George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New London, P.C.

Author: Schools have failed kids in the name of reform
By Richard Whitmire

    WASHINGTON - The failure to educate all children - especially poor and minority children - dates back to the early 1900s, when educators became "social engineers" and steered many students away from academic courses, writes a prominent historian.
    And while progress is being made, the battle to educate all children is not over, warns Diane Ravitch in her book, "Left Back."
    A former education professor and assistant secretary for research at the Department of Education, Ravitch said she began working on the book in the 1980s and then put it aside during her three years in Washington.  For the past five years, she worked on it continuously.
    Public schools today are headed in the right direction, she said, with more students taking a “core” curriculum of four years of English, three years each of math (basic algebra and beyond), science and social studies.
    Recently, ACT Inc., which produces the college entrance exam, reported that slightly more than 63 percent of its test takers took a core curriculum - part of a steady climb over the past 10 years.
    But the threat of backsliding is very real, Ravitch warned.  "There is a deeply ingrained attitude that some kids won’t benefit from having an education."
    A poll released last Tuesday by Phi Delta Kappa, an association of education professionals, appears to confirm her fears.
    When asked if all students have the ability to reach a "high level of learning," 43 percent answered no.
    Also worrying Ravitch are the declining number of well-trained teachers and principals available to students in low-income neighborhoods.
    Another threat, she said, are teacher colleges, where professors continue to embrace methods disproven by research.
    "Here in New York City there's not a single education school that offers a program in phonics," said Ravitch. referring to a sound-oriented reading instruction method that researchers have isolated as the best way to teach reading.
    Ravitch's book traces the history behind the failure to educate all children.
    Always, there were fads and reforms that got in the way of that goal:
    -- The "Progressive" movement that still shapes education today was championed by John Dewey before the turn of the century.  Progressives believed that schools should be used as a tool for preparing children to succeed in a planned society.  Studying history was considered antiquated and lacking in social utility.  The result: "social studies" classes most children take today.
    While children of the wealthy received a liberal education, the less fortunate were trained for factory and farm work. For blacks, Dewey's "Schools of Tomorrow,” such as Public School 26 in Indianapolis, meant learning trades such as cooking and shoemaking, while white children studied academic subjects.
    -- Over the past decade, the “child-centered" movement rose and fell under different names, at one point called the "activity movement." More recently, a different flavor of the same philosophy was known as the "constructivist" movement.
    In short, those approaches adjust learning to the interests of the child, who is seen as a natural learner.  Teachers should stop lecturing and start facilitating learning from the sidelines.
    The idea that reading should be taught naturally as "whole language" - with children naturally picking up word meanings as they read literature - comes out of this philosophy.  Teaching reading via sounding out words with phonics was considered the epitome of unnatural learning.
    But if test scores are any measure, the child-centered approach has not succeeded.  And when teachers stepped aside as authoritarian figures, those who suffered the most were children in inner-city schools, writes Ravitch.
    -- Despite the rhetoric of the 1960s encouraging the empowerment of the poor, the politics of those years set back urban schools even further.  In hindsight the divisive attempts to gain political control of black schools, pursue desegregation via busing, or teach a "multicultural" or "self-esteem" curriculum only avoided the question of whether all children could learn at high levels, she said.
    The legacy of the 1960s was a turning away from more academic coursework - a trend that eased pressure on poor and minority children to take demanding courses.
    By the 1980s it became clear the schools were a mess.  In California, the only requirements for graduation were two years of gym.  In 1983, the "Nation At Risk" report shocked parents with its revelations about low standards.
    The path back said Ravitch, was led by pioneers such as Al Shanker, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, and E.D. Hirsch, a sharp critic of the Progressive movement who angered many educators by insisting that children need to learn facts, figures and dates - not just process.
    Proof that inner-city children can handle challenging courses is found m urban Catholic schools, she said, which through all the fads in public schools never wavered in their single-minded resolve.
    "The reason they did that" said Ravitch, "is partly out of spiritual commitment.  They believe each child has a soul, and nobody should say, 'These are the children to be educated, and these are not."'
    "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms," is published by Simon & Schuster.

Richard Whitmire (Gannett News Service)

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