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Stop the Education Reform Pendulum

It's understandable why teachers feel they need a summer vacation so desperately this year. The spring semester has been marked by an avalanche of educational legislation across the nation that has left them reeling. What is disturbing is not the sheer number of changes as much as their lack of cohesiveness.

In an excellent analysis in The Nation, Pedro Noguera warns that policy makers have not thought out clearly what must be done to improve educational quality ("A New Vision of School Reform"). As a result, the Race to the Top and other initiatives constitute fragmented approaches. But the truth is that for decades public education in this country has undergone abrupt swings from one extreme to the other for the same reason.

The 1970s, for example, stressed the benefits of open classrooms, where students studied what they were most interested in when they felt ready. Today's back-to-basics movement, which largely ignores other subjects, represents the opposite extreme. The whole language approach to teaching reading in the 1980s gave way to emphasis on phonics in the 1990s. Then there were the math wars between traditionalists and reformers throughout the 1990s that led to enthusiasm for Singapore math. I could go on, but you get the drift.

There were also extremes over the same time period in the way to carry out instruction. The 1970s featured an emphasis on creativity in preparing lessons in order to make learning "relevant." By the late 1990s, however, scripted lessons for teachers were being advocated. In a letter to the editor that was published in the New York Times, I asked why schools needed to hire teachers in the first place. Why not simply employ any adult who was able to read and follow directions? ("Remember Education's Consumers; Good Teachers Needed")

These dramatic and uncoordinated reform strategies have created a cynicism among teachers. Despite their best efforts to meet the new demands placed on them, they've been subjected to unrelenting criticism about virtually everything they do. It's rare to hear about their successes. Contrary to popular belief, they do exist every day behind the scenes. Summer vacation will provide only a respite. When the fall semester begins, so too will the attacks.

There's one lesson that needs to be kept in mind at this crucial juncture. Most programs to improve education over the years have failed, and will continue to fail unless they first address the genuine problems faced by teachers, and are based on what teachers know to be workable. But don't count on that happening. Self-styled experts without classroom experience always seem to prevail, especially when they have millions of dollars to use as bait.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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