Teaching Opinion

Predicting the Past

By Peter N. Berger — March 30, 2009 5 min read
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General Motors stock is selling for less than a cup of Starbucks coffee. Armed with that urgency, experts and policymakers are turning back the education clock to the 1970s, those golden years when self-esteem, the whole child, and our current state of academic bankruptcy were born.

We were almost headed in the right direction for about five minutes. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, with all its faults—and its faults are legion—properly refocused schools on academic content and fundamental skills like reading. Unfortunately, NCLB promptly plunged off the testing deep end, taking its credibility with it. Now, right on schedule, here comes the education pendulum, hurtling toward the other policy extreme.

Like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his invocation of 9/11, education reformers exploit the refrain “21st century,” as in “21st-century skills,” “21st-century global competition,” or “21st-century bridge to sell you.” Not that there’s anything wrong with preparing kids for the 21st century. I stopped using parchment and quill pens in my classroom months ago. But garbing recycled bad ideas in the new century can’t help us, especially when our real problem is that most students haven’t mastered the skills that mattered in the last century, and that will continue to matter, like reading and writing.

Back when the dawning millennium first had experts atwitter, the Business Roundtable of my home state, Vermont, circulated a glossy brochure depicting what heightened “worldwide competition” would demand of 21st-century graduates. The group foresaw a new age when carpenters would “interpret detailed blueprints and diagrams,” work with building materials, and estimate costs, as opposed to, presumably, just randomly nailing objects together, which is what the experts seemed to think 20th-century carpenters did. Future nurses would, apparently for the first time, have tasks requiring “communication with patients, families, and doctors,” while also developing “flexibility,” observations that could only have been made by someone who had never met a nurse. Farmers’ innovative skills would include, according to the roundtable, “herd management” and “animal husbandry.” They would also study something novel called agronomy.

My Boy Scout troop awarded animal-husbandry merit badges back in 1962. Vermont’s state agricultural college has been offering agronomy courses since its founding in 1865.

Fast-forwarding to the present, boosters cite a national survey in which 88 percent of Americans agreed that schools should teach “21st-century skills.” How else would you expect most people to respond? No, I support not preparing children for the future?

The question isn’t whether students need an appropriate education, but what reformers mean by an appropriate education. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has compiled a typical reform vision for the future. The trouble is it looks an awful lot like the equally visionary past that’s plagued schools for 30 years. For starters, they’re reviving “interdisciplinary themes,” which 1980s restructurers gushed would teach students how their knowledge was connected, even as they also preached that schools were too concerned with “content.” Inconveniently, you can’t connect what you know if you don’t know much.

Garbing recycled bad ideas in the new century can’t help us, especially when our real problem is that most students haven’t mastered the skills that mattered in the last century, and that will continue to matter, like reading and writing.

This is a lesson still lost on interdisciplinarians, who continue to rave that the principal task of public education is making “real-world essential connections” between “bodies of knowledge” kids have never been taught. They propose accomplishing this objective by focusing on “themes” like “global awareness,” where students employ “21st-century skills” to “address global issues” as they learn about and from “individuals representing diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue.”

All this sounds very enlightened, and I’m all for being able to work with different kinds of people. I expect it of my students every day. But global awareness has too often meant talking about how we feel about other countries without actually knowing anything about them, including where to find them on a map. You can’t teach global awareness if you skip geography.

Boosters tell us the 21st century demands a new “learning environment,” in which students receive “human support” and learn in “relevant, real-world 21st-century contexts.” As a human who’s worked in a school for a while, I recognize the recycled jargon of the “whole child,” unstructured, content-light, 1970s reform regime where teachers “facilitate” and children choose their own academic adventures. I’ve seen the nonsense lurking behind buzzwords like “social” and “interpersonal” skills. I’ve witnessed the catastrophe when “academic and intellectual skills” are displaced by “attitudinal, experiential, and social-emotional” goals. It’s all code for how we got where we are today.

Reformers also tout “multiple measures of assessment,” including projects and student portfolios. These are the same subjective, discredited connivances that for years have artfully masked the reality that too many students know too little. I doubt that fraction raps and feudalism cakes are how they assess students in Beijing.

Twenty-first century fans are often the same people who complain that schools today are “too dominated by academic achievement.” They claim their version of education “emphasizes deep understanding,” rather than “shallow knowledge” like those old 20th-century schools.

I believe in understanding. But you can’t get there without slogging through the ancient knowledge that reformers have disparaged for years as “mere facts.” I agree there’s a profound gap between what most kids learn in school and what they need to know. But that gap doesn’t exist because we’re teaching the wrong things, except where our schools have clung to the folly that 21st-century reformers are resuscitating once more as the cutting edge.

Yes, some things have changed. Pluto’s no longer a planet, and kids need to know more about using computers than I do. But most of our students aren’t falling short because they lack a deep, new understanding. They’re failing because they’re too often uninterested in or unprepared for any understanding.

There’s nothing new about teaching kids to “talk and write clearly.” There’s nothing uniquely 21st century about “creativity,” “analysis,” “interpretation,” or “problem-solving.” But you can’t solve “meaningful problems,” which is how rose-colored reformers prescribe that 12-year-olds spend their class time, if you skip the fundamentals because they’re too tedious or too last century.

One typically ardent reformer urges that we “give our students the education they need for their future, not the education we had in the past.” If most students today were mastering a rigorous 20th-century education, the 21st century wouldn’t look as bleak as it does.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2009 edition of Education Week as Predicting the Past


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