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8th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 8, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Next week, parents of students in New York’s public schools will get together for parent-teacher conferences, which are held twice a year. You may help your kids with their homework, you may drag them off to museums, and make them watch every Ken Burns documentary on PBS — but even the most active and knowledgeable parent may not realize just what is going on in their child’s classroom.

A recent study of fourth and eighth grade teachers sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, and conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, reveals much about how teachers view their profession.
If you are upset with the fact that your son or daughter may not know much detail about the Civil War, the functions of the organs in the human body, or how to do math without a calculator, you are not alone. According to this study, a significant number of teachers agree with you when evaluating the level of knowledge of the students they teach.

But more ominously, a majority of teachers don’t appear to be concerned with their own students’ lack of knowledge. Over 70% believe that “learning how to learn” takes precedence over the accumulation of what are often termed “mere facts.” The percentage of fourth grade teachers who believe that learning in small student-directed groups is superior to teacher-directed whole-class instruction, is twice as high as those who believe the opposite. Is it any wonder that we are not producing an adequately educated populace? The dominant progressive movement tells our teachers that it is perfectly fine and acceptable to abdicate their role as the primary source of knowledge to students.

In his introduction to the study, Chester Finn notes that “it’s nearly impossible to imagine standards-based reform succeeding in classrooms where students direct the key decisions about what will be learned.”
It was once widely believed that learning history, science, math, and English developed good citizens.
This view has diminished markedly in the past 50 years as the progressive education movement has assumed virtually total control over our school systems. Taking a broad view, the results have been disastrous. And this concern is not confined to just schools in the inner city, but nationwide.

During this period, despite the increased presence of powerful technology that one would suppose should facilitate the acquisition of knowledge, verbal SAT scores have consistently dropped. The most frequently employed method used to increase the percentage of those “successfully” passing through the education system has become lowering the passing grade.

There has been a great deal of debate about issues such as school governance, parental involvement, and vouchers. I have come to the conclusion that in the final analysis none of this particularly matters. If the same teaching methods are employed in virtually every school, what choice do parents really have?
The concept of vouchers is based on the sound supposition that free market competition will drive parents to place their children in better schools. But I am not convinced that right now there re
ally are many better schools. There are schools that have higher scores, but those better results correlate with socio-economic factors.

Imagine swapping the entire student body of the fabled P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, among the city’s highest performing elementary schools in reading, with P.S. 92 in Harlem, at the very bottom of the list. At the end of the school year there likely would be little or no difference in how each group of students would perform on the standardized tests.

Our society would never tolerate such an experiment. But we can do the next best thing. If we would evaluate our current standardized test results by using a “value-added” system, we could then determine which schools actually improve children’s performance. Those are really the better schools, and I suspect they aren’t always the ones that achieve the highest scores.

Armed with this knowledge, we can begin to create real competition between competing teaching strategies and philosophies.Then a parent armed with a voucher can make a real choice.
If the philosophy that guides instruction is so similar in most schools, why should we expect different results?

Perhaps the first place that we need to create competition is in the field of teacher training and certification. At present this is a near-total monopoly of the progressives who control the schools of education and the city’s University-Institutional Complex.

The most discussed alternative strategy is the Core Knowledge movement led by Professor E.D. Hirsch Jr. He has advanced the concept of cultural literacy, which holds that there are things that every educated person should know. These are entertainingly outlined in his recently revised “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.” Armed with basic knowledge (those pesky “mere facts” that teachers care so little for), students would be equipped to acquire yet more knowledge and lead successful and informed lives.

Mr. Hirsch backs up his theories with studies of the rates of success of the education systems in different nations. Mr. Hirsch has found that those countries that employ teaching strategies similar to our own are tracking downward as we are. The reverse is true in those countries using what we now term “traditional” methods, which has become the exception in American schools.

Thus far, Chancellor Klein has shown no interest in establishing core knowledge schools to compete with the current educational monopoly. This should come as no surprise since he has surrounded himself with apologists for the status quo, like the deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam. She has a clear record in the three school systems she has led as someone who never encountered a progressive educational fad she didn’t like.

Sadly, the greatest impediment to the establishment of core knowledge schools would be the lack of teachers who themselves are culturally literate. Only 36% of new teachers consider themselves “very well prepared” to teach to the higher academic standards that are becoming more widespread, according to a survey by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

No surprise there, since most of our younger teachers are products of schools run by the progressive monopoly.

Recognizing this, Mr. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation (which recently added educational historian Diane Ravitch to its board of directors) has developed a curriculum to train prospective teachers. Syllabi have been designed for 18 three-credit courses, developed by distinguished academics in the various disciplines. Successfully completed in conjunction with practical experience such as student teaching, and a limited number of courses in such topics as class management and educational theory,you will have created a teacher who actually is in a position to impart knowledge.

If teachers were to be certified through completing this type of program and placed in schools reorganized to adhere to a core knowledge model, we will have begun to create the competition necessary to give parents real choice. If the core knowledge schools produce better results, a free market solution such as vouchers suddenly becomes a route to real reform. Until then, we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

When you visit your child’s teacher next week, try to get as much information as possible about what is going on in your child’s class. If it looks like the children are running the classroom and not the teacher, then it’s time to start asking tough questions.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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