gain insight into learning. Hebert writes from experience. As principal of Crow Island Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois, she, along with her teachers, first began experimenting with portfolios in the mid-’80s. They were deeply influenced by what was then Howard Gardner’s new theory of multiple intelligences, believing that children could use portfolios to demonstrate talents that are frequently overlooked in school.

An early breakthrough, Hebert writes, involved a 4th grade boy named Jeff who was a weak student but an extremely precocious golfer. With the help of his teacher, Jeff put together a “big book” about the sport, which he read to admiring classes of youngsters. As Hebert tells it, the experience jump-started the boy academically, and he began “to transfer some of the focus and energy obviously present in his golf game to the more difficult tasks for him of learning school subjects.”

Had teachers at Crow Island insisted that the material in portfolios meet a certain standard or demonstrate specific skills—the ability, say, to write a paragraph at grade level—Jeff’s big book may have been just another academic disappointment instead of a transformative learning experience. Only after the faculty had lifted “the restriction that portfolios needed to be linked to the limitations of standardized learning,” she writes, could their real promise be realized.

At Hebert’s school, students—not teachers—select items for the portfolios, choosing a wide range of materials, including essays, poems, sketches, and photographs. The portfolios are archived each year, and students are given ample opportunity to pull them out and reflect on what they’ve learned over long stretches of time. “This is words,” a 2nd grader tells Hebert, pointing to a piece of writing he’d placed in his portfolio in 1st grade. “But this,” he adds, referring to a current work, “is a story.” A 5th grader who plans to become a pediatrician when she grows up looks back at her early work and discovers that her interest in babies dates to the 1st grade.

For Hebert, then, the portfolio is a tool that lets youngsters examine the relationship between what they’ve done in the past and what they’re doing now. Its true purpose is to help students consider what they have learned over time and what their work says about who they are. She concludes this wonderful little book with a bit of advice for educators: “The first bold step is allowing the children to take the lead.” These wise words take the reader back, full circle, to why the portfolio emerged in schools in the first place—not to judge children but to provide them with a means to express something important about themselves.

MAKING THE GRADE: Reinventing America’s Schools,by Tony Wagner. (Routledge, 160 pages, $22.95.) Wagner’s 1994 book, How Schools Change, quickly became a classic of the school reform movement with its vivid portrayal of three schools struggling to overcome faculty divisiveness, administrative heavy-handedness, and ineffective pedagogical approaches. Now co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s graduate school of education, Wagner has written a new book that, like the first, argues that schools must change or risk obsolescence. Making the Grade, though, is a much thinner volume, both in length and substance. Lacking the rich storytelling of the earlier work, it is a tract espousing principles long cherished by progressive educators.

The book’s central principle is “constructivism,” the belief that students construct knowledge for themselves and hence require an education rooted in exploration and critical thinking rather than drill and rote learning. But the effectiveness of this pedagogy is not as widely accepted as Wagner would have us believe. Indeed, a number of prominent cognitive psychologists are firmly in E.D. Hirsch’s core-knowledge camp, arguing that students, particularly in the earlier grades, need to master specific skills and content. To Wagner, this approach amounts to little more than kids “memorizing facts.” But as even the most traditional teachers know, mastery involves much more than retaining information.

None of this is to suggest that Wagner doesn’t score some points. His attack of the standards movement, for example, is right on. The most learned scholar, he argues, could not master all of what students are now supposed to know and be able to do. Nevertheless, Wagner goes too far in pitting his enlightened progressivism against what he sees as an obsolete traditionalism. In the end, Making the Grade merits but a C.

RACE EXPERTS: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution,by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. (Norton, 288 pages, $25.95.) While most kids don’t know much about the legacy of school segregation or the civil rights movement, they do know that racism is bad news. This ascendance of sensitivity when it comes to race relations is, according to Syracuse University history professor Lasch-Quinn, the consequence of a societal therapeutic bent that emerged in the 1960s. For years, she writes, blacks and whites would meet in encounter-group situations, often organized by corporations, universities, or school districts. These sessions would follow a similar pattern. Blacks would accuse whites of racism, which whites would initially deny and then shamefully acknowledge. If all went well, the day would conclude with a group hug.

Today, most American schools set aside time for what’s known as “diversity” education. These classes are often led, Lasch-Quinn suggests, by teachers who have attended diversity workshops that incorporate much of the encounter-group method. Victimization, rather than enlightenment, is often the focus. Members of minority groups talk about how much they’ve suffered, and whites emerge feeling good about their ability to empathize. The problem with these kinds of quasi-therapeutic sessions, Lasch-Quinn aptly points out, is they typically become touchy-feely affairs, when what teachers and their students really need is a historical understanding of racial injustice.

Just how often this kind of approach really takes place is hard to say. One suspects that Lasch-Quinn exaggerates. But she is right to argue that the educational emphasis on diversity should teach kids about the policies and attitudes that allow racial injustice to continue—school funding inequities, for example—instead of on wounded feelings.

—David Ruenzel

Vol. 13, Issue 5, Page 37

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