Pushing school reforms that have failed us before

Posted: March 25, 2011

Youth United for Change, an organization of young adults advocating for better public education in Philadelphia, recently released a report titled "Pushed Out: Youth Voices on the Dropout Crisis in Philadelphia." It argued that many city students don't voluntarily quit school, but rather are forced out by boring teachers, an irrelevant curriculum, and a prison-like school environment.

To keep kids on the path to graduation, the group argues, education must be made more interesting, engaging, fun, and hands-on. Group collaboration, project-based learning, problem-solving, and creativity should be favored over traditional lectures and teacher-led instruction. Students should play a bigger role in choosing their courses and shaping the curriculum, with electives that address topics relevant to the lives of young people.

While some of the ideas in the report have merit, school leaders should not fall into the trap of emphasizing entertainment over instruction. Progressive education reformers have made that mistake before.

Student-centered, experiential learning is not a new concept. Neither is the idea that students are victims of an oppressive education system - a position Youth United for Change frequently adopts in its reports.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian author and Marxist, popularized these ideas in his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which sold more than 750,000 copies and became a doctrine for progressive education reformers around the globe. Freire argued that in oppressive societies, teachers educate their students by depositing knowledge into their brains as if it's coins in a bank. According to Freire, this positions the teacher as a superior expert and the student as a subordinate learner.

This "banking concept" does not allow students to become free thinkers, Freire argued. And it enables the ruling class to indoctrinate the oppressed and keep them safely at the bottom of the pecking order.

Proper teaching, according to Freire, should involve "problem-posing." The teacher should not be an expert and sole dispenser of knowledge, but rather a facilitator of learning.

These ideas soon brought disfavor on teacher-centered instruction, lectures, drills, and quiet, clinical learning environments. Student-centered, cooperative learning became the new standard, with pupils working together creatively to solve problems in less orderly settings.

This ideology set the stage for the "new math" and "whole language" movements that peaked in the 1980s and early '90s. Both valued creativity and teamwork over "boring" and "irrelevant" fundamentals, such as basic computation in math and phonics in reading.

The only problem was, as evidenced by student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, many children weren't learning how to read or do math.

In the midst of all this came the movement to end academic tracking. Tracking students by ability levels, progressives argued, meant low expectations and poor performance. Although research has shown this to be partially true, the education scholar Tom Loveless has also shown that de-tracking was particularly harmful to high achievers.

Finally, on the heels of de-tracking came the social-justice movement, which advocated teaching children more about multiculturalism and diversity. Too often, though, that subject matter has been taught at the expense of core academic content.

Although groups such as Youth United for Change may have the best of intentions, we've already tried downplaying traditional learning and emphasizing victimization. And decades of such reforms haven't done much for the quality of education in America.


Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher and the author of the forthcoming "The Village Proposal." His blog, "Chalk and Talk," is at chalkandtalk.wordpress.com.

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