We Have Failed You

Nostra culpa. I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand how it happened, but every once in a while we see new evidence of a depressing truth: We have failed you and failed America in two huge ways.

MASTERY-superJumbo

Mastery-based learning today…

Today’s reminder comes from the pages of the New York Times and the Hechinger Report. It sounds cheerful enough: some schools in New York and elsewhere are switching to a shiny new “mastery” system that abolishes grades and focuses on individual student learning goals.

The problem is that even well-informed journalists and educators talk about this as if it were something new, something novel, an exciting innovation made possible by twenty-first century technology. It’s not. Not even a little bit. The push for this sort of child-centered, goal-focused approach to education is as old as modernity itself.

And that’s how we’ve failed you.

Both educational historians and progressive educators have failed to convey the huge potential contributions of their work. Ed historians are all aware of the long history of goal-focused education. Progressive educators have fought for such things for centuries. Centuries!

And yet smart, informed people keep talking about these sorts of reform as “new,” as innovations, as solutions that ambitious reformers have finally figured out. It’s a big problem, since it robs reformers of any sense of the lessons of history. It sets up each new generation of progressive reformers to repeat the mistakes and the unnecessary conflicts of their parents, their grand-parents, and their great-great-great-great-etc.-grand-parents.

Why, oh why have we failed so miserably? I’m really stumped.

Every new teacher, for instance, has to take some sort of “foundations” class in which they are exposed to the historical outline of formal education. They all hear about the experiments and theories of Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Dewey, and Col. Parker. With some tweaks over time, those ideas are basically the same as the ones today’s reformers are embracing as a “new” solution.

progressive ed in pasadena

…and how it looked when it was “new” in 1929.

Why do educated educators, then, fall into the trap of overpromising and under-researching these tried-and-failed education reforms?

To be fair, the article notes the genealogy of this idea, but the author traces it back only to the work of Benjamin Bloom at Chicago in the 1960s. Neither the author nor anyone else apparently is aware of the much longer history of these reform plans. The article suggests that new computer technology will solve the problems of earlier efforts, but that’s exactly the sort of promise every new reform generation has made.

In my book The Other School Reformers, to cite just one example, I examine a similar case from Pasadena. In 1950, the new superintendent tried something almost identical. He promised that new communication technology allowed him to abolish deadly old report cards and Procrustean letter grades.

It didn’t work, and today’s reformers would surely benefit from understanding this historical context. It seems more than naïve for today’s reformers to stumble along unaware of the predictable reactions to their plans. Back then, for example, one critic excoriated the new superintendent in an open letter to the local newspaper. The idea of abolishing grades, this outraged parent noted, means

there is no incentive for the average student or the exceptionally bright student to do any better than the slower ones.  During the first six years there are no grades given out so there is no competitive spirit.  The report cards are marked only Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory, and the parent is unable to find out what the child is really capable of doing.  They acquire indolent habits, and when they arrive at Junior High School they are supposed to get down to work, but they don’t because they have been allowed to coast along for six years, doing as much or as little as they wished to.  They have not been made to feel that it is important to do the best they are capable of doing.  There were some who formerly flunked out of class and had to take the classes over, but at least they eventually learned what was given in that grade before they went on, and today they are passed, many of them without having learned it, to flounder in the next grade, when they are not ready.

Pasadena parents tended to agree with this curmudgeon. In the end, the superintendent was hounded out of town with his progressive plans thrown out after him.

There is no good reason—no good reason I can see—that school reformers like the ones described in the New York Times article shouldn’t be aware of their own checkered history. In every generation, from Rousseau’s day to our own, earnest progressive teachers have assumed that their powerful new child-centered approach would surely carry the day, sweeping outdated crusty methods before it.

It never has.

As progressive educators, we have failed to convince America as a whole how much better it will be to focus on individual learning instead of letter grades.

As educational historians, we have failed to share the story of America’s never-ending cycle of educational reform and reaction.

As a result, even the smartest and most well-meaning reformers go into every old experience as if it were new. School boards and parents are promised the world every time, only to react with predictable and preventable resentment when those laudable goals prove out of reach.

I don’t blame reformers and journalists for not doing their research. They shouldn’t have to. By this point, the long and gripping story of child-centered educational reform should be common knowledge.

So why isn’t it?

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Helen A. Handbasket, America’s Schoolteacher

It can get weird. Sometimes, as a mild-mannered historian, I get a overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes stories from today’s headlines seem to shamble straight out of the past.

Case in point: As I warm my heels down here in sunny Florida, I got a little freaked out by the startling similarities of the letters in today’s local newspaper to those I uncovered in the research for my book about educational conservatism. Whatever the decade, it seems, people like to take potshots at teachers. Since the 1920s at least, it has been a popular national pastime to criticize the vast incompetence and presumed political chicanery perpetrated by our local teachers.

First, some background. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have noticed a warmer, more humid tone in these pages lately. It’s due to the fact that I’ve been enjoying some family vacation time in sunny Florida. As a compulsive culture-war chatterer, though, I couldn’t just sit back and sip something. I cracked open the local paper, and 1949 jumped out.

Florida newspaper

Hello? It’s 1949 calling…

The story in the Charlotte Sun from Executive Editor Jim Gouvellis concerned a controversial recent event by local politician Paul Stamoulis. Stamoulis had given a series of lectures about the dangers of Islam. Some folks thought it was a good idea. Others thought it was a scary abuse of power by a right-wing ideologue.

Editor Gouvellis opened up the pages of today’s paper to letters from the community. The issue of political Islam was relatively new, but the tone of the letters was eerily similar to those I found in archives around the country, from the 1920s through the 1980s.

In particular, I was creeped out by the echoes from Pasadena’s school controversy between 1949 and 1951. Back then, an intrepid local newspaper editor tried the same thing. He asked for letters from the community. What did people think of their schools?

Pasadena indep

Nossir…I don’t like it.

The issues were different. Today’s Floridians are weighing in about the propriety of an elected official using public money to make inflammatory speeches. In Pasadena, parents were mad about the alleged misdemeanors of “progressive education.” You’d think the two things would have nothing in common.

But they do. Lots of people–wherever they live, whenever they lived–seem to assume that teachers are terrible. Public-school teachers, at least.

And to your humble editor, the tone and target of today’s letters seem shockingly similar to that of Pasadena, 1949. So similar, in fact, that I thought I’d try a little experiment. I’ll post below a clip from today’s Florida newspaper mixed in with a bunch from Pasadena, California, 1949.

Can you pick out the local one? Without cheating and clicking on the story link above?

  1. There is a growing feeling among parents that there is something amiss in our public schools.
  2. As for your comment and others’ regarding [XXX]’s lack thereof of a formal educational background, I do believe that perhaps we need more such “teachers” in our educational system today, based upon the misinformation being spoon-fed to our children by today’s so-called educators.
  3. Another claim that the teaching fraternity continually push forward is that they are grossly underpaid.  My observation is that in [XXX] this is untrue.  For nine months’ work and occasional brush-up courses in the summer they receive the same salary or better than competent office help receive for 11 ½ months’ work.
  4. I have personally felt that the modern school system of education is based on politics. . . . This larger percentage is easy prey to propaganda leaders and naturally look up to them, thinking the fault lies in themselves and not in the school system of education.
  5. In my opinion, the honorable school board is using our youngsters as educational guinea pigs.

Can you tell which one of these is today’s newspaper and which is from your grandparents’?