Educational Reform

All the high-sounding rhetoric about educational reform makes most people think that something really good is in the air. Educators, political leaders, academics, and the intellectual community in general all seem to be four-square behind a movement that has become as American as moms and apple pie – namely, the drive to "raise standards" in our schools, and to make teachers and administrators "accountable" through "assessments".

What grand words! Who would support lowering standards? Who could oppose the idea that people should be answerable for their actions? And who, in this modern world of measurement and numbers, could be against the idea that education, too, should be calculated on a bar graph?

The starting point for all the calls for reform is the conviction that, for some time now, our schools have been inferior to those of most of the rest of the Westernized world. Some of us remember when this feeling of inferiority began to simmer in the American consciousness. It began with Sputnik, with the Russian's ability to be first to put a man in orbit around the earth. Immediately, the cry was heard on all sides that Soviet education was far superior to ours, and that our schools needed a vast infusion of money and a huge national effort to "catch up" to the Russian educational system. That, indeed, was the spur to the massive intrusion of the Federal Government into education, first begun in the Eisenhower Administration and continued to this day.

Think about it, from the perspective of history. Sputnik happened eleven years after the end of the Second World War, a war in which American ingenuity, technology, and productivity showed itself to be vastly superior to any other on earth, and the caliber of the average GI was proven to be the equal to that of any fighting man anywhere. Within thirteen years of Sputnik, America landed a man on the moon. Today, looking back, we can see that, by any measure, the Soviet educational system is for the most part little better than that of the average Third World country.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the United States has taken the lead in almost every field of human endeavor. People turn to this country from all over the world to study with our professors, learn the most cutting-edge research techniques in our laboratories, invest in our businesses, experience our burgeoning world of art, etc. This country has long since surpassed Europe as a global cultural center.

Yet we are told that all this has happened at a time when our schools have been inferior to those of Europe and Japan, and are doing a worse job of preparing young people for life in the modern world!

Something is wrong here. The vibrant cultural life of this country as we enter the new millennium seems somehow in conflict with the widespread feeling that our educational system is failing today's youth. What is going on?

In this series, I would like to explore the answer to this question.

The prime cause of the unease most observers have about our schools is the gap between the incredible complexity of life in the post-industrial age, and the relative simplicity of current school curricula. Every day, human knowledge progresses by leaps and bounds. The Information Age has ushered in a period of unparalleled growth in human creativity, and in world-wide connectivity which makes virtually all of human knowledge accessible to more and more people.

It is natural for people to feel overwhelmed, especially adults like you and me who have grown up during the period in which this huge explosion of knowledge and access has taken place. We feel that we are drowning in an ocean of information with which we are unable to cope – because we grew up in an era when people still thought that it was possible for a well-educated person to be knowledgeable about most fields of human endeavor.

When we adults were young, we were living at the tail end of the era of the "well-rounded" person. Our ideal was the so-called Renaissance Man, the cultured intellectual who knew something about everything, who had traveled widely and tasted a variety of human experiences. While we knew we couldn't all match that ideal, we felt that being "well-rounded" was a fair substitute for the average intelligent individual – where by " being well-rounded" we meant being exposed to a comprehensive range of human knowledge and experience. "Good" schools and "liberal-arts" colleges were the institutions which served this ideal.

Then, during the past decades, through no fault of our own, along came the Information Age at a furious gallop, sweeping all before it, and transforming our entire lives from top to bottom. The world of the 90s is farther from the world of the 50s than the world of the 50s was from that of our Founding Fathers. Suddenly, unexpectedly, we found that we ourselves were no longer "well-rounded", because there was ever so much more to know and to experience than ever before.

The standard response in a situation like that is to panic. The next step is to try to remedy the situation by adding more and more to the curriculum, so that at least our children will have the full range of exposure that we always thought was necessary in order to function effectively. The formula is simple: If the problem is the enormous expansion of knowledge, the solution is an enormous expansion of the curriculum to cover it all.

That is what educational reform, and all its subsidiary activities, is all about. It is about making sure that children in our schools are "well-rounded" with respect to all the new stuff that is currently circulating in cultured circles.

The trouble is that this makes absolutely no sense, and is a wrong cure for the wrong disease.

In order to fully appreciate how utterly devoid of sense the fundamental premise of educational reform is, we must delve into it in some detail. There is no short way to understand the futility of the new proposals which are now sweeping the educational world. In fact, the only reason they are gaining support is that very few people bother to look at the details. So please be patient for a bit, and join me now in a closer look at the heart of "educational reform".

I will take you for a short stroll through the byways of a book called Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education. This volume, published last year, is a summary of the new national standards being proposed for all schools – a summary 632 pages in length, produced jointly by the eminent Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL).

The book covers no fewer that fourteen different curriculum areas – fourteen domains of knowledge in which every child in the country must gain proficiency through classroom work. They are: Mathematics, Science, History, Language Arts, The Arts, Civics, Economics, Foreign Language, Geography, Health, Physical Education, Technology, Behavioral Studies, and Life Styles.

Fair enough, you say. They all sound pretty important, even though most of us cannot claim proficiency in all these areas. But then again, we were a product of an earlier educational system, obsolete and un-reformed.

It's time to open the book and peer inside. Let's begin with Science. And remember, as we go over this together, that what is being demanded as a goal is that every single child in the country, without exception, be knowledgeable in all the particular subjects listed.

Here are a few examples of what every single high school graduate should be able to do relative to the many and varied fields of science:

-- "know methods used to estimate geologic time (e.g., observing rock sequences and using fossils to correlate the sequences at various locations; using the known decay rates of radioactive isotopes present in rock to measure the time since the rock was formed)"
-- "know the chemical and structural properties of DNA and its role in specifying the characteristics of an organism (e.g., DNA is a large polymer formed from subunits of four kinds [A, G, C, AND T]; genetic information is encoded in genes as a string of these subunits and replicated by a templating mechanism; each DNA molecule in a cell forms a single chromosome)"
-- "understand how the processes of photosynthesis and respiration in plants transfer energy from the Sun to living systems (e.g., chloroplasts in plant cells use energy from sunlight to combine molecules of carbon dioxide and water into complex, energy-rich organic compounds, and release oxygen to the environment)"
-- "know the range of the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g., radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, gamma rays); electromagnetic waves result when a charged object is accelerated or decelerated, and the energy of electromagnetic waves is carried in packets whose magnitude is inversely proportional to the wavelength" – the latter statement being a bizarre way to express quantum concepts, to say the least
-- "design and conduct scientific investigations by formulating testable hypotheses, identifying and clarifying the method, controls, and variables; organizing and displaying the data; revising methods and explanations; presenting the results; and receiving critical response from others"

And so it goes. The above, as I said, is a smattering of the total number of different items that every single high school graduate should be able to do, under the newly proposed national standards – whether the person intends to be an artist, tradesperson, writer, scientist, businessman, athlete, whatever.

I could not even begin to guess at the amount of time it would take for someone, child or adult, to master all the material proposed in the science standards. Full time for a few years might be a starting estimate.

So much for our mini-sampling of Science standards. Time now for some mathematics. Here is a tiny sampling. The standards require that all children in grades 9-12 know how to

-- "use a variety of strategies to understand new mathematical content and to develop more efficient solutions methods or problem extensions"
-- "construct algorithms for multi-step and non-routine problems"
-- "understand connections between equivalent representations and corresponding procedures of the same problem situation or mathematical concept (e.g., a zero of a function corresponds to an x-intercept of the graph of the function)"
-- "use number theory concepts (e.g., divisibility and remainders, factors, multiples, prime, relatively prime) to solve problems"
-- "use discrete structures (e.g., finite graphs, matrices, sequences) to represent and to solve problems"
-- "use synthetic (i.e., pictorial) representations and analytic (i.e., coordinate) methods to solve problems involving symmetry and transformations of figures (e.g., problems involving distance, midpoint, and slope; determination of symmetry with respect to a point or line)"
-- "understand how outliers may affect various representations of data (e.g., a regression line may be strongly influenced by a few aberrant points, whereas the scatter plot for the same data might suggest that the aberrant points represent mistakes)"
-- "use a variety of experimental, simulation, and theoretical methods (e.g., counting procedures, trees, formulas for permutations and combinations, Monte Carlo simulations, statistical experiments) to determine probabilities"
-- "use a variety of methods (e.g., approximate solutions, such as bisection, sign change, and successive approximation) to solve complex equations (e.g., polynomial equations with real roots)"

The above list is only a fraction of the mathematical material we are told are essential for every single high school graduate to know.

Let's pause for a moment to digest some of this. Only a very small number of adults today, including the most respected leaders, intellectuals, and just plain effective citizens know all the material I have just listed; including, even, teachers. Fewer yet know the full list from which I have quoted. Are we to conclude that virtually all of them are poorly equipped to function in modern society?

It's actually much worse. The standards themselves, having been compiled by mortal humans, are full of erroneous material! Consider, for example, the following pieces of mathematical "understanding" that we are told that every child in grades 3-5 should possess:

-- "that some ways of representing a problem are more helpful than others"

By whose standards? Who is to judge what is "more helpful". I have known many accomplished mathematicians, and nothing is more noticeable than the great variety of ways that each of them find useful. Few mathematicians would make a categorical claim that one way is "more helpful than others".

-- "the difference between pertinent and irrelevant information when solving problems"

Well, I have news for the writers of these standards: what makes problems real problems in the world of mathematics is precisely the fact that it is not at all obvious what is pertinent and what is irrelevant to their solution. If it were, they would hardly be challenging. Suggesting to little children that this distinction is meaningful in the real world is a real disservice.

Remember, I have only given you a glimpse of two of the fourteen areas of knowledge to be covered. Now, bear with me a bit more, and let us explore a third area: history.

According to the new standards, all children must master a great deal of history during their stay in school. The amount to be covered is so vast that I can barely give you the tiniest sampling of what is being proposed. Let me pick out a handful of vignettes.

Let's start with what every single child graduating high school in this country should know:

-- "the similarities and differences among Native American societies (e.g., gender roles; patterns of social organization; cultural traditions; economic organization; political culture; among Hopi, Zuni, Algonkian, Iroquoian, Moundbuilder, and Mississippian cultures)"
-- "the political and religious factors that influenced English, Spanish, French and Dutch colonization of the Americas (e.g. the enclosure movement; the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne in England; how the Spanish "Black Legend" was used to motivate and justify English colonization of North America; to what extent the "Black Legend" was Protestant propaganda; to what extent it was a valid description of the Spanish conquest)"
-- "influences on economic conditions in various regions of the country (e.g., effects of the Federal government's land, water and Indian policy; the extension of railroad lines, increased agricultural productivity and improved transportation facilities on commodity prices; grievances and solutions of farm organizations; the crop lien system in the South, transportation and storage costs for farmers, and the price of staples)"
-- "the development of World War I (e.g., the influences of industrial research in aviation and chemical warfare on military strategy and the war's outcome, how technological developments contributed to the war's brutality, the system of alliances through which European nations sought to protect their interests, how nationalism and militarism contributed to the outbreak, how the war expanded to become a world war)"
-- "military strategies used during World War II (e.g.,the non-aggression pact between Germany and the USSR in 1939; the 'Battle for Britain'[sic]; Japanese strategy in East Asia and the Pacific; Roosevelt's strategy for an aggressive war against the Axis powers and a defensive war in Asia; the North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy invasions)"
-- "what environmental and architectural evidence reveals about different types of large agricultural communities (e.g., the locations of different types of communities between 10,000 and 4,000 BCE; how patterns of layout, fortification, and standardization in large settlements helped transform human culture)"
-- "the social, cultural, and political characteristics of the Shang Dynasty (e.g., the development of royal government under the Shang Dynasty and the development of social hierarchy, religious institutions, and writing; the role that Chinese peasants played in sustaining the wealth and power of the Shang political centers)"
-- "cultural elements of Kush society and their interaction with Egyptian civilization (e.g., the linguistic, architectural, and artistic achievements of Kush in the Meroitic period; how Assyrian and Kushite invasions affected Egyptian society; the social and political consequences of economic contacts between Kush and Egypt)"
-- "the importance of maritime trade to the kingdom of Askum (e.g., the goods traded in this kingdom, and the situation that enabled Askum to play a role in long-distance trade)"
-- "the significant social, political, and cultural characteristics of Gupta society (e.g., the Gupta decline and the importance of Hum invasions in the empire's disintegration; the Gupta golden age under Chandragupta II; centers of learning in India in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, and the role of Buddhist monks in education and higher learning; types of evidence available for understanding Gupta India; the route of the Hun invasion of India, and the revival of the golden age of the Guptas)"
-- "how art and architecture reveal elements of Ile-Ife, Benin, and other African societies (e.g., the role of the ruler, political power, gender differences, foreign contact, technology)"
-- "patterns of social and cultural continuity in various societies, and how people maintained and resisted external changes in an era of expanding Western hegemony and rapid industrial and urban change (e.g., the efforts of people such as Jamal al-Din, al-Afghani, Rashid Rida, and Muhammad Abdul)"
-- "the origins and development of societies in Oceania (e.g., theories using linguistic, biological and cultural evidence to explain migration patterns to the Pacific Islands and New Zealand; how complex social structures, religions, and states developed in Oceania)"

I'll stop here, having given a few items out of a section of the standards book that runs two hundred single-spaced 8-1/2" by 11" pages. No, that was not a misprint. Two hundred.

I am a historian by profession, and I have taught history at all levels from college to primary grades. Neither I, nor any of the other professional or academic historians I know, have in their possession the knowledge demanded of every high school graduate in America in those two hundred pages.

I have touched on only three of the fourteen areas of knowledge being required by the education reform movement. Even the most patient of you must be thinking by now that it's time for me to come to an end. I'll spare you all the others, except for one: The Arts. That is just too much to pass up.

Here are some of the proposed national standards and benchmarks for the arts. Again, I'll pick only a handful out of thirty pages' worth. The reformers want every student [you mustn't lose sight of this] who has completed his/her high school studies to:

-- "know complex steps and patterns from various dance styles (e.g., dances of a particular performer, choreographer, period) and traditions (e.g., dances of bharata natyam, noh; folk dances of indigenous people of Europe or other areas)"
-- "understand [dance] structures or forms such as AB, ABA, canon, call and response, and narrative"
-- "sing a varied repertoire of vocal literature with expression and technical accuracy at a moderate level of difficulty (e.g., attention to phrasing and interpretation, various meters and rhythms in a variety of keys)"
-- "perform on an instrument (e.g., band or orchestra instrument, keyboard instrument, fretted instrument such as guitar, electronic instrument) accurately and independently, alone and in small and large ensembles, with good posture, good playing position, and good breath, bow, or stick control"
-- "compose music in a variety of distinct styles (e.g., classical, folk, pop, jazz, rock)" and "arrange pieces for voices or instruments other than those for which the pieces were written in ways that preserve or enhance the expressive effect of the music (e.g., piano music, 4-part hymns, duets, trios, quartets)"
-- "improvise, write, and refine scripts based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history"
-- "understand the basic physical and chemical properties of the technical aspects of theatre (e.g., light, color, electricity, paint, makeup)"
-- "understand the relationships among works of art in terms of history, aesthetics, and culture"
-- "apply media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence, and sensitivity that one's intentions are carried out in artworks"

You get the idea. It's just a matter of being competent to perform, critique, and create in all types of music, dance, theatre, and visual art.

Let's leave this review, which I hope has made it amply clear that the new proposed standards for 21st century education are a simple, if blatant, case of good intentions run amok.

What has happened is that Information Age complexity has been seen as a problem to be solved by trying to ram all of its components into every single human being. And in proposing this, educators and their supporters have missed the basic point of how the real world deals with the enormous and ever-increasing variety of human experience.

The only useful solution was discovered several centuries ago, and is embodied in the free market ideas of Adam Smith, later to be refined by modern statistical theory in mathematics and science. The only useful solution is to realize that stability and order on a global scale is in fact realized through the conglomeration of a huge number of free and random actions made by individuals, each of whom has chosen his/her own unique path of action.

Freedom to choose is the key. In the economic realm, when individuals are allowed to exercise their own initiative in deciding how to be productive, an extraordinary situation results: on the one hand, the various needs and desires of society tend to be met relatively soon after they manifest themselves; and, on the other hand, the various skills and interests of the multi-faceted individuals who make up the society tend to be utilized to their fullest extent. The larger and more complex the society, the more likely it is that freedom of choice will succeed in maximizing benefits. This is the essence of the free market idea, and its first theoretician called the mysterious mechanism by which it takes place "the invisible hand". More modern terminology would call the mechanism the result of statistics applied over a large range of individually random actions.

It is interesting to note how difficult it has been for many people to accept, much less understand, the seemingly magical operation of the free market in the economic realm. Especially during the Industrial era, which based itself on applying technology and physical science to virtually every phase of human life, the idea that uncontrolled, free action could lead to increased productivity was treated with much skepticism. In many ways, most of the twentieth century can be seen as a series of large-scale experiments to apply industrial and technological concepts to social planning, in the hope that the outcome would be more beneficial to more people than the operation of a chaotic free society.

All these experiments – fascism, national socialism, communism – failed miserably, and have been almost universally abandoned. They failed precisely for the same reason educational reform, as described above, must fail – namely, because the more complex the situation, the less possible it is to control it through planning that will meet all exigencies and also be compatible with human nature.

Choice, rather than control, is also the basis for democracy in the political realm. It wasn't until relatively recently in history that this was fully appreciated, but in the past few decades the idea has swept the world after people saw its success in Western democracies. On the face of it, the idea of democracy seems absurd, as Plato was quick to point out back in Ancient times. It sounded crazy to entrust the fate of a nation to a popular vote, which is nothing other than the net result of a huge number of fairly random individual choices. How much more sensible did it seem to place the government in the hands of trained experts ("philosopher kings", as they were called by Plato) who had studied all there was to know about good government, and who therefore would be in an excellent position to make informed decisions about every social issue.

History proved this scenario to be the cause of much more misery and hardship than the democratic scenario, however illogical it may appear.

The situation in education is no different than that in the economic and political realms. Anyone who understands the free market, or political democracy, or indeed modern physics, knows that it makes no sense at all to contend that the way to prepare children to be productive members of Information Age society is to make a list of everything the "experts" think should be known by every person, and then try to force every child to learn the entire list. Not only is this theoretically counter to the proven superiority of allowing every person to choose those areas in which they want to become proficient, and then let free choice do its magic; not only is this in principle unrealisable because of the increasingly rapid rate of increase of the totality of human knowledge, which makes any list of important topics outdated before it has even been published; but also, and most important, it is an absolutely unrealisable goal.

No child has been born who can possibly master even a small fraction of the subjects that have been piled one on top of the other in the new curriculum standards. No adult is alive today who has all this material at his/her command. The only possible outcome of this attempt at educational reform is widespread cynicism among students and teachers, massive disappointment among parents and political leaders, and a rapid erosion of the small reserve of confidence that still remains in the existing system of public and private education.

Far-seeing educators who seek meaningful educational reform have seen the handwriting on the wall. The largest business consulting firm in the world, Arthur Andersen, has for the past five years been promoting the concept of "self-directed education" through its "Schools for the 21st Century" program, and through a series of international conferences. Every year, hundreds of new alternative programs are being started all over the country, and the world, devoted to the idea that the initiative of the student should be the starting point for all schooling, and that teaching should come in response to student requests made of instructors who are devoted to, and passionate about, their fields of primary interest.

Basing schools on the notion of self-directed learning has been widely recognized as a crucial step in producing the kinds of effective adults that Information-Age society relies on. Leaders in virtually every field of business will tell you that the characteristics they look for more than any others in their employees – from the lowest to the highest levels – are initiative, judgment, responsibility, persistence, focus, self-confidence, and the ability to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and concentrate on a task until it is completed. All these traits are best developed in a school environment where they are practiced regularly by students from the earliest age. They are intimately linked with self-directed activity, because it is primarily in such activity that people, young and old, use and develop their learning skills to the highest possible degree. This basic fact of human developmental psychology is easily grasped if you compare the way your children – or you yourself, for that matter – approach hobbies, after-school activities, or self-appointed tasks, with the way your children perform when required to do so without their enthusiastic support. And, most important, these traits, once acquired and perfected, are easily transferable from one task to another, or one job to another, as virtually every employer recognizes.

The bottom line is that educational reform as it now stands, and as it is now supported by our political leaders and the educational establishment, is a stillborn monstrosity. If you still have any doubts, go to your local library and examine for yourself the ASCD book (or any other similar compendium of the new curriculum standards). You owe it to yourself as a taxpayer, parent, or student to fully comprehend how ill-advised the current education reform movement really is.

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