• False reports, amplified
    April 25,2013
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    We are not a ridiculous people, but we sometimes sound ridiculous because the 21st-century media we dote on allow some of us to speak far in excess of our wisdom.

    A bomb goes off in Boston, a violent tragedy by any rational human measure. We hear the reports of varying inaccuracy, inaccuracies commonly prompted by news networks’ craving to be first to broadcast knowledge they don’t have. We hear the ridiculous questions and the answers that are pure supposition, and the truth gets lost in a sea of repeated vain speculation.

    Sometimes people who get the big microphone shouldn’t.

    Sometimes repeated absurdities gain credence as the truth.

    The leap I’m about to make from terrorism to education reform may seem hard to follow. I in no way mean to equate the two. My point is only that the reports and advice we hear repeated prominently over and over regarding any issue or event often don’t provide an accurate, unbiased understanding of what really happened, what really should happen, or what really will happen if we accept the spotlighted account and advice.

    Education Week recently headlined that proposals to “redesign” American high school education have received a “presidential lift” via Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address. According to the article, “recognition is widespread that high schools need to change.”

    It doesn’t say among whom that recognition exists, but adherents include the president’s education secretary, Arne Duncan. Mr. Duncan’s qualifications consist of a degree in sociology, a brief career playing Australian professional basketball, and a second career running schools in Chicago, a tenure clouded by reports indicating that Mr. Duncan’s highly touted “school improvement strategies” yielded “exaggerated” claims of success and “overwhelmingly disappointing results.”

    None of this means he’s automatically wrong. It does, however, suggest that we shouldn’t rush to put much stock in what he has to say, or what like-minded and equally experienced fellow experts have to say, or what the president says based on their opinions.

    This is especially true since they’ve been saying it “for decades,” since the 1970s when their reforms precipitated American public education’s decline, the decline they’re still in charge of fixing.

    Reformers dispute that their reforms are making things worse. They point to improved graduation rates and to increasing numbers of high school students taking advanced placement tests and “dual enrollment” courses at local colleges. They don’t mention that new “alternative” diploma programs allow students to drop out of anything most of us would recognize as a high school program without being counted as a dropout.

    They also don’t advertise the watering down of advanced placement courses and standards, or the declining status that advanced placement enjoys among colleges. Nor do they consider the possibility that the enrollment of more high school students in “college credit” courses may simply reflect a decline in the rigor of introductory-level college courses owing to the decline in the academic prowess of many high school graduates.

    According to proponents, “redesigning” high school requires “personalizing” the “high school experience for each student.” The means to this end range from “advisory” classes, where students receive “academic support, tutoring, and character development,” to “intensive orientation” for incoming freshmen.

    Also on the menu are laptops for every student, “competency-based learning,” where students graduate based on “exhibitions of their learning,” and counseling so “kids graduate with a plan for what they would do next.”

    Advisory classes are the hallmark of the middle school movement, widely reviled as the weakest academic link in K-12 education. Laptops can be a learning tool, but anybody who thinks that most students won’t be using them more for Facebook than for research, or for random Internet browsing during class, doesn’t know most students. Exhibitions of personal student “interests” are hardly a reliable gauge of mastery and achievement across the academic disciplines.

    As for orienting freshmen and graduating with a “plan,” guidance counselors have been around long before I walked into high school. There’s also nothing new about freshmen getting lost in long corridors among banks of identical lockers, or about knowing and not knowing exactly what you want to do when you get your diploma.

    Consistent with our societal narcissism, at its heart “personalized learning” means “empowering” students to “delve into areas they are truly interested in.”

    Unfortunately, one thing “A Nation at Risk” was emphatically clear about in 1981 was the disastrous consequence of allowing “extensive student choice” in coursework during the 1970s, an exercise in student-centered empowerment that resulted in a “homogenized, diluted, and diffused” high school “curricular smorgasbord” lacking any “central purpose.”

    Now the same reformers, and their philosophical offspring, want to do it again, with students further playing “a big role in conceiving and carrying out new initiatives.” In short, 15-year-olds will now be designing not only their own individual academic programs, but also their own high schools.

    I agree that high school graduates too often lack essential skills and knowledge. In a 2013 ACT survey only 26 percent of professors rated incoming freshmen as “prepared for entry-level courses.” At the same time, as a result of reformers’ “college-for-all” approach to high school, fewer graduates are being prepared for the workplace.

    Reformers with the big microphone contend that “our high schools were designed for another time and era” based on a “tradition that is dying hard.” Except one of the surveyed professors’ chief complaints is poor reading comprehension, hardly a new skill for the 21st century. We don’t need “redesigned” high schools to teach reading. In fact, reformers’ repackaged, bankrupt ideas will only make things worse, as they already have.

    I was fine exchanging my old typewriter for a keyboard, and I can accept the judicious use of the Internet for research. But the tradition that’s dying hard is the liberal arts and sciences, where one generation of teachers that knows them is supposed to pass that knowledge on to the next generation of students that doesn’t, and where that transmission of precious knowledge and skill isn’t governed by the transient, uninformed personal preferences of children.

    If that tradition is dying, then so is our civilization.



    Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.
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