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Education: Teach your children well

Education: Teach your children well

New, more hard-information-based curriculum standards for American schools have now morphed into a growing national debate between educators and between educators and parents alike. This debate is both a dispute about the ultimate purpose of education as well as being a stalking horse for a debate about the perceived declining quality of American education and implications for international competitiveness. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Unlike most nations, the United States doesn’t have a standardised national curriculum set out by the mandarins in some national department of education. Decisions about the US school curricula generally are a kind of organised chaos and anarchy – far removed from the way things have traditionally been carried out in France, for example. There is the story a child could transfer from a school in Paris to a new one in Marseilles over a weekend, and arrive at the new school and simply turn to the next pages in the textbooks first thing Monday morning, picking right up where he had left off on Friday afternoon. 

By contrast, in the US, each state has resolutely protected its constitutionally guaranteed right to govern education on the basis of long-time practice and history – rather than entrust such a responsibility to some far-away federal authority that might introduce alien ideas to their gullible children. Indeed, in many states, control of most educational curriculum content actually devolves down to cities, counties and local school districts. 

In many cases, state regulators usually prescribe the basic content of classes required for graduation and sanction approved textbooks, or proscribe others for breaching forbidden zones of education like evolution. In fact, the Texas state government has considerable informal impact on the textbook industry – as a very big state that lists textbooks as approved. This approval provides a huge market within the state and then this has a further influence on other states that follow market approvals on schoolbooks.

In South Africa, of course, the Apartheid regime offered Christian National Education for white pupils (willing or not) and Bantu Education for Africans (equally unwilling). The first taught about the imminent attack on South Africa’s civilisation by those godless communists; the other, for most pupils, was a dumbed down version of education that promised to deliver hewers of wood and haulers of water to the country. Post-1994, the new government vowed to do away with these insidious regimens, replacing them with the now-discredited outcomes-based education system, only to have that superseded most recently by the newest curriculum design, CAPS.

For most nations, a national curriculum is designed to both educate pupils and acculturate them into a country’s fundamental ethos. Just as importantly, a curriculum is also supposed to prepare a nation’s pupils for the future – beyond the more immediate present. As such, a curriculum is also a gamble about what pupils will need to know, five, 10, or even 15 years into the future. But this is not necessarily a simple prospect. 

Back when the author was still in high school, it became crystal clear to educators that computer programming was going to be a crucially important skill everyone would need to know in order to cope with the 20th century and be competent to do more than flip burgers at McDonald’s. Pupils in senior high school and students in universities went through the Labours of Hercules to learn the Fortran B computer language. Using punch cards. By contrast, competence in that plain vanilla, low-tech touch-typing skill, usually learned on old, beaten-up, manual typewriters still pays dividends every day to everyone who learned it.

Nevertheless, American educators and education and social theorists continue to fret about competence in the cognitive skills needed to face the future. Previously, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the surprise and fear in America because of those early Soviet Sputnik satellites generated an enormous push for new, more rigorous teaching of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Although this generally meant parents could no longer provide meaningful help to their children with their homework, these teaching changes paved the way for the pupils who became the researchers to carry out the astonishing scientific advances that occurred in American scientific and technological research and development. Biology teaching suddenly was the beneficiary of all of that new research about the molecular basis of life’s processes and the unravelling of the genetic code that had been building up in the previous decade – and that bridged the gap between biology and chemistry, and even physics. And it was exciting stuff for pupils as well. 

At the same time, however, there were battles in many places about whether biology curricula should include evolution (and not creationism), and whether novels like Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn belonged in classrooms because of a presumably salacious or racist content. Such battles took, and still take, place in many school districts and states across the country.

Two generations later, once again, a fear American pupils are again falling behind their foreign counterparts (partly true, partly not) led the Bill and Melinda Gates and Charles Stewart Mott Foundations, in association with the federal government, to support development of a new set of guidelines and standards in mathematics and English language skills that have become benchmarks states must adopt – if they are to qualify for funds under the national government’s “Race to the Top” programme that began three years ago. 

Given the funding difficulties so many states and school districts continue to operate in since the 2008 financial crisis struck (revenues, especially property taxes, generally remain depressed), this has put real stick behind adoption of these standards. Now, relatively few people feel willing, or competent, to argue about how best to teach the quadratic formula or Euclid’s geometric theorems, or even what part of mathematical thinking will be most useful in 20 years’ time. But nearly everyone – both educators and everyone else – has an opinion on what pupils should read to become educated adults. And that’s the locus for the newest battleground in American education.

This new Common Core State Standards (to give them their official name) are slowly being put into place. By 2014 they will require nonfiction texts to represent 50% of all reading assignments in elementary schools – and some 70 % of all such assignments by senior year. The standards in English have already been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia. 

The standards are designed to ensure that, for the first time, third-graders in every state will acquire the same knowledge and skills. States will then begin testing their pupils against these new standards in 2014 and this will then make it possible for the first time in America to look at test scores across communities and states throughout the country at a new level of comparability.

This initiative received important backing from the country’s National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. This push for these standards has been dubbed the  “Accountability Movement” as states are increasingly being held to mandatory tests of pupil achievement that are expected to demonstrate a common core of knowledge that all citizens should have to be successful in this country.

To be eligible for the new grants, states had to adopt “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the work place.” That, in turn, meant states were being driven to adopt the Common Core State Standards and the competition for the new federal grants was a real carrot for states to adopt the standards. This movement gained its early impetus from the report, “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” that pointed out both employers and colleges were increasingly demanding more of high school graduates than in the past. 

Proponents of the new standards insist that American pupils increasingly have skill levels insufficient for digesting complex nonfiction texts such as professional studies and reports or primary source texts. As a result, too many students are not prepared to tackle the difficulties of university level reading, let alone the constantly rising demands of a technologically sophisticated workplace, say some education experts. 

Put into practice, the English language competence parts of the Common Core Standards would include works like – and the writer swears he is not making this up – “FedViews,” a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” from the federal government’s General Services Administration. (Cynics may note that neither of these agencies is generally renowned for the pellucid quality of their texts.) Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic text, Democracy in America, is also on recommended lists, so perhaps all is not totally lost yet, but given the textual quality of some of the other suggested readings, it looks like this may be a close-run thing.

What this new plan has done, without doubt, however, is to get English teachers across the country riled up as they contemplate which of their much-loved works they will still be able to keep in their syllabi – and which ones they will have to dump. It is an easy mental picture of English teachers weighing whether to keep To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby; Othello or Romeo and Juliet; Emily Dickinson or John Keats’s best loved verse. 

Reporting on this increasingly rancorous debate, The Washington Post reported on one Arkansas teacher, Jamie Highfill, who is already adjusting her syllabus to come to terms with the new standards. Highfill says she “is mourning the six weeks’ worth of poetry she removed from her eighth-grade English class at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She also dropped some short stories and a favourite unit on the legends of King Arthur to make room for essays by Malcolm Gladwell…”

“I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” said Highfill, who was named 2011 middle school teacher of the year in her state. “With informational text, there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored. I’m seeing more behaviour problems in my classroom than I’ve ever seen.”

Professor Sheridan Blau of Columbia University’s Teachers College says he is already hearing from teachers across the nation who are saying their school heads are already insisting English teachers make 70% of their readings nonfiction. Blau comments, “The effect of the new standards is to drive literature out of the English classroom.” And Sandra Stotsky, who wrote the previous pre-K-to-12 standards for Massachusetts, adds, “Tackling rich literature is the best way to prepare students for careers and college.” Stotsky blames mediocre national reading scores on the weak young adult literature popular since the 1960s. She adds “There is no research base for the claim that informational reading will lead to college preparedness better than complex literary study.”

Proponents of the new standards insist by contrast that the standards’ critics are being disingenuous about the damage to their literature curricula from the new rules. Promoters of the new standards argue much of this “informational”, non-fiction reading material can, and should, be included in the study materials for other classes. 

Geometry, trigonometry and beginning calculus classes could read extracts of Newton’s Principa Mathematica and Euclid’s Elements, while economics and sociology classes could hunker down with Rev Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail or a few juicy excerpts from Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, for example. Actually, a few elite universities and colleges actually teach subjects just that way. But teachers in the more usual run of public high schools are complaining publicly they already have more than enough to do in their day, just teaching the basic precepts and concepts of their subjects – without also taking up the pedagogical burdens of what used to be the task of English language and literature classes. 

This controversy, of course, also has an echo in South Africa as well. This debate goes to the question of whether the purpose of an education is to nurture critical thinking and an appreciation of the world’s cultural and literary heritage or if it is to train pupils in the useful arts so they can find good jobs? Or is it some more complex mix of the two alternatives? 

In recent years, certainly, South African education has been focusing more and more on the need to train and less and less on the humanities. And in an era where the majority of the country’s high school pupils have just been found to have appalling levels of numeracy and literacy (with grade nine students, for example, averaging less than 15% successful performance in mathematics according to the most recent measures), perhaps the humanities do need to take a back seat in preference to crash programmes to improve basic skills and competences. 

Perhaps we’ll give the last word to Revolutionary War-era American statesman John Adams, a co-author of the country’s Declaration of Independence and its second president to try to balance things. In a moment of reflection about what all his exertions had been for, he had written,  “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Even more than in the 18th century, the purpose of education remains a dance between two opposing poles. DM

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Photo: Parents and students of Miramonte Elementary School march to the site of a meeting with Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent (LAUSD) John Deasy where he announced that the entire teaching staff of Miramonte Elementary School will be relocated in the wake of the arrests of two teachers in a child sexual abuse scandal in Los Angeles, California February 6, 2012. The latest arrest, in which a teacher is accused of fondling 7- and 8-year-old girls inside his classroom, came just days after another teacher, who had worked at the school for 30 years, was arrested and charged with lewd acts involving 23 children, which included taking bondage-type photos of gagged and blindfolded students, putting cockroaches on their faces and feeding them semen. It is not known if the two alleged abuse cases are related. REUTERS/David McNew 


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