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Topic: Reinventing the Wheel of Education: A Parent's View
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,390
Registered: 12/3/04
Reinventing the Wheel of Education: A Parent's View
Posted: Jul 11, 1998 4:03 PM
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From the AMTE list ---

Topic No. 9

Date: Fri, 29 May 1998 10:10:28 -0700 (PDT)
From: david klein <vcmth00m@email.csun.edu>
To: amte@csd.uwm.edu
Subject: a Parent speaks out
Message-ID: <Pine.HPP.3.91.980529100811.12652C-100000@csun1.csun.edu>

From the May issue of "Basic Education" a monthly publication of The
Council for Basic Education

"Reinventing the wheel of education"

by Natalie Kramer

People often ask me: "Who are you to criticize the educational system?
What qualifications do you have to render verdicts on what works in classrooms
and what doesn't?" I don't have any qualifications. I am just a mother
who has seen three different educational systems at work. I am also a
mother whose decisions about her child's education have led to results
sought by most parents and educators. My decisions were simple - I chose
traditional, no-nonsense, direct instruction in the basic disciplines.

My child is in fifth grade in a French school in Maryland. He has been
reading flawlessly for five years; he can do addition, subtraction,
multiplication, and division in his sleep, and is now studying more advanced
math and geometry with great enthusiasm and enjoyment.

What is the secret? There is no secret. He is systematically taught to do
these things. Some of the learning is rote; most is not. All of it is
structured, systematic, and sequential. The curricular programs at his
school use traditional, direct teaching approaches. The children do not
"discover" new skills and knowledge themselves at their own pace. The
school program sets the pace for them and the teachers help them adjust to it.
They are told what to learn and how to learn it. Slowly, in measured
increments, they are given more freedom as to how they organize their work,
both at home and in class.

Who sets the school program? Well, here is the bombshell: the National
Ministry of Education. Education is important enough to the French public
to make it a national priority.

I was educated in Russia where school programs were also set by a central
authority. I was in classes of 35 or 40 students. A sizeable proportion of my
classmates had alcoholic parents. Many came from broken homes. Few of us were
regularly read to, and some of our parents were virtually illiterate. Most
of us lived below the poverty line by today's American standards. Despite
all of this, we could all read by age eight, do basic math by ages nine or
ten, and produce reasonably well written texts by fifth or sixth grade. Most
of us had basic familiarity with major concepts in science, geography, and
history. All of us knew some redimentary English. Our spelling, grammar,
and sentence structure in English were better, in my assessment, than those
of most of my son's American friends. As for creativity, I don't believe
we are any less creative than our American-born counterparts. Most Americans
of our age are impressed by the education we received and say they wish they
had had the same opportunities.

When I hear educators talk about striving to reach a 70 percent achievement
rate
in standards that would be considered modest compared with those imposed on
(and met by!) nearly all of my peers, I cannot help but see such efforts as
naive, albeit well-intentioned, attempts to reinvent the wheel.

When I was growing up in Leningrad, there were two pedagogical institutes
where future teachers received their training in how to teach. They learned,
for example, that multiplication tables up to eight take second graders until
April to master, if they practice four times a week for fifteen minutes and get
three homework assignments on them a week. These teachers-to-be also learned
that teaching multiplication tables by rote only is boring and that combining
rote memorizations with interesting applications brings better results. Future
teachers were also taught in which proportion to combine rote memorization with
applications and how the optimal proportion changes with the age of the
students.

Sounds scientific? It is; teaching is every bit as complex as practicing
medicine or law. Only in America (and in Canada, perhaps), is a teacher's job
perceived as a constant act of inspirational invention. The constant
adaptation
to local and individual "needs" is little more than an excuse for not having
an infrastructure supplying uniformly trained and competent teachers.
Throughtout history, teachers have been taught to teach in a systematic and
organized way. Their skills are viewed as those of professionals, not of
stand-up
comedians or babysitters.

How can a difference in location of schools or individual philosophy affect
the techniques needed to teach multiplication tables, or reading, or sentence
structure? The methodology effective in teaching these matters does not change
depending on where a child lives, what socio-economic background he or she
comes from, or whether his or her parents are divorced.

The fear of losing local control over school programs and teaching
methodologies and having it taken out of parents' hands is baffling. Since
when
are important scientific decisions relegated to amateurs and local politicians?
Do parents or local medical boards set the safe dosage of epilepsy drugs for
children? When will solid scientific research, not political and commercial
interests, drive education as it does in medicine and other sciences?

I was once told that if something works well, it makes little difference
why it works well. If locally controlled schools produced excellent
results, no
one would question the wisdom of such a system. Should the American tradition
of giving states their individual rights, however, also include the right to
leave children unable to read, write, or do basic math? Where does the fear
of standards common to all states come from? What would be wrong with
setting some
basic standards in all academic disciplines that would be common across all
states? How about exercising states' individual rights by allowing children
to exceed those standards? Why is this issue so politicized? While the
political forces battle out their respective positions with fervor and passion,
rivaling only clashes between the most extreme factions in warring
countries, don't
they care about what hangs in the balance? Will they ever stop long enough to
see that education is not a political issue and that our children should not be
pawns in these endless political games?

Questions are now being raised about which authorities should set standards
in education. Again, to those of us who have lived in countries that have had
this question answered for decades if not centuries, this all seems like an
attempt to reinvent the wheel. In France and Russia, to cite but two examples,
standards and grade-by-grade content for each discipline are decided at the
national level and implemented by local educatinal authorities.

When I was in school, once every year, the principal was advised by the local
educational agency of pending changes in methodology. The principal, in turn,
briefed our teachers. The changes engendered fine-tuning such things as the
amount of repetition suggested for each specific task. The teachers did
not have
to create their own tools; they were given the tools and taught how to use
them.

In the French system, methodological changes are made just as carefully, with
just as much attention accorded to potential consequences. Children undergo
standardized national tests at the end of each three-year cycle. The results
are analyzed and used for revealing weaknesses in instructional methodology,
which are addressed on a national level.

I am often told that my child achieves good academic results because he is
bright and would do well in any school. That is very nice to hear, but
unfortunately, it is not true. My child does well when he is taught well. He
has two teachers - his Russian teacher and the teacher at his French school -
who both use time-honored, traditional methods of teaching. They do
dictations, recitations, and repetitive rhythmic drills in grammar and spelling
with their students. The methodology is specified in the scripted, sequential
lesson plans that they both follow. The results are impressive.

In his English classroom, on the other hand, where the teachers are not
familiar with the notion of scripted or sequential curriculua, the results are
quite different. The teachers improvise the program as they go along under the
pretense of trying to suit it to individual class needs. My son had been doing
nearly as poorly in these English classes as all of his classmates until I
started tutoring him. After that, things quickly improved. It is true that
my son is easy to teach, but you do have to teach him if you want him to learn.
Left to his own devices, which is what the child-centered, unstructured
instruction in his English classroom had essentially done, he invented spelling
and sentence structure, without getting close to inventing the correct forms.
His classmates, whose parents do not fill in the gaps left by the teachers,
still invent spelling in fifth grade and some of them are still far from being
fluent readers.

We have a saying in Russian, "the truth comes from the mouth of a suckling,"
which is merely a restatement of a Biblical verse. One time when my son was
eight and thoroughly confused by the homework his English teacher had given
his class, he said: "Mom, why doesn't my French teacher teach my English
teacher
how to teach?" If only things were so simple.

Natalie Kramer is a parent in Rockville, Maryland
*********************************************************

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)
E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU





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