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Descending Into the Pits of Rote Learning

By Diane Ravitch — November 04, 2008 3 min read

Dear Deborah,

You and I have advocated for different approaches over the years, though they are not contradictory. I have stressed the importance of content in the curriculum (history, literature, the arts, science, foreign languages, etc.), and you have stressed the importance of “habits of mind” (“How do we know what we know? What causes what? How might things have been different? Who cares?”). A dynamite school would do both, I expect. Why would anyone teach history or literature or science without asking the questions you raise? Yet the puzzle that neither of us has figured out is why most schools do neither.

As we descend ever deeper into the pits of the lowest-level rote learning, a condition affecting many, many schools, it has become apparent that a high-quality curriculum and critical perspectives are luxuries that few schools can afford. In the age of NCLB, it seems that the only goal worth pursuing is higher test scores, no matter how they are obtained.

I recently received the following email from one of our regular readers. This person teaches in an urban public elementary school and must remain anonymous for obvious reasons. I have the teacher’s permission to quote the email. The author refers to an “obsession with data” in the school system where he/she works. Then follows this description of a professional development session at a local university:

“It was actually a sales pitch for a program called ‘Achieve 3000,’ which many schools are currently using. It is a proprietary, secure, Internet-based program designed to move students from one Lexile reading level to the next. They take articles from AP [the Associated Press] and rewrite them for each reading level from grades 2-12. Students receive articles in their inboxes each day and complete a series of tasks, including multiple-choice questions and a writing exercise. Teachers receive lesson plans and preparation tips.

It is vile. The watered-down articles have nothing interesting or memorable in the language. Children are supposed to read about 40 articles at one level before they progress to the next (their progression is determined by tests and by teachers’ decisions). The lesson plans focus on strategies. A teacher is supposed to give a short lesson on a strategy and then put the students to work on the computer. It is basically more standardized testing in the classroom—all “scientific,” all “measurable.” It reminds me of Bobbitt and Charters and their emphasis on utility and measurability.

Once a school subscribes to Achieve 3000 ($15,000 for 100 students, or $20,500 for 250 students), it must make it a substantial part of the curriculum. If the school’s usage falls below a certain level, the company takes “action steps.” Each “activity” (article plus tasks) takes about [40 minutes].

Schools buy this stuff because it provides such easy access to ‘data.’ They don’t step back to think about what they are giving up in the process. I don’t think my school will buy this program; it already has a computer-based reading program called Read 180. And even there, the school had the sense to buy only a limited version of the program, as Read 180 is weak on content.

Is this where we are headed? To computer-based instructional programs that generate all our data for us? It seems that way, and a lot of people seem to think this is great. (I wonder, though, how much of that is just appearance.)”

I was glad to see that the author’s school did not buy this program. It is entirely skill-based with no content and no critical perspectives. Yet I sense that such programs are becoming ubiquitous as schools become beholden to the demand for “data-driven instruction” and “data-based decision-making.” After all, they enable schools to nail down their scores and their gains. And I am reminded once again that the ideas for which we have contended over our professional lives are becoming increasingly irrelevant to what happens in today’s classrooms. Sad, isn’t it?

Diane

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.