THE students were all on task, the building was spic-and-span and sprightly decorated, and the teachers were virtually pouring themselves into their lessons. In short, it was the kind of day made for smiles when the assistant superintendent came calling at Baltimore's William Pinderhughes Elementary School some 20 years ago. The only problem was that when the visit was over, our honored guest was wearing a frown.
It seems that to provide a little privacy for their classes, several teachers had erected some makeshift barriers to divide up their shared open space. This subtle affront to the principle of "open education" was enough to send our superior back to the office dyspeptic. It mattered little that quality things were going on in those classrooms; our teachers had violated the cardinal rule of public education, "never buck the current trend." The Gilmans, the Calverts, the McDonoghs of the world might proceed with their timeless curricula, oblivious to the latest oracles, but not us guys in the public sector.
A veteran observer
I shouldn't have been surprised by this turn of events. After all, I had worked in the city public schools long enough to have seen some fads come and go. In my initial stint as a teacher, for example, I participated in workshops that had absolutely nothing to do with schooling. Under the influence of educators such as George Dennison, whose "Lives of Children" depicted boredom and wrath among urban students, some school officials suggested that academics should be secondary to nurturing. So our staff spent one afternoon a week for an entire school year honing our human relations skills. I'm almost embarrassed now to admit that even though about half of the second-grade students I was teaching at the time were nonreaders, it didn't strike me as odd that we were devoting so much time to how the children felt, not how to teach them to read.
And therein lies the rub. For at least as long as I have been in public education -- nearly a generation -- eloquently stated, fuzzy notions have had a powerful grip on school officials.
Here are just a few of the trends I've experienced: team teaching, mastery learning, whole language, outcomes-based education, values clarification . . . I could go on, but you get the point. Today's hot idea quickly becomes tomorrow's "how could we have believed that?"
Trying a few new ideas like this every now and then wouldn't be so harmful if it weren't for the fact that tried-and-true methods, such as phonics-based instruction to teach reading, or basic skills emphasis in all other elementary subjects, are often abandoned along the way.
Before a new drug comes to market, the public expects it to be extensively tested. But if we want to fool around with an entirely new classroom curriculum all we have to do is convince some educational bureaucrats that it's the latest thing, and it's approved.
Another problem resulting from such program hopping is that dissenters to the "new plan" are frequently ostracized for wanting to retain some of what experience, common sense and history have shown to work.
As a newly assigned assistant principal in 1991, I had a conversation with a curriculum specialist about our school's reading program that illustrates this point.
When my specialist friend learned that we devoted a portion of the instructional day to phonics, she remarked, "Well, you're not really doing whole language then, and your program can't possibly meet the needs of these kids." Even though I knew that there was no solid research backing her strident claims, it was hard not to feel a little uneasy. There was all too much venom and self-assurance in her voice, and that same zeal that issued forth from this "expert" seven years ago, can be seen today among proponents of our latest fads. When confronted with the strong-arm tactics that are often associated with the adoption of these educational reforms, many bright people opt out of the profession or move on to private schools.
I think there are two primary reasons why we have this seemingly endless cycle of program development, adoption and abandonment in public schools.
The first is our lack of a national curriculum and related achievement standards. In an environment in which everyone is going their own way, with assessment tools and benchmarks changing almost annually, we have a situation ripe for the carnival barkers of academic reform to tout their products and ideas free from the scrutiny of a single rigorous standard of comparison. And the second reason is that the success or failure of public education is not a burning issue among our elites. They send their children to well-heeled public or private schools, while the children of the poor and middle classes serve as the experimental group for all of these kooky designs.
Though this situation is discouraging, it isn't hopeless. There are signs of hope -- perhaps the most salubrious being The Sun's excellent Reading by Nine project, which is examining how many area children fail to learn to read and showing how our educational community can be influenced to attend and respond to well-researched and broadly publicized information about what really works in schools. In the spirit of the Evening Sun's H. L. Mencken, I urge you to continue arming your readers against educational bamboozlement.
Craig Schulze is an instructional resouce coordinator with the Baltimore public schools.
Pub Date: 6/03/98