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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 31, 1999

Posted to NewsTrolls 31 May 1999

The "school crisis" we hear so much about is as much political agitation as it is a genuine concern for education. Carol Innerst's feature story in the Washington Monthly is a case in point. While she makes it sound like the problems with schools lie in poor pedagogy, what she is really arguing is that schools would be better if they weren't so damn socialist.

And like most such arguments, her tactics are not those of insightful and reasoned criticism or the research which has led to today's teaching practises. Rather, she bases most of her argument on a misconstrual or misunderstanding of teaching methodology and research.

Consider how she begins her column. She leads by discussing seating arrangements in the classroom.

They were lined up in rows. She wanted them in a "U" shape because rows are "boring" and too "traditional." Rows also apparently promote individualism, which would-be teachers learn is bad, rather than cooperation, which encourages students to talk and work together.
Many teachers have abandoned the 6x5 row and column arrangement, preferring a circular or U shape. They do this not because rows are "boring" and "traditional". They do it because a circular format is much more appropriate for classroom discussions. Such an arrangement requires that students look at each other when they argue or debate, rather than at the teacher.

And there is nothing more or less individualistic about rows over circles. It is true, in a circle, students actually have to interact with each other. However it is arguable that requiring a student to interact promotes individuality, since it promotes one's capacity to hold one's own in a fair and equal exchange. If anything, by contrast, rows subsume individuality, because they teach that conformity and subservience to the master at the front of the room is all that matters.

Innerst complains that schools of education teach "how to teach" instead of "what to teach". She implies that teachers are insufficiently versed in the subject matter, citing numerous (but undocumented) surveys, test scores and indicators. One wonders where she got her figures (or whether she made them up) and whether they are indicative of a trend.

But presumably, university is not the place to focus on learning high school curricula. Presumably, most entrants into teachers' college already know the capitals of the states, how to subtract, and the atomic number of hydrogen. What they don't know - and need to learn - is how to structure that information and to present it in such a way as to be remembered by students in the classroom.

Perhaps teachers' SAT scores are low. Such scores could certainly be contrasted with, say, those scored by pharmacologists, physicians, lawyers, or business school applicants. But you get what you pay for. Teachers' salaries are lower than any of these ocupations, and many more besides. Innerst conveniently forgets to discus teacher salaries in her article.

But it is the political agenda which concerns Innerst most. She complains,

And most still view their role, and the primary role of the teachers they train, as change agents whose mission is to work toward social justice and equity in the classroom rather than academic achievement. The 1993 mission statement of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education explains: "First and foremost, quality teacher education [programs] must be places of active conscience. The professional commitment to social justice, and the ethics of equity and diversity in the American culture must be palpable."
Such may be opposed to Innerst's own agenda, but we have seen what happens when such values are not taught. We have seen what happens when we graduate (or arrest) from our schools individuals without a social conscience. We have seen the effects of racism and intolerance. We have seen what happens when individuals - and especially high ranking officials - show a disregard for law and justice.

The AACTE statement recognizes and expresses what we have long known: that in addition to teaching facts, schools are important as teachers of morals and values. This is a fact which disturbs some parents, especially those from rigorous or intolerant backgrounds, who believe that the best and only moral education is taught in the home.

But too many "moral lessons" are taught in the home as it is - by the father who abuses his daughter, by the mother strung out on pills or crack, by the uncle who runs an underground operation in 'consumables', by the grandparent who believes blacks and Jews are launching a global conspiracy.

Morality should be taught in the schools - and has always been taught in the schools - because morality is the fabric which prevents this or any nation from crumbling into an anarchy of sects and factions each striving militarily or otherwise to enforce conformity with their One World View. Morality is what keeps us from killing other citizens, from pissing on their lawns or stealing their furnature. No law can enforce that which morality does not already proscribe, and for that reason the AACTE argues that morality is the prime component of any education.

But Innerst is more interested in representing the teaching of moraliy as the first edge of creeping socialism. Moreover, schools - to her horror - are employing cooperative learning, developmentally appropriate learning and other "learner-centred" methodologies.

Her argument against cooperative learning (aside from the fact that it sounds vaguely socialist) is that it "enforces a lowest common denominator on the group and holds individuals back". There is some merit to this point of view, as any of us who have had to learn through "group work" understand.

The increasing employment of cooperative learning in schools occurs - ironically - as a result of demands from business. Indeed, a student's ability to work as a "member of a team" is one of the most desired attributes of business today. Many business endeavours - from the authoring of software to the construction of a bridge - are large, complex tasks which requires that individuals work as a member of a team.

Such endeavours are by their very nature limited by the slowest person on the team. Part of working well as a group means preventing such a person from hindering the project. We do not want bridges - or even software - constructed by rugged and competative individualists, because even if the star's work is up to standards, the worth of a bridge is determined by the poorest - not the best - spot weld or rivet.

Innerst also dislikes "developmentally appropriate" learning.

The intention is to ensure caring treatment of young children, yet the ultimate effect of the doctrine is to cause social harm. To withold demanding content from young children between preschool and third grade has an effect which is quite different from the one intended. It leaves advantaged children [who get knowledge at home] with boring pabulum, and it condemns disadvantaged children to a permanent educational handicap that grows worse over time.
This is a misrepresentation of developmentally appropriate learning. It assumes that the entire class progresses at the speed of the poorest student. It assumes that material which is appropriate is by that fact not challenging. Neither of these assumptions is true, and the comment reflect more ignorance than it does any sort of insightful criticism.

Advocates of developmentally appropriate learning recognize - as Innerst states - that different children learn at different speeds. What a surprise it would be were that not so! And yet it is traditional learning which marches them lock-step through a predefined and inflexible curriculum. Developmentally appropriate learning allows students to proceed at their own pace. The faster children progress more rapidly, the slower at a more sedate pace.

Indeed, one reason why the level of education at the Grade 11 and 12 level is so low is that schools for the most part have not adopted devlopmentally appropriate learning, that they have too long remained in the row and column lockstep which characterized their parents' education.

However, when you march in lock-step, you do one of two things: you either leave half the class behind, those who cannot keep up, or you move at a slower pace. In the past, those who could not keep up dropped out in grade 9 or lower; but this is no longer acceptable in a world where a high school education is required of everybody. So the classes moved more slowly, valuable learning time taken up by review and rehearsal.

One wonders what Innerst wants when she says she wants schools to teach more demanding material. Will she be content with a nation of grade 9 dropouts? One wonders how individualistic such functionally illiterate members of our society could be. Or maybe she belives in some sort of educational miracle, one where if you will it hard enough, slow students will learn quickly.

It sounds like the latter. She complains that students no longer learn to read by the end of the first grade; that they now are not able to read until the end of the third grade. What has changed is not the nature of the student, nor the level of education, but the definition of being "able to read". The number of words in the language has tripled over the the last generation, children live in a multi-media (and not unilingual) environment, and "being able to read" means being able to master more complex concepts than the drones of the forties and fifties required.

But rather than examine the task, she examines the methodology - "whole language teaching" - which has prevailed in recent years over "phonics". The first emphasizes learning by context, the latter learning by sound. In fact, neither on its own is an adequate approach to learning, and neither focusses on sentence structure and syntax. Each is indeed representative of the most harmful trend in education, slavish adherence to fads, and it is safe to say, that Innerst is as much a victim of that as anybody.

Innerst's magic solution is to "raise the bar", to focus on recruiting better students and providing them better training. Sounds good.

Her first take on this is to make admission and graduation standards higher for students. She even cites some schools which do this and yet still managed to recruit enough applicants. But such a solution won't work until all, not merely "50 good training institutions out of 1300" do it.

But suppose all 1300 did it. How would that raise the calibre of applicants? Would the new and better students magically appear? The lure for prospective teachers is not the quality of teachers' college so much as it is the nature of the eventual employment which results. Innerst will have to face the fact that if you want better people to enter the system, you have to make conditions better for people within the system.

Her second approach is to require state certification of teachers' colleges. This approach, she argues, "lessen the impact of the faddish curricula of the teacher training institutions" - as though politicians and bureaucrats are somehow immune to fads. But more seriously, "If a school regularly graduates teachers who can't pass the state's certification test, states can shut that school down."

And one must ask - replace it with what?

Quality teachers' colleges do not arise by fiat. If you close down a teachers' college, the demand for teachers remains unabated. Failing to meet that demand results in even more crowded schools and poor learning.

Indeed, the states which Innerst praises now conduct active (and expensive) recruitment campaigns in Canada and elsewhere because the teachers' college system in the United States is not able even now, with such "low" standards, to meet the demand.

Innerst talks glowingly about George Mason University's Graduate School of Education. She does not mention, first, that it's a graduate school, which means that students there have completed four years of learning. And she does not talk about how much it costs to provide such in depth training. Raising the bar without raising teachers' pay, university funding, and other support mechanisms simply means that there will be fewer teachers. The laws of supply and demand work in the classroom as well as in the boardroom.

But perhaps Innerst realizes that there will be a teacher shortage after all. Perhaps that's why her third magic bullet is to proliferate private and charter schools, to educate those who can pay the first class tuitions, while the rest of the plebians make do with PBS.

For certainly, nobody believes that

School choice, which allows families to choose the public or private school they want their children to attend with state funding following the child, could also prod schools losing students to rethink their methodologies, putting pressure on the training institutions.
This sort of fairly tale works only in poltical fantasyland. It assume, again, that by fiat you can make things all right just by wishing it were so. In fact, what happens is that quality concentrates in the schools which pay the best salaries, and such schools limit enrollment by raising tuition or other fees, with the result that, while the system as a whole has not improved, the balance of good teaching has shifted to a small number of exclusive institutions, to the detriment of the rest.

The problem with education is that everybody needs it, must have it, in order to function in spociety, but the system was never adapted to teaching all the people, just the richest or (in some cases) the brightest. Retrenching into an exclusionary system will not solve any problems in education, and indeed, may cause a number of new ones.

The surest sign that a society is in decline occurs when a generation of children graduates which is demonstrably less educated than their parents. The surest sign that such is about to happen is when a society abandons its stake in education to the private education of a privileged few. It is a calamity from which no civilization throughout history has been able to recover.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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