Curriculum

Reviews

February 01, 2003 6 min read

CROSSING THE STAGE:
Redesigning Senior Year
by Nancy Faust Sizer
(Heinemann, 272 pages, $23)

At most high schools, teachers complain about “senioritis” like septuagenarians griping about the aches and pains of age. The syndrome, which manifests itself among seniors as progressive disengagement, is easy to diagnose but almost impossible to cure.

While hardly a new phenomenon, senioritis has become much more acute in recent years, writes veteran high school history teacher Sizer. She’s not the first to make this assertion; indeed, a prominent national commission has been formed to study the problem and propose remedies. But the case Sizer makes for change is particularly noteworthy because she draws both from personal experience—she’s taught in public and private institutions—and from her own research, which includes detailed interviews with some 150seniors from a diverse group of 26 schools across the country.

One after another, these students describe the senior year as “blow-off” time, a kind of extended end- of-adolescence celebration. The reasons Sizer offers for this attitude are varied and somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the current generation of high schoolers, particularly those from the middle class, have been given just about everything they want by their baby boomer parents—extravagant birthday parties, diverse entertainment, and self-esteem-boosting pats on the back. As Sizer astutely notes, they have been raised in an “atmosphere of welcome and admiration.” It’s no wonder so many feel a sense of entitlement.

Yet these kids who’ve been indulged in so many ways also have had to compete more vigorously than ever before to get accepted to the colleges of their choice. This means they’ve had to take and do well in a number of specific courses as well as score high on the SAT. They’ve also had to pad their high school records with all sorts of impressive nonacademic experiences. “I need extracurricular activities to dress up my college applications,” one senior acknowledges. “One way or another, I have to pump up the stats.” By senior year, many are burned out.

For all practical purposes, seniors consider themselves finished with high school once they’ve submitted their college applications. Knowing that the remaining courses and grades count for little, many relax and refuse to work, and they expect their teachers to ease up, too. Those teachers who don’t, Sizer writes, risk “more than disengagement; they may face punishment.”

So what should high schools do? The author, who is married to well-known progressive educator Theodore Sizer, proposes that the senior year become a time for students to examine issues pertinent to this transitional period of their lives. Much of this would be done, Sizer writes, in the “senior seminar,” during which students would read and discuss literature “about leaving home, about formative experiences, about autonomy and community.” In a more practical vein, they might also undertake a comparative study of college curricula or costs.

Sizer also wants seniors to immerse themselves in long-term projects on topics that engage them emotionally and intellectually. Students interested in theater might write and produce plays. A promising young scientist might study the causes of pollution in a local lake or stream. At the end of the year, they would present their projects to members of the school community.

Unfortunately, most of these ideas will not be easy to implement at typical high schools. Thanks in part to college and university admission requirements, most secondary school academic programs are inflexible, obliging students to continue amassing traditional credits right up to graduation. Still, reworking the senior year along the lines Sizer suggests is certainly a worthwhile goal if we want graduates to leave high school with a genuine sense of accomplishment. Too many now leave feeling disappointed with themselves for their dismal senior-year performances.


CLASS WARFARE:
Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence

by J. Martin Rochester
(Encounter Books, 316 pages, $26.95)

In what is essentially a back-to-basics tract, Rochester, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, denounces a wide rangeof popular classroomapproaches—cooperative learning, whole language, fuzzy math, and others—as examples of the progressivism that is ruining public education. He tersely dismisses progressivism as “absolute nonsense” and “an utter failure” and claims it’s the reason our kids can no longer read and write and why they need intensive remediation when they enter college.

This book is typical of the anti-public school genre, relying heavily on personal experience—Rochester’s children attended public schools in the 1980s—and collected anecdotes, most of them examples of teacher stupidity. He then juxtaposes these highly subjective impressions with hand-picked test-score data and the like to give his argument an objective air.

Amazingly, while attacking the laxity and trendiness of public education, he virtually ignores the imposing impact in recent years of the standards and accountability movement. And in one spot, he decries a perceived drift toward less and less homework, when, in fact, the current trend is exactly the opposite. If Rochester’s book, to borrow his own words, isn’t absolute nonsense, it’s certainly an utter failure.


BIG BROTHER AND THE NATIONAL READING CURRICULUM:
How Ideology Trumped Evidence
edited by Richard L. Allington (Heinemann, 288 pages, $23.50)

A professor of education at the University of Florida and a highly regarded reading expert, Allington writes that he was preparing “to slide into retirement” until a disturbing development caught his attention. Policymakers at the federal and state levels, he noticed, were using dubious “findings” from the 2000 National Reading Panel Report to write legislation requiring rigid phonics instruction in public schools.

Although hardly an apologist for whole language (he has criticized its excesses), Allington decided to stay and fight what he and the other reading specialists who contributed to this volume see as wayward ideology masquerading as scientific research. The result is a compelling book that calls into question the ascension of phonics instruction to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The authors amass substantial evidence to show that they are not exaggerating when they warn thata “nothing but phonics” trend is sweeping the country. At least 26 states have passed “phonics bills,” many with specific language about the “appropriate” way to teach reading. Pennsylvania, for one, stipulates that schools should offer “an exact, concentrated, thorough, sequential presentation of phonetic knowledge through techniques and practices which are introduced incrementally, logically, and systematically.”

What the authors find particularly galling is that lawmakers and education bureaucrats rarely mention children reading and discussing rich literature. The emphasis, it seems, is on what one contributor describes as “decodable texts.” Allington himself writes that the current state and national frameworks for teaching reading emphasize “the lowest-level proficiencies—the ones that are easiest to accomplish and measure.”

Ironically, U.S. 4th graders finished second in recent international comparisons of reading achievement, ahead of such high- literacy countries as Sweden and France. Maybe, one wonders after finishing this persuasive volume, politically motivated policymakers are trying to “fix” something that isn’t broken at all.

—David Ruenzel

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Whitepaper
6 Insights for Educators on Using Databases
Discover how teachers are effectively using databases with insights from educators who use Gale In Context: For Educators to collect, org...
Content provided by Gale
Curriculum Opinion Introducing Primary Sources to Students
Five educators share strategies for introducing primary sources to students, including English-language learners.
12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Curriculum Opinion Eight Ways to Teach With Primary Sources
Four educators share ways they use primary sources with students, including a strategy called "Zoom."
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Curriculum The Dr. Seuss Controversy: What Educators Need to Know
The business that manages Dr. Seuss' work and legacy will cease publishing six books due to racist stereotypes and offensive content.
5 min read
A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair on March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator's legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children's titles including "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" and "If I Ran the Zoo," because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would cease publication of several of the author's children's titles because of insensitive and racist imagery.
Steven Senne/AP