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No Dog Left Behind: The Fallacy of 'Tough Love' Reform

Posted: 2009-02-11

Posted with the author's permission. from Education Week, Jan. 28, 2009

Post this fine piece in the faculty room. Send it home to parents. Send it to members of the House & Senate Education Committees.


Driving the rural roads of Scotland, Ireland,
and

Wales, I've occasionally been fortunate
enough to

be blocked by sheep being moved from one
pasture

to another.



I say "fortunate" because I've gotten to
watch an

impressive performance by a dog—a border
collie.

And what a performance! A single, midsize dog

herding two or three hundred sheep, keeping
them

moving in the right direction, rounding up

strays, knowing how to intimidate but not
cause

panic, funneling them all through a gate, and

obviously enjoying the challenge.

Why a border collie? Why not an Airedale or

Zuchon, or another of about 400 breeds listed
on

the Internet?



Because, among those for whom herding sheep
is

serious business, there's general agreement
that

border collies are better than any other dog
at

doing what needs to be done. They have "the

knack." That knack is so important, those who

care most about border collies even oppose
their

being entered in dog shows. They're certain
that

would lead to border collies being bred to
look

good, and looking good isn't the point. What

counts is talent, interest, innate ability,

performance.



Other breeds are no less impressive in other

ways. If you're lost in a snowstorm in the
Alps,

you don't need a border collie. You need a
big,

strong dog with a good nose, lots of fur,
wide

feet, and a great sense of direction for

returning with help. You need a Saint
Bernard.

If varmints are sneaking into your henhouse,

killing your chickens, and escaping down a
little

hole in a nearby field, you don't need a
border

collie or a Saint Bernard. You need a fox

terrier.



Want to sniff luggage for bombs? Chase
felons?

Stand guard duty? Retrieve downed game birds?

Guide the blind? Detect certain diseases?
Locate

earthquake survivors? Entertain audiences?
Play

nice with little kids? Go for help if Little
Nell

falls down a well? With training, dogs can do

those jobs well.



So, let's set performance standards and train
all

dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. Leave no
dog

behind. Two-hundred-pound mastiffs may have a

little trouble with the chase-the-fox-into-
the-

little-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will

probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-

felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard.
But,

hey, standards are standards! No excuses! No

giving in to the soft bigotry of low

expectations. Hold dogs accountable.



Here's a question: Why are one-size-fits-all

performance standards inappropriate to the
point

of silliness when applied to dogs, but
accepted

without question when applied to kids? If
someone

tried to set up a national program to teach
every

dog to do everything that various breeds are
able

to do, the Humane Society and the American

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals

would have them in court in a New York
minute.

But when authorities mandate one-size-fits-
all

performance standards for kids, and the
standards

aren't met, it's the kids and teachers, not
the

standards, that get blamed.



Consider, for example, what's happening in
math

"reform." School systems across the country
are

upping both the number of required courses
and

their level of difficulty. Why? Is it because

math teaches transferable thinking skills?



There's no research supporting that
contention.

Is it because advanced math is required for

college work? Where's the evidence that
colleges

have a clear grasp of America's educational

challenge and therefore should be leading the

education parade? Is it because most adults
make

routine use of higher math? No. Is it because

American industry is begging for more

mathematicians? Not according to statistics
on

available job opportunities. Is it because
math

has played an important role in America's

technological achievements, and if we're to

continue to be pre-eminent, a full range of
math

courses needs to be taught?



Bingo! And true. But how much sense does it
make

to run every kid in America through the same
math

regimen, when only a small percentage has
enough

mathematical ability to make productive use
of

it? How much sense does it make to put a math

whiz in an Algebra 2 classroom with 25 or 30

aspiring lawyers, dancers, automatic-
transmission

specialists, social workers, surgeons,
artists,

hairdressers, language teachers? How much
sense

does it make to put hundreds of thousands of
kids

on the street because they can't jump through
a

particular math hoop?



Some suggestions:

One: Stop fixating on the American economy.

Trying to shape kids to fit the needs of
business

and industry rather than the other way around
is

immoral.



Two: Stop massive, standardized testing. For
a

fraction of the cost of high-stakes subject-

matter tests, every kid's strengths and

weaknesses can be identified using
inexpensive

inventories of interests, abilities, and
learning

styles.



Three: Eliminate grade levels. Start with
where

kids are, help them go as far as they can go
as

fast as they can go, then give them a paper

describing what they can do, or a Web site
where

they can do it for themselves.



Four: When kids are ready for work, push

responsibility for teaching specialized
skills

and knowledge onto users of those skills and

knowledge—employers. Occupation-related

instruction such as that now being offered in

magnet schools will never keep up with the

variety of skills needed or their rates of

change. Apprenticeships and intern
arrangements

will go a long way toward smoothing the

transition into responsible adulthood.



Five: Abandon the assumption that spending
the

day "covering the material" in a random mix
of

five or six subjects educates well. Only one

course of study is absolutely essential.
Societal

cohesion and effective functioning require

participation in a broad conversation about

values, beliefs, and patterns of action,
their

origins, and their probable and possible
future

consequences. The young need to engage in
that

conversation, and a single, comprehensive,

systemically integrated course of study could

prepare them for it. It should be the only

required course.



Six: Limiting required study to a single
course

would result in an explosion of educational

options (and save a lot of money). We say we

respect individual differences, say we value

initiative, spontaneity, and creativity, say
we

admire the independent thinker, say every
person

should be helped to realize her or his full

potential, say the young need to be
introduced to

the real world—then we spend a half-trillion

dollars a year on a system of education at
odds

with our rhetoric. Aligning the institution
with

our core values would give it the legitimacy
and

generate the excitement it now lacks.



Alternatively, we can continue on our present

course. For almost 20 years, "reform" has
been

driven by the assumption that "the system"—
the

math, science, language arts, and social
studies

curriculum in near-universal use in America's

schools and colleges since 1892—is sound,
from

which it follows that poor performance must
be

the fault of the teachers and kids. This, of

course, calls for tough love—standards,

accountability, raised bars, rigor,
competitive

challenges, public shaming, pay for
performance,

penalties for nonperformance.



Wrong diagnosis, so wrong cure. The problem
isn't

the kids and the teachers; it's the system.
More

than a century of failed attempts to drive
square

pegs into round holes suggests it's past time
to

stop treating human variability as a problem

rather than as an evolutionary triumph, and
begin

making the most of it.



Marion Brady is a retired high school
teacher,

college professor, and textbook author who
writes

frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa,

Fla.

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