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Education Reform, Redux

Ever get the feeling that we are having the same old educational debate, over and over? A glance through the archives of the Atlantic Monthly helps to cement the notion.

One writer describes schools as “society's dumping ground,…a vast refuse heap for any and every unwanted service or task that other social or governmental institutions and agencies find too tough to handle. The community, the home, and to some extent even the church have used the public schools to relieve their consciences of feelings of guilt by passing on unfinished business which they have found [too] difficult …or just burdensome." That was 1959.

Another pleads for “education reform," while admitting that the term has been so overused as to become virtually meaningless. “America has been oversold on pedagogical gadgets which never perform up to expectations," he says. But, since “standards in American public education are deplorably and inexcusably low," something must be done. In a democracy, he writes, every citizen deserves “an education… [grounded] in learning, in mastery, in growing insight, in standards which really operate – and not just in going to school. So when multitudes of young people accumulate credits, pass courses, carry off elegant [diplomas], and come out knowing little or nothing, it is simply intolerable." That was 1939.

Even the new mantra of teacher quality gets its share of attention. “The teacher is the school," says one writer. Yet low pay and working conditions “severe enough to deaden” the spirit make it hard to attract “first-class” minds. Rising opportunities for women just act to compound the problem: “Thirty years ago, it was almost the only occupation a woman could enter… Today…many of the ablest…women …avoid teaching, and the ranks of the public school teachers suffer from this loss." On top of all this, weak teacher preparation programs and the “factory method of making teachers” leave many teachers ill-prepared. In fact, “teaching is…scarcely a profession. People still think that almost anyone can teach. [And] in truth, any one who can pass the required examinations and get a certificate is legally qualified to teach” – requirements that ”are usually so low that any graduate of an ordinary high school could pass them." That was 1909.

Perhaps my favorite piece, though, is from a 1995 essay by my late friend Paul Gagnon, whose wise voice is missed sorely amidst the growing paranoia (here, here, here) around the notion of common curriculum. In Paul’s words:

The idea that democratic education requires a rigorously academic core for every student is not new. The report of the illustrious Committee of Ten, published in 1894, forcefully articulated it, calling for an established academic curriculum for all high school students, whether or not they were going to college. Italics are needed, for the committee was falsely accused in its time of caring only for the college-bound, and thus of being elitist and anti-democratic. This line is still taken by educators who have not read the report.

The story of the Ten's defeat and the triumph of progressive education's dumbed-down version of John Dewey's ideas…is best told in Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. Chaired by Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard, the Committee of Ten was made up of six university scholars (several had taught in secondary schools), three high school principals, including the head of the Girls' High School in Boston, and William T. Harris, the U.S. Commissioner of Education. The common core they advocated required four years of foreign language and English language and literature, three to four years of math and science, and two to four years of history. Young Americans taking on the profession of citizen, they said, needed a demanding curriculum, not the "feeble and scrappy" courses offered in too many high schools. This was doubly important for "school children who have no expectation of going to college," so that they might have at maturity "a salutary influence" upon the affairs of the country.

It is with some irony then that we note that the loudest objections today come from the anti-progressive Right. Go figure.

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Ah Burnie, Paul Gagnon and I talked about writing a world history together. I was to do the early stuff, he'd take over with the ascendance of Europe. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered. I see schools doing the same old things--and it isn't giving kids substantial books to read. It's trivia and more trivia all sold by big business interests who are making a whole lot of money while destroying our schools. But, as you point out, it's been going on for a long time. j.


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