(a syndicated Gannett newspaper column, which also appeared in The Ithaca Journal under title "Is 'new' teaching better?" -- and probably elsewhere)
When teachers tolerate errors, parents revolt
One of the most persistent myths about American educators is that they are resistant to change. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since the 1940s, and particularly since the 1960s, they have revolutionized the way American's are taught at every level. It was an anti-disciplinary revolution, discipline meaning academic specialty rather than behavior control.
The fundamental question we are all facing now is whether that revolution was such a good idea. That is what school and teacher accountability is all about. The resistance it is meeting in schools is from educators who don't want to return to "old" ways.
The furor arising over the newest "new math" is a good example. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics set a new standard for classroom work that basically took the arithmetic out of math. It was based on a widely held belief, in teachers colleges as well as school rooms, that more teachers could teach math to more kids, including difficult-to-teach, poor minority kids, if rules and precision were downplayed. A bevy of math variants flourished, most de-emphasizing rote learning and focusing on concepts.
Textbooks and pencil drills were pushed aside in favor of hands-on manipulation of objects to get across mathematical ideas. Calculators replaced the need for mental dexterity. Right answers were less important than the effort to get close. Estimating and rounding became shortcuts around formulaic and accurate computations.
Educators who pushed this new "constructivist" math argued that it made math easier and more fun for more students. Parent angered because they had to hire tutors to help their kids get into good colleges argued that it was a way for more teachers with fewer skills to look good with less work. Constructivist math, which allows individuals to choose their own methods for reaching "reasonably accurate" answers, lets all but the snoozers look like decent math students.
Enough is enough
Contructivist math has its parallels in reading (whole language) and writing (where spelling and punctuation become subservient to intent and content). It is these three revolutionary changes in pedagogy that make many people -- including me -- claim that educators have dumbed down curricula, more for their own benefit than the students.
It has flung open the door to retro-reformers such as Republican state Rep. Wayne Smith of Delaware. Smith, who is from a family full of public school teachers, just pushed through a neighborhood schools law that will have profound impact on a city/suburban system now integrated by 20 years of busing. He has a package of 10 more bills lined up that are even more controversial.
His package includes legislation that would require grouping of high, average and low achievers and would steer more kids toward vocational education in eighth grade. It would allow any college grad to take the test to become a certified teacher after a year of classroom work with a master teacher. It would require teaching U.S. and state history before other cultural studies, and rote learning of math rules and ban calculators from elementary schools. It would require phonics to be used to teach reading in the early grades.
It would allow a teacher to refuse an administrator's request to let a disruptive student back into her classroom, and prohibit anybody but the classroom teacher from changing a student's grade. And it would require the state to pay for litigation over student placement and discipline.
This "back to the future" legislative package might seem outrageous to a lot of educators, but, trust me, it is going to appeal to a lot of angry parents who think schools are letting their children down. These kinds of changes should not have to be legislated. The fact that such bills are peeking over the horizon in legislatures from Maine to Oregon means one thing: public trust in educators is evaporating a lot faster than they think.
Reach Norman Lockman at 324-2857 or firstname.lastname@example.org