Connections: False Dichotomy

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A battle is being waged over the future of American public education. On the one side are the "reformers'' who are pushing for radical changes in the system and break-the-mold schools. On the other are the "traditionalists'' who march under the banner of "back to basics'' and want to preserve schools as they have been for most of this century. It is a battle that has been fought often in the past and usually won by the traditionalists.

The story beginning on page 28 is about a recent casualty--Littleton, Colo. For nearly a decade, the 16,000-student, mostly white, middle-class district has been at the forefront of reform. Teachers have worked long hours to make good schools better. Believing their students capable of higher achievement, they were determined to shift the emphasis from seat time to active learning. Beginning in 1995, students would have to complete a series of demonstrations of their knowledge and skills in order to graduate. High standards, high expectations.

A group of parents, worried that the schools were giving short shrift to the basics, claimed that teachers were more interested in shaping students' attitudes and beliefs than in making sure they could read, write, and compute. The anti-reform group fielded a slate of candidates in the last school board election and won. The new board is leading Littleton back to basics.

African-American families especially seem to believe that the basics are crucial to their children's success. Dismayed that the urban public schools are failing them, a growing number of these families are sending their children to newly established private schools. Our cover story, beginning on page 18, looks at several mainly black private schools in Atlanta. These schools look very much like the traditional public school. In general, they eschew progressive educational philosophies in favor of a highly structured curriculum, discipline, and hard work. And they share a common commitment to religion and values. High standards, high expectations.

An African-American researcher justifies the emphasis on rules and discipline this way: "If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly what the rules of that culture are makes acquiring power easier.''

In Baltimore, a predominantly African-American public elementary school has been trying a different approach to emphasizing the basics and is succeeding beyond expectations. It is using a highly structured curriculum developed nearly a century ago at the private Calvert School, located across town. (See story on page 8.) The inventors of that curriculum recognized that the basics are not an end in themselves but a foundation on which future learning is built. The program stresses fundamentals. But it also stresses comprehension in reading as well as phonics, requires children to read literature along with basals, and blends academic disciplines. In addition, it tries to keep class size relatively small, staffs each classroom with an instructional aid, and provides extensive staff development for teachers. Again, high standards, high expectations.

The apparent dichotomy between basic education and higher learning is a false one. No sensible educator can deny that schools should help children master the basic knowledge and skills they need to be constant learners and good citizens. But sensible educators also recognize that writing is more than learning cursive script and correct spelling; reading is more than decoding words; and arithmetic is a way of thinking--the language of science--and not just the times tables.

Researchers have learned a great deal over the past 30 years about how children learn. That knowledge is relevant and useful in all schools--traditional and progressive. Unfortunately, it seldom finds its way into many of the nation's classrooms. And when it does, parents, like those in Littleton, often fear that their children are being used as guinea pigs.

Examples of such research appear in our new monthly research section. (See page 14.) "A Search For Meaning'' describes a new teaching approach that helps children make sense of text. And "Counting Them In'' explores how children acquire mathematical abilities and develop the conceptual structure for higher learning in mathematics.

The issue is not the basics vs. higher learning. The issue is whether schools will adapt to changing times and changing needs. Who would put their child in a hospital that practices medicine as it was practiced in 1940?--Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 05, Issue 09, Page 1-24

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