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The Moral Burdens of Mandatory Schooling

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Dear Diane,

By the time you read this we’ll have spent an hour at the Channel 13 event (mostly agreeing) about the risks involved in treating schooling like “a business"; and I’ll have spent a few days at a board meeting of the Coalition of Essential Schools; visited my son, Nick, who teaches at California State University at Monterey Bay; looked at schools in Oakland and San Jose; and had the pleasure of being accompanied by my granddaughter, Sarah. I’m hoping I’ll find a few great early-childhood classrooms—however unlikely. And that I’ll come back with some stories of hope that I can pass on to others.

I’m particularly struck these days with the negative impact of a policy that I support: universal mandatory school from ages 6-16 (or longer). I see, at least in a society as unequal as ours, no alternative to it. But it places an enormous moral burden on schooling. “Do no harm” becomes more critical under circumstances in which the population we serve are literally incarcerated. Only the draft army, perhaps, takes away our freedoms in quite this way. To skip school is akin to being AWOL; it is to commit a crime.

Teacher, writer, and libertarian John Gatto would abolish the obligation; I think he is dead wrong. But he has a point, and one we do not take seriously enough.

Pedro Noguerra asked a simple question last week at a hearing we attended on Mayor Bloomberg’s new plan to hold over 8th graders until they pass a high school entrance exam. Is there any research evidence that this kind of policy works? And, in particular, has New York City done follow-up studies of its mandatory hold-over policy in Grades 4 and 6? (He was also curious about where they planned to house all the hold-overs given the overcrowded schools in NYC.)

The answer is not only “no”—as Noguerra knew. But worse there is a staggering amount of evidence that it does young people injury. As Noguerra noted, if it did work, how could there be so many 8th graders who still don’t pass this test—since many were held-over in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and/or 7th grade? A large-scale study in Chicago notes that 73 percent of those who dropped out were over age when they entered high school. (And probably quite a few never even enter high school.) Why would NYC be different?

A study I read many years ago, whose source I can’t cite, claimed that next to losing one’s own parent, being held over is what young people fear most. I believe it. My kindergarten students, when asked why they needed to learn how to read, almost to a child said, “so you won’t get held over.”

When did being tough and upholding “standards” justify the harm we do? Years ago a friend (and principal) asked an audience to help her resolve a dilemma. She said (more or less), “I have a 20-year-old student with a wife and child who has a good job waiting for him next fall. If he graduates. But despite our best efforts he keeps failing the math exam, and not just because it’s a bad test. Shall I ‘cheat’ on his behalf or hold firm to our standards?”

We’ve created this absurd dilemma; it’s up to us to spend more time trying to resolve it before we do more harm. It’s corrupting to our work, as teachers and citizens, to be deliberately punishing kids who have committed no crime. Not to mention the enormous loss to society itself when we let such youngsters drift away unacknowledged and uncelebrated.

I‘ll return next week with, hopefully, some more thoughts on this—based, in part, Diane, and readers, on your thoughts.

Deborah

29 Comments

Like so many issues, the mandatory schooling issue seems like it ought to be resolvable. We could meet higher standards if the normative age of graduation was raised a year or two. The only real problem would be that of the stigma and motivation. But we still don't know how to hold so many more kids back without increasing the damage due to stigmatization.

College kids still get a lot of support from society until they are well into their 20s, so why can't we do that for dropouts? Clearly, we need to help teens face the consequences of their decisions, and then again help them get back on track. But how do we do that without providing more excuses for the system to allow more dropouts? We adults are stymied by pyschological patterns (like our willingness to take the easy way out and let troubled students disappear)as are the teens who are so quick to give up when they fall behind.

So again, we have a moral challenge without clearcut answers. But given the challenges that society faces when it wants to, these problems could be solved. Somehow we must bridge the differences, admit that we should have answers, that we don't have answers, and that we need to get to work on the moral dilemma.

So, why is it you still support mandatory schooling?

So, why is it you still support mandatory schooling?

Mandatory age schooling is a clandestine plan for age-group tracking. And who was this developed for? It is clearly to make the job of the teacher easier. If everyone fits into a convenient little niche or slot by age then anyone who happens to fall outside that designation is deemed to have some kind of social or cognitive problem. And perhaps they do. But maybe, not every child should start school at age five, and equally, perhaps some kids will have to work beyond the age of eighteen or nineteen to “finish” high school. What’s wrong with that?

It was my experience that kids showed up to school every September with different levels of cognitive abilities, readiness to learn, and social maturity. What was enigmatic was to wonder why they should all have the same math lesson, reading, science, and social studies lesson every day for the entire year, simply based on their grade (by age). Were they really all at the same cognitive level? These are child-centered schools?

When public schools in this country finally realize that the adults are there to serve the students, then true reform can perhaps be realized. Schools would then be there to truly meet the needs of the children attending them.

We do need some form of mandatory schooling. I fear that without it our illiteracy rate would skyrocket.
What concerns me is that we are making children learn reading and math at younger and younger ages. Readiness is variable. We are cramming more and more topics in and sliding over basic skills to make it all fit into the school schedule. They are teaching things like bar charts in the first grade - pretty irrelevant at that age, and then still reteaching it in junior high and high school. Boring!!!
I think we need to assess readiness better to give students a better start. Beginning topics when children are ready for them might give more students a better finish.

Deb,

Historically, mandatory schooling was a godsend to children. Allowing them to attend school instead of working allowed them to learn enough to equalize the very disparate playing field between the haves and the have-nots.

That being said, our current obsession with ensuring that all children "learn" ignores the very fundamental human nature that we can never "force" children (or adults as well) to learn. The implicit assumptions in our school system seem to insist that children can be "forced" to learn. An idea that is greatly mistaken and proven wrong in every country that has tried this!

As a society, we should learn from those school systems that succeed in teaching children a high quality education by starting with the acknowledgement that children can not truly learn unless they take ownership for their own learning.

That is, children need to know that they are in charge of learning a certain amount of material/skills/knowledge. And those school systems (that are successful at this) do so by insisting that the role of the teacher is in advocating/helping/teaching their students; not in "forcing" their children to learn.

Having the teacher act as the “policeman” or “enforcer” of the school betrays the close personal relationship between teacher and student that is essential for quality learning. We have as a society so wrongly assumed that “seat time” is equivalent to quality learning. It certainly is not! It is the quality time between a caring, knowledgable teacher (not enforcer!) and engaged student that results in quality learning.

How we encourage our children to take ownership is certainly a matter of debate, but other, more successful school systems have done a remarkable job by explicitly detailing what is needed to learn and following up by end-of-course exams that only test what was delineated for the students. Those school systems that employ this structure enjoy a one year advantage in learning by 8th grade when compared to schools that do not. Considering that this holds up over a wide variety of cultures and economic systems, this is quite a remarkable feat!

This approach has the distinct benefits of providing clarity to children (and parents and teachers) about what is needed to be successful, while simultaneously allowing children to take ownership of their learning (without the teacher acting as the enforcer). That is, success is defined as taking charge of the students’ own life by learning/mastering a specific quantity of ideas/material/skills.

So when you talk about the moral imperative of mandatory schooling, we have, as a society, put ourselves into a conundrum by simultaneously insisting that children attend school without insisting that they learn anything. Quite tragic!

We can not (nor should not) "force" children to learn. We should not put teachers into the position that they are solely responsible for learning. Children have to be engaged in their learning. And setting up a system that ensures children are able to take ownership for their own learning is essential for a quality education.

Should we not learn from the vast experience of other, more successful school systems by acknowledging that having our teachers serve as both teacher and judge (by evaluating and assigning grades) is counterproductive to quality learning? Children must be engaged in their own learning and the judgment of their attainment needs to be external to the classroom.

Our moral imperative is to ensure that our children are provided with the opportunity to learn, not by “forcing” them to sit in boring classes for 13 years of their life.

Erin Johnson.

Erin,

You might want to try Alfred North Whitehead's, Aims of Education. He states there are three fundamental stages in the process of education/development; the stage of romance, the stage of precision, and the stage of generalization.

Romance is the first moment in the educational experience. All rich educational experiences begin with an immediate emotional involvement on the part of the learner. Here the learner is "romanced" into wanting to learn. No one “forces” another to learn. The romancing stage of learning is the stimulation of the individual to want to delve into a topic or subject matter deeper. It has an instrinsic attachment unique to each learner.

I'm sure Deborah has a much broader exposure (and memory) of Whitehead's philosophy than I, and she can elaborate further for you.

Paul,

An admirable way of looking at education.

So why do we have our school system set up to focus on seat time instead of learning?

Erin Johnson

Paul,

Unfortunately, a student's emotional attachment to subject material cannot be measured, numerically quantified, and put into a neat spreadsheet. So, a teacher is not accountable for romancing his students into learning. Since we need to make sure that students are learning at schools, we teach what we can assess. If this circumscribes what we teach, or vitiates the way we teach, so be it.

In other words, in the age of mass education--such a radically democratic and noble ideal!--this notion of Education-as-Eros is necessarily left behind. I do not know if the works of Whitehead (or of like-minded individuals such as Joseph Schwab, Mortimer Adler, and Plato) are even taught in schools of education. It probably doesn't matter. When scripted programs that teach test-taking skills are the sanction for below-average proficiency scores, knowledge of a 19th century philosopher's antiquated idealism becomes useless.

JP

I enjoyed and learned from this post, as I have from all those that came before it. When a new post from Bridging Differences hits my reader, I block out time to read it carefully and mull it over. I know I can't simply skim it and move on. And I'm grateful for that.

Deb mentions J.T. Gotto, who when he was a NYPS high school teacher, tried not to have his students spend more than one day a week in the classroom. The other four days he had them working in internships, sometimes in their own family businesses. It should also be noted that kids and families voted him best teacher of the year several times before he retired.

I agree with Deb (and not Gotto) that, our stratified society being what it is, abolishing compulsory ed would be a mistake. But I do agree with Gotto’s “Less school is More educational” model. In other words, I think that compulsory education would be more palatable and more useful (in terms of helping young people become confident, competent and engaged citizens) if the division between classroom life and “real” life were not so extreme.

All of this makes me think of interviews that I conducted with some high school students who were in an “at risk” tutoring program in a “failing school” (was not making AYP) in Washington DC. One question that I asked was something along the lines of whether or not they felt that their school was preparing them to meet their own after-graduation-goals. Most of the students said “no.” And when I asked them what they thought would make the school more useful to them, almost to the one they answered that they wished that they could learn some more practical skills: auto mechanics, architecture, graphic design, nursing, carpentry – these kids were interested in learning trades.

The sad thing is that the trades are pretty stigmatized in our society…vocational ed is considered the lowest of the low…like you would only choose to go that route if you didn’t have any other options. Why??? The problem now goes beyond compulsory K-12 education. It is now all but mandatory that everyone go to college as well. The implicit message is that anyone who chooses the trade route would only do so because s/he was unable to get into college.

My German grandfather apprenticed with a metal worker from the time he was 16. He arrived in NYC in 1929, but was able to find work throughout the Great Depression because of the skills he learned as an apprentice. He eventually opened his own successful sheet metal business in New Jersey.

SO, I think that the direction we want to go in, (in terms of making compulsory ed more enjoyable and more useful for all students) is 1. To make school look much more like outward bound, expeditionary learning, vocational and apprenticeship models and 2. While everyone should certainly have the opportunity to go to college if they choose, our society needs to destigmatize non-college options, for wealthy kids (for whom college is usually a forgone conclusion) as well as for kids from poor and working class families.

Emily,

As much as there is to be admired in the trades and hands on experiences, we need to understand that school, by itself, necessarily focuses on what is *not* immediately practical.

If a topic is immediate and practical then our children will pick it up either in life or on the job. Schooling is for those topics that are not immediately applicable but may be/probably will be useful in a different context in life.

We devote a tremendous amount of time and effort in schools to teach children those things that they will *not* normally encounter in a trade situation so that they are/can be more flexible and dynamic when it comes to practical life.

This is not disparage trades as an occupation but to acknowledge that in the daily stuggles of every job, there is little room for flexiblity and innovation. Should we not allow our children to learn thoughtfulness and wisedom prior to burdening them with the responsiblities of life?

Erin Johnson

JP,

I would contend, in many situations, 'romancing students into learning' is a prerequisite for learning itself. Parents certainly have an influence as to whether their child learns or not, but beyond that, it's pretty much up to the teacher to stimulate his/her students into applying themselves. Teachers passionate about their work have no trouble romancing their kids. It’s the other folks in the classroom that could use a lesson or two here.

I too have a problem with how underperforming schools are addressing their students' needs through such contrived measures. It's beyond inappropriate - it's absurd, artificial, and very anxiety-ridden.

Whitehead, Bloom, Rogers, Dewey, Thorndike, et al, might not be hot reads at many teacher colleges, but they should be. At many quality schools of education they are still a valued aspect of the necessary genre.
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Emily G.

I too have a problem with the notion that everyone in this country today must go to college. The essential abolition of the comprehensive high school has been one of the biggest mistakes in our schools in the last quarter century.

I can document many peers I grew up with who wound up becoming carpenters, plumbers, and electricians and had very successful ($) careers in their respective industries. They also ENJOYED what they were doing. These jobs are never going to be outsourced and most of these folks I mentioned above made a lot more money than I did as a teacher for three and a half decades. Because they're blue-collar jobs somehow that doesn't sit well with some in our society? Too bad! NOT EVERYONE HAS THE INCLINATION TO GET THROUGH COLLEGE - THAT'S OK. As long as people become productive, contributing members of society, then, in my book, they're just fine.
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Erin,

We have our school systems set up to focus on seat time instead of learning? Not sure what you meant by that but - here goes. I deplore what many schools are doing today to kids with the way they're trying to address the demands of NCLB. There are other, far more creative ways, to get kids to proficiency in math and reading than what many of these "underperforming” schools are resorting to. Why they choose their existing practices, I believe, stems from a number of sources. Unions, administrators, so-called educational experts, lack of imagination, fear of the unknown, questionable motivation(s), I think all play into what's going on in so many under-performing schools today.

However, none of these “excuses” vindicates these teachers’ practice. These kids, essentially the targeted population of NCLB, are getting grossly shortchanged – AGAIN.

Paul,

Our school systems are designed to monitor seat time not learning.

By school systems, I do not mean the tremendous amount of effort put forth by our teachers to try and teach within a poorly designed school structure.

Our school administration/structure is designed to monitor whether the students are in class, if they are tardy, if teachers are issuing grades, and many more non-learning metrics. The fact that we have added a requirement to take tests does not change the fact that our schools systems do not monitor learning. The taking of tests has become one more non-learning metric.

Our schools insist that teachers monitor learning by issuing grades. But this is a very poor method of evaluating learning. A warm, trusting relationship between a knowledgeable teacher and a motivated student is essential to quality learning. By asking our teachers to constantly grade our students, that relationship typically degrades into an adversarial combat.

Our students need to see their teachers as an advocate/mentor (not a judge) for trust to develop and quality learning to flourish.

Because our school systems are so poorly designed, we unfairly burden our teachers with that learning monitoring system to the detriment of the teacher-student relationship.

Other school systems that use external evaluations have several distinct advantages. By 8th grade, the students in an external evaluation system are, on average, 1 year ahead in learning than students in a teacher graded system. Additionally, without the constant grading by the teachers, the students see the classroom as a support system to help himself/herself to learn. Quite different than what we typically see in our schools today.

The difficulties that we see today in the mistaken application of tests and NCLB to our schools traces directly to the poor structure of our school system, not in our teachers lack of dedication or effort.

Erin Johnson

Erin,

I think it's a myth that “non-practical” subjects are all heady and full of esprit, while “practical” ones are all drudgery. In fact, I think that the absolute division between the two is an artificial one. I think it is closer to the truth to say that any kind of work can be done thoughtfully, creatively, intelligently, and vice versa. I think this is why educational standards, national or otherwise, should be broad, focusing more on helping students to cultivate their creativity, thoughtfulness, critical thinking, (i.e. habits of mind) across disciplines, in and beyond school.

As I often do with things that are even mildly tech in nature, I come late to the blogosphere, and thus to "Bridging Differences." I am so happy to be reading these smart exchanges on the corporate model and language of schooling, on the disdain corporate philanthropies have for educators, on test score mania, and so on. I profit from watching Debbie and Diane think through these issues together. But moreso, I am heartened to see two people who have their differences actually hashing them out in a constructive way. American education has not benefitted from our tendency toward either/or thinking, toward polemical one-right-way policy. We get the "math wars" or "reading wars" or "history wars" rather than nuanced thinking about teaching and learning. Thanks to you two for seriously and respectfully engaging each other's ideas.
Mike Rose

Emily,

We all want our children to develop into creative, thoughtful adults.

But as always, the devil is in the details. The question that we should be asking ourselves is: How do we set up our schools to do that?

Erin Johnson

The more I think about the big structural questions such as national curriculum and mandatory schooling, the more I am awed by the contradictions in our system and wonder if they can ever be resolved.

National curriculum: I start to lean toward it, if only because I see how badly our schools need subject matter, clarity, and common language. One teacher can't provide this all alone; she needs the support of a school. The school needs the support of the region, the region of the city, and so forth. If your state tests have little to do with what's being taught, then they will be a waste of time. We need curriculum, and therefore we need a certain amount of agreement about what should be taught. Can the agreement stop before the national level? I'm not sure.

Yet there is so much disagreement about what education is for, what ends it should serve, and what should be part of it, that if we were to establish a national curriculum, no matter what kind, there would be many who disliked it, disagreed with its premises, or found it too easy or too hard.

That's why some argue for semi-privatization of schools and free market competition. Have lots of different kinds of schools, and let the best ones win. The problem is, people will not have equal access to those schools, and assessments of a school's success may or may not correspond with the schools' own goals. Moreover, to recruit students, such schools will have to market aggressively, taking resources away from the education itself, and paying dizzying fees to branding consultants. Something in that picture makes me shiver.

Considering all this, wouldn't something like a European system help us through our predicament? Though not a panacea, it would have some advantages. I'm thinking of a system in which students would attend school together until high school, at which point they would go to the school that best suited their goals, interests, and beliefs. There would be something like a Gymnasium for the college-bound, and then various other kinds of high schools with different emphases. They could all offer a rich curriculum, but at different levels, with different specialties. Each would prepare the students for something after graduation.

This would be different from the current "small school" model. The schools could (and possibly should) be large, with numerous course offerings and extracurricular activities.

Of course the tracking raises concerns. How could we guarantee fairness? How could we ensure that English language learners were placed according to their abilities? What about the kids who never know that they're capable of more? What would happen to those special schools, the anomalies in the system? And what about the students who change their minds about what they want midway through high school? Would it be too late to do something?

Ideally, we would make provisions for students wishing to change course. They could take accelerated summer courses, pass exams, etc. We would still make room for schools that didn't fit into the structure.

Then it would be easier to justify mandatory schooling, because students would be in school for reasons that made sense to them, and we would be able to get a lot done. We could have public education, substantial curricula, and variety within the system. There would still be all sorts of complexities and unresolved problems, but at least we would be working together and providing more of an education at all levels than we are now.

Unfortunately, I don't see this happening any time soon. It seems to be one of the least popular options, for reasons I don't quite understand, having spent two years in European schools (one year in the Netherlands at age 10, and one year in the Soviet Union at age 14). My best experiences in the U.S. (in public and private schools, in Maine and Massachusetts) happened to resemble the European experiences in a number of ways. Isn't it possible we could learn something from them? Why isn't this option discussed more often?

Diana,

We don't talk about this option because we have this mistaken belief in our country that we educate "all children." When in fact, our high school drop out rate is appalling and those children that stay in our system receive a rather mediocre education.

To complement your suggestions, you might also consider that a "national curriculum" does not have to be rigid. If fact we could develop a system that embraces flexiblity while maintaining rigor.

As an example, our colleges are models of excellence. And they do this without a lock-step uniformity of study. The classes that students take in college vary greatly depending upon the student's interests and requirements for degrees.

Could we not have such a rigorous system of classes that allowed flexiblity of study in the younger grades as well?

Erin Johnson

Thanks for the note, Mike, and good luck to your new blog. Your book Minds At Work is just what we all should read re the discussion of intellect and the "trades" and "crafts". I urge all readers to pick it up. Folks should also read/reread Ted Sizer's Horace's COpromise. The whole purpose of the Coalition reform was to shift from "seat time" credits to "demonstrating" one's. CPESS (my old NYC school) was one of the first public high schools to totally embrace that idea. It died some years ago in part because, under pressure, it abandoned precisely that concept.

Emily, Gatto taught at the junior high my kids attended. Your description of his sending kids out to the world must have been a later part of his life. When I knew him he was "just" an exciting teacher.

Yes--we can have flexibility and "rigor". But the best path to both may precisely be to retain the the idea of contradictions and not try to get everything aligned with everything else, or everyone adopting the same cure-all.

Deb

Oops. The title of Sizer's book is Horace's Compromise.

We have to use strategic language to reframe the debate (al la Lakoff, et al).

I'm tempted to frame this in terms of efficacy, i.e., "what is the most effective way to . . .?" But immediately there is the issue of the purpose of education. The Business Roundtable, et al, want to frame this question as "What is the most effective way to prepare children for the 21st century economy?" I want to frame this as "What is the most effective way to raise happy, healthy humans?"

But the problem here is that the frame of "efficiency" gets repeated in both questions. We need to think of a different frame, one that does not involve efficiency.

A colleague of mine told me about kids in an informal education setting learning how to cook; his point was that they had no "outcome" measure, but he thought the experience was "decent, maybe even vital."

This example runs directly counter to the values of the accountability/outcomes movement. The problem here is that most folks in contemporary education -- teachers, parents, and administrators -- would scoff at this. Why? Because there are no pre-defined measurable outcomes, there is no "rigor," there is no tie to state standards, and exploring while cooking does not appear as a multiple choice question on the state test.

So how do we break the stranglehold of this current frame?

Nel Noddings -- professor of education, emerita, at Stanford and now at TC Columbia -- had a great piece in Ed Week that is re-published here. Her insights might help.

Here are some relevant excerpts:

"(T)he overuse of specific learning objectives in all subjects works against the development of intellectual habits of mind. Superficially, it seems fair to tell students exactly what they must learn and be able to do as a result of instruction. This is instructionally sound when we are teaching a narrowly defined skill, but it is a poor way to encourage problem-solving, critical thinking, and the habits of mind that support further, deeper learning. Too often the result of such instruction is students who can add when told to add, or solve quadratic equations when told to solve the following quadratic equations, but cannot decide when to use these techniques in solving problems. In the interest of intellectual habits of mind, students must be asked to identify for themselves the important points in every unit of study, construct their own summaries, attempt problems that have no obvious solution, engage in interpretation, and evaluate conflicting explanations and points of view."
"Providing a complete structure of what is to be learned and a detailed list of outcomes expected of all students facilitates quick, shallow learning and swift forgetting. The little actually remembered is very like a collection of meaningless bits for Trivial Pursuit. Students come to expect that they should have answers at their fingertips instead of developing an attitude of inquiry one of willingness to figure things out."
"The insistence on precisely stated learning objectives, moreover, also drastically reduces the number of classroom sessions designed to expose students to new, interesting ideas that may or may not result in specific learning. It is right to pay continuous, careful attention to whether students are learning certain specific material. But there should also be sessions devoted to intellectual inputs topics teachers choose to present or offer leaving open what students might do as a result.
"Many intellectually exciting and socially significant lessons conducted by creative teachers are designed to induce awareness, not specific learning. It is a shame to sacrifice such sessions in our zeal to achieve a pre-specified learning objective for every lesson, every day. In addition to asking the question, Has Johnny learned X? we should also ask, What has Johnny learned? In a class of 25 students, we might get 25 different answers to this -- some disheartening (from which we should learn), and some quite thrilling."

Can we use Noddings' ideas to reframe the debate?

Words! They are strangely treacherous in educational discussions. So many terms, once meaning one thing, can be flipped to mean the opposite.

I am a little skeptical about Noddings' ideas. She seems to equate specific curriculum with dreary learning objectives and specified outcomes. They are not one and the same. If you have an excellent (and specific) curriculum, the objectives/outcomes will be infinite and varied: some precise, some not, some short-term, some long-term, some termless. There is so much to learn from the material that your stated goal is only part of the picture. You may read Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as an illustration of iambic tetrameter, but the poem will take off from there. You will walk away with more than the tetrameter, even as it gallops in your head.

To clarify a point on the "European model": in mentioning the Soviet system, I was by no means glorifying it. The only classes I really loved there were math and French--history instruction was criminally dreary, and literature class uninspired (with some bright moments). I was referring to the aspects that grew out of the European tradition: specific knowledge-based curriculum, explicit instruction, and a variety of "special schools" (which in practice were rather elitist but had a few well-concealed treasures).

Philosopher and linguist Lev Vladimirovich Shcherba (1880-1944) advocated for the overhaul of language instruction in the Soviet Union, emphasising the importance of philology as well as conversational fluency. He believed that the abandonment of Russian and foreign classics would imperil the country, and that censorship of Old Church Slavic texts would rob the country of its cultural heritage. He did a lot to keep literature in the curriculum.

Shcherba was instrumental in the creation of the special language schools, which he gave a rather surprising twist. He believed these schools should teach practical skills, e.g., conversational fluency,
while every student in every school should learn philology and study literature closely. Graduates of the special schools could become diplomats; graduates of every school would know literature. Elitist? Yes--but not in the way we usually view it.

The European models do present serious problems. They endorse, and promote, and institutionalize stratification, and in many cases (Shcherba's vision aside), only the elite have access to a true liberal education.

Sadly, the stratification already exists, whether we like it or not (I think that's part of your point, Erin, correct?) So if we were to have something of a European system where students at a certain age could go to different schools according to their interests, abilities, beliefs, and goals, we would also have to help students enter the school they desire. We would need a way of identifying students from disadvantaged backgrounds who could qualify for special programs with intensive accelerated instruction.

We already have this to a degree. There are specialized schools (like Stuyvesant) and other selective schools (like Murrow). But what about the rest? Far too many students end up in overcrowded, stressed schools on the one hand, or experimental small schools on the other. There is far too much volatility. A more stable and coherent system, with variety and strong curriculum, would give students a better chance at an education they need and desire.

I am a first grade teacher in New Mexico and I believe in Mandatory Schooling. In this blog someone stated that students are having to learn more things at a younger age. Great! What is wrong with this? If you have high expectations, students will more than likely meet your expectations. I believe it is important to support our students with as much knowledge as possible. Teachers need to give students background knowledge and set them up for years to come. If they retain it, wonderful! If they don't, then it will be retaught.

It is true that students have different learning needs and styles and their age might not match their ability. However, that is why teachers need to modify and assess according to each students' ability and learning need. Teachers are learning more and more about learning styles and different teaching methods to help students succeed. If all teachers taught this way, I believe we wouldn't have such a large number in dropouts and failing students. Students would be able to understand content because it is taught in alignment with their specific learning sytle.

What I don't understand is why does each state require every child to pass the same test? Would you require every animal on the planet to pass a "climb the tree" test with flying colors? No! Because not every animal was born with the same ability to climb a tree. Each animal would have a different way of getting to the top. Would we fail the animal based on how they got to the top, or would we pass them becasue they made it to the top. My point is that every child learns differently. It is up to the teacher to enhance and broaden the childs skills and knowledge in order to assess them correctly. In turn, children would gain a better feeling of self confidence and know how to successfully reach their goals in the future by using the tools that teachers taught them.

Kamela

Kamela,

It sounds like you are a dedicated and caring teacher--whatever our differences of philosophy may be, I salute you!

Metaphors can be tricky. What does your tree represent? If it represents specific knowledge, then I would tend to agree with you that kids can attain that knowledge in different ways. If the tree represents something more nebulous, then perhaps a cloud would be a more apt metaphor.

Suppose the tree represents familiarity with regular and certain irregular spellings in English. Let's say kids at a certain level should be able to spell "constitution," "ablaze," "enough," and "hippopotamus." Well, then, it would certainly be reasonable to test their spelling of such words.

If, on the other hand, the standard is something vague like "Students will be familiar with the conventions of written English," then teachers will interpret this in different ways, and test-makers will face a conundrom: whether to test specific knowledge that may or may not have been covered, or whether to test more general knowledge that may or may not meet the standard.

In this latter scenario, differentiation becomes especially treacherous. If we are unclear about what students are supposed to learn, AND differentiating to their different learning styles and needs, we end up with "highly successful" students who have learned very little.

So for clarity's sake, I suggest we establish first what the students should be learning, then talk about how better to help them get there. This is not the prevailing view that you will hear at professional development sessions. They tend to be dominated by constructivists, who by no means represent the full range of educational thought. They tend to ignore questions of curriculum and focus almost exclusively on "strategies."

As a middle-school teacher in an urban school, I deal with a huge range of levels, abilities, and backgrounds in my classes. I agree that these differences need to be addressed, but am skeptical about the solutions touted at the trainings, especially since they do not lay bare their biases. Yesterday at a PD meeting I said, "I am not a constructivist." I felt this had to be said; many seem to assume that constructivism is the inevitable conclusion of any enlightened mind. I find truth in many aspects of constructivism, but not the entire package as it is bundled to us in these sessions.

My best wishes to you in your teaching!

Computers are expert and efficient at differentiation, item analysis, frequent feedback, and error correction in the content areas. They are data gurus, too. I, a human being surrounded by a classroom of 30 + beautiful and unique human beings, am expert at differentiation and instruction in respect. If we really want efficient differentiation, let's decide what each student needs to learn, match it to the appropriate adaptive software, and schedule students with respectful and people smart content and pedagogy knowledgable teachers. I am not saying computers are The Answer, or that students do not need teachers. I believe all learning stems from the power of the relationship. What I am saying is that we need to get realistic about the real world of classroom dynamics, and set reasonable expectations for both teachers and students.
I agree with Diana that curriculum needs to be directly defined and addressed, and is usually ignored. In my opinion, one result of this unwillingness to directly define curriculum results in the punishment of teachers, students, and families. After all, accountability for the unknown is highly oppressive.

Kim, Teacher, that is my quote of the day:

"Accountability for the unknown is highly oppressive."

I love it! I will be quoting it on my blog today (or tomorrow).

Oh, and in my last comment, I meant "conundrum," not "conundrom."

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