Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Why education reforms have thus far failed And a proposal

Publication Date: 2009-03-10

Congress, having become Americaâs school board, is in position to decide the future of American education. It can choose to continue the present reactionary thrust of reform, freezing in rigid, permanent place with standards and tests the familiar but primitive, deeply flawed, 19th Century curriculum. OR. . . .

Current assumptions

1. Public education suffers from a "people problem." Teacher quality is the primary determinant of educational quality, and over the years teacher effectiveness has gradually declined.

2. Poor teacher performance is attributable either to (a) uncertainty about what to teach, and/or (b) inadequate motivation. If (a) is the problem, detailed, written standards are the solution. If (b) is the problem, subjecting teachers to market forces will pressure them to perform.

3. Useful market forces are merit pay, fear of public humiliation, threat of involuntary transfer, job loss, school takeover or closing, and competition from charters and other alternatives.

4. The success of reform efforts can be precisely gauged by scores on standardized tests.

5. No Child Left Behind failed because it was poorly implemented. Responsibility for its two most critical components â" standards, and testing â" should therefore be taken away from the states and nationalized.

Alternative assumptions

1. Education reform efforts fail because a critically important problem is not being addressed. That problem is the traditional math-science-language arts-social studies "core curriculum" adopted in 1893 and still in near-universal use. It was poor when it was adopted, and grows more inappropriate and dysfunctional with each passing year.

2. Custom and institutional inertia have embedded the 1893 curriculum so deeply in the American psyche and bureaucracy its appropriateness and quality are not even questioned. Reform efforts focus attention on every other factor effecting learner performance but treat the curriculum as a given.

3. This is indefensible because the 1893 curriculum:

⢠Ignores extremely important fields of knowledge

⢠Disregards the fundamental, integrated nature of knowledge

⢠Lacks criteria establishing the relative importance of various content

⢠Has no agreed-upon, overarching aim

⢠Disregards the brain's need for order and organization

⢠Does not move smoothly through increasingly complex conceptual levels

⢠Has no built-in mechanism forcing it to adapt to social change

⢠Fails to address critically important moral and ethical issues

⢠Neglects alternatives to text and speech as sources of learning

⢠Is extremely inefficient and inordinately costly

4. As ordinarily implemented, the 1893 curriculum:

⢠Vastly overworks short-term memory to the neglect of all other thought processes

⢠Casts learners in unnatural, passive roles

⢠Lends itself to superficial methods of evaluation

⢠Insufficiently relates to the real world and ordinary experience

⢠Requires the use of extrinsic motivators

⢠Fragments the profession by discipline, making dialog difficult

⢠Penalizes rather than capitalizes on student variabililty

⢠Neglects the basic processes of creativity and knowledge generation

5. Any one of these problems is serious enough to warrant a concerted national effort to address it, and the 1893 curriculum suffers from all of them. Educators are trying to "do brain surgery with a hammer and saw." There will be no significant improvement as long as the core curriculum remains the primary organizer of knowledge.

The situation

1. About mid-20th Century, educators began to appreciate the curricular potential of General Systems Theory as it had emerged from World War II, and of new insights into how the brain organizes and integrates existing knowledge and creates new knowledge.

2. Exploration of the applicability of these and other ideas to the curriculum began in earnest in the 1960s, but ended abruptly in the 1980s when leaders of business and industry, working through state governors and other politicians, took over education reform.

3. The politically popular but reactionary "standards and accountability" fad the new leaders promoted has now been in place for a full K-12 cycle. The curriculum their policies have reinforced:

(a) does not prepare the young â" and therefore America â" for an unknown, increasingly complex, rapidly changing and potentially very dangerous future,

(b) imposes life-changing decisions on learners based on scores on simplistic standardized tests keyed to an obsolete curriculum

(c) is inordinately costly. An acceptable general education cannot be assembled from a random mix of specialized studies, and continuing the attempt to do so wastes time and money.

4. The curriculum is "where the rubber meets the road." No matter the label attached to the school â" public, private, parochial, charter, magnet, virtual, or home, no matter the level of rigor, no matter teacher skill, school size, market forces imposed, length of school day or year, design or condition of buildings, generosity of budget, sophistication of technology, administrator support, or openness of students to learning â" if the curriculum is poor, the education will be poor. Period

5. The situation is dire. Educating â" discerning the images of reality in othersâ minds and attempting to alter them â" is inherently the most complex of all professions, but policies and procedures are being set by non-educators guided by the simplistic conventional wisdom.

A way ahead

1. The root problem with the 1893 curriculum is its assumption that sense can be made of the world by taking it apart and studying the parts without regard for their relationship to each other. Specialized studies are essential, but they give learners what amounts to random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with no picture on the box showing how the pieces fit together.

2. What is needed, and what can be created if it is accepted that the academic disciplines are not the optimum organizers of knowledge, is a single, coherent, systemically integrated course of study that respects the seamless, mutually supportive nature of knowledge. Put in place at all levels of schooling, such a course would not only provide a true general education, its compactness and efficiency would trigger an explosion of innovation. There would be time for individual learner interests and abilities to be identified and accommodated. The number and variety of course offerings could be increased. Specialized studies could be pursued to levels of sophistication not now possible. New programs could be installed and old ones discontinued without bureaucratic stress. Large-scale individual and team projects could be undertaken. School-to-work arrangements could be facilitated. Far more use could be made of community resources. The transition to adulthood could be smoothed. School-community ties could be strengthened. Significant cost-cutting measures could be introduced.

3. Congress, having become Americaâs school board, is in position to decide the future of American education. It can choose to continue the present reactionary thrust of reform, freezing in rigid, permanent place with standards and tests the familiar but primitive, deeply flawed, 19th Century curriculum. Or it can accept that, as in every other profession, something has been learned about educating since 1893, and that those who for a generation have been ignored â" professional educators with years of first hand experience in real classrooms teaching real students â" are far more likely than mayors, CEOs, retired military, the members of state legislatures and Congress, to know what that "something" is.

The single most valuable gift Congress could give the young and those who teach them, is a seat at the reform table and a willingness to listen to what they have to say.

(Mr.) Marion Brady

3285 North Indian River Drive
Cocoa, Florida 32927




This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.