Some schools rediscovering fundamentals


PRINCETON, N.J. - Signs of quiet revolt are everywhere: children tracing neat cursive letters in penmanship class, memorizing multiplication tables, taking spelling quizzes and learning the value of a strong topic sentence.

Today's model classroom tends to avoid these things, deeming them uninspired and uninspiring, dismissing them as "chalk and talk," "drill and kill." Here, the new Princeton Charter School is embracing them. Call us traditional, the parents who started this school say. They prefer to think of this as "drill and skill," the foundation of a good education.

Much attention has been given to parents and educators in Scarsdale, N.Y., and elsewhere in the country who rail against new standardized tests. Children need critical thinking skills, they complain, not a steady diet of details.

But there is an equally strong rebellion in communities like this with comfortable homes and reputations for excellent schools. In these places - Fairfax County, Va., the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Hanover, N.H., to name a few - parents say they want more of the memorization, the emphasis on content and basics.

In a desire to move from "teacher-centered" to "student-centered" classrooms, to satisfy multiple intelligences and foster self-esteem, these parents say, most schools have moved so far away from the fundamentals that their children come home knowing about the Holocaust but not World War II, about Babylonian math but not about fractions. Children cannot think critically, they retort, if they do not have the basic content to think about.

Starting own schools

Many tried for several years to change the system by talking to principals or running for seats on the school board. Others hired tutors. But increasingly, parents who are horrified by what they call progressive education run amok have been starting their own schools, teaching what Charles Marsee, the head of school at the Princeton Charter School, calls enlightened back-to-basics, grounded in grammar and spelling, historical facts and mathematics.

"This is the PTA president, the suburban mom who does the car pool, and she can't quite believe that her daughter is in the third or fourth grade and can't read and can't do math, and she's reading about Kite Day instead of long division in her math book," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group in Washington. I don't think most parents start out wanting to start a new school; they just want the school to do what they thought the school was going to do."

The governing philosophy in education today is that children need to do more than learn, they need to learn how to learn. Technology, the argument goes, has rendered obsolete skills like writing perfectly curved letters and figuring simple equations. The vast amount of information on the Internet has highlighted the need for students to develop their own kind of intellectual filters. Memorization and plot lines no more interesting than Dick and Jane walk the dog turn children off. Let them color outside the figurative lines, and they will come to love learning.

But as a result, parents in Princeton and elsewhere complain, schools have replaced essays with a "cardboard curriculum" of dioramas and posters. Calculators replace flash cards, word problems replace equations. Students are allowed to write with what is known as inventive spelling and inventive punctuation, on the theory that too many red marks will discourage them, that they can pick up the rules once they get the hang of putting ideas to paper.

Theory not working

The motive is well-intentioned, the parents say, but the theory is not working. Students end up proficient with scissors and glue, but not with numbers and words.

"Of course it's true that children learn on different levels, but nobody is going to learn to write by making dioramas," said Maureen P. Quirk, one of the Princeton founders.

Some Princeton parents said they were particularly horrified by a series of books that taught children in the public schools to read using hieroglyphics instead of letters to spell out words. "E" was a woman standing on a chair and shrieking as a mouse scurried underfoot.

"You got the feeling they just wanted to be modern and follow the latest fad," said Kim Steinnagel, who put her child in the charter school.

The methods are unproven, the parents complain. One result is a booming tutoring industry.

"This is the most educated group of parents in the world, yet we're keeping the Score! learning centers flying," said Karen Jones Budd, a parent in Fairfax, Va. "Anybody looking down at this from a 30,000-foot level should be very upset at our children being used as guinea pigs."

What these parents call fads have been around for decades. But with a new emphasis on achievement, with test scores widely publicized and with the Internet making it easier for parents to share information, they are becoming more critical of their schools.

"Five or 10 years ago, most parents fell into the category of believing 'my school knows what is right and best for my child,'" said Mychele Brickner, a member of the Fairfax School Board, who keeps lists of "reading parents" and "math parents," grouped by gripe. "That trust level has eroded."

In Los Angeles, parents are pushing the superintendent of schools to use Saxon math, a more basic approach. A Web site for a California group called Mathematically Correct operates as a kind of national clearinghouse for parents looking for more traditional methods. The Core Knowledge Foundation, based on the work of E.D. Hirsch Jr., the author of "Cultural Literacy," started its curriculum in one school in 1990. By 1995, 250 were using it, and this year, 1,100 schools are.

Crossroads Academy, a private school in Hanover, N.H., and one of the earliest schools to push a traditional academic curriculum, started with five students and parent volunteers. Ten years later, it has 140 students. Madison Country Day School, a 4-year-old private school in Wisconsin, has grown from to 125 students from 22, and it, like Crossroads, has a long waiting list.

A powerful option

Charter schools, however, have given the parents their most powerful option. Now in 37 states, charter school laws allow publicly financed schools run by private boards. And parents have responded hungrily: Princeton received applications from one in every four students in the public school system.

Now in its fourth year, the Princeton Charter School teaches students to read with phonics, the old method of sounding out the letters. Children learn math from textbooks so traditional that the publisher recently reissued them under the label "The Classics," which were chosen for their emphasis on practicing equations and a dearth of pictures and cartoons. Students spend an hour each day in English class, another hour in math class. Other subjects are taught in the 45-minute periods that are typical in American schools, and include topics considered musty elsewhere, like history and geography.

The curriculum is tightly defined. Beginning in fifth grade, students learn history chronologically from year to year, starting before 500 B.C. Grammar lessons begin in the first grade. Young children memorize and recite poems to grasp the rhythms of speech and words. Every student writes each day - and spelling and syntax count in the grading.

"Princeton Charter School believes that a 'thorough and efficient' education is best accomplished through a rigorous curriculum that requires mastery of core knowledge and skills," the founders of the school wrote in their mission statement. "Some schools sacrifice high expectations for fear of undermining student self-esteem. Princeton Charter School believes that knowledge must come first, and that children acquire genuine self-esteem through academic accomplishment."

The school provoked a bitter public fight in Princeton, with opponents branding the founders "curriculumists." But it is an epithet that they, and others who share their vision, wear with pride.

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