"Reinventing the wheel of education"This article originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of "Basic Education," a publication of The Council for Basic Education. This article is reproduced here with their kind permission.
"Reinventing the wheel of education"
by Natalie Kramer
Natalie Kramer is a parent in Rockville, Maryland
People often ask me: "Who are you to criticize the educational system? What qualifications do you have to render verdicts on what works in classrooms and what doesn't?" I don't have any qualifications. I am just a mother who has seen three different educational systems at work. I am also a mother whose decisions about her child's education have led to results sought by most parents and educators. My decisions were simple - I chose traditional, no-nonsense, direct instruction in the basic disciplines.
My child is in fifth grade in a French school in Maryland. He has been reading flawlessly for five years; he can do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in his sleep, and is now studying more advanced math and geometry with great enthusiasm and enjoyment.
What is the secret? There is no secret. He is systematically taught to do these things. Some of the learning is rote; most is not. All of it is structured, systematic, and sequential.
The curricular programs at his school use traditional, direct teaching approaches. The children do not "discover" new skills and knowledge themselves at their own pace. The school program sets the pace for them and the teachers help them adjust to it. They are told what to learn and how to learn it. Slowly, in measured increments, they are given more freedom as to how they organize their work, both at home and in class.
Who sets the school program? Well, here is the bombshell: the National Ministry of Education. Education is important enough to the French public to make it a national priority.
I was educated in Russia where school programs were also set by a central authority. I was in classes of 35 or 40 students. A sizeable proportion of my classmates had alcoholic parents. Many came from broken homes. Few of us were regularly read to, and some of our parents were virtually illiterate. Most of us lived below the poverty line by today's American standards.
Despite all of this, we could all read by age eight, do basic math by ages nine or ten, and produce reasonably well written texts by fifth or sixth grade. Most of us had basic familiarity with major concepts in science, geography, and history. All of us knew some rudimentary English. Our spelling, grammar, and sentence structure in English were better, in my assessment, than those of most of my son's American friends. As for creativity, I don't believe we are any less creative than our American-born counterparts. Most Americans of our age are impressed by the education we received and say they wish they had had the same opportunities.
When I hear educators talk about striving to reach a 70 percent achievement rate in standards that would be considered modest compared with those imposed on (and met by!) nearly all of my peers, I cannot help but see such efforts as naive, albeit well-intentioned, attempts to reinvent the wheel.
When I was growing up in Leningrad, there were two pedagogical institutes where future teachers received their training in how to teach. They learned, for example, that multiplication tables up to eight take second graders until April to master, if they practice four times a week for fifteen minutes and get three homework assignments on them a week. These teachers-to-be also learned that teaching multiplication tables by rote only is boring and that combining rote memorizations with interesting applications brings better results. Future teachers were also taught in which proportion to combine rote memorization with applications and how the optimal proportion changes with the age of the students.
Sounds scientific? It is; teaching is every bit as complex as practicing medicine or law. Only in America (and in Canada, perhaps), is a teacher's job perceived as a constant act of inspirational invention. The constant adaptation to local and individual "needs" is little more than an excuse for not having an infrastructure supplying uniformly trained and competent teachers. Throughout history, teachers have been taught to teach in a systematic and organized way. Their skills are viewed as those of professionals, not of stand-up comedians or babysitters.
How can a difference in location of schools or individual philosophy affect the techniques needed to teach multiplication tables, or reading, or sentence structure? The methodology effective in teaching these matters does not change depending on where a child lives, what socio-economic background he or she comes from, or whether his or her parents are divorced.
The fear of losing local control over school programs and teaching methodologies and having it taken out of parents' hands is baffling. Since when are important scientific decisions relegated to amateurs and local politicians? Do parents or local medical boards set the safe dosage of epilepsy drugs for children? When will solid scientific research, not political and commercial interests, drive education as it does in medicine and other sciences?
I was once told that if something works well, it makes little difference why it works well. If locally controlled schools produced excellent results, no one would question the wisdom of such a system. Should the American tradition of giving states their individual rights, however, also include the right to leave children unable to read, write, or do basic math? Where does the fear of standards common to all states come from? What would be wrong with setting some basic standards in all academic disciplines that would be common across all states? How about exercising states' individual rights by allowing children to exceed those standards? Why is this issue so politicized? While the political forces battle out their respective positions with fervor and passion, rivaling only clashes between the most extreme factions in warring countries,don't they care about what hangs in the balance? Will they ever stop long enough to see that education is not a political issue and that our children should not be pawns in these endless political games?
Questions are now being raised about which authorities should set standards in education. Again, to those of us who have lived in countries that have had this question answered for decades if not centurins, this all seems like an attempt to reinvent the wheel. In France and Russia, to cite but two examples, standards and grade-by-grade content for each discipline are decided at the national level and implemented by local educatinal authorities.
When I was in school, once every year, the principal was advised by the local educational agency of pending changes in methodology. The principal, in turn, briefed our teachers. The changes engendered fine-tuning such things as the amount of repetition suggested for each specific task. The teachers did not have to create their own tools; they were given the tools and taught how to use them.
In the French system, methodological changes are made just as carefully, with just as much attention accorded to potential consequences. Children undergo standardized national tests at the end of each three-year cycle. The results are analyzed and used for revealing weaknesses in instructional methodology, which are addressed on a national level.
I am often told that my child achieves good academic results because he is bright and would do well in any school. That is very nice to hear, but unfortunately, it is not true. My child does well when he is taught well. He has two teachers - his Russian teacher and the teacher at his French school - who both use time-honored, traditional methods of teaching. They do dictations, recitations, and repetitive rhythmic drills in grammar and spelling with their students. The methodology is specified in the scripted, sequential lesson plans that they both follow. The results are impressive.
In his English classroom, on the other hand, where the teachers are not familiar with the notion of scripted or sequential curriculua, the results are quite different. The teachers improvise the program as they go along under the pretense of trying to suit it to individual class needs. My son had been doing nearly as poorly in these English classes as all of his classmates until I started tutoring him. After that, things quickly improved. It is true that my son is easy to teach, but you do have to teach him if you want him to learn. Left to his own devices, which is what the child-centered, unstructured instruction in his English classroom had essentially done, he invented spelling and sentence structure, without getting close to inventing the correct forms. His classmates, whose parents do not fill in the gaps left by the teachers, still invent spelling in fifth grade and some of them are still far from being fluent readers.
We have a saying in Russian, "the truth comes from the mouth of a suckling," which is merely a restatement of a Biblical verse. One time when my son was eight and thoroughly confused by the homework his English teacher had given his class, he said: "Mom, why doesn't my French teacher teach my English teacher how to teach?" If only things were so simple.