The underlying cause for poor school performance

Education Reform: A problem, and a Proposal

By Marion Brady

In this paper, I will argue that the education reform being promoted by the federal government will fail, that the major underlying cause of poor school performance is being incorrectly diagnosed, and that the rationale for the reform strategy is unsupportable. I will identify specific problems with a critically important but generally ignored component of traditional general education instruction, and propose an alternative.

How matters stand

The "standards and accountability" education reform effort begun in the 1980s at the urging of leaders of business and industry, is failing. The reform message, powerfully reinforced by mainstream media, is simple: One: America's schools are, at best, mediocre. Two: Teachers and students deserve most of the blame. Three: As a corrective, rigorous subject-matter standards and tests must be put in place. Four: Market forces must be brought to bear to pressure teachers and students to work to those standards.

It is assumed that competition - student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, state against state, nation against nation - will yield the improvement necessary for the United States to finish in first place internationally.

Premises of the current reform strategy

This diagnosis of the cause of poor school performance and prescription for its cure structure a reform strategy that seems straightforward and logical but rests on an unexamined assumption.

That strategy: Education reform policy must be "data driven." Standardized tests produce the necessary data in the form of scores. The scores are valid because the tests are valid. The tests are valid because they are keyed to standards. The standards are valid because they are keyed to certain school subjects. These subjects are valid because they are components of the core curriculum. The core curriculum is valid because it has been in use for more than a century and its validity has not been challenged.

Or, to sequence the logic differently: Custom and bureaucracy legitimize the core curriculum, the core curriculum legitimizes certain school subjects, those subjects legitimize the standards, the standards legitimize the tests, the tests legitimize the scores, and the scores legitimize the reform strategy.

Imagine an inverted pyramid, with the whole of the current reform effort resting on the assumption that the present math-science-language arts-social studies "core curriculum" adequately prepares the young for what will almost certainly be the most complex, unpredictable, demanding and dangerous era in human history.

The major underlying cause of poor school performance

The "core" was adopted in 1893. Custom and the conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it is deeply flawed. It (1) directs random information at learners at rates far beyond even the most capable learner's ability to cope, (2) minimizes or even rejects the role that free play, art, music,
dance, and random social experience play in intellectual development, (3) is so inefficient it leaves little time for apprenticeships, internships, co-ops, projects, and other links to the real world and adulthood, (4) neglects extremely important fields of study, (5) has no built-in mechanisms forcing it to adapt to social change, (6) gives short shrift to "higher order" thought processes, and (7) makes no provision for raising and examining questions essential to ethical and moral development.

The core (8) has no agreed-upon, overarching societal aim, (9) lacks criteria establishing what new knowledge is important and what old knowledge to disregard to make way for the new, (10) does not move learners steadily through ever-increasing levels of intellectual complexity, (11) overworks learner memory at the expense of logic, (12) emphasizes reading and symbol
manipulation skills to the neglect of other ways of learning, (13) is keyed to students' ages rather than their aptitudes, interests, and abilities, (14) makes educator dialog and teamwork difficult because it artificially and arbitrarily fragments knowledge, and (15) encourages attempts to
quantify quality and other simplistic approaches to evaluation.

As it is usually taught, the core (16) penalizes rather than capitalizes on individual differences, (17) ignores the systemically integrated nature of knowledge, (18) fails to adequately utilize the single most valuable teaching resource - learner first-hand experience, (19) requires a great
deal of "seat time passivity" at odds with youthful nature, (20) is inordinately costly to administer, (21) emphasizes standardization to the neglect of the major sources of America's past strength and success - individual initiative, imagination, and creativity - and (22) fails to recognize the implications of the recent transition from difficult learner access to limited information, to near-instantaneous learner access to prodigious volumes of information.

If, as the No Child Left Behind legislation, Race to the Top, and The Common Core State Standards Initiative assume, the curriculum is sound, the most important reform questions have to do with the effectiveness of competition and other market forces in altering teacher and learner behavior.

But if poor performance is not primarily a "people problem" but a system problem - a poor curriculum - these programs are at best ineffectual and at worst counterproductive, for they maintain and reinforce the curricular status quo.

The need

The role the general education curriculum plays in shaping individuals and the future of the nation is too important to simply take its validity for granted. Any one of the 22 problems noted earlier is sufficiently serious to warrant emergency action, the traditional curriculum suffers from all of
them, and more than a century of efforts to improve it by sequencing and re-sequencing courses, altering distribution requirements, and exploring interdisciplinary parallels and intersections, have not solved the core curriculum's problems.

Failure to recognize those problems has contributed to the arrogance that leads elites and policymakers to assume they know enough about human potential, the nature of the future, and the range of differences in learners and learner situation to dictate what the young need to know, a notion at odds with common sense and deep-seated societal values.

It is almost universally assumed that the academic disciplines are the optimum organizers of knowledge. The disciplines are indeed important and productive, but neither singly nor in any combination do they provide what learners most need for general education purposes - a "master" organizer of information encompassing and relating all knowledge, free of the problems noted above, and easily understood and manipulated by all learners.

That organizer must be constructed and lifted into consciousness by the individual learner. Only if reality is engaged directly is that possible.

A proposal

Educating, finally, is about helping the young construct satisfactory mental models of reality to guide action. It is ironic, then, that given reality's ubiquity, three-dimensionality, and ready accessibility, so much formal instruction ignores it, concentrating instead on learner familiarity with secondhand information regarding it. This manifestation of the process of "institutionalization" - making the study of text and other facsimiles and models of reality play a more important role in instruction than reality itself - must be countered.

Immediate, "right here, right now" reality or its "residue" should be the learner's primary "textbook," and making it so is the surest, most direct route to a philosophically defensible, theoretically sound, politically neutral, practical, useful, problem-free curriculum.

A curriculum focused on making more sense of immediate reality (the learner's school, certainly, and perhaps neighborhood), provides an initial real-world focus of study unsurpassed in relevance and practicality. It automatically adapts to every ability level, challenging the least and most able learners alike. It can provide direct, "hands on" exposure to every major concept of
every major discipline. It engages learners in a task they will face every moment for the rest of their lives. It utilizes every known cognitive process, erases the artificial, arbitrary lines between specialized studies and between the sciences and the humanities, makes obvious the systemic
nature of reality, enriches the disciplines, and stimulates creativity. Its efficiency has the potential to revolutionize scheduling, radically expand learning options and make possible truly significant cuts in budgets. In short, it addresses all 22 of the curricular problems noted above.

The challenge of change

There will be no significant improvement in general education until the inadequacies of the traditional curriculum are admitted and addressed.
Resistance will be formidable, for the curricular status quo is deeply embedded in tradition at all levels of instruction from elementary school through the university. Complex bureaucracies buttress it, corporations are deeply invested in it, and nearly all educators have reason to resist it.
Additionally, many in positions of authority are psychologically disposed to reject granting learners sufficient autonomy to construct their own models of reality.

But if we hope to survive, clinging to a curriculum that was poor when it was adopted and grows more dysfunctional by the day, is not an option.

The situation calls for leadership, for no task is inherently more intellectually demanding than deciding what the young should be taught.
Unfortunately, presently, those decisions are being informed by leaders of business and industry and others whose perspectives are too narrow to reflect the common good, and embodied in legislation by policymakers who lack an understanding of the issues and an ability to grasp their systemic implications and ramifications.

A high-profile national dialog should be initiated. Given the present level of political polarization, it should be sponsored by politically neutral parties.

Marion Brady 5/14/10


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