School Practices Have 'Gone Wrong,' Cheney Says
WASHINGTON--Education reform in the United States has been impeded by the "impervious" nature of such flawed educational practices as teacher-education courses and the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities charges in a new report.
Lynne V. Cheney, who in May began her second four-year term at the helm of the federal humanities agency, argues that only by embracing innovative ideas that appear to work will significant progress be made in education reform.
In her report, "Tyrannical Machines: A Report on Educational Practices Gone Wrong and Our Best Hopes for Setting Them Right," released here Nov. 11, Ms. Cheney suggests that a number of educational practices, including the way the country tests students, trains teachers, and adopts textbooks, are flawed but survive because they have grown so large and become so institutionalized that they have developed self-perpetuating powers. The title of the report echoes an expression by the American philosopher William James.
"I hope this sets out a strategy for education reform in the 90's," Ms. Cheney said in an interview last week. "The time for lament has passed. What we need to do is set in place alternatives and encourage those that are already in place."
The report contains discussion of three major areas--elementary and secondary education, colleges and universities, and the so-called "parallel school," or cultural activities, such as museum-going ,that cane lifelong learning opportunities.
Ms. Cheney calls for less emphasis on teacher-education courses and more on subject-matter courses for prospective teachers. She also enthusiastically endorses the concept of alternative certification for teachers.
Many teacher-education courses "are more likely to confuse and mislead than to enlighten," she writes. "Moreover, the time spent in these courses is time that cannot be spent studying history or mathematics,s or French--the subjects that teachers teach."
In-service training seldom provides teachers with opportunities to expand their horizons in their fields, she argues. A training program in Virginia, she writes, required teachers to study topics such as "withitness" and "subparameters of momentum."
"Teachers use the phrase 'in-service' in the passive ('we were in-serviced')--as though something rude and unpleasant had been done to them," she writes.
Alternative certification "will bring diversity to the teaching force, allow comparisons about the most effective ways of preparing teachers, and encourage schools of education to improve their programs in order to compete," the report says.
The report also calls for an overhaul of the way textbooks are selected for the public schools.
Many current textbooks are "so dull that no one would read them voluntarily," Ms. Cheney writes.
In fact, too few members of state textbook-adoption committees take the time to read them either, she asserts. Instead, they often rely on checklist criteria such as whether a book was published recently or whether it has quality graphics, she writes.
Ms. Cheney calls for criteria that would require textbook reviewers to read the books and make use of reviews written by scholars and teachers in the field. She cites the recently revised textbook guidelines in California as a model.
The report also urges schools to use sources of information other than textbooks, such as primary writings, speeches, and documents to teach history.
Ms. Cheney also argues that the Scholastic Aptitude Test is "an almost classic example" of a "tyrannical machine" because it continues to thrive amid widespread criticism.
Her chief complaint about the most widely used college-admissions test is that too many schools, in her opinion, spend time teaching to the test at the expense of other instruction.
"Instead of discussing Langston Hughes's poetry or F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels, students are practicing the skills that the SAT tests for," such as vocabulary lists, she asserts.
She recommends the use of alternatives to the SAT, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, especially for the assessment of school performance.
Ms. Cheney also voices strong support for the concept of school choice, arguing that it should be at the "primacy of reforms."
"Parents should be able to choose the school their child attends," she writes. "Choice is not only an instrument of equity, it sets in motion an array of forces leading to more effective schools."
Choice policies encourage school autonomy, she argues, which in turn results in more effective school performance.
In the report, Ms. Cheney calls on institutions of higher learning to eme teaching as well as research.
"Colleges and universities should develop alternative paths to recognition and reward," she writes. "At the same time, steps should be taken to remedy problems that have, in part at least, been a by-product of an excessive emphasis on research: for example, the exploitation of part-time instructors, disarray in undergraduate curricula, and overly narrow training of graduate students."
Ms. Cheney argues that what she calls the "parallel school" has remained free of the tyrannical machine.
"In no other country do cultural institutions feel quite the degree of obligation to educate that museums, libraries and other cultural organizations in the United States do," she writes.
She cited the recent public television series "The Civil War," which was funded in part by the NEH, as an example of how "compelling history is when it is a story well told."
"Tyrannical Machines" is the fourth major report to come from Ms. Cheney since she took the helm of the NEH in 1986.
Last year, she published "50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students," which urged colleges and universities to strengthen core course requirements. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1989.)
She has also published reports on the state of humanities in the nation and on humanities education in U.S. public schools.
Single copies of "Tyrannical Machines" are available from the Office of Publications and Public Affairs, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20506.
Vol. 10, Issue 11