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Sunday, February 9, 2014

If things don’t get better soon, maybe you should stop “reforming”

The Educational Not-So-Merry-Go-Round
By Hank Morgan, Progressive Charlestown guest columnist

funny (19768) Animated Gif on GiphyHere we go again. The purveyors of public education policy, hard on the heels of the “New Standards,” and the concomitant “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” initiatives, have ushered in yet another round of school “reform,” and its current name is “Common Core.” 

These soi disant educational “gurus,” (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his private sector cohorts) are careful not to call it what it essentially is -- a “back to the basics” emphasis on fundamental skills and traditional knowledge in the core subject areas English, math, science, and social studies.  

duck (261) Animated Gif on GiphyFor those not old enough to remember, the catch phrase “back to the basics” recalls the reform movement our government instituted shortly after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite and, with it, a mythological space race and a manufactured educational crisis. 

Will it go ‘round in circles?  You bet it will, especially in the realm of public education, where the ostensibly noble objective of “reform” is actually a crusade to keep educators in perpetual and dizzying cycles of pedagogical practices and policies.  In public education, the only constant is change, and instability does not breed success.  It is one method that Corporate America uses to discredit and dismantle public schools  (and their real targets – teacher unions) while producing and promoting private and charter schools. 

In the 50-plus years since Sputnik, educational theorists have foisted upon the public such fallacious “reforms” as the “Whole Language” approach, which downplayed the emphasis on fundamentals such as lexical decoding, spelling and proper grammatical usage in favor of immersion into the rhetorical aspects of written communication, as well as the “New Math,” wherein the final answer was not as important as the process used to arrive at it, regardless of the accuracy.  It was the journey and not the destination that mattered. 

Educational policy has completed another revolution in its perpetual orbit. Pearson Education, a textbook and educational materials publisher that promotes and inculcates the Common Core, also creates beginning, mid-year, and end-of-year assessments. 

Among the skills that 10th grade students are expected to know include, among other arcana:  the meaning of the suffix (-id) – of or pertaining to -- to determine the definition of a word like “squalid” (foul, repulsive, neglected, filthy, pertaining to squalor), the proper use of relative pronouns, the difference between a regular and irregular verb, and analogous word pair groupings.  

None of the above is tantamount to rocket science, and some of it is essential knowledge, but it is light years away from the Whole Language approach, which “reform”-minded theorists championed and instituted for years.  It also why jaded educators have always referred to the latest “reforms,” whatever they might be at the time, as “old wine, new bottles.”   

Further evidence is found in the latest teaching strategies and methodologies that the Common Core gurus encourage and district administrators expect lockstep conformity to.  One is called the “Flipped Classroom.” As little as 5 years ago, school administrators were encouraging teachers to eschew the lecture.  The chalk-and-talk was passé. “No longer be the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side” was the prevailing credo to encourage heuristic learning.  

The flipped classroom, however, entails students going home and watching lectures on video.  Surely they’ll pay more attention while enjoying the comforts of home, as soon as they finish fulfilling their social media rituals, playing their video games, or watching television.

The Common Core State Standards, although expecting students to be able to correctly identify tone, methods of indirect characterization, irony, and figurative language, among other literacy skills, suggests a 50/50 instructional balance of fiction and non-fictional text at the elementary level, but a 70/30 emphasis on non-fiction for the middle and high school levels.  Herein they are marginalizing a tried-and true educational tradition extant since the Sumerians and cuneiform while expecting students to be sophisticated interpreters of literature by the 9th grade.

Those at the top of the educational “reform” movement cherry pick research as justification for their policies.  Thus, they ignore the evidence that indicates the best way to turn reluctant learners into enthusiastic learners is by allowing them to select their reading material. Instead, they insist that teachers force-feed students the literary canon, a surefire method to create reluctant readers, as research indicates. 

Reformers ignore the evidence that teachers and students need more, not less, time teaching and learning, but justify the essentially useless “advisory” period by citing research that claims students have a better chance of succeeding if they get to know at least one adult in the school well.  That may be true, but any teacher will tell you the best way for students and teachers to become acquainted is via the teaching and learning process, in the classroom, not through videos watched from home.

Instruction is more effective in homogeneously grouped classrooms, where proximal teaching – tailoring instruction according to student knowledge and ability levels – can occur.  Instead, districts, with wholehearted endorsement from Common Core, insist on heterogeneous classrooms wherein teachers are asked to “differentiate” their instruction according to the various student abilities – and disabilities. 

This is not only a nefarious recipe for teacher burnout and classroom chaos for even the most experienced and skilled teachers, but it also deprives all students of the most effective learning environments.  School administrators claim teachers have a moral obligation to differentiate their instruction, but they fail to implement policies that enable it to be done effectively.  Relative moralism rears its hypocritical head again.
education (281) Animated Gif on Giphy

Government intrusion into the public school classroom is both insidious and incessant, and it has been for over a half a century now.  Now Big Business, in pursuit of the millions to be made in education-based computer programs and products as well as the dismantling of teacher unions, is involved. Unfortunately, students become pawns in the political game, a game that will end only when public schools become obsolete.