Needed: New Answers

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“The trouble with our times,” said Paul Valery, the French poet and mathematician, “is that the future is not what it used to be.” In each of this month's feature articles, there is a tension between the status quo and change, between old questions and new answers.

John Saxon has attracted considerable attention and a loyal following by taking on “the Establishment.” (See “Math's Angry Man,” page 24.) He repudiates the widely acclaimed content standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in favor of his own sure-fire method of teaching math. But the controversy isn't just about whether one method is better than another. It is about a revolutionary change in our understanding of how children learn.

Saxon is a traditionalist who prescribes a textbook-centered, scripted, “teacher proof” method that breaks down knowledge into small bits and feeds it to students gradually piece by piece until, through practice and repetition, they have assimilated it. That's what most teaching has always been in this country.

But cognitive science research in recent years suggests that this is not the way children learn best. The school reform movement, which the NCTM standards reflect, promotes teaching for understanding—a child-centered approach in which the teacher builds on students' interests and helps them take more responsibility for their own education. Real books are used instead of basals and textbooks. Authentic assessment replaces standardized tests. The objective is not memorization but the cultivation of the ability to reason and think creatively.

In “Putting Portfolios To The Test,” which begins on page 36, the issue is accountability. Vermont officials feel obligated to let the public know on a regular basis how well schools are doing. Traditionally, this has been done through publishing students' scores on norm-referenced standardized tests. To their credit, Vermont officials have decided student portfolios will present a better and more complete picture of student performance. But the state wants to use the portfolios to compare schools. That means teachers across the state must grade portfolios and do so in such a way that the scores are consistent and reliable— something not yet achieved.

Teachers agree that they, their students, and parents can learn far more about student performance from portfolios than from standardized tests. And if the educational outcomes being sought are clearly defined, and if the necessary resources are available, the teachers are willing to be held accountable. But they don't see why it is necessary to compare one school against another in order to have accountability. There is an implied lack of trust in teachers' competence and professionalism.

Finally, “Soul Searching” (page 30) reflects on the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned prayer at school graduations, a decision that has reignited the long-smoldering battle over the separation of church and state.

There are obvious legal and constitutional issues involved in the dispute over school prayer. But even if there weren't, there would still be educational questions. Those who favor prayer in school believe that it would counteract the moral decline in our society. They are bemused that schools can distribute condoms and teach about homosexuality but reject prayer and anything else having to do with religion. They lament the “capitulation of schools to the forces of secularism and moral relativism.”

In the face of rampant violence, rising crime, child abuse, as well as selfishness, greed, and corruption in public and private institutions, only the most optimistic among us could deny the erosion of morality and ethics in society, including among the younger generation. Nor is there much doubt that the dissolution of family and community has left many young people without instruction in moral behavior and civic responsibility, a void that schools have failed to fill. But only the ill-informed and naive could believe that the banning of school prayer caused this moral crisis or that its restoration would solve it.

There is no doubt about the seriousness of the problems we face or about our need to address them. The key question is, Can we solve today's and tomorrow's complex problems with yesterday's solutions or must we find new paradigms?

The success of the decade-long effort to improve the nation's schools depends very much on how we answer that question.

Vol. 05, Issue 01, Page 3

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