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Let’s Be Reasonable: Kids, Content, and Teaching

By Jon Snyder — May 05, 2004 4 min read
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Education ideologues have banished reason to the sidelines of public debate.

One of the unfortunate realities of the current public debate about education is that a small group of partisan ideologues has become the mouthpiece of the reform movement, effectively muzzling constructive dialogue across differing perspectives. This turn of events has resulted in a misrepresentation and at times a demonizing of the progressive education tradition. More importantly, it has led to a significant reduction in the potential of educational reform efforts to actually enrich educational outcomes for all our children.

Learning in classrooms nearly always involves three elements: students, a teacher, and content. Thoughtful educators, from both conventional and progressive traditions, understand this most basic of educational facts. Thoughtful educators, from both traditions, can disagree with the implications of the elemental instructional triangle: What should the content be? How should it be measured? What to do with the inevitable multiple differences among children in any classroom? What should teachers know? How can we best educate and support teachers? These are all questions about which reasonable people, even within the same educational tradition, often disagree.

The ideologues, however, have systematically excluded children and teachers from the equation. They have determined what is supposed to be learned (the content) and then branded those who urge consideration of the child or the teacher as having no standards. But progressives, and indeed reasonable conventionalists, understand that student learning requires more than merely mandating that students learn and then punishing the students, teachers, or schools if they do not. (In fact, though often claiming to be conventionalists, the ideologues no more represent the conventional tradition than do the ideologues who exclude content from the instructional triangle represent the progressive tradition.) Progressives would express it this way: Achieving standards requires knowing the child, knowing the content, and knowing when and how to use multiple approaches to help children achieve academic goals and pursue their dreams for their futures.

The ideologues’ narrow definitions of the goals of public education, their favored mechanisms for assessment, and their use of those mechanisms have trivialized not just educational reform, but public education in general. For instance, I do not remember the quadratic equation, and when I look it up in my son’s algebra book it does not look anything close to what I don’t remember. My father butchered famous quotations when speaking in public settings. A former vice president had trouble spelling “potato.” The current president does not always use subjects and verbs that agree in number. No one argues that we should not have been allowed to advance to the 4th grade or graduate from high school. No one suggests that the schools we attended should be branded as failures. That is because a vast majority of people really do understand that the goals of public education include much more than one’s capacity, important as it often is, to recall, at a single point in time, an algebraic algorithm, a famous quotation, an unusual spelling, or a point of grammar.

What is unfortunate is that the ideologues have banished reason to the sidelines of the public debate. It is like asking if I have stopped beating my wife yet, and then when I do not respond, accusing me of supporting spousal abuse. This may make for a good headline or attack campaign, but not for improved public policy or enhanced outcomes for our children. The most egregious example of this occurred when the U.S. secretary of education branded a teachers’ union as a terrorist organization because it argues for the inclusion of teachers and children in educational reform efforts. The same lack of reason plays out in less dramatic, but equally insidious ways in tabloid newspapers, which often relish the simplistic, defamatory rhetoric of the ideologues.

The latest example of this irrational response was manifested in New York City after members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted on a “social promotion” policy. Both progressives and conventionalists want children to graduate from school with sufficient knowledge to think critically and function in all areas of society: political, social, economic, and personal. However, progressives were resoundingly attacked by ideologues and their allies in the tabloid press for suggesting that a decision that will influence a child’s life should take into account more than one narrow definition of the goals of public education, measured at one moment in time by one limited assessment.

When the president of Bank Street College, where I am the dean, pointed to the research that attests to the failure of such policies and then refrained from voting in favor of the policy, the New York Daily News railed: “The Bank Street College of Education president … believes it’s more important for children to ‘construct’ their own knowledge than to learn something from a teacher. ... She and her coterie are defeatists and their dim view of city children disqualifies them from deciding what’s best for the kids.”

In addition to the misrepresentation of the progressive tradition, such rhetoric shuts off any possibility of a constructive debate among reasonable people with differing views. In short, it takes democracy out of the classroom and the public out of public education.

Jon Snyder is the dean of the graduate school at Bank Street College of Education, in New York City.

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