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The Persistence of the 'Grammar of Schooling'

Publication Date: 2003-05-21

Ed Schuster has a modest proposal: Since we don't bother to study school reform in any way to benefit schools, why not just reprint "Nation at Risk" every ten years?

April 26 marks the twentieth anniversary of "A Nation At Risk," the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by Ronald Reagan's Education Secretary T. H. Bell. It is often thought that the report initiated "an era of educational reform." This is largely a myth. The reform?such as it was?began well before the report was published.

Let's look back on the decade that immediately preceded the report, 1974?1983.

In the public school system where I was English language arts supervisor, there was a bit of progressivism at the beginning of that decade. We had some electives, a few so-called open classrooms, and a bit of interest in what was then named "values clarification." I even knew two teachers who used James Moffett's remarkably innovative "Interaction" materials (Houghton Mifflin).

But these minimal innovations were swept away by two new forces: the quasi-scientific behavioral objectives movement and the "back to basics" trend. Long before the Reagan Education Department issued the report, electives were virtually dead, open classrooms had closed, values clarification seemed antiquated, and the Moffett series had failed catastrophically.

In my school district, curriculum committees of teachers wrote behavioral objectives for all courses and district-wide examinations based on them. There were also state-wide multiple-choice tests in my home state of Pennsylvania, as well as in nearly all other states, by the early eighties.

How powerful was the "back to basics" movement nationally? In 1977, the "Heritage" edition of that bastion of conservatism in English, Warriner's "English Grammar and Composition" series, sold thirty million copies, breaking all previous sales records ("Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts," James Flood et al, eds. Macmillan, 1991, p. 328). This was five years before "A Nation At Risk"?before, not after.

Sometime in the middle of the decade preceding the report, all four of our junior high principals demanded that every English teacher "teach grammar" at least one period per week all year long. And the teachers were doing it?often with a vengeance. One could not enter a seventh, eighth, or ninth grade English classroom without finding the chalkboards covered with sentence diagrams, like so much graffiti.

Also before 1983, all our final examinations, grades 6 to 12, had grammar questions, yet every year the results on this part of the exam were the lowest or next to the lowest of all eight of the exams' subcategories at every grade level. When I pointed out the low grammar scores in meetings with teachers, their reaction was always the same, "We'll just have to pound it in even harder next year." And they did. And nothing changed.

What put the nation at risk in 1983? In the English language arts curriculum, the answer is largely the "back to basics" movement. I have no doubt it had similar effects in other disciplines.

If "A Nation At Risk" initiated an era of reform, then why are we back where we started twenty years ago? Yes, there have been some positive developments--particularly the National Writing Project and writing-process work in general (which is currently threatened by most state testing)?but the reality seems to be that we never really left "basics" in the first place. Or, to put it in the cogent phrase David Tyack and Larry Cuban coined in Tinkering Toward Utopia, "the grammar of schooling" has persisted.

As David Tyack and Larry Cuban see it, a school must feel like a school; it needs classrooms, attendance forms, report cards, textbooks. What about curriculum? In my own field of English language arts, the grammar of schooling includes spelling lists with regular spelling tests; traditional school grammar, particularly study of the parts of speech; basal reading instruction; and "literature," usually with some study of literary forms, definitions of literary terms, and chronological surveys in the upper grades.

In a strong "basics" era like today and the mid to late seventies, parts of speech are studied as early as first grade and spelling lists with weekly tests may persist into the twelfth. The current Pennsylvania standards call for students to be able to use all eight parts of speech "correctly" by fifth grade and to be able to "spell all words correctly" by eleventh grade. Check your state standards.

Here is a particularly illuminating illustration of the persistence of the grammar of schooling.

The spelling research took place in three fifth grade classes. Two of the three veteran teachers involved taught spelling using the school-approved textbook. The third did not use any textbook; her students choose their spelling words based on words they had misspelled in their written work and words they were simply interested in learning?their meaning, as well as their spelling. All three classes had spelling tests, but they were held weekly in the traditional classes, considerably less frequently in the experimental.

A traditional multiple-choice spelling test was given at the beginning of the research in September and again in June. Eighty percent of the words came from the spelling textbook. The other twenty percent were chosen from a grade-appropriate list of commonly misspelled words. Students in the experimental and control classes were matched, based on gender and identical initial spelling-test scores.

The yearlong gain for all students was 9.4 percent. (One wonders what gain nine months maturity alone would have yielded.) The control kids slightly outperformed the experimental, but the difference was not statistically significant. Moreover, the kids in the control classes had specifically studied eighty percent of the words; the experimental kids had studied none of these words, unless by happenstance. (Only I knew what words were in the tests.)

Was any change introduced in this school as a result of the research? Did anyone suggest using individual spelling in other classes or throwing out the textbooks?

No. In fact, the only thing that was discarded was the teacher of the experimental class: she transferred to a different grade and a different building, and became a math teacher, even though she had a Ph.D. in English.

The horror stories about traditional school grammar during the "back-to-basics" mid-seventies equal or exceed this, such as a first-grade teacher who embarrassed little Amy and made her cry because she thought "wet" was a verb rather than an adjective. (It is a verb sometimes, of course.) In first grade.

Then there was the eighth grade teacher who wouldn't let her students write anything other than their own names until she had taught them grammar for an entire semester, because they needed to know grammar to be able to write. (Why she thought she would succeed in teaching it while all previous colleagues had failed is beyond me.)

A tenth grade teacher I knew spent nine weeks?a quarter of the academic year?teaching only pronouns from his Warriner's textbook, even though he admitted that the kids didn't know any more about pronouns at the end of the quarter than they did at the beginning. (Note: Traditional school grammar should be distinguished from traditional scholarly grammar. The latter is worthy of study, but it has had no influence on American primary and secondary schools.)

Finally, for a truly extraordinary indicator of the persistence of traditional school grammar in the grammar of schooling, consider the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston publishing company. It has brought John E. Warriner back from the grave (he died in 1987) and made him the "author" of the Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Framework of their 2001 textbook series, Elements of Language. His name even appears on the title page and on the spine of the books.

It has been said that it's easier to move a graveyard than to effect a change in education. In the English curriculum, traditional school grammar owns a large part of the cemetery.

"A Nation At Risk" may have produced some modest change?while at the same time vastly over-rating the threat to our country's economic preeminence?but for the most part, the changes that it called for were already well underway, and were not necessarily changes for the better.

The years 1977 and 2003 are far more remarkable for their similarities than for their differences. We have the same shortage of qualified teachers, the same static test scores, the same objectives (now called standards), the same accountability mania, the same complaints about the lack of higher order thinking skills, the same mindless mantra that all children can learn (who ever seriously thought otherwise?).

Why not simply reprint "A Nation At Risk" every ten years? Think of all the time and money we could save by not studying the problem.

And we could continue to avoid facing the really deep issues that beset American society, and our schools.

Edgar H. Schuster, a former teacher, writes about education. His most recent book Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction, was published by Heinemann in February.

A version of this article appeared in Education Week (Vol. XXII, No. 33, April 30, 2003).

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