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Back to the Future

The Teacher in a Strange Land is moving. Not from this felicitous home at Teacher magazine--but literally. Out of a nice house, into a small apartment--and eventually, into our new log home in northern Michigan, the manifestation of a life-long dream.

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Blueprint Mania, Testing Angst and Teachers' (Impassioned) Letters to Obama are bubbling around me, and I'm stuck in the basement, boxing up books --books! so many books!--preparing for the obligatory garage sale, and sneezing--dust! so much dust!

Packing up also means clearing out. I've spent many grubby hours pulling earnest, typewritten-on-onionskin term papers out of filing cabinets and trying to decide whether my adolescent wisdom is worth schlepping to still more filing cabinets. I also have two entire drawers filled with clippings from 1975 (when I started teaching) to the early 1990s (when I got a computer)--pieces I saw as (clearing throat) seminal to the discourse. Either that, or I'm a total packrat.

Fascinating reading--but what's startling is how little has changed in the past 35 years. We're still flailing around, trying to find the quick-fix remedy for academic deficiencies of students who live in terrible poverty. We're still suspiciously eyeballing schools in other nations, wondering how they get better results (then, the Soviets--and now, Finland). We're still fretting over incompetent teachers. If my clippings reflect the prevailing perspectives, a severe "crisis" in American education has been going on for at least five decades. That's a long time to be in crisis.

We're still trying to frame the issues by sharing anecdotes:

In a speech to educators in Tennessee, [Reagan] lamented "the abandonment of compulsory courses." He remembered a science class in his boyhood: "It didn't appeal to me at all, but I was forced to take it...I had to do it, if I wanted to play football and if I wanted to get a diploma someday." With the national blackboard filled by pet theories of politicians who have never taught school themselves, Reagan is emerging as the leader of the knuckle-rappers. To prepare kids for life-- and the school of hard knocks-- just hit them hard with compulsory subjects. If the students don't like them, too bad. As president, Reagan is better at subtraction than addition. Since taking office, he has cut $1 billion from Department of Education programs. (Colman McCarthy, Washington Post)

Best article, hands-down, in my collection: The Great School Reform Hoax by George Leonard (Esquire, April 1984), which could easily have been written last month. His eleven prescriptions for truly fixing American education need no updating--they're as relevant today as they were 26 years ago: Don't hit the panic button and make rash policy decisions. Individualize education. Get parents and community involved. Improve curriculum and instruction. Pay teachers more and treat them as professionals. Don't increase the school day--and don't assign more homework. Make school exciting and vivid.

Here's my favorite suggestion from the Leonard piece (remember, written in 1984): Use computers to teach students more than just how to use computers. Some schools in 2010 still haven't figured that out.

Dan Willingham and others have now written a series on "American Education in 2030" for the Hoover Institution. Willingham's piece centers on the "Limitations of the Teacher's Mind"--not what you'd call a flattering lead-in to commentary that's supposed to be about change and progress in our classrooms. I can't speak for all American teachers, but none of the "mental obstacles" that Willingham believes all teachers wrestle with has been a particular problem for me. When he suggests that national standards, tests and curricula--as well as moving disruptive kids to "special rooms"--will finally cause us make that Great Educational Leap Forward, he enters the Reagan zone: rhetoric over reality.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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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