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Out of Touch With Classroom Reality

Consensus about what should be taught is an important step toward improving student performance. Unfortunately, the views of Charles Cook, the CEO of the charter school district ResponsiveEd, and Terrence Moore, a Hillsdale College professor of history, will not advance that agenda for most students ("Doing a Texas Two-Step Around Education Reform," Mar. 9). Although their remarks are prompted by events in Texas, by extension they have application to other states as well.

They begin by correctly arguing that watering down graduation requirements does a disservice to students. They're also right that training students to get jobs is not good enough. But it's their solution that is wrong. They urge a "rigorous classical education," which "has the weight of millennia of human experience behind it." Specifically, Cook and Moore want students to learn Latin, study primary source documents in history, and read Shakespeare.

This curriculum will appeal to the brightest students who have the aptitude to handle its demands. For example, The Concord Review publishes outstanding examples of historical papers written by students. I take my hat off to them and to Will Fitzhugh, who founded TCR in 1987 and continues to edit it. But I question if less able students possess the wherewithal to perform satisfactorily. Let's not forget that there are about 19,000 public high schools in the country. Do Cook and Moore truly believe that their curriculum is suitable for all of them? I'm not talking now about public schools that require applicants to pass a test before being admitted. Instead, I'm referring strictly to traditional public schools that are required by law to admit everyone who wishes to enroll.

I also question if the communication skills needed today, whether in speech or in writing, are best taught by studying, say, Thomas Paine. Although he was a deep thinker, his syntax and sentence structure are not applicable to the demands made by employers. Moreover, I fail to see how the "rigors of Latin grammar" will help students read the boss's memo. Yet these solutions are precisely what Cook and Moore assert. The reality is that the most effective way to help students to write is to give them appropriate practice doing so. That means using suitable models. When I was at UCLA working on my M.S. in journalism, we were given reading lists containing examples of graceful writing. We analyzed them to identify the qualities, and then we were required to incorporate these qualities in our writing.

When I taught speech during the first three years of my 28-year career, I made copies of addresses taken from A Treasury of Great American Speeches (Hawthorn Books, 1964). I also played recordings of these speeches to emphasize delivery style. I never expected students to equal these classics, but I think the approach helped them improve their delivery. Once again, I chose speeches that were suited to the times in terms of sentence structure and word choice. I doubt that reading Cicero, as Cook and Moore suggest, would constitute appropriate practice - that is, unless the goal is to have students speak like Cicero.

I support the movement to improve standards, but I think we have to be realistic in what we recommend. Setting the bar too high will unavoidably lead to failure for the vast majority of students.

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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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