If It Wasn't Around in the Middle Ages, It's a Fad!

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All such reform efforts have always failed in the past and they will continue to do the same in the future.

It could be that I'm dead wrong. The issue is complex--or made to seem so--and may contain intricacies of thought that are beyond me. In any case, I offer my observations here and hope someone may enlighten me regarding my conclusions if they are, indeed, wrong.

While not claiming psychic powers, I do aver that I predicted philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg's 1993 $500 million grant aimed at school reform under the aegis of his Annenberg Challenge program would be an utter failure. Regrettably, I was right.

The Los Angeles Times summoned the mourners on April 7 of this year when it announced the much-ballyhooed reform effort had collapsed on itself and was finally admitted to be a failure. Into its fifth and final year, the Times article said, "All hopes have diminished. The promised improvements have not been realized." No elevated reading scores, no improved achievement levels, no visible success of any kind--and at what a cost.

With matching funds added to Mr. Annenberg's largess, upwards of a billion dollars was cast upon the waters of school systems in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, and none of these cities has shown any sort of change for the better. In other words, the Annenberg Challenge didn't fail just in Los Angeles; no, it was tried in these and other communities and it failed across the board.

How did I know this would be the result of Mr. Annenberg's well-intentioned efforts to improve public education in America? Easy. I knew the program would fail because all such reform efforts have always failed in the past and they will continue to do the same in the future.

"What?!" some will cry. "Is the man mad? No successes? None at all? What nonsense! Why, ... !"

Like most, such people haven't actually stopped to think it through. I assert that there has never been an innovation or "reform" that has ever been successful insofar as helping children learn any better, faster, easier than was the case anytime prior to the 20th century. If anything, a case may be made for the proposition that real learning was better served then than now.

"But no successes at all! That's ridiculous. Why, I can name a dozen right off the bat ... !"

Can you? Have you ever tried it? Go ahead. Think of a single example of a reform effort that actually succeeded in helping children learn better, faster, easier than they did a century ago. I'll wait.

How about movies? Early movies astounded everyone and led many to believe they'd found an incredible new teaching tool that would revolutionize education. In fact, Thomas Edison himself remarked in the early '20s when the movie camera had been perfected, that there would be no more textbooks and everyone would learn by watching movies. Tom was wrong, as it turned out.

The plain, unadorned truth is, we can't improve on the original model.

Television? I taught in a junior high school in the late '50s, and I remember seeing some 28 TV sets purchased with federal money stacked two high behind the auditorium stage. They were never removed from their cartons and may be there still for all I know. Television plays no significant role in education to this very day.

If not film or TV, how about whole-language reading instruction as practiced in California? You remember, where they threw out phonics and burned the spelling books and relied on osmosis to teach reading. After reading scores plummeted on standardized tests for almost a decade, everybody conceded that the old way was better and phonics is back in vogue and teachers are scrambling for any unburnt spelling books.

Then there's always the New Math fad. I remember the original in the Sputnik era, when the experts decided we no longer needed long division and the multiplication tables and opted for a brand of math that was incomprehensible even to its creators. Sharply falling math scores resulted in our going back to the old ways once again.

Now there's the New New Math, and its opponents are legion. People remember the first debacle and don't want to repeat it, even as reformers redouble their efforts. Some of us never learn, apparently.

We could go on. Team teaching? Block scheduling? Year-round schooling? Group work? Mentors? Single-sex schools? Charter schools? Local control? Army generals as superintendents? The Edison Project? Alternative schools? Tutors? Schools-Without-Walls? Decentralization schemes? Schools-Within-Schools? Et cetera ad infinitum.

Each of these "reforms" was (is) touted as an innovation that would change the way we do things and turn all the kids into scholars of one sort or another, and each failed to do anything of the kind. Nothing changed. There was never a discernible difference, certainly not one that met our criteria of helping kids learn better, faster, easier.

So all reforms fail. Let me quote Theodore R. Sizer, a renowned expert in the field of school reform and a man who's held top posts from Harvard to the Annenberg Challenge and beyond. When interviewed by a Los Angeles Times reporter a year or so back, Mr. Sizer was asked if he could name a single "reform" in the last 15 years that had been successful.

Mr. Sizer reflected for a moment, then replied, "I don't think there is one."

I submit that Mr. Sizer would not come up with such an example if he went back to the Spanish-American War in search of one, for there simply isn't any.

Reform efforts fail because no one can come up with an idea that works better than the old one.

Doubtless many people will think I must surely be wrong because of the implications of my charges should I prove to be right. In most cases, we would be left with no real closure since critics would demand some sort of empirical evidence before accepting my thesis. As it happens, though, the correctness of my observations is easily provable because the proof is self-evident.

We know there has never been such a success--or any real success--in school reform because we don't see it. Just as Stephen Hawking proves time travel is impossible because of the self-evident fact that we never see any visitors from the future, so does the same logic reveal that no reform has succeeded because we don't see it.

Consider. If there had ever been a single "reform" that actually did what it advertised, that is, helped kids learn better, faster, easier, we'd all know about it because the word would spread like wildfire as schools and districts and states adopted this wonder in wholesale lots. We would immediately--or at least eventually--see improvement everywhere and standardized test scores would rise and Japanese and German educators would flock here to see how we did it.

The plain, unadorned truth is, we can't improve on the original model. The old ways were, and still are, the best ways. We have it officially from no less a figure than Euclid himself. When the pharaoh said he wanted to learn geometry, the sage explained that the pharaoh would have to study long hours and memorize the contents of a fat math book and the pharaoh complained that would be unkingly and demanded a shortcut.

Euclid replied, "There is no royal road to geometry."

There wasn't then and there still isn't. Reform movements fail because no one can come up with an idea that works better than the old one. People learn academic material by study and memorization and repetition and drill and burning barrels of midnight oil. Good students today take notes and wear out yellow liner pens and cram for exams just as good students did in Euclid's classes.

Ergo: We should stop all efforts at school reform. No more New Math or whole-language schemes leaving millions of damaged kids in their wake. No more wasted billions. No more seminars, workshops, idylls in the woods to learn the latest fad. No more lost teacher-time engaged in meaningless and finally worthless innovations.

Instead, resume traditional methods. A teacher in a classroom with a chalkboard, a piece of chalk, a textbook, and a roomful of willing students who want to be there. If the unconvinced need a model they can get a grip on, I might suggest the sort of program to be found in any well-run parochial school minus the religious curriculum.

As I said, it's self-evident. The concept of school reform is fatally flawed and the evidence is there in plain view for all to see.

Evan Keliher is a retired Detroit public school teacher and a professional writer living in San Diego. He is the author of Guerrilla Warfare for Teachers: A Survival Guide (Pedagogue Press, San Diego) and can be reached at [email protected]

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 47, 49

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as If It Wasn't Around in the Middle Ages, It's a Fad!
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