School reform kills skills; Education: Bureaucratic tinkering has left many pupils unprepared for work awaiting them in the upper grades and beyond, a Maryland teacher charges.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TO HEAR the state tell it, the "crisis of instruction" afflicting our public schools is abating, as teachers across Maryland are posting their "daily outcomes," forsaking fact-based instruction and mesmerizing their students with "critical thinking" activities; all the while brimming with excitement over the new high school assessments about to come online.

Yeah, sure. As a 20-year veteran of the trenches, I am forced to deal in hard realities, not flights of bureaucratic fancy. And the reality is that the Maryland reform package is going to have a devil of a time delivering on its extravagant promises, because it is part of the same wretched policy-making that has been strewing banana peels in my path throughout my two decades on the job.

Maryland's education reformers have discounted and demeaned basic academic skills from MSPAP's inception to the present, and that has become our most debilitating weakness.

The state Department of Education has ordained that factual knowledge and erudition of expression are irrelevant in the modern educational setting. Tragically, literary instruction has become nothing more than information management, as kids learn to write by stuffing relevant details into the correct circle on a diagram. Style and craftsmanship have gone the way of Hula Hoops, 8-tracks and orderly classrooms. The teaching of grammar is all but criminalized, with predictably disastrous results for writing proficiency, reading comprehension and foreign-language mastery. (How can you learn someone else's grammar when you have no clue about your own?)

Nowhere has this contempt for basic skills been expressed more clearly than in the Maryland Functional Tests of Reading, Writing, Math and Citizenship -- dumbed-down affairs keyed to nothing of intellectual consequence. (A sixth-grade reading level has bought a high school diploma since the inception of the program. How's that for "high expectations"?)

MSPAP and its associated reforms constitute a program at war with itself. By playing down rigorous basic-skill mastery in formative elementary and middle school years, the state has allowed far too many children to enter high school unprepared for serious academic work. As knowledge-based high school assessments loom in the near future, thousands upon thousands of Maryland students are incapable of reading these newfangled tests, let alone filling in the correct answers.

A second Achilles' heel has been the state's steadfast refusal to hold young people responsible for their academic performance. The reform-package superstructure has been dominated by enablers who are wonderful at holding institutions (schools, the teaching profession) accountable for student performance but wouldn't dream of demanding anything from the little darlings themselves.

As a result, youngsters across the state have been handed a blank check to fail by this dreadful misreading of human nature. Small wonder that eighth-grade MSPAP scores improved not a whit during the 1990s, and that 75 percent of Maryland's middle schoolers are being judged incompetent readers.

By the time these pupils enter high school, an ethos of indolence has been set in stone -- a mind-set countenanced by the state's insistence that everyone be held accountable for student failure, except the students. Vague remonstrances that mandatory exit assessments will count someday (in, what, 2005?) have had no effect at all on the lazy, recalcitrant souls I run across every day. None.

Social promotion

Another unmitigated disaster has been the ed-hocracy's failure to end the scourge of social promotion before the damage it caused became irreversible. Like smokers reeling from lung cancer who give up their lethal addiction only after they've sealed their own death warrants, the bureaucrats have belatedly come to their senses after years of gutting effective instruction by allowing their "Everybody with a pulse passes" policy to destroy the efficacy of individual accountability in the academic realm. Let others applaud Baltimore City's Oct. 11 call for a rethinking of the question. I can only shake my head in disgust that the egalitarianism-run-amok has been tolerated for so long. We gave in to the self-esteem sissies, and they ruined everything.

MSPAP's "We're only giving Maryland's businesses what they want" mantra has proven both deceptive and academically dysfunctional. Our corporate moguls said they wanted "problem solvers," not "fact spouters," to fill their high-paying positions, so that became the rationale for gutting the knowledge-based curriculum and replacing it with problem-solving activities.

This quickly became a non sequitur of epic proportions. Why? Because young people need college degrees to be eligible for those high-paying jobs, and our university presidents and deans are in a dither not over "problem solving" techniques but over the precipitous decline in the basic skills of incoming undergraduates. What horrifies them is the collapse of lingual and computational mastery that forces their schools to provide remedial classes to bring freshmen up to speed. Ironic, no? By stressing problem solving over skill acquisition, Maryland's reform package has helped make students less competitive at the institutions that are supposed to train them for those high-paying jobs.

At the core of the reform package are the so-called Core Learning Goals. To put it mildly, these goals are academically suspect. The Thomas Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that evaluates education reform programs, took a close look at three sets of Maryland Core Learning Goals and found each woefully deficient. The foundation's mathematics panel, overseen by reputable university professors such as Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan and Henry Adler of the University of California, Davis, awarded Maryland's Core Learning Goals for Mathematics a pathetic three points out of a possible 16.

They criticized them for vagueness, lack of rigor, an overemphasis on calculators and computers at the expense of computational mastery, and (most embarrassingly) some utterly fallacious observations made by the Maryland writers who, the Fordham report concludes, "do not end by saying anything that can be used, and by occasionally saying what is not so ... " (You can cringe along with me by looking up page 52 of the Fordham Foundation's Math Standards document, which is available at the organization's Web site at http://www.edexcellence.net).

Maryland failed history, too, receiving 12 out of a possible 60 points for the History Core Learning Goals, which were deemed "USELESS" by Fordham. We garnered a pitiful 27 points out of 90 for geography. (The gruesome details are on display at that same Web site.) If our Core Learning Goals are anywhere near as flimsy as the Fordham people make them out to be, the reform package is truly a house built on the flimsiest of foundations.

Our program is deeply flawed also because it is steeped in a willful misreading of what has gone wrong in our schools. Back in the 1980s, reformers posed a legitimate question: Why are today's children learning less than children used to? However, the answer they latched onto raised denial to an art form. Children aren't learning so much, they concluded, because what we are asking them to learn is no longer worth knowing. So, instead of confronting the real problems, the reformers sought to invent (at exorbitant cost) a grand new epistemology of education. "Knowing things" was out, "critical thinking" was in.

Wimpy on discipline

The problem is that the same disabling pathologies proved just as toxic for the new "Dimensions of Learning" paradigm as they had for the knowledge-based curriculum of yesteryear. Alas, our leaders continue to be wimpy on discipline, setting standards for behavior in the same way that weather vanes "set" the weather. State and local boards dumb us all down by refusing to link academic advancement to the acquisition of skills. No one has had the guts to go after irresponsible parents who allow their teen-agers to work 15 to 20 hours per week at jobs during the school year.

Persisting in the lunacy that their piddling changes of method and vocabulary can cause these deeply ingrained dysfunctions to disappear, our bureaucracy continues to tiptoe around the pathologies that render their purported cures futile.

In sum, folks, we've been had. The serious, costly business of education reform has been handed over to the people who mucked it up in the first place. The view from the trenches is this: Spending untold millions in the process, Maryland has managed to engage the crew of the Titanic to set our iceberg-detection policy for the 21st century.

Phil Greenfield has taught social studies at Annapolis High School since 1979. A Fulbright Exchange Teacher to Britain in 1996-97, he also reviews the arts in Anne Arundel County as a free-lance writer for The Sun.

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