A Modest Proposal

Given the fact that I have no children and no noticeable parental instincts, I feel I am as well qualified to comment upon our educational system as most of the pundits.  Given the additional fact that I actually did a little bit of teaching in my youth, I could argue that I am more qualified than most of the pundits.

Somewhat to my surprise, I find myself in partial agreement with those on the right of the political spectrum.  It seems to be quite true that our kids know next to nothing about the world (like where Japan is).  It also seems to be true that they now about the same amount about the U.S. (like where New York is or when the Civil War was fought).  It is most assuredly true that they are in no position to correct these problems as they cannot read worth a tinker’s dam.

In listening to and reading about the debate on primary education it seems to me that the discussion is plagued with two very basic problems.  Not with the educational system (that comes later) but with the way we talk about education.

First problem is that educators and pundits like to treat children as some uniform lump, which they are obliged to educate uniformly.  They accept as a given that their target is to educate all who come through their doors to the same level and seem to endlessly debate which method of this and that will do the job the best.

Insofar as the uniformity of result goes, I know of nobody outside of academia who thinks we can (or should try to) educate all children equally.  Then, too, I find their embracing the idea of children’s uniformity and the possibility of single educational methods being effective confusing as many of the studies that prove this to be nonsense come from the same learned institutions that gave us the educators and pundits.

Education majors like to design as if children in the primary grades all progressed at the same rate, had the same basic talents and developed their new skills at the same rate.  Those who do not fit that handy paradigm are judged to be permanently exceptional (and have a remarkable amount of our educational effort devoted to them).

But the idea that children arrive at the same stage at the same time and progress uniformly is known to be nonsense.  If you took a group of second graders and grouped them by their ability to learn phonetic reading, you would get one pattern.  Group them by their memorization skills and you get another.  Group them by hand/eye coordination and you get another.  Et cetera, et cetera.
The kicker is that if you gave the same group of kids the same analysis when they were third graders you would find kids have shifted from one group to another in virtually every talent required for education.  Go on to the fourth grade and they will have shifted again.

Uniformity of approach is doomed to failure in a substantial percentage of every class.  And it is not a question of which approach one chooses, such as whether phonetics is the “correct” method of teaching reading.  There will always be some kids who naturally find phonetics hard and sight reading easy.  And there will always be some kids who develop any reading skills at a later date.  It is also not a question of whether we should return to rote teaching and brute memorization.  There will always be some kids who memorize things like multiplication tables easily and happily.  There will always be others who can only retain what they understand.  And so on.

It seems to me that the logical conclusion is that education must use a spectrum of methods to cover the actual skills of the students and must be adaptive to the actual changes that growing children undergo.

The second problem, it seems to me, is that educators and pundits like to treat all areas of education as being of equal merit, as if there were no preferences or priorities.  Given the fact that each area of teaching (not to mention each teaching method) has its share of shrill and zealous advocates, this blindness to relative importance may be a survival skill.  But I don’t think it matches the needs of the children, desires of their parents or the requirements of our society.

Foreign language skills are great assets for a student to have.  So is an understanding of just where American ideas and institutions came from.  So is a basic capability in reading and writing English.  But I would argue that these are not equally important to most of us.

If you were to name some subjects that were to be left out of next year’s curriculum (the way such propositions are usually framed), there would be a howl of protest from all corners.  Asked that way, there are probably no reasonable answers and no real possibility of agreement.

Turn it around, though, and the problem makes sense.  Don’t start with an existing curriculum.  Imagine that you are starting from scratch.  You have a very limited amount of money and few teachers.  Now ask yourself which knowledge/skills you would consider essential, if those were the only ones you could have.

I think most would agree that the bare essentials for survival in our society are something like the traditional reading, writing and ‘rithmatic, although just what that covered would grow from year to year.

Survival is the minimum: call this minimum Level One.  Any educational system that cannot be relied upon to deliver those to our target area of the bell curve, whatever else it can deliver, must be considered a failure.

Now imagine that you got a little more money and a few more teachers.  What would you pick next?  I believe that most people would tend to choose knowledge of the history of their own country, its basic social and civic institutions, possibly the fundamentals of our western civilization, things like that.

What I’m getting at is this:  First you would give someone the skills to make them a functional, useful, employable member of society.  Second, if you have the time, you would want them to learn at least the core elements of this culture.

Okay, then, call that Level Two.  What would be the next?

Obviously, the number of levels is arbitrary, but for the sake of brevity I will confine it to three.  I think you can make a reasonably coherent structure with just that many.  Level three would include all those subjects that belong to the larger world outside.  Foreign languages and literatures, history and culture of societies outside the direct lineage of our own culture, etc.

O.K….So what?  Having prioritized what we want teachers to teach, where are we lead?

When I started playing around with these ideas, I set myself some ground rules.  I told myself I could not merely criticize without offering an alternative.  Second rule was that, to be fair, the alternative could not call for more resources than the present one enjoys.  What follows might be called, with due deference to Dean Swift, A Modest Proposal.

[I should also mention that it assumes that we have very good standard methods of evaluating basic skills, pretty good methods for evaluating medium level knowledge and skills and at least tolerable methods for evaluating higher level knowledge and skills.]

First, we define a core curriculum (i.e. Level One) for each grade.  All students will have to take the core classes.  All other class hours are “electives”.  If a student is tested, for any grade, to be deficient with regards to Level One, the only “electives” are remedial.  The existing resources for diagnosing learning disabilities, remedial reading, bilingual education, etc., are brought to bear to assist the student learn the core skills necessary for survival as a productive member of our society.

For those testing (again, for any grade) as having passable Level One skills, the electives could include classes like American History, Civics, etc.  Should a student have problems in these areas, there are still some hours left for assistance here, too.  The goal here is to produce people who have at least a basic knowledge of the culture of the society in which they live.

For those who have mastered their Level One and Level Two tasks, Level Three would open up with electives that could include foreign languages, multi-culturalism and perhaps sciences and advanced mathematics, as well.  These are the students who, having been taught the skills and knowledge to become good citizens of their country have the gifts to become part of the larger worlds outside.

The guiding principle of education, it seems to me, should be:  We will devote all the time necessary to make sure the highest possible number of our citizens have Level One skills.  Only if we achieve that for a given student will we spend time teaching wider matters.

If we haven’t taught you the most basic skills, not only have we failed you, but no higher level can be successfully taught to you.  If we haven’t given you a basic knowledge of our own society, you can never be a contributing part of it.  Only after you have mastered these have we done our duty to you and do you have the basics to learn about the rest of the world.

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