Illinois Loop
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"My 'Conversion'"

The author is a mother of three in a state which instituted progressivist reforms in the early 90's. She and her husband hold doctoral and masters degrees in non-education fields and provided their children an enriched environment, and all three children have professionally-assessed aptitude in the superior range. Nonetheless, their complete reliance on teaching professionals and progressivist methods for foundational instruction resulted in children whose learning difficulties resembled that of the 'disadvantaged'. The after-school remediation of elementary skills described in the essay has, over the course of about 18 months, made significant improvement to the children's grade-level achievement and attitudes toward learning. As a result of those positive and productive learning experiences at home, the family will homeschool two of the children next year using the 'classical' method.

The author has requested that her name be withheld.

    It's difficult to chronicle my journey from the "progressivist" camp of education philosophy to the "traditionalist" camp, to revisit my anger and guilt at coming to terms with what I allowed to happen to my children in the name of education reform. I do so here in hopes that sharing our experience will make it a less likely scenario for other families.

    Our children began in public schools just as wholesale, statewide "progressive" reforms were being implemented. The sales pitch was a marketing tour de force: child-centered instruction, success for all, lifelong learning skills ... oh, and learning would be easy and fun because it would wait for developmental readiness and native curiosity. A 'translator' could have told me that we were being sold whole language, constructivist math, and project-based learning. I'd like to think I could have taken it from there. But, maybe not. As the child of two fine teachers, I was conditioned to accord teaching professionals respect and deference. And I was preoccupied with ancillary issues.

    I had helped found a parent advocacy group aimed at passing a local tax referendum to build badly needed new schools. The same education reform that had elevated progressivist methods in our state had changed funding mechanisms so as to force high-growth districts to deal with the consequences of that growth locally. I gave speeches, did talk shows, drafted information pieces, helped coordinate a cadre of wonderful parent volunteers around a petition drive and the fundraising for a special election. It was a full-time job that bridged two school years - critical primary years for my children. I had nothing left at the end of the day for homework support or supplemental teaching. But with the rhetoric of developmentalism ringing in my ears, I didn't feel particularly alarmed or responsible for any early 'failure to thrive.'

    Our campaign lost by the typical 60/40 or so margin, partly a casualty of the anti-tax sentiment that raged that fall. Ironically, our organized opposition was also leading the charge against progressivism. Having known their arguments around construction funding issues to be full of holes, I ascribed similar flaws to criticisms of progressive methods. That hasty and myopic judgment turned out to be one of the most critical miscalculations I've made as a parent.

    There were clues aplenty that progressivism wasn't delivering on its promises. Reading was labored and slow; my children 'hated to read' - despite having been read to daily for most of their lives. Math facts were insecure, despite heavy doses of manipulatives and light doses of those 'mind-numbing' flash cards. As a classroom volunteer, I saw that much of the general content delivery was embedded in student presentations of group projects, and that the teacher rarely intervened to separate the 'dross from the gold', even the correct from the incorrect.

    By the end of elementary, we acknowledged to ourselves that something had gone badly wrong, though the causal link from early elementary instruction was not yet clear. It was easier to place blame on ourselves, on an exaggerated sense of homework neglect. Still, we took the precaution of moving the children to a private school billed as 'traditional' - only to eventually discover it to be an upscaled version of the progressivism offered at no extra charge by the public school next door. That discovery, too, was years in coming; I was so consumed with the career that paid the tuition that I barely took note of the continuing deterioration in scholastic achievement, much less delved deeply into the reasons why.

    What was it that finally broke through my unquestioning faith and mindless optimism? A recognition that certain elements of a 7th grade math program were badly askew, some research for purposes of a teacher conference, and finding the Mathematically Correct website. A binge of research ensued which continues to this day.

    As full understanding of how progressivism had failed my children finally dawned, I was furious - more with myself than anyone else. But, I can no longer spare the emotional energy which anger consumes. It takes all I've got to stay attuned to three children from 3:00 to 10:30 p.m. sufficiently to correct Kumon math, direct grammar remediation, go over their SRA reading comprehension work, monitor the writing process program, and check assigned homework for the knowledge gaps which have undermined so much prior learning...and somehow attend to the non-tutoring aspects of parenting. I've had to make a choice between meeting the needs of my children (in which anger would be a hindrance) and activism on behalf of all children similarly impacted by progressivist methods (in which anger can be a useful source of stamina). Having learned my lessons in that regard, my activism on this issue is limited to making public this account of our experience.

    I've felt anger, but there are no easy targets. I knew every teacher and administrator involved. I knew that they had cared about my children and appreciated my work on behalf of the district; many of them are my friends. I saw them as well-intentioned, doing their best to use effectively the pedagogical tools to which they were limited by the progressivist reform vision that had been imposed from a policy level, one in which millions in professional development funds were being invested.

    As to the policy makers in the legislature and executive branch, I knew many of them as well. I could not comfortably condemn them for having bought a reform vision that promised to deliver on their most worthy aspiration, equity. After all, I bought in too. I believed in the promises of child-centered cooperative learning, multi-age grouping, etc. so deeply that I paid tuition for my daughter to attend first grade at a public school in an adjacent county which was serving as a pilot the year before the reforms became mandated statewide! I was such a true believer that I barely blinked when the teacher, a whole language devotee, advised me against using phonics at home.

    If I have anger left for anyone, it is the educationalists who control accreditation standards that shape teacher training and professional development, and incidental to such, education policy. Their slavish commitment to the progressivist world-view - one which arrogantly ignores the American public's priorities in regard to skills and knowledge - involves a degree of self-service and dereliction of duty that borders on criminal behavior. Unproven - often untested - premises based on theories such as multiple intelligences permeate their guidelines and standards, acting as a bar to those who would urge consideration of alternative methods and models for which far more empirical support exists. These folks may make for easier targets simply because I don't know any of them, but I get an overwhelming sense from their own writings that they are more interested in preserving the premises upon which they've staked their professional attainments than in ascertaining and meeting the learning needs of children.

    Yet, for all their power to effect or impede change at the critical level of teacher training, this is the last group to feel the heat of public accountability. They will never have to confer with the parent of a 4th grader who can't read. They will never see a performance review based on the achievements of their students. They will never face the electorate with their records. And they are, in a practical sense, insulated from legal liability for malfeasance.

    Good teachers - and the other sort - are to be found in both the progressivist and traditionalist camps. Gifted teachers seem to have the knack of crafting whatever hybrid of methods it takes to get their jobs done, invoking instincts and life experience that teaching colleges could neither instill nor eradicate. But, lets stop kidding ourselves that such teachers are the rule, rather than the exception. Most members of the profession need training of a quality and quantity that they will never encounter, i.e. how to implement effective reading instruction, how to balance skills practice and concept development in mathematics, and most of all, expertise in their subject areas. That fact can be as true of teachers in elite private schools as in your neighborhood public school. It's a fact that won't change anytime soon.

    And so I say to any parent reading this what I wish with all my heart someone had said to me when my children were born:
    • Accept primary responsibility -- and rights -- with regard to their educations.
    • Trust your instincts, but not blindly; accept the need to educate yourself thoroughly about education philosophies and methods.
    • Operate on the assumption that educational problems have educational solutions, i.e. don't be too quick to buy 'disability' or 'disorder' theories for problems that are limited primarily to learning situations.
    • Consider opinions of teachers you deem worthy of respect, but never to the point of abdicating your responsibility to independently monitor progress and to remedy learning problems in a timely way.
    • When problems arise, scrutinize the curriculum and teaching methods at least as hard as you do your child.
    • Believe that your child's educational achievement will reflect the competence of his teaching and the diligence of his learning (which you are empowered to impact) more than his native ability (which you are not).
    • And pray for wisdom, patience, and stamina.

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