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Firing Silver Bullets or Blanks to Improve Schools?

Posted: 2010-02-16

from Florida Thinks: The Forum for Civil Debate Feb. 11, 2010.

Longtime educator Marion Brady has a plan: Stop the information overload, which includes making middle schoolers memorize eight new terms a day.

Bill Gates says that big, impersonal schools are obstacles to improved

learner performance. He's right. His foundation has poured major money into

a "small schools initiative," but thus far nothing much of educational

consequence has resulted.

Eli Broad says that better leadership is the key to improved learner

performance, and the Broad Foundation has put up significant money to train

new ones. Obviously, good leaders are essential, but thus far, Broad-trained

leaders haven't introduced any revolutionary new approaches to educating.

Jeb Bush, echoing the late Milton Friedman, says bringing market forces to

bear shapes schools up. The market-based reforms he put in place in Florida

led to teachers and schools being graded, compared, labeled, rewarded and

punished. But cut through the political hype and the statistical game

playing, and it's clear that after more than a decade, nothing of academic

consequence has changed. Indeed, misapplied, market forces are


Rigor Overrated

Policymakers in Tallahassee, like those in most other state capitals and

Washington, have long argued the merits of greater rigor. They've pushed for

more math, more science, more Advanced Placement courses, more International

Baccalaureate programs, and more testing. But neither the evidence nor

common sense suggest that "raising the rigor bar" for learners who can't

clear the bars already in place will improve schools.

Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and the policymakers in state capitals and

Washington aren't the only ones with ideas about what's wrong with schools,

and what would set them straight. Op-eds nationwide read about the same:

End social promotion! Put all kids in uniform! Disband teacher unions! Close

down schools of education! Get tough on parents! Expel the troublemakers!

Give everybody vouchers! Put mayors in charge! Abolish tenure! Bring back

corporal punishment! Convert all schools to charters! Increase spending!

Adopt pay-for-performance schemes!

Check around, and it turns out that somewhere, all these "reform" strategies

and many others have been tried and have made little or no difference. That's

because -- as most educators know but those actually running the big show

refuse to admit -- the main reason for poor learner performance is childhood

poverty. Take away the test scores of kids on free and reduced lunch -- those

least likely to have had adequate health care, least likely to have had good

diets, least likely to have had stable, stress-free home environments, least

likely to have been exposed to books and rich, varied conversation, least

likely to have traveled, least likely to have had music or other kinds of

private lessons -- take away their test scores and the average of those left

will be right up there with the best, not just in the United States but in

the world.

Of the 21 richest countries in the world, the United States ranks next to

last in average measures of childhood well-being. And, according to the

Anna E. Casey Foundation, on that near-bottom-of-the-barrel world list,

Florida ranks about midway between New Hampshire and Minnesota at the top of

the bottom, and Mississippi and Louisiana at the bottom of the bottom.

There's a problem, all right, but it isn't a problem that can be addressed

by telling teachers to suck it up and get on with the job.

How to Make the Best of a Bad Situation

Neither the nation nor the state has the collective will and brains to make

a dent in childhood poverty, but I have an education-specific suggestion

that could help make the best of a bad situation.

Several years ago, to illustrate a point I wanted to make in a column

written for the Orlando Sentinel, I went to my nearest middle school and

asked to see copies of the eighth-grade math, science, language arts and

social-studies textbooks. The school obliged.

Sitting in the school's reception area, I counted the terms in the

glossaries of the four books, rightly assuming that they represented what

experts thought every kid should know.

One thousand, four hundred and sixty-five! That's how many terms were in the

glossaries of just those four textbooks. That's 1,465 main ideas for

14-year-olds to learn in a school year, an average of about eight new ones a

day. That's not just ridiculous; it's insane. In the real, adult world, an

author who's trying to get just ONE new idea across assumes it will take a

whole book. (Think Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point, or Alexis de

Tocqueville and Democracy In America.)

19th-Century Tool Outdated for 21st

Americans, philosophically predisposed to think short-term, and more

concerned with individual than with the general welfare, aren't going to do

anything about childhood poverty. But that doesn't have to mean that it is

impossible to make radical improvements in educating. Information overload

is just one of at least 20 problems with the familiar "core curriculum," the

static, 19th-century intellectual tool the young are being handed to guide

them through the 21st.

Clinging to that curriculum is a recipe not just for educational but for

societal disaster. If education policymakers in Tallahassee and Washington

knew what they were doing, instead of demanding national standards and tests

keyed to a curriculum generated in an era long past and no longer relevant,

they'd be calling for an emergency national conference to rethink what's

being taught, and why.

Marion Brady is a retired high school teacher, college professor and district-level administrator, and the author of textbooks, professional books, and journal articles. He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post newspaper as a guest blogger. His website is http://www.MarionBrady.com.

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