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Education Reform: A problem, and a Proposal

Posted: 2010-05-18

Longtime educator and author Marion Brady circulates this position paper in the hope it will provoke reaction and criticism.


In this paper, I will argue that the education reform being promoted by the

federal government will fail, that the major underlying cause of poor school

performance is being incorrectly diagnosed, and that the rationale for the

reform strategy is unsupportable. I will identify specific problems with a

critically important but generally ignored component of traditional general

education instruction, and propose an alternative.

How matters stand

The "standards and accountability" education reform effort begun in the

1980s at the urging of leaders of business and industry, is failing. The

reform message, powerfully reinforced by mainstream media, is simple: One:

America's schools are, at best, mediocre. Two: Teachers and students deserve

most of the blame. Three: As a corrective, rigorous subject-matter standards

and tests must be put in place. Four: Market forces must be brought to bear

to pressure teachers and students to work to those standards.

It is assumed that competition - student against student, teacher against

teacher, school against school, state against state, nation against nation -

will yield the improvement necessary for the United States to finish in

first place internationally.

Premises of the current reform strategy

This diagnosis of the cause of poor school performance and prescription for

its cure structure a reform strategy that seems straightforward and logical

but rests on an unexamined assumption.

That strategy: Education reform policy must be "data driven." Standardized

tests produce the necessary data in the form of scores. The scores are

valid because the tests are valid. The tests are valid because they are

keyed to standards. The standards are valid because they are keyed to

certain school subjects. These subjects are valid because they are

components of the core curriculum. The core curriculum is valid because it

has been in use for more than a century and its validity has not been


Or, to sequence the logic differently: Custom and bureaucracy legitimize the

core curriculum, the core curriculum legitimizes certain school subjects,

those subjects legitimize the standards, the standards legitimize the tests,

the tests legitimize the scores, and the scores legitimize the reform


Imagine an inverted pyramid, with the whole of the current reform effort

resting on the assumption that the present math-science-language arts-social

studies "core curriculum" adequately prepares the young for what will almost

certainly be the most complex, unpredictable, demanding and dangerous era in

human history.

The major underlying cause of poor school performance

The "core" was adopted in 1893. Custom and the conventional wisdom

notwithstanding, it is deeply flawed. It (1) directs random information at

learners at rates far beyond even the most capable learner's ability to

cope, (2) minimizes or even rejects the role that free play, art, music,

dance, and random social experience play in intellectual development, (3) is

so inefficient it leaves little time for apprenticeships, internships,

co-ops, projects, and other links to the real world and adulthood, (4)

neglects extremely important fields of study, (5) has no built-in mechanisms

forcing it to adapt to social change, (6) gives short shrift to "higher

order" thought processes, and (7) makes no provision for raising and

examining questions essential to ethical and moral development.

The core (8) has no agreed-upon, overarching societal aim, (9) lacks

criteria establishing what new knowledge is important and what old knowledge

to disregard to make way for the new, (10) does not move learners steadily

through ever-increasing levels of intellectual complexity, (11) overworks

learner memory at the expense of logic, (12) emphasizes reading and symbol

manipulation skills to the neglect of other ways of learning, (13) is keyed

to students' ages rather than their aptitudes, interests, and abilities,

(14) makes educator dialog and teamwork difficult because it artificially

and arbitrarily fragments knowledge, and (15) encourages attempts to

quantify quality and other simplistic approaches to evaluation.

As it is usually taught, the core (16) penalizes rather than capitalizes on

individual differences, (17) ignores the systemically integrated nature of

knowledge, (18) fails to adequately utilize the single most valuable

teaching resource - learner first-hand experience, (19) requires a great

deal of "seat time passivity" at odds with youthful nature, (20) is

inordinately costly to administer, (21) emphasizes standardization to the

neglect of the major sources of America's past strength and success -

individual initiative, imagination, and creativity - and (22) fails to

recognize the implications of the recent transition from difficult learner

access to limited information, to near-instantaneous learner access to

prodigious volumes of information.

If, as the No Child Left Behind legislation, Race to the Top, and The Common

Core State Standards Initiative assume, the curriculum is sound, the most

important reform questions have to do with the effectiveness of competition

and other market forces in altering teacher and learner behavior.

But if poor performance is not primarily a "people problem" but a system

problem - a poor curriculum - these programs are at best ineffectual and at

worst counterproductive, for they maintain and reinforce the curricular

status quo.

The need

The role the general education curriculum plays in shaping individuals and

the future of the nation is too important to simply take its validity for

granted. Any one of the 22 problems noted earlier is sufficiently serious to

warrant emergency action, the traditional curriculum suffers from all of

them, and more than a century of efforts to improve it by sequencing and

re-sequencing courses, altering distribution requirements, and exploring

interdisciplinary parallels and intersections, have not solved the core

curriculum's problems.

Failure to recognize those problems has contributed to the arrogance that

leads elites and policymakers to assume they know enough about human

potential, the nature of the future, and the range of differences in

learners and learner situation to dictate what the young need to know, a

notion at odds with common sense and deep-seated societal values.

It is almost universally assumed that the academic disciplines are the

optimum organizers of knowledge. The disciplines are indeed important and

productive, but neither singly nor in any combination do they provide what

learners most need for general education purposes - a "master" organizer of

information encompassing and relating all knowledge, free of the problems

noted above, and easily understood and manipulated by all learners.

That organizer must be constructed and lifted into consciousness by the

individual learner. Only if reality is engaged directly is that possible.

A proposal

Educating, finally, is about helping the young construct satisfactory mental

models of reality to guide action. It is ironic, then, that given reality's

ubiquity, three-dimensionality, and ready accessibility, so much formal

instruction ignores it, concentrating instead on learner familiarity with

secondhand information regarding it. This manifestation of the process of

"institutionalization" - making the study of text and other facsimiles and

models of reality play a more important role in instruction than reality

itself - must be countered.

Immediate, "right here, right now" reality or its "residue" should be the

learner's primary "textbook," and making it so is the surest, most direct

route to a philosophically defensible, theoretically sound, politically

neutral, practical, useful, problem-free curriculum.

A curriculum focused on making more sense of immediate reality (the learner's

school, certainly, and perhaps neighborhood), provides an initial real-world

focus of study unsurpassed in relevance and practicality. It automatically

adapts to every ability level, challenging the least and most able learners

alike. It can provide direct, "hands on" exposure to every major concept of

every major discipline. It engages learners in a task they will face every

moment for the rest of their lives. It utilizes every known cognitive

process, erases the artificial, arbitrary lines between specialized studies

and between the sciences and the humanities, makes obvious the systemic

nature of reality, enriches the disciplines, and stimulates creativity. Its

efficiency has the potential to revolutionize scheduling, radically expand

learning options and make possible truly significant cuts in budgets. In

short, it addresses all 22 of the curricular problems noted above.

The challenge of change

There will be no significant improvement in general education until the

inadequacies of the traditional curriculum are admitted and addressed.

Resistance will be formidable, for the curricular status quo is deeply

embedded in tradition at all levels of instruction from elementary school

through the university. Complex bureaucracies buttress it, corporations are

deeply invested in it, and nearly all educators have reason to resist it.

Additionally, many in positions of authority are psychologically disposed to

reject granting learners sufficient autonomy to construct their own models

of reality.

But if we hope to survive, clinging to a curriculum that was poor when it

was adopted and grows more dysfunctional by the day, is not an option.

The situation calls for leadership, for no task is inherently more

intellectually demanding than deciding what the young should be taught.

Unfortunately, presently, those decisions are being informed by leaders of

business and industry and others whose perspectives are too narrow to

reflect the common good, and embodied in legislation by policymakers who

lack an understanding of the issues and an ability to grasp their systemic

implications and ramifications.

A high-profile national dialog should be initiated. Given the present level

of political polarization, it should be sponsored by politically neutral


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