We are more than halfway through the most radical reform of America's schools this country has ever seen. Unlike Clinton's failed health reform program, education reform has been kept under wraps so successfully that few parents are aware of it. Yet its scope is such that very few school districts or classrooms have remained untouched. This reform has been compared to a "gentle bulldozer" by some, and to "a train wreck in slow motion" by others.
Having followed this reform movement carefully for over four years, I have come to the conclusion that what is really happening is not a dumbing down process, but the emasculation of the American educational system. The rigor, discipline, dedication, and persistence associated through the centuries with real learning are disappearing.
Beginning with the framers of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, America has been blessed with a series of brilliant minds that have given us our unique form of government and enviable economy. Our school system has produced scientists, writers, and thinkers that have made America the most influential of countries. Americans have won more Nobel prizes than the rest of the world put together. Most of the great scientific inventions that have affected daily life throughout the world have occurred here. Even our art and literature are among the most admired, while our popular culture (with all its shortcomings) continues to be imitated everywhere.
Nevertheless, in 1983 our President, along with the nation's Governors, decided that our students were losing ground internationally. Test scores showed that we were falling seriously behind in most academic areas. A report entitled "A Nation at Risk" was prepared by a presidential commission, and Congress quickly passed a series of bills to provide funding for reforms. By the time Clinton assumed office, the movement resembled a bulldozer.
The legislation that had proceeded from Reagan and Bush to the Clinton administration underwent drastic changes. Under President Bush, the key reform legislation was known as America 2000. By the time Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act in 1994, a number of changes had been made, and the law became known for bearing the subtitle "A Strategy for Reinventing Our Schools." Other legislation quickly followed Goals 2000, mostly dealing with the needs of the disadvantaged, and with providing students with health, psychological, and other social and technical services.
The billions of dollars provided for education reform by federal legislation has attracted all kinds of self-proclaimed experts, mostly psychologists or sociologists, with a sprinkling of educrats (educators with a political flair).
Certain names have emerged as pioneers: Benjamin Bloom, William Spady, William Glasser, among others. Spady was the recipient of a huge federal grant in the 1980s (over $500 million) that allowed him to contribute a new and still unproven theory known as Outcome- Based Education (OBE). The OBE system stresses "the social, emotional, and psychological growth" of children over academic knowledge. This "new paradigm" has radically changed the thrust of the educational process in several ways. For example, instead of basic academic knowledge, education's primary purpose has become to instill in children learning attitudes that deemphasize facts and emphasize politically correct social, psychological, and globalist thinking.
The eight general goals of Goals 2000 have fostered literally thousands of vague "outcomes" (or "standards") affecting every grade level, program, course, and graduation requirement. (One such outcome states: "Students will respect the rights of others to think, act, and speak differently from themselves within the context of democratic principles, and the promotion of social justice.") Other "novelty approaches" include untested teaching methods, "creative" curricula and testing, school/business partnerships, the introduction of new technologies into the classroom, mandatory community service, new roles for teachers, administrators, students, and parents, and the provision of various social services, including school-based clinics.
The clinics deal with student health in the broadest possible sense, and include the distribution of condoms and prescription drugs such as Ritalin for children with psychological and learning problems. There are more than 900 school-based health clinics in 43 states. The federal government has announced the allocation of $40 million to establish "21st Century Community Centers" at rural and inner-city public schools for projects that "benefit the education, health, social services, cultural and recreational needs of the communities." In other words, we seem to be heading for a cradle-to-grave, government-managed society.
All these innovations required drastic changes in teaching methods and in the classroom. Students no longer sit in rows of desks, but in groups of four or six; the teacher no longer teaches, but serves as a "facilitator" who visits the groups and provides help; students are encouraged to discover knowledge by working as a team on "real-life projects" that combine several subject areas. This "cooperative learning" process often leads to a "group grade" that does not always reflect individual achievement. Homework, memorization, standardized tests and grade results are discouraged; reading is taught without concern for phonics or spelling, and in some cases math is taught without concern for numbers; traditional classroom discipline is minimized; grade levels may combine several grades (usually 1-3), and class periods may be based on "block scheduling" that doubles the length of classes and expands the school year. In effect, the reform is really an attempt to make children live not in a world of learning, but in a make-believe "real world of adults" while in school.
The ultimate goals, defined as "self- directed learning" and "higher-order thinking skills," have prompted the noted columnist Paul Greenberg to remark that today's reform "stresses not the substance of learning but its technique, not content but form, not what will be taught but how to log onto the Internet-and finally, not learning for its own sake, but as an instrument of national power."
Given such radical changes, it is no wonder that supporters of the movement insist that American schools are not being dumbed down despite the poor showing by American students on international standardized tests. Our standards of measurement, they say, must change. If children are no longer considered containers to be filled by experts, but rather self-contained intelligences to be developed, then traditional testing methods will not give valid results. The way to go, supporters say, is portfolios and performance assessments which show how a student's work progresses over a long period of time. What must be measured is growth in such areas as acquisition of social skills, attitudes, behavior, feelings and emotions. These supporters say that knowledge alone will not suffice in the new century.
So what is taking its place? Two families are suing a school district in Alabama for introducing their children to satanism and the occult. A school teacher was arrested for bearing the child of a 13-year old boy in her class, and there are disturbing increases in school violence.
In a 1996 book entitled The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, E.D. Hirsch, a professor at the University of Virginia and a political liberal but education conservative, presents what I consider the best analysis yet of the real weaknesses of the reform movement. His thorough historical overview shows how education theories have wavered between two important qualities in education: rigor and flexibility. In this country, there has been little movement toward rigor, because what Hirsch calls the American education "Thoughtworld" has always focused on flexibility. Most current reforms are repetitions of long-failed Romantic, anti-knowledge notions that emanated from the Columbia Teachers College in the early 20th century.
These notions have led American education toward dangerous chaos. In their basic form, they pit "mechanical" methods of teaching against "natural methods"- real-life experiences against book learning and the acquisition of concrete facts. This movement descended from the Romantic Movement of the 18th century, creating the new concept that most Americans seem to believe: that human nature is innately good and should be encouraged to develop naturally. Children are not formless pieces of clay in need of molding, the theory holds, but special beings in their own right, with trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to run their course. We should help them grow as we do plants, without force or intrusion on their natural growth.
As one "authority" wrote, "Parents should not hurry their children into working at things outside their immediate interests." Therefore, it is unhealthy, unnatural, and harmful to press book learning upon children too early. Schooling should avoid harsh discipline, hard work, and artificial stimulation or constraint, such as seating children in straight rows. It is more important to educate the "whole child," focusing on his creativity and imagination.
This viewpoint entered the schools in the '20s and '30s under the name of progressivism, and began to dominate American education in the 1950s, as traditional educators retired and the progressives took over the schools. The full effect of the doctrine was realized in the 1960s (with the flower children) when SAT scores showed a dramatic decline.
As the union leader Albert Shanker has pointed out, a basic assumption of the contemporary progressive is that subject matter or content of what is taught in school is unimportant. Since schools are teaching the whole child, it's up to the schools to choose whatever subject matter they consider appropriate. According to the progressive, specific course content consists of "mere facts," and leads to "rote learning," which condemns students to a painful process. The result is kids crammed with facts but who can't think, and who take no joy in learning.
In place of content, progressives would like to see schools teach "problem solving," "higher-order thinking skills," and "critical thinking" - in other words, how to think. It's easy today for kids to find the information they need in libraries or on the Internet, so why teach it in schools? In the new job market, thinking skills will be much more important than specific information. Learning how to learn should be the ultimate goal.
According to Professor Hirsch, the above is hogwash. There is no battle between learning and learning how to learn. Progressive reform has for many years been moving away from content (the what) and toward process (the how). The attempt to teach children how to think has been a dismal failure when we consider the terrible record of student achievement. All the important research about how kids learn points to the need for specific content as the foundation for any kind of learning.
Every field requires specific skills. Moreover, the dichotomy between content and skills is patently false. People can't think without facts and information. The more a mind is stocked with information, the better is the thinking process. What is really needed to develop thinking skills is what Hirsch calls "a generous number of carefully chosen exemplary facts." The notion spouted by pro-gressives that children learn better by moving from concepts to facts rather than vice versa is utter nonsense, and yet we find it even in the legislation supporting education reforms.
As for the notion that teaching children facts is boring, anyone who has witnessed the delight with which children master facts about dinosaurs or Egyptian mummies knows this is not the case. Hirsch admits that it is not easy to focus on content and help children to use knowledge. But he asks: "why is it that we never question the discipline required to make a soccer team or to play the piano, and yet we consider it a hardship to have them master important academic skills?"
In 1987, Hirsch published a book called Cultural Literacy, which was a grade-by-grade prescription for what should be taught in elementary school. His position focused on two points: (1) that there is a core of knowledge every American must learn to succeed in school and function responsibly in a democracy; and (2) that a wrong-headed education theory known as progressivism has prevented schools from teaching such knowledge.
As a consequence, schools have exalted process over content, and method over the acquisition of knowledge. Hirsch's conclusion is that "a systemic failure to teach all children the knowledge they need in order to understand what the next grade has to offer is the major source of avoidable injustice in our schools." This is why he calls American schools "among the least effective in the developed world," and why he established the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, VA, which provides guidance and material to establish Core Knowledge Schools throughout the country.
For Hirsch, a good school must have teachers with detailed knowledge of the subject matter they teach. It must have an agreed-upon core of knowledge and skills that children must learn in each grade, building from year to year, so that teachers can be sure of their students' progress. Because this entails specific knowledge, students can be monitored and helped when they need it, and parents can know what their children are learning. In other words, Hirsch is calling for a traditional, subject-matter-centered school. So far, more than 400 school districts in 40 states have adopted Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum. The rest are adamantly resisting, and blithely continuing along the progressive path of OBE and its derivatives.
Standardized test scores measure content and fact acquisition, which progressives say should be a thing of the past. So how do we account for the dismal statistics that reflect what is happening to American education? The 1994 national assessments showed that 43% of 4th-graders, 31% of 8th-graders, and 30% of 12th-graders read below "basic" level, placing them in the illiterate category. Between 1990 and 1996, statistics show that 1/3 of the students in grades 4 through 12 cannot read, and nearly 2/3 of them can't read very well. Achievement levels in history and geography were even worse. The decline started in 1963. Today, only 41% of the typical school day is devoted to academics.
This is not surprising when we consider that only 19% of education professors think correct spelling is important, only 12% think it is essential for students to be polite, neat and punctual, and a mere 7% think teachers should be conveyors of knowledge. Nor is it surprising that in the California university system, up to 53% of freshmen must take remedial math, and 50% remedial English. Nevertheless, supporters of reform consider such results inconclusive, for they reflect the acquisition of mere factual knowledge. For example, the journal of the Oklahoma School Board dismissed test scores as a "non-issue" compared to "issues of equality, diversity, and prejudice."
What we have then, are two opposing approaches to education: one stressing knowledge that is demanding and challenging and with rich academic content, the other stressing social growth, sensitivity, feelings, emotions, values, behavior, the fostering of self-esteem, and desirable attitudes toward life and learning which will lead to "self-directed, creative and productive" learners. It is to be expected that neither side will agree with the other's system of testing. Pro-gressives mistrust standardized tests, and traditionalists mistrust performance tests. This explains why progressives refuse to acknowledge that American schools are being dumbed down. For them, standardized test scores tell less than half the story. It is what students can do that matters, and the best measures of this are portfolios containing student work over a long period of time, and student projects.
So far, no one has developed a system for tracking national or local educational progress using evidence from testing based on portfolios or student projects. The fact is that despite computer technology and other psychological experiments to measure performance assessments, such assessments continue to be highly subjective and unreliable.