Please, No More Facts; Just Better Teaching

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Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, school reformers have assumed that changing the subject matter students study and improving their academic performance will increase the nation's economic competitiveness globally. Presidents and candidates for President have pushed insistently for more math and science in the curriculum and higher scores on international tests. In January of this year, the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, for example, recommended to the Congress a set of "voluntary" national standards and tests on what schools should teach and how well students learn what schools have taught. This stress on what content students must learn ignores two very important facts that most adults know: How teachers teach influences what students learn and who teaches influences what is learned. Reformers rushing pell-mell for national standards and tests need to be reminded of these facts.

Ask most parents (and taxpayers) what one thing is central to excellent schooling. Chances are they will answer that it is not the building, the athletic fields, textbooks, or even the curriculum. It is who the teacher is and how he or she teaches children. When parents ask their children how was school, sons and daughters reply with stories about what their teacher did with them in class. When I ask friends to recall highlights of their dozen years in elementary and secondary schools, invariably they talk about the teachers they had. One remembers a 4th-grade teacher who made him work harder than any other teacher since. Another describes a high-school teacher who saw in her a remarkable talent for writing that she had not yet displayed but who gave her the confidence to try. They seldom mention the facts or ideas they studied. Content is secondary.

Yet to listen to the last decade of national and local debate over improving schools, what we have heard most is what students are supposed to study. Lists of facts are published for elementary-school teachers to teach. Children must learn them to become "culturally literate.'' More math, science, history, and foreign language. More multicultural content in all subjects. The bulk of the national discussion over school improvement has been how to jam more content into the curriculum. Thicker textbooks, longer tests, state curriculum guides for teachers to follow have spilled over the schools in the last 10 years.

Teachers have not been ignored, however. There has been concern over attracting high-quality newcomers to the classroom. Salaries have improved for entry-level teachers. Reforms are under way in teacher education. But reformers' attention to teaching? No, very little.

So what? Just because there appears to be a contradiction between citizens' focus on the importance of teaching and reformers' focus on content doesn't mean the agenda for school improvement ought to change. After all, these reformers have advanced degrees and are viewed as experts. Perhaps, common sense is wrong. I don't believe so. It is the assumption that content is more important than teaching upon which the national reform agenda rests that is flawed. Why?

First, because at the heart of schooling is the personal relationship between teacher and students over content. Of course, Jaime Escalante taught math but it was his beliefs in his students and his personality harnessed to a way of teaching that inspired his Garfield High School students in Los Angeles to work hard at calculus. Of course, Eliot Wigginton teaches English but it is his willingness to plan with students how to use the richness of their family and community traditions that inspired his Rabun Gap, Ga., high schoolers to create Foxfire. Ask parents of students why their children performed their hearts out for a football coach, band instructor, or a science teacher at the annual science fair. Parents will point to the personal connection that teachers have with their students and how those bonds saturate the daily teaching.

Second, just because policymakers mandate that schools teach certain content doesn't mean it gets studied or even learned. New state frameworks in math, for example, or new district courses of study in biology are what policymakers intend for teachers to teach and students to learn. It is the official curriculum. Researchers have pointed out for years, however, that the official curriculum is not what teachers teach. Nor is what teachers teach what students necessarily learn. Furthermore, what students learn is not always what the nation, state, or district tests. There are, in effect four curricula: the official, the taught, the learned, and the tested.

Third, the content that teachers teach varies. Researchers have known for years that three teachers teaching 11th-grade English in the same school, even on the same floor, from the same textbook would have three different classes. Variation in what is taught comes from the differences in teachers' personal traits, their beliefs about how English ought to be taught, their attitudes towards students, their teaching competency, their knowledge of subject matter, and their experiences. Variations in teaching are most clear in comparing, to cite a case, biology taught to college-bound students and the same subject taught to students who are labeled "at risk" or who speak English as their second language.

So pedagogy, the art and science of teaching, is crucial to what students get from a subject. How we teach becomes what we teach. If a 6th-grade teacher only calls on the brightest, most verbal students in the class, snipes at students' answers that call into question what the teacher said, and then provides few reasons for grades on paper, those 6th graders learn about fairness, independent inquiry, and the moral character of their teacher. Yet pedagogy and teachers' personal qualities have been largely ignored by reformers. Instead there has been an unrelenting focus upon subject matter. Why have reformers focused upon content?

Today's students know so little. From test results during the 1980's, newspaper columnists, TV commentators, and magazine pundits concluded that American students today, unlike those a generation or two ago, are ignorant of their common heritage and general knowledge. Few analysts asked for data, for example, from comparable groups of students a quarter- or half-century earlier even though such tests of general knowledge had been given periodically since the turn of the century. Even fewer critics pointed out that such tests seldom sampled the extensive knowledge students have about their daily world that they have absorbed from films and television. Instead, critics pointed to the absence of a pool of common knowledge among today's youths and the school's obligation to provide such knowledge.

Because knowledge increases continually, schools need to teach more content. There is more and more to teach and less time to teach. A friend from a New Jersey suburban high school who has been teaching U.S. history since 1961 is a case in point. When he began teaching he was expected to cover American history from Columbus to 1961. The history he taught was largely politics, diplomacy, and wars. Now, it is 1992. In addition to the three decades of history that he is expected to cover since 1961, he also has to detail women's history, African-American history, non-Western cultures, environmental issues, and economic problems. Of course, he can't do it. He has to pick and choose. But the pressure to stuff more and more content into teenagers' heads, my friend writes, creates terrible guilt and stress. He is forever falling behind, rushing over chapters, not listening as much as he would like to students' questions, and sees his students' growing dislike for American history.

Prejudice against the art of teaching. The prejudice stems from two passionate, unexamined beliefs. First, that anyone who knows their subject can teach it. There is enough first-hand experience among both adults and children who have suffered from well-informed teachers and professors who mumbled and stumbled through lessons that challenge the belief. Second, the idea that to focus on the art of teaching is anti-intellectual. Since the early 1950's, curriculum reformers have eagerly sought to put subject matter back into the curriculum. They wanted to end decades of what they called progressive pap about the "whole child'' and no-beef pedagogy from education professors who spent more time on "methods'' courses than content. Such reformers in the 1950's and since the early 1980's have stigmatized pedagogy as mindlessness.

These are major reasons for reformers' passion for subject matter. What is more troubling is how this concentration on content trivializes school reform. How?

  • Adding subject matter to the curriculum offers the illusion of school reform. Reformers can point to concrete results. Raising high-school graduation requirements in academic subjects means that students have to take more courses than they did before. Different textbooks have to be bought. More tests have to be taken. New policies promise that students will be learning more, but these policies have to wend their way through the official, taught, learned, and tested curricula. They seldom reach the students' heads as intended. These policies, then, are magicians' tricks.

  • Trying to change the content that teachers teach and students learn is cheap. In times when public funds are scarce, astute politicians focus on low-cost reforms such as stressing the importance of leadership (as in, the instructional leadership of the principal), shifting authority from one layer of an organization's hierarchy to another (as in, site-based management), and national standards and tests. Similarly, stressing the importance of subject matter as central to all schooling simply costs less than investing much larger sums of money in improving the quality of teaching.

Trying to change how teachers teach or their relationships with students is infinitely more expensive, messier, and uncertain. Reducing class size so that teachers can spend more time with fewer students is very costly. Moreover, a large chunk of pedagogy is an art, one learned slowly and carefully through mentors, self-discipline, and self-evaluation. Asking questions of students, planning a project with students, listening to students carefully and building on what they already know are skills that take deliberate cultivation. It takes time for the art of teaching to mature within a teacher and it takes favorable workplace conditions (teachers working together, released time to learn from more experienced teachers, and so on). What makes improving pedagogy an unlikely choice for policymakers is not only the extra cost or even the time that it takes but the recognition that there will be wide variation among teachers who work to improve their teaching. So why should reformers go for costly uncertain outcomes that accompany improving pedagogy, particularly when the prevailing belief is that subject matter is all-important and anyone who knows it can teach?

  • Trying to change the content that teachers teach and students learn diverts attention from fundamental conflicts. Media treatment and heated policy debates over national curricular standards or multicultural textbook content shift the public spotlight away from more serious, long-term conflicts within the community such as inequitable allocation of monies and the inability to close major gaps in achievement between middle- and upper-income whites and low-income minorities. Struggles over devoting more space to the contributions of African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other groups who have been treated poorly by dominant social classes are important symbolically. Such struggles are over social respect and eliminating distortions of what has been in the official curriculum. Still, when such conflicts dominate school-reform agendas, they divert scarce attention from troubling fundamental disparities in school outcomes.

Here, then, are a few reasons why school reformers have concentrated upon subject matter and how such a focus has tilted reform away from teaching. Intentionally or not, when reformers have argued over how little today's students know about their everyday world, Eurocentric and Afrocentric curricula, and how many physics courses college-bound students ought to take, they miss the very heartbeat of schooling: the relationship of a teacher to students over subject matter. Lopsided school-reform agendas throughout the 1980's concentrated upon content, not teaching, and rejected the practical knowledge of parents, teachers, and informed observers. Will the mindless prejudice against pedagogy continue into the 1990's?

Vol. 11, Issue 25, Pages 30, 40

Published in Print: March 11, 1992, as Please, No More Facts; Just Better Teaching
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