School Choice & Charters Opinion

Forward to the Past

By Deborah Meier — September 29, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

You’re everywhere! Meanwhile, my big adventure this week was going to Boston. But it’s always good to go and see friends and visit Mission Hill. What a wonderful place for 5- to 14-year-olds.

A math specialist who reads our blog (Margery Palmer) sent me interesting data on international comparisons re. math. She notes that many educators think they need two hours of preparation and review for every hour they teach. Maybe so. She noted that in the 15 nations in the Second International Mathematics Study, we ranked right in the middle in 8th and 12th grade. Only one of those that ranked above us had teachers who taught 25 hours or more a week. The others were 16 and 20. Interesting. Imagine 16 hours of class time and 16 hours of professional time. Hmmmm.

I had a singing teacher once who told me that when I thought I “almost had it” was the time to take a rest and get back to it the next day. What you need, she said, was time for it to circulate around and settle in your brain. You’ll start off ahead tomorrow.

Topic for this week: Back to the Future or, better yet, Forward to the Past.

There’s a book out called Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education. I love the title (I have no idea yet about the book). Because, as I read Education Week et al I do have the feeling that the new crop of “Experts on Education” have either forgotten or never learned what it was we’ve been doing over the past century. They reinvent the wheel and call it “reform.” There are miracles everywhere. Except that we’re getting nowhere. I discover daily how many reformers have never read about the field they are “reforming,” nor heard of past heroes, experiments, etc.

The big idea of the Reformers Ltd. is that we learn best if we feel scared and if we are quickly rewarded or punished. It keeps us on our toes, along with chants and drum beats and ticking clocks. And tests and tests and graphs that show our progress or decline, ranking order, and pay backs. Old as the hills. Read Charles Dickens.

Doctors can prescribe a medication for you without being responsible for whether you are motivated to take it regularly. They did their job. I used to think that one of the appeals of scripted teaching was that it would encourage teachers to view their jobs that way, too—as in, we’ve done the teaching, and now it’s up to the student to pursue understanding.

But alas, doctors are not paid by their success rates, but by office hours. We have invented a new idea—which ambulance-chasing doctors have long known about: pay by results. Otherwise, doctor fees aren’t affected by outcomes—even death does not delay the bill. Maybe doctors and teachers should have workshops together.

Maybe we’re not still sitting in nailed-down desks in the new “Reform” schools, but why not?

A young student once questioned me while we were on a trip: “How come if it’s illegal there are stores that say in big, bold letter that they sell drugs? You know, drug stores.” I’m waiting for someone to ask me why we are trying to turn our schools for low-income children into “reform” schools. But ... someone beat me to it. I just read a great article (that Dissent magazine will soon print) on the criminalization of K-12 education that has gone on in parallel with the staggering rise in incarceration rates, precisely among the same class of people who are now attending “reform” schools.

By the way, Diane, I suspect that there are even some charter schools that are doing remarkable work—and whose scores don’t show it. Maybe even some of those in the new “reform networks.” But since we tend to consider them fakes unless they have scores to show for their claims, we dismiss them.

There is no reason why we can’t go back to the work that Linda Darling-Hammond developed so carefully in New York state 20 years ago called the Compact for Learning. (Under a wonderful superintendent, Tom Sobol.) Our schools were among the partnership schools as part of the Compact. We were all committed to demonstrating the power of different approaches to demonstrating and documenting success (and failure).

I think painfully of what we’ve lost by not having carried that reform through. How much we would have learned! Think of how rarely the current crop of reformers call us up to ask us what we learned over those years, or seek to follow up on the graduates of those pioneering schools to see what happened to them—and why?

Let’s go back to 1898, at the eve of the implementation of “mass public education,” with all the knowledge we’ve since acquired and imagine how else we could have proceeded to create “schooling for ruling.” I’ll bet we didn’t consult teachers then anymore than we do today.


P.S. Why longer teaching hours are not the solution—here are some ideas from readers:
1. More learning time does not equal more instructional hours of school.
2. If five-and-a-half hours isn’t working, why would seven?
3. It creates less time for play—and we need more, both for adults and kids.
4. It leaves less time for family—when we need more.
5. It drains precious energy—schools tire kids out.
6. Is 90 (minutes) just an arbitrary number?
7. Everyone already knows that the end of the day is mind-off time.
8. It’s a sign that we’re losing our minds.

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.