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A Hot Beach Debate for Edu-Nerds Like Me

Publication Date: 2009-07-04

Good for Jay Mathews for featuring this chapter from Gerald Bracey's new book, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality, now available from Amazon.

This is MUST reading.

If you want to try your hand at reordering the precepts from most important to least, go here.

by Jay Mathews

Those of us who spend our days mesmerized by discussions of summer learning loss, looping and longitudinal analysis need a summer break, just like everybody else. We are readers, so on vacation we are likely to have a book in our hands, or if we are very old, a newspaper. For me, bestselling thrillers are too predictable and mysteries too complex. I need something different, something weird, something fresh that taps into my essential nerdiness, and I have found it. Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality, by Gerald W. Bracey.

The first few chapters are familiar, if you, like me, are a fan of the irascible Bracey and his assaults on the conventionally wise among our education leaders. But in chapter 10 he does something totally unexpected. He resurrects The Eight-Year Study, a 70-year-old corpse, and makes me want to talk about it, even with that guy sprawled out on the next beach towel.

The Eight-Year Study was published in 1942, three years before I was born. That is, to me, a virtue. So few people have heard of it they cannot have any knee-jerk reactions. It was a very large experiment. More than 30 high schools in the 1930s were encouraged to try non-traditional approaches to teaching, like combining Engish and social studies and science into one course, to see how the students who studied that way did when compared to students who did not attend the schools in the study. More than 300 colleges agreed to abandon their traditional admissions procedures in accepting students from the experimental schools.

The results were encouraging to creative teachers, but World War II started, the research team had other duties and no major reforms grew out of their work. Bracey doesn't let that stop him. He constructs the 10 main lessons from the survey, using provocative terms to set up the debate. Which of these lessons are still relevant? Which have proved to be right and which wrong? Which are most important?

I see in this the makings of a good drinking game, or for us teetotalers a big argument after dinner. Here are the 10 lessons, with some comments by Bracey taken from his book, and some by me. I have left the lessons in the order Bracey used. But I want you to reshuffle them from most important down to least. You might also let me know which of Bracey’s and my comments are most inane. Being nice is boring. Kick sand in our faces. It's good for us.

1. Like politics, all education is local. Forget state and federal mandates.

Bracey: Some conservative activists advocate national standards and national tests. To the best of my knowledge, no one has shown them to be effective across the board.

Mathews: Education is a heavily local issue, but states provide much of the money these days, and even the feds can be helpful in raising standards where standards have been historically low. Bracey is right. Such standards and tests have not been effective across the board. But they don’t have to be. Some places need them, and some don’t.

2. Education in this nation is, or should be, more about living in a democracy, than about academic achievement.

Bracey: The people who framed the Eight-Year Study might have been dreamers but they were under no illusion that "citizens just happen."

Mathews: It is an interesting, tricky concept. I think education should be about both achievement and democracy. I would prefer the emphasis be on achievement because I don’t think educators are ever going to be very good at instilling democratic principles. Schools themselves aren’t democracies. The study leaders wanted them to be, but that seems to me unrealistic. Democracy is best learned on the streets.

3. Testing should be a means of learning about individuals, not separating and sorting them.

Bracey: Schools do not teach students how to handle ill-structured problems. It is one desirable educational outcomeâ€"and only one of manyâ€"that is not tested and not taught.

Mathews: Absolutely right. This is one of the best of the 10.

4. Evaluation should lead to improved curriculum, instruction, and decision making, not to the punishment of teachers and administrators.

Bracey: For [Ralph Tyler, head of the Eight-Year Study evaluation team], evaluation should begin with teachers discussing “what kinds of changes in its pupils the new educational program was expected to facilitate.” [Bracey was quoting from “Stories from the Eight-Year Study,” by Craig Kridel and R.V. Bullough Jr., 2007]

Mathews: Good, although some evaluations could sensibly lead not to punishment of teachers and administrators, but to recommendations for improvement and, possibly, counseling on careers more suited to their talents.

5. Teachers should teach students, not subjects, or, at the very least, not subjects alone.

Bracey: The leaders of the Eight-Year Study also decided that teachers needed to know more about the nature of their students in order to create meaningful learning experiences--specifically more about the nature of adolescence and adolescents.

Mathews: This would go near the top of my list.

6. Principals should be democratically oriented colleagues of teachers, not 'bosses.'

Bracey: [Quoting the study's director, Wilfrid Aikin] "The administrators in the participating schools saw that they must create conditions in which teachers dared to be honest in expressing their convictions."

Mathews: This is exactly right. The best schools I know are run by principals who encourage teamwork, and listen to everybody.

7. Students need to take some responsibility (being accountable) for what they learn (next), and enjoy doing it.

Bracey: The idea that schools should be democratic communities meant that students would need to end their usual roles as passive recipients of instruction.

Mathews: I love the concept, but it may be difficult to achieve with teenagers who have other interests.

8. Scientifically based education is an oxymoron.

Bracey: Here's why education can never be a science: education deals with sentient beings and each is different.

Mathews: This is right, although American culture is never going to accept it. We believe science can fix almost everything. That is why our most hopeful sentences often begin with these words: "If we can put a man on the moon, we can surely...."

9. Flexibility and a willingness to change course, to do something different, are critical to the educational process.

Bracey: [Summarizing the results of a comparison of graduates of the 30 schools to a control group] The graduates of the Thirty Schools . . . more often demonstrated a high degree of resourcefulness in meeting new situations.

Mathews: To me, this is the best of the 10 principles.

10. "When ends are taken for granted and means dominate educational discourse . . . teachers will rarely be in control of their work, and the reasons given for taking one or another course of action will become increasingly bureaucratic and unsatisfying." (Kridel and Bullough, 2007) This is widely known today as "defensive teaching."

Bracey: This is not actually a lesson from the Eight-Year Study, but a quote from Kridel and Bullough about our present state. . . . It is hard to imagine a condition further removed from the Eight-Year Study---where principals' jobs are contingent on getting a specific increased score on a test each year; where teachers follow scripts; where the ends are totally prescribed and even the means highly determined.

Mathews: Bracey is right about the effect test scores can have on principals' jobs, although I think that is better than allowing them to ignore test scores. Very few teachers follow scripts. Attempts to insist on certain means have broken down in most schools, since new leaders always arrive with different ideas. We have the appearance of prescribed ends with state standards and state tests, but those also change. I think schools are becoming more, not less, independent of these top-down pressures, and principle number 9 is gaining ground.

Do you agree? Reorder the list in ways that make sense to you and tell me why.

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