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

Publication Date: 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 dogâ€"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
knowledgeâ€"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 worldâ€"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"â€" the
math, science, language arts, and social studies
curriculum in near-universal use in America's
schools and colleges since 1892â€"is sound, from
which it follows that poor performance must be
the fault of the teachers and kids. This, of
course, calls for tough loveâ€"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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