1999-12-04 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Every once in a while the New York Times sheds its "liberal" bias and gets a story right. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened in early November with an "Endpaper" in the Sunday Magazine section.

Its author is Alan Krueger, a former chief economist for the Department of Labor and a professor of Public Affairs at Princeton. I usually do not quote professors because they are part of the problem, not part of the solution, but Krueger seems to know of what he speaks.

He leads with "We run from one fad to another in education, from phonics to whole language and back to phonics, from subject-based to holistic learning, from curriculum-based to child-centered learning, from neighborhood to magnet to charter schools, from old to new to whole math, from English only to bilingual to language immersion."

I might add that we also move from special education self-contained classes to inclusion classes and back to special schools such as our planned SOS schools. And, from social promotion to standards. Will we move away from standards because they are not politically viable? That remains to be seen.

The point that Krueger is making is that nobody really knows what works and that we should experiment with small groups of kids before we plow ahead with full-scale programs that deter rather than enhance education.

That is precisely the point that I was making in this space last week. These new fads keep kids from learning grammar, insure that kids are not rewarded for the right answer (although they are rewarded for showing why they got the wrong answer), push politically correct historical ideas, force kids to learn in a language that will never help them get a job, insure that they cannot read and push them to the next grade even though they have no academic skills to speak of.

Krueger says that the kind of experimentation he is looking for in schools is not unheard of. He points to one such experiment.

"In the late 1980’s, in a Tennessee study by a consortium of universities, 11,600 students in kindergarten through third grade were randomly assigned to regular-sized classes of 22-25 students, to regular-sized classes with teacher’s aides or to smaller classes of 13 to 17 students. The results, gleaned from tracking the students for four years, showed that attending a smaller class increased average test scores, up to several percentiles higher. Students did not score higher when their classes had teacher’s aides… Follow up studies showed that the students who were in smaller classes were more likely to graduate high school and to apply to college."

In the same vein, students who received scholarships to attend private elementary schools in New York City did not score appreciably better than those who remained in public schools after the first two years of the "experiment."

Kreueger ends his article with some words of wisdom:

"The Food and Drug Administration requires scientific testing before new drugs are prescribed. Why should we treat children’s minds differently from their bodies? Just as that agency has created an impressive body of medical knowledge, the Education Department can lead the way to a greater understanding of what works and what does not work by requiring experimental evaluations before federal dollars are thrown to the philosophical and political winds."

What can administrators at the local level do to end the use of worthless projects at the local level?

Unfortunately, not much. Most of the programs are mandated by the federal government, the state, or by both.

The city cannot do away with them and neither can the local district.

The bilingual program falls into that category, as does special education.

The state programs are perhaps the worst. Bureaucrats who have never been in an inner-city classroom in their lives mandate programs that, to most classroom teachers, make no sense. I worked with some of the State Ed people in the distant past and found that the majority of them were EdD’s from Ohio State or from Michigan and that their student teaching was done in places like West Yenimsville or East Nowhere. Their teaching experience was negligible because they were too busy earning their doctorates to take the time to "work in the field."

When I asked the crucial question about teaching experience, I usually got something like "I did some studies in Dearborne classrooms while I was getting my doctorate."

One of the State Ed Department’s creations is the PAM test in mathematics.

I have written about the test in the past, but it is worth repeating to make the point that no reasonable person who actually works for a living would come up with a test such as this one.

Students are given several mathematical word problems to solve. That is OK, except for the fact that many of the kids cannot read the problems.

For example, a problem might entail figuring out a telephone bill, given a range of costs per minute and a series of calls and how many minutes each of the calls lasted.

That is fine. The test is a good, real-world test of math skill.

The problem comes in the marking. Each question is graded on a scale of from one (the lowest) to five (the highest) by utilizing a strict rubric that teachers must follow in grading the student.

A student who gets the answer right and who shows each step of how the answer was reached gets a five.

A student who gets the answer right but who does not show the work that it took to get the answer gets a two.

A student who gets the wrong answer but who shows the work that led to that wrong answer gets a four.

A student who draws a picture showing a person talking on the telephone would get a one, only one point less than a person who got the answer correct, but did not show his or her work.

Show me, in the real world, a situation where a worker is rewarded for getting a project wrong while a person who got it right is punished.

I can see it now.

Sure, Mr. Jones. I know I got the contract all wrong, and you lost the job, but you can see where I made my mistake, so it doesn’t matter. When do I get my raise?

Only somebody isolated from the real world would tell kids that it is perfectly OK to get the answer wrong as long as they tried and they showed the work that made it wrong.

Likewise, only a person isolated from the real world would teach kids to write without teaching them to use the commonly accepted rules of grammar.

Sure, Mr. Jones, I know that the memo I wrote to that other corporation didn’t have any capital letters or any punctuation, but my ideas were good, and they should have understand what I was trying to say. When do I get my raise?

One teacher who read last week’s column took offense with the fact that I said that the writing process does not require the editing process.

She pointed out that all of the kid’s work was edited regularly in peer groups.

To my mind that is akin to asking a group of teachers to sit around and decide for themselves how to operate on the principal’s gall bladder. The teachers do not have the expertise to do the operation and the kids do not have the expertise to edit each other’s work. It is the blind leading the blind, and that is what peer editing really comes to.

It is time to end the fads and get on with real education.

In fact, it is past time.

The district can help by moving away from the Writing Process, by mandating that teachers pencil-edit student papers. The district can help by following the rules that require that a kid who does not test out of the bilingual program after two years be tested for special education. The district can help by mandating that elementary children learn the times-table and that kids be rewarded for getting the right answer whether they show their work or not. I am sure that there are plenty of fine mathematicians who can do work in their heads and they are not punished for not showing how they got their correct answer.

There are a lot of things that can be done on a local level. The only question is, will anybody have the chutzpah to buck the educational establishment and the special interest groups to do what needs to be done.

That is probably a question without an answer, but one that has to be asked anyway by any responsible educator.


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