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28th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 28, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

The concept of choice is a very popular one in education, one of the few areas of some agreement between those who identify themselves politically as being on the left and those who assert that they are of the right. Yet as attractive as the concept of choice may be, for whatever reason one supports it, the climate that will effectively preclude choice already exists. 

    There is a monopoly in place right now that is well on the way to controlling not what children are taught, but how they are taught. The monopoly I’m talking about exists in our schools of education at our colleges and universities. And it is becoming increasingly clear that prospective teachers are being trained in a onesided approach that strongly favors ideologies and methodologies that have shown themselves to be less than effective. 
    Those methods have been discussed frequently in this column, and my readers know exactly where I stand. In making up my mind about the different approaches to teaching and learning, I tried to learn as much about this subject as I could. 

    I have spoken to teachers and administrators on all sides of the issue. I have applied my own experience as a student and a parent in drawing my conclusions. I have looked at the data and experiences of schools and systems both here and abroad. In short, I have tried to do my homework. 

    I have listened to all sides of the argument and have come to my conclusions. I am sure that over time I will alter my views based on new information obtained through open discussion and debate.That is the process that should be employed in teaching our teachers. 

    I am not naïve enough to believe that the opinions and beliefs of the professors at our schools of education will not filter down to their students. However, enough information needs to be provided so that each would-be teacher understands the various pedagogical debates and can draw his or her own informed conclusions. 

    Unlike the political correctness that colors other types of instruction, this is far more insidious. Education theory that is taught as if it were science, carries with it the presumption that it must be accepted as gospel. That appears to be exactly what is happening. 

    According to research being done by professor David Steiner of Boston University, who is preparing a soon-tobe-published paper discussing what teachers are learning at our schools of education, prospective teachers are hearing just one side of the story. 

    Through his research, Mr. Steiner created a representative sample of 16 highly regarded education schools from across the nation and studied their course descriptions and reading lists. What he learned was distressing. 

    The works of Jonathan Kozol provide a good example. Mr. Kozol’s books center on what he views as society’s shortchanging of poor and minority children of educational dollars and opportunities. In the one instance where Mr. Kozol wrote about a school with which I was familiar, I found that he was misleading in his description. Others, including Sol Stern at the Manhattan Institute, have come to the same conclusion regarding some of his work. However, since Mr. Kozol is saying what many at our educational schools want to hear, his writings are among the most frequently assigned. This distresses Mr. Steiner. 

    “Often powerful, provocative, and rightly disturbing, these texts largely share and promote a very particular argument about education: teachers should champion the particular voices and experiences of repressed minorities, engaging in … ‘culturally relevant teaching.’ We are concerned that an alternative viewpoint — namely that teachers should focus on the necessity of assuring that all students master universally valuable knowledge, is underrepresented. We found only one course syllabus, in one program, which offered any readings that presented this counterview,” he said. 

    In the “real world,” one of the more influential educational theorists is Professor E.D. Hirsch Jr. His books and writings are widely sold, and his series of books “What your First Grader (Second Grader, etc.) Should Know” are best-sellers among savvy parents. 

    “Hirsch’s advocacy of a core knowledge program grounded in a sequential, content-based curriculum has been influential in recent efforts to establish state curriculum frameworks,” Mr. Steiner said. However, in the education schools, Mr. Hirsch is almost the invisible man. 

    “We found Hirsch on only one recommended reading list and in one other syllabus,” Mr. Steiner noted. 
    The gaps in knowledge go beyond theory into practice. In examining writings on teacher training, Mr. Steiner found that many schools “tilt” away from phonics programs that research suggests are more effective at teaching at-risk children to read. 

    “The foundation and methods courses we reviewed suggested that faculty at most of these schools are often trying to teach a particular ideology to teachers — that traditional knowledge is repressive in its very nature — without offering any substantial readings that question the educational implications of this view,” he said. 

    This raises serious questions. If most teachers are being taught the same way, how can we expect other reforms, such as vouchers or charter schools, to make a difference? Will choice between public and private schools, or even among the public schools, become little more than a choice between the color of the rugs and the rockers, and the number of seats in the mandated grouping of tables? 

    Ominously, things could get worse. I have learned that at a recent meeting with representatives of local education schools, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein indicated that he expects the schools to alter their curricula, presumably to match the radical “progressive” theology he has put in place in the city’s schools, which goes far beyond what is advocated in most of the education schools. 

    Mr. Steiner laments that “instead of focusing on how teachers can best prepare students to learn in the current real-world environment of performance-based assessment and content-rich curricula, a number of syllabi we reviewed suggest that the professors in these schools set readings that teach resistance to that world.” 

    “While it is reasonable for education school faculty to raise questions about the efficacy of high-stakes tests and state-mandated curriculum frameworks, an unmitigated attack will leave teachers unprepared for these contemporary educational demands,” he said. 

    We expect a medical doctor to learn all methods of treating disease. We should expect nothing less from our teachers, whose work is just as critical. Why are we closing them off from the wider world of competing ideas?

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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