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Federal Opinion

The Persistence of the ‘Grammar of Schooling’

By Edgar H. Schuster — April 30, 2003 7 min read
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It is often thought that A Nation at Risk initiated "an era of educational reform." This is largely a myth. The reform— such as it was—began well before the report was published.

Last week, on April 26, we marked the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which was created by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell during the Reagan administration. It is often thought that the report initiated “an era of educational reform.” This is largely a myth. The reform—such as it was—began well before the report was published.

The report bemoaned the “shoddiness” it saw in educational institutions everywhere, the notion that high schools offered a “cafeteria-style curriculum,” as well as the fact that standards and expectations were not high enough. It asserted that we had “lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling.”

A Nation at Risk advocated a return to basics and the better schooling of the past, saying specifically that we could be proud of what American schools had historically accomplished and that we had “squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge.”

Let’s take a look at what was occurring during the decade that immediately preceded the report, 1974-1983.

In the school system where I was the English language arts supervisor, there was a bit of progressivism at the beginning of that decade. We had some electives, some so-called open classrooms, and a bit of interest in what was then named “values clarification.” I even knew two teachers who used James Moffatt’s remarkably innovative “Interaction” materials.

But all these were swiftly swept into the trash heap by two new forces: the quasi-scientific behavioral-objectives movement and Back to Basics. Long before the Reagan Department of Education issued the report, electives were dead, open classrooms had closed, values clarification seemed antique, and the Moffatt series had failed catastrophically.

In my district, curriculum committees of teachers wrote behavioral objectives for all courses and districtwide examinations based on them. There were also statewide multiple-choice tests in Pennsylvania, and in nearly all other states.

How powerful was the back-to-basics movement nationally? The 1977 (“Heritage”) edition of that bastion of conservatism in English, Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition series, broke all previous sales records. This was five years before A Nation at Riskbefore, not after.

What put the nation at risk in 1983? In English language arts curriculum, the answer is the back-to-basics movement.

Sometime in the middle of the decade preceding the report, all four of our junior high principals demanded that all English teachers “teach grammar” at least one period per week, all year long. And the teachers were doing it—often with a vengeance. One could not enter a 7th, 8th, or 9th grade English classroom without finding the chalkboards covered with sentence diagrams, like so much graffiti.

Also before 1983, all final examinations, grades 6-12, had grammar questions, and every year the results on this part of the exam were the lowest or next to the lowest of all 10 of the exams’ subcategories at every grade level. When I pointed out the low grammar scores in meetings with teachers, their reaction was always the same, “We’ll just have to pound it in even harder next year.”

What put the nation at risk in 1983? In English language arts curriculum, the answer is the back-to-basics movement.

If A Nation at Risk initiated an era of reform, then why are we back where we started 20 years ago? Yes, there have been some positive developments— particularly the National Writing Project and writing-process work in general (which is currently threatened by most state testing). But the reality seems to be that we never really left “basics” in the first place. Or, to put it in the cogent phrase David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban use in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, “the grammar of schooling” has persisted.

As David Tyack and Larry Cuban see it, a school must feel like a school; it needs classrooms, attendance forms, report cards, textbooks. What about curriculum? In my own field of English language arts, the grammar of schooling includes spelling lists with regular spelling tests in the elementary grades; “grammar,” particularly the parts of speech, in the middle grades; and “literature” in the higher grades, usually with some chronological survey, literary forms, and definitions of literary terms.

Of course, these are not limited to the grade levels indicated. In a strong basics era like today and the middle to late 1970s, parts of speech are studied as early as 1st grade, and spelling lists with weekly tests may persist into the 12th grade. The current Pennsylvania standards call for students to “spell all words correctly” by 11th grade. Check your state standards.

Here is a particularly illuminating illustration of the persistence of the “grammar” of schooling.

The spelling research took place in three 5th grade classes. Two of the three veteran teachers involved taught spelling all year long, using the school-approved textbook. The third did not use any textbook; her students chose their spelling words based on words they had misspelled in their written work and words they were simply interested in learning. All three classes had spelling tests, but they were held weekly in the traditional classes, considerably less frequently in the experimental.

A traditional multiple-choice spelling test was given at the beginning of the research in September and again in June. Eighty percent of the words came from the spelling textbook. The other 20 percent were chosen from a grade- appropriate list of commonly misspelled words. Students in the experimental and control classes were matched, based on gender and identical initial spelling- test scores.

A Nation at Risk may have produced some modest changes, but for the most part, the changes that it called for were well under way and were not necessarily changes for the better.

The yearlong gain for all students was 9.4 percent. (One may wonder what nine months’ maturity alone would have yielded.) The control kids slightly outperformed the experimental, but the difference was not statistically significant. Moreover, the kids in the control classes had specifically studied 80 percent of the words; the experimental kids had studied none of these words, except by happenstance.

Was any change introduced in this school as a result of the research? Did anyone suggest throwing out the textbooks or using individual spelling with all kids?

In fact, the only change was that the teacher of the experimental class transferred to a different grade and a different building, and became a math teacher, even though she had a Ph.D. in English.

The horror stories I could tell about traditional school grammar equal this, such as an 8th grade teacher who wouldn’t let her students write anything other than their own names until she had taught them grammar for an entire semester, and a 10th grade teacher who spent nine weeks—a quarter of the academic year—teaching only pronouns from his Warriner textbook.

But perhaps the best indicator of the persistence of the grammar of schooling comes from outside the classroom and from a more recent time. The Holt, Rinehart, and Winston publishing company has brought John E. Warriner back from the grave (he died in 1987) and made him the “author” of the grammar, usage, and mechanics framework of their 2001 textbook series, Elements of Language. His name even appears on the title page and on the spine of the books.

It has been said that it’s easier to move a graveyard than to effect a change in education. In the English curriculum, it is clear that traditional school grammar owns a large part of the cemetery.

A Nation at Risk may have produced some modest changes while at the same time vastly overrating the threat to our country’s economic pre-eminence—but for the most part, the changes that it called for were already well under way, and were not necessarily changes for the better.

The years 1977 and 2003 are more remarkable for their similarities than for their differences. We have the same shortage of qualified teachers, the same static test scores, the same objectives (now called standards), the same accountability mania, the same complaints about the lack of higher-order thinking skills, the same mindless mantra that all children can learn (who ever thought otherwise?).

Why not simply reprint A Nation at Risk every 10 years or so? Think of all the time and money we could save by not studying the problem.

And we could continue to shuffle past the really deep problems that beset American society, and our schools.

Edgar H. Schuster, a former teacher, writes about education. His most recent book, Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction, was published by Heinemann in February. He can be reached at Edhs2@aol.com.

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