Rubes at the Carnival

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School administrators and teachers, like sad-hearted rubes consulting the palm reader, seem ever willing to embrace the latest fad as the salvation of a failed educational system. We have, on a large and small basis, hopped off and on many a bandwagon throughout the century.

Recall the response to Sputnik in the 50's, the concern with altering the curriculum and the training of science and mathematics teachers. They, in turn, would help to produce a batch of highly skilled scientists and engineers enabling us to compete militarily with the Soviet Union. Then, in the 60's, we learned the schools were cruel and mindless, and we set out to humanize them. Throughout the 70's and 80's, we swung back and forth between concerns with access and excellence, with almost no one willing to admit the legitimacy of the other's perspective. Today, it is hard to find a discussion about schooling in which talk of the world marketplace and training for high-tech jobs is not included. In the last decade, we've had back to basics, multiculturalism, technology education, teacher professionalism, and parent involvement. The educational opportunists embrace the latest fashion with little reflection and much enthusiasm.

A variety of policies, programs, and classroom teaching methods have spun off these larger sweeps of the educational pendulum. To name only a few: the various incarnations of the behavioral-objectives movement, cooperative learning, whole-language learning, more effective schools, holistic learning, responding to individual learning styles, left-brain learning, teacher-effectiveness training, inquiry teaching, direct teaching, critical thinking. Check today's mail. It may contain a new approach promising redemption for America's schools.

Many of these movements and strategies have much of value. My complaint is about the way they are marketed and bought. They are reified, turned into packages for distribution and use. Follow these easy steps and your classroom or school will be transformed from its present dull, dreary, and disorganized reality into a learning paradise. Who offers any of these approaches as one option which a teacher might incorporate into her ongoing classroom work? Which of the snake-oil salesmen ask teachers to carefully examine and analyze the products offered, seeing how they relate to valued educational ends, how they might be adapted for the particular students with whom the teacher is working, how they fit in with the teacher's ongoing understandings of her work. And how many teachers have the confidence and wisdom to evaluate carefully the latest program offered by the educational consultant or mandated by the central office?

Let me use the important and complex issue of multiculturalism as an example of how we trivialize such matters by the way we define, market, and implement them. Various multicultural programs find their way into school districts today. But what a teacher ought to know about this issue is not easily packaged. To evaluate the current debate, with its concern for questions of unity and diversity, teachers should come to it with knowledge of or a willingness to learn something about American history, especially the history of the immigrants and of African-Americans. Some understanding of theories of knowledge might help teachers address the issues of objectivity, fairness, and multiple perspectives which are an important part of the multicultural debate. Reading what the anthropologists have to say about concepts of culture would be valuable. And much more. A tall order? Indeed. We need well-educated teachers capable of analyzing carefully the forces in the society which affect their work. What we don't need is the mindless adaptation of packaged programs.

Too many teachers are looking for choreographed steps for tomorrow's class. And there are plenty of teacher-educators and traveling consultants manning the booths at the educational carnival. But the education of teachers, as James and Dewey told us a long time ago, will not go well when we conceive of it as a set of ideas to be swallowed whole and then implemented in classrooms. Too many school people embrace, at once, a visionary absolutism and a lunatic pragmatism. Here is the answer to our very large problems, and it can be applied by the teacher in the classroom tomorrow.

Well-educated teachers and administrators are not so easily taken in by the carnival barkers. That we have too many school leaders who have been badly educated surely contributes to the desperate leaping at solutions. But there are other reasons why American education is so vulnerable to fads and fantasies. The schools are very much a part of our democratic polity. School board members, state and district administrators, and other school officials are either elected themselves or appointed by those who are. They are, therefore, responsive to the public. And despite the problems of democracy, I wouldn't want it any other way. My objection is to the ways in which school leaders respond to the public.

The woods are, indeed, burning, and it is extraordinarily difficult to make large-scale changes in the educational landscape. But people want to hear some good news. In many states and districts, however, there isn't much in the way of good news. No one seems to know how to press the up button on standardized-test scores. If we can't deliver results, promises are the next best thing. So we announce programs. A program needs a name, and is to be accompanied by catch-phrases or slogans. "An holistic, hands-on, multicultural, and whole-language approach to critical thinking which will empower students in their daily lives. An innovative, cutting-edge program.'' Like corporate boards looking for short-term profits, we satisfy the stockholders, for now. We respond to democratic pressure with public relations rather than with intelligence and courage.

"The administrative fallacy'' also surely accounts for some portion of the fact that our schools are patsies for packaged visions. There are many useful things which high-level school administrators can do. These do not include mandating teacher behavior in classrooms. But classrooms are the place where the school as an institution directly affects student learning. It's awfully tempting, therefore, for persons in charge, persons who will suffer the blame if things don't go well, to anxiously reach down into the classroom and say: "These are the procedures to follow.'' This is the administrative fallacy: the belief that one can, through mandates and guidelines, make long-term improvements in what teachers do in classrooms. Such mandates on teaching practice simply acknowledge that a district has failed to attract wise and educated teachers, capable of setting their own course. No administrative intervention in classrooms will solve that problem.

It is tempting to offer mandates. So much so that I here offer two of my own. All readers of this column will henceforth: A) cease inventing, announcing, packaging, and marketing new programs and B) do everything in their power to insure that teachers receive the sort of broad-based education that will enable them, working with their colleagues, to choose wisely, in their own classrooms, approaches to curriculum and teaching beneficial to their students.

Vol. 13, Issue 12, Page 28

Published in Print: November 24, 1993, as Rubes at the Carnival
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