Distributed November 1997
Copyright ©1997 by Bil Johnson
Such uninformed critics would also keep classrooms mired in century-old education practices. They give no consideration to the fact that the American public school system has existed relatively unchanged for 105 years, despite radical changes in the world and society. They have fallen into the trap of declaring education reform an "either/or" world. But the issue is far more complex.
Pop quiz: Why is the math sequence in schools algebra-geometry-trigonometry? Why is science usually biology-chemistry-physics? Answer: It's alphabetical. (Look up the Committee of Ten's report from 1892.)
Pop quiz, part 2: Why do high schools use the seven- or eight-period day? Answer: Because if you take math, science, English, social studies, foreign language, lunch, phys ed and something else (seven or eight subjects) and divide them into an 8 a.m.-3 p.m. day, you get 45- to 50-minute periods. Simple arithmetic, no solid educational philosophy. But if the seven- or eight-period day is such a good way to do things, why don't corporations ask their employees to get up every 45 minutes and move to a new work station with a new supervisor and start a new (and different) task six or seven times a day?
While we're on the topic, when was the last time you took a multiple choice test or wrote a five-paragraph essay? When was the last time you were forced to associate only with people who were born the same year as you? The current design of schools is a factory/industry model created for a world that existed between 1900 and 1950 or so - hardly an appropriate design for the turn of the millennium.
A more significant question we must ask about our schools, rather than lobbing simplistic back-to-basics solutions is: Why do we do what we do the way we do it? It's easy to take potshots at the education system. Unlike private businesses which can write off their mistakes as tax losses and are given three- to five-year research and development opportunities, schools operate openly in the public domain and are subject to every citizen's opinion and criticism. Some of their statements are valid: Technology in the classroom is useless when students and teachers lack the skills and time to use it; too many adults are working in schools only deal with one student at a time (administrators, counselors, etc.); overworked teachers are often underpaid.
Beyond that, however, just as educators and their pupils must be more thoughtful and reflective about their studies, so too should critics be more thoughtful and reflective about what they're looking at and talking about. Relating what is going on in today's schools to one's own experience is all well and good, but the larger issues are historic and systemic. Constructive criticism is an important part of the improvement process. Half-baked impressions and personal, emotive "either/or" attacks only perpetuate debates which go nowhere and force people to take sides, leaving the children of this nation on the sidelines and in the cold.######