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Education Reform: A problem, and a Proposal

Publication Date: 2010-05-18

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

mbrady22@cfl.rr.com


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
challenged.

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
strategy.

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
parties.


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