What to Do About the Schools
To the Editor:
In “A Nation Still at Risk” [May], Chester E. Finn, Jr. correctly concludes that American schools are still in deep trouble. He wrongly suggests that the problem can be solved with just a few changes.
Mr. Finn won’t get any argument from me when he says that the scores of even our best students are appallingly low or when he condemns those in the education community who belittle the need for knowledge and cultural literacy. However, if some educators have strayed too far in one direction, Mr. Finn has gone too far in the other. The “process method” doesn’t lead to learning, but neither does wholesale memorization of disconnected “facts.” Mr. Finn has misread and misinterpreted a number of the sources he cites. He attacks a statement from a National Academy of Science report that reads:
Unfortunately, as children become socialized by school and society, they begin to view mathematics as a rigid system of externally dictated rules governed by standards of speed, accuracy, and memory. . . . A mathematics curriculum that emphasizes computation and rules is like a writing curriculum that emphasizes grammar and spelling: both put the cart before the horse.
According to Mr. Finn, this asks teachers to scorn “standards of accuracy, speed, and memory”! Does it? Or does it merely ask that you encourage students to speak and write before you make demands as to spelling and grammar—that you give students the opportunity to think in terms of number and quantitative problems before imposing standards of speed, accuracy, and memory? Mr. Finn leads us to think that scientists and mathematicians have betrayed their calling when the truth is that they are merely talking about how to help students reach his goal of subject-matter understanding.
Mr. Finn launches a similar diatribe against an American Association for the Advancement of Science report that advises teachers: “do not separate knowing from finding out”; “deemphasize the memorization of technical vocabulary”; “use a team approach”; “reward creativity”; “encourage a spirit of healthy questioning”; “avoid dogmatism”; etc. What’s wrong with these directions to teachers? Would Mr. Finn prefer their opposites: “give them the facts but don’t tell them how to find things out”; “emphasize memorization of technical vocabulary”; “insist on students working alone”; “discourage healthy questioning”; “be dogmatic”?
Mr. Finn is wrong if he thinks we will solve our educational problems by revisiting old debates of content vs. method, subject-matter-oriented vs. child-oriented. There is no evidence that the superior results obtained by the European school systems have come about by taking extreme positions on these issues. European teachers are given the same pedagogical advice that ours are. European and American students do not perform so differently just because our schools are “progressive” and theirs are “traditional” or merely because their students spend more time in school—the two differences Mr. Finn cites. The differences between the two systems are much more extensive. If we are to get some clues as to how extensive the changes are which need to be made in this country, we should look at all the major differences, not just Mr. Finn’s chosen few.
One major difference is that all the European schools track students at a fairly early age. Students are tested (in fourth grade, in Germany) and sorted into college-bound, general, and vocational tracks; the resulting homogeneous classes can be effectively taught through the usual lecture and recitation methods. While there is some tracking in the United States, most of our classes include students of widely ranging achievement and ability. Such classes cannot be taught effectively by such methods. Should the U.S. track? Would tracking be politically acceptable? What would the effect be on class and race segregation within schools? Or if we decide not to track, what game plan do we have to find and disseminate effective methods for dealing with heterogeneous classes?
Another major difference between Europe and America is the existence of student incentives. European students work much harder in school because it makes a difference. If you don’t take tough courses and get good grades, you don’t get into college. In this country there are some colleges that will take any high-school graduate, no matter what his record. And students going directly into the workforce know that the only thing that counts is whether they graduated from high school; almost all will start at the same pay, no matter what they learned. In Europe students know that whether they will get a job, how soon, and at what salary will depend on how well they did in school. As Mr. Finn says, how much students learn depends on how much they work; and, like most people, students do the work they must to achieve what they want. What can we do to increase the pressures on students to perform? Mr. Finn hopes to induce greater student effort by raising high-school graduation standards, but, unless there are vastly different standards for different student tracks, the result will be a huge number of failures, a big increase in the dropout rate, and, very shortly, political pressure to lower standards once again. One idea would be for American business to begin inspecting high-school transcripts and hiring for the better jobs only those who did well in high school.
Mr. Finn rightly points to the importance of curriculum, but no European country has 50 states and 16,000 school governments deciding what children should learn in science and math. The European countries mostly have a national curriculum and centralized exams that give them the tools—not possessed by us—to guarantee that a common core of knowledge will be shared by everyone in the country. Ironically, Mr. Finn criticizes the very efforts of the math and science community to move toward a voluntary national curriculum because he quibbles with some of their emphases. What is his strategy to get good curriculum developed and adopted throughout the country?
Tests and examinations are another major difference. Tests drive what schools do. European schools spend time teaching students to write essays for difficult essay exams. U.S. schools devote time to helping students pass multiple-choice exams. Americans test frequently and insist on “objective” tests; Europeans test much less frequently with lengthy essay exams. We test almost exclusively on reading and math; Europeans also test on science, foreign languages, and writing—thus forcing teachers and students to give these subjects high priority.
Another difference is how schools are governed. The Europeans have no governance body comparable to our school boards. Their teachers have much greater autonomy to operate as they believe is necessary to improve learning. One likely result is that European schools are more able to attract and retain professional-caliber teachers. Also, European principals and superintendents, unconsumed by the political demands of constantly pleasing a changing school-board majority, are much more likely than ours are to be expert teachers—and thus truly the instructional leaders that in other writings Mr. Finn is so eager for. What are his ideas for reconciling democratic, local control of education with the need for insulating practitioners from political pressures and destructive micromanagement?
European schools devote a much higher proportion of their education dollar to areas that directly support the classroom, such as supplies and lower student-adult ratios (which in turn permit smaller class sizes in seminars, writing classes, and science labs). I know Mr. Finn does not support these bloated administrative staffs; he attacked them when he was Assistant Secretary of Education. But what is his strategy for cutting them down to size?
Finally, we need to consider the difference in teacher standards. Because college-entry standards in Europe are so stiff and ours are so lax, the 15 to 27 percent (depending on the country) of European students who are even admitted to college—and from whom all their teachers are recruited—are academically equivalent to the top 5 percent of our college graduates. How many of our top 5 percent go into teaching? Almost none. In Europe there is no such thing as an elementary-school teacher who is not well-versed in science and math; in the U.S. a large proportion of our teachers are not well-equipped to teach in these areas. If, for example, we are going to admonish elementary schools to teach more science, we need to consider who will teach the courses. Perhaps there is one really good science teacher in the school who can teach all the science classes, or perhaps this one teacher can mentor his colleagues and bring them up to speed. The answer to this problem lies in reorganizing the school to take into account the talent available—and likely to be available—to different schools. It does not lie simply in legislating higher standards and increased time on task.
Clearly, there are many differences between European schools and our own. Can we really copy them? Should we? Or do we have to come up with our own set of fundamental changes that takes into account our common-school tradition, our tradition of local school control, and our supply of well-educated teachers? This is what the “second reform movement” is grappling with.
In discussing the need for massive education change, Jack Bowsher, the former director of education for IBM, has said that if he were responsible for a computer-production process in which 30 percent of the computers fell off the production line before reaching the end and 90 percent of those that made it to the end frequently did not work, the last thing he would call for is to run the line another hour a day or another month a year. Mr. Finn should take heed.
His proposed solution of more hours in more difficult classes would make sense if our schools were effectively educating 90 or 80 or even 70 percent of our students and we just needed to reach the next 10 or 20 percent. But the NAEP scores he cites show that less than 10 percent of our students are emerging successfully from our system. The problems of education are huge. Mr. Finn’s ideological incantations are an enormously inadequate response.
President, American Federation of Teachers
To the Editor:
The article, “A Nation Still at Risk,” by Chester E. Finn, Jr. raises some important points that I believe merit further consideration.
One is the issue of education spending and the tiresome “money isn’t everything” lecture. Of course it isn’t, but money can buy some very important things, like smaller class sizes where teachers have the opportunity to individualize instruction and safer school buildings that support learning.
The condition of school buildings across the country deserves more attention. Too many of us assume that schools are safe for students and teachers, but in too many communities that simply is not the case. To put it bluntly, the infrastructure of our public schools is a shambles. A recent survey put out by the Education Writers of America states that only 42 percent of our schools are in good condition. Can Americans really condone sending 58 percent of our students to schools plagued by leaking roofs, crumbling plaster, rodent and insect infestation, and faulty plumbing and electrical systems?
Another item that Mr. Finn ignores is the value—and necessity—of targeting funds to federal education programs such as Chapter I and Head Start that have proved to be successful. I frankly do not understand Mr. Finn’s opposition to assisting disadvantaged students. The number of children living in poverty is rising dramatically, and we cannot afford—morally or economically—to ignore their special learning needs. If these students had trouble meeting academic standards before, is it realistic to assume they can now meet new, higher standards and tougher graduation requirements without some assistance? Of course not. It’s like asking an athlete who can’t clear a two-foot hurdle to jump three feet—without providing any extra coaching or support. If we do not give disadvantaged students extra services now, they will spend a lifetime trying to catch up. And too many of them will not succeed. Chapter I and Head Start programs pave the way for students’ future success in school.
And finally, I take exception to another of Mr. Finn’s points, the issue of teacher involvement in decision-making. For too long policy-makers, many of whom have not set foot in a classroom since their school days, have treated teachers as if they were very tall children. They have taken charge of nearly all decisions about how we will educate our children, ranging from the structure of the school day to the structure of the curriculum. Top-down decision-making may save time, but that’s about all it has going for it. That approach has not worked. If it had been successful, we would not still be having this national debate about whether our nation is still at risk.
It’s time we did a better job of linking classroom teachers with education researchers at our nation’s colleges and universities so that school faculties can put the growing body of effective research to practical use. And it’s time to express confidence in and support for the people who are working with students every day, America’s classroom teachers.
Mary Hatwood Futrell
Past President, National Education Association
To the Editor:
I believe that Chester E. Finn, Jr. is one of the more thoughtful observers of elementary and secondary education in the United States today. Mr. Finn’s notions on school choice and vouchers are at odds with our own views, but we very much support his thrust toward standards and excellence for American secondary schools. The problem, of course, involves current cultural values in America as much as educational values. For example, many parents simply will not support homework assignments at levels comparable to those given in Western Europe and Japan, and we seem to have some kind of addiction to consumer goods that dictates that the typical high-school senior work twenty hours or more a week.
We are always pleased when an influential periodical carries thoughtful articles on education, and we salute COMMENTARY in this regard.
Scott D. Thomson
Executive Director, National Association of Secondary School Principals
To the Editor:
What a pleasure to see Chester E. Finn, Jr. back in the pages of COMMENTARY, translating the world of education into reasonable language and ideas which lay people can understand. Having just completed a three-year term on the California State Board of Education, but not being a professional educator, I know at first hand the frustration of having to learn the language and current ideology before being able to grasp the problem. The solution to the problem, any problem, flows from its definition . . . and is therefore inexorably tied up in whatever educational fad the definer of the problem happens to be following at the time.
All of which means that I completely agree with Mr. Finn that denial is widespread, not just on the part of parents . . . but much more seriously . . . among professional educators who recognize that a neighboring district, or a neighboring state, may not be educating its students adequately, but firmly believe that, given the existing circumstances, their own district or state is doing a good job. The key phrase, of course, is “given the existing circumstances.” Those circumstances may be high transiency rates of students, extreme poverty, large class size, etc., but they are being used as excuses for poorly educating our students.
One of the major frustrations of being a policy-maker in education is not knowing whom and what to believe. Education research appears unable to answer fundamental questions such as “does pre-school give the disadvantaged child an advantage?,” “how much phonics is enough?,” and, most fundamentally, “what do we need to teach our children?” The process vs. content argument has been around since John Dewey’s day and is still cyclically reengaged in by the professionals. But in my experience most board members, both at the local and state levels, are not even aware of this argument and are therefore not engaged in it. Too many peripheral issues dominate board agendas.
In California, the recently published History /Social Science Framework definitely calls for new textbooks heavy in content. If those books are produced, and if the teachers in California teach the new curriculum, in twelve years our high-school graduates will know in what half-century the Civil War occurred. On the other hand, the California frameworks being developed in math and science are probably more process-oriented than Mr. Finn would like. In watching the science framework being developed, I saw a sincere effort to get away from the mere listing of facts in favor of teaching students to understand the facts within a context of larger scientific concepts. Thus, the best of both worlds. As of now, the document is still incomplete and we will have to wait for the results.
If Mr. Finn and other educational researchers could keep us on a path long enough to test its success or failure, then we policy-makers would know better what to do. As political bodies do, we drift.
To the Editor:
I have come to expect thoughtful and well-written articles from Chester E. Finn, Jr., and “A Nation at Risk” does not disappoint. There is, however, one matter which might buttress Mr. Finn’s contention that time on a task tends to translate into increased learning of that task, a point that is virtually axiomatic.
In my visits to high schools across the country, I have discovered that schools are a dumping ground for every social ill the rest of society cannot solve. As a consequence, highway fatalities have resulted in driver-education programs; illegitimate children have been the catalyst for sex education; drug abuse has led to drug-education programs. The school now provides global-awareness education, nuclear education, ethnic and racial history, and every conceivable theme the well-wrought imagination of educators can devise.
I have been to schools where “apartheid” is the focus of attention for a full school week and yet only one in ten students is capable of spelling the word and explaining the concept. Is it any wonder that American students do so poorly on international exams? Several years ago the superintendent of the Dallas public schools was asked why American students did not perform as well as their Korean, Japanese, and West European counterparts on standardized tests. His comment—I believe—captured the ethos of our high schools. He said, “The tests don’t include cheerleading.”
Dean, Gallatin Division
New York University
New York City
To the Editor:
Chester E. Finn, Jr. rightly points out that the bankruptcy of this nation’s educational institutions reveals that we are still “a nation at risk.” And the reason for this intellectual and moral bankruptcy is the lack of order, civility, and morality in the schools.
For example, during a two-week period in Chicago’s public schools, three students were shot, two were stabbed, and one teacher was raped. It is an alarming fact that, as a 1988 U.S. government report revealed, crime, disorder, violence, vandalism, gang warfare, drug dealing, and allegations of sexual abuse seem to permeate this nation’s public schools.
This 1988 report buttressed a 1984 study . . . which found that, “For many teachers, schools have become hazardous places to teach and definitely places to fear. Self-preservation rather than instruction has become their prime concern.”
Across the United States, in a typical month, some 5,200 public-school teachers are physically assaulted, and 1,000 require medical attention. In big-city public schools, 7 percent of high-school students and 8 percent of junior-high-school students have reportedly said that they sometimes stay home from school out of fear for their safety. Indeed, a recent study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals revealed that students in middle schools listed violence, crime, and disorder as their primary concerns.
Certainly a nexus exists between the lack of moral education and the current crime, violence, and disorder. . . . If our schools are to achieve true progress—that is, moral and spiritual as well as intellectual progress—our families, churches, and schools, as well as the business community and social organizations, . . . must emphasize once again the teaching and learning of good manners and good morals. . . .
Haven Bradford Gow
Arlington Heights, Illinois
To the Editor:
As one who has been teaching at a suburban high school for twenty-one years, who has read too many articles and books about education and attended too many conferences, workshops, and curriculum sessions, . . . I would like to offer some personal observations which may complement Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s article.
I have found that teachers are becoming more interested in their retirement than they are in their salary schedules. Of course they still want more money, benefits, and free time, just like all other working people, but their major objective these days is to leave teaching while they still have their wits about them.
One reason for this is that teaching in most public schools has become a very difficult job. Forget about the burdens of paperwork—the real problem is Rodney Dangerfield’s complaint about “no respect.” This lack of respect is different from what I encountered when I first started teaching: in those days, the teacher was considered a second-class professional with an indolent streak—he was assumed to be either a dumb jock, or else effeminate. But those attitudes (which still persist, I’m sure) never seriously interfered with a teacher’s ability to do his job. Today, however, lack of respect for the teacher is a part of the students’ cultural milieu and is increasingly shared by their parents. Teachers are the victims of the general lack of deference and civility, and their subject matter is a casualty of the general cultural climate of soap operas, inane sit-coms, and, of course, that music!
Another factor that undermines respect for the teacher’s place in the lives of students is the obsessive legalism which makes it impossible to expel disruptive and dangerous students, or that requires scarce resources to be expended on students who will never pass. Is it surprising, then, given all this, that teachers are eager to retire?
Most teachers know what high standards are and they want schools to maintain those standards with tough discipline. Unfortunately, they often fail to see any link between the public-policy positions of their leaders and current educational policies which subvert their own position and their own views on education.
In general, local unions are more helpful than the national and state organizations which never directly communicate their political agenda or solicit the opinions of the membership—they just take our money. Most local unions will listen and respond to teachers’ problems, many of which pertain to an improved educational environment. They frequently serve as a protection against administrators (and school committees) who may actually be counterproductive to education and who, out of motives I can never understand, frequently harass teachers. . . .
When I first began to teach, I thought my way was the only one, but experience has shown me that different styles and techniques can be successful. . . . A teacher must be committed to his subject, must believe that it has inherent value and interest, and must convey his own seriousness of purpose to his students within an orderly and disciplined school environment. If these are achieved within a supportive community, results will take care of themselves, and we will finally achieve the type of education desired by Mr. Finn and hundreds of thousands of teachers.
Cranston, Rhode Island
Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes:
Albert Shanker is not only head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), he is also one of the authentically insightful and imaginative figures in American education, casting a much larger shadow than anybody else in what is commonly dubbed the “education establishment.” He is a terrific ally and a formidable foe. He is also sometimes wrong. For the past several years he has been clear-eyed about the woeful performance of American youngsters (even while many educators have been murmuring excuses and denials) and about what well-educated citizens should know and be able to do. But he has been off-base in his analysis of why we are doing so poorly now and of what we ought to do differently. The “second reform movement,” of which he is perhaps the foremost advocate, has about it an air of the naive and the romantic, as if “empowering” teachers, “restructuring” schools, and “decentralizing” authority would per se yield higher student achievement. They may; they may not. That is why the experiments under way in several cities are worth seeing through, and why Mr. Shanker’s union is to be commended for the fact that several of its locals are prominently involved in these endeavors. But other AFT locals are simultaneously going on strike, battling reforms, and defending the status quo as if everything were hunky-dory. Observe the union’s shameful behavior in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a derelict urban school system that the AFT managed to ignore (save for organizing its teachers) for decades—only to erupt in fury when Chelsea’s town fathers asked Boston University to try running the schools for them. This is as much a part of Mr. Shanker’s union as the innovations in Rochester and Miami. And there is every reason to suppose that conferring more decisions on teachers would yield equally mixed results.
I cannot for the life of me figure out why Mr. Shanker goes on at such length about education in Europe. My article barely mentioned that continent and never suggested that we mimic its educational arrangements, save for the straightforward point that youngsters in most industrialized countries (European and Asian alike) spend much more of their time engaged in formal education than ours do.
Mary Hatwood Futrell, the immediate past president of the National Education Association, wishes I had paid attention to the condition of school buildings and federal spending levels. I wish the leaders of the nation’s largest teachers’ union paid attention to education.
Nor can I fathom how she read into my silence about such programs as Head Start any “opposition to assisting disadvantaged students.” But, as I tried to make clear in my article, we do have a large national problem with advanced reading skills.
Scott D. Thomson is a wise and effective educator, but he, too, along with Albert Shanker and Mary Futrell, read something that I did not write. I made passing—and favorable—reference to the idea of school choice, but I made no mention of “vouchers.” It is possible, as four states are now demonstrating, to have a great deal of choice within public education and never get near a voucher. As for the gaps in our “current cultural values,” Mr. Thomson is surely correct. But as he well knows (though many other educators seem not to), these must not be allowed to become an excuse for the schools’ failing to do their part.
Perry Dyke’s friendly letter tasks education researchers with more than they can be counted upon to deliver: supplying the necessary consensus about vexing policy issues. To be sure, certain research findings are reasonably good guides to practice—see, for example, the 59 conclusions and recommendations contained in What Works, a distillation published by the Department of Education in response to then-Education Secretary William J. Bennett’s insistence that all that research must have yielded some sort of reliable and helpful results.
But when we turn to such matters as “what do we need to teach our children,” which Mr. Dyke correctly notes is the most fundamental of all, while research can certainly furnish clues and cautions, it isn’t the analysts or, it seems to me, the education profession writ large that should be making the essential decisions. That is why we have policy-makers; if they are too busy with “peripheral issues,” they may need to reorder their own priorities.
To Herbert London, Haven Bradford Gow, and Paul Zisserson, my heartfelt thanks for documenting, extending, and supplementing my own understanding of what has gone wrong and what needs doing.