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The Shame of the Schools

The great truths in education turn out to be half-truths in search of their other half.

1.

On Town Meeting Day in March 2000, some four hundred legal residents of Lincoln, Vermont, elected me to a three-year term on the board of Mt. Abraham Union High School, located in neighboring Bristol. A few days later, I took my oath of office and settled into a schedule of biweekly meetings in the school library. Comprising grades 7 through 12, the school serves around nine hundred students from five rural towns for an annual budget topping $9 million under a board of thirteen elected members. Mt. Abe belongs to the Addison (County) Northeast Supervisory Union district. In March 2003, I was reelected to the Mt. Abe board and also elected to the district board coordinating six local schools.

During the first year I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of important and sometimes ominous decisions that engulfed the board. We dealt with school security, contract negotiations with teachers, selecting a new principal, Internet filtering, special education mandates, and preparing the all-devouring, seemingly self-propelled annual document called the budget to submit to voters. I thought I’d never catch on, never learn the names of all the key people plus the acronyms used to designate occult entities in the wonderland of education.

After forty years of college teaching, I had no particular agenda to promote on the board. Principally I was curious to find out what actually is being taught in this rural high school, which has the largest payroll within twenty miles. I soon learned that the board spends little time discussing curriculum. I was told that the best way to inform myself would be to visit a few core courses. I chose English and History, or rather “Language Arts” and “Social Studies.” (A return to the earlier names became the first item on my agenda.) Given a schedule by the department head, I visited about a dozen classes and was welcomed without fanfare or raised eyebrows. These visits gave me a vivid impression of overcrowding, of teachers without their own classrooms and pushing overloaded carts like the homeless, of poorly and noisily ventilated inside classrooms, and of the constant demands imposed upon teachers for patience, firmness, and imagination. But amid multiple activities in the classrooms I found it impossible to discern a coherent sequence of content guiding the classes, not even in different sections of the same course. It would require months of class visits to gain an adequate sense of what is being taught in my school.

It turned out that there was another road to take. I had volunteered to be the school board representative on the teachers’ curriculum committee preparing part of the self-study for our big ten-year NEASC accreditation visit. (NEASC stands for New England Association of Schools and Colleges.) This committee of eight teachers, chaired by the science department head, alerted me to four sets of documents dealing directly or indirectly with the curriculum. I made it my business to obtain and study all these documents—as follows:

  1. Vermont’s Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities, Vermont State Board of Education, 84 pages, 1996. (See excerpt 1 here.)

  2. Curriculum Guidelines, Addison Northeast Supervisory Union. Six K– 12 documents prepared and revised in rotation by the district, in Mathematics, Language Arts, Science, Fine Arts, Social Studies, and Foreign Languages. They range in length from 33 pages (Mathematics) to over 200 pages (Language Arts), for a total of nearly 600 pages.

  3. Course Selection Guide, Mt. Abraham Union High School. Published yearly. Contains 60 pages of brief descriptions (3 to 15 lines) of all courses offered by the school.

  4. Course syllabi filed by all teachers as required by law in the assistant principal’s office. One to 3 pages following a recommended outline.

The first three of these documents form a stack over four inches high. The teachers on the accreditation curriculum committee brought none of the above documents with them to refer to. They kept borrowing my copy of the Course Selection Guide. All the teachers appeared to acknowledge that document number 1, Vermont’s Framework of Standards, contains the tables of the law. But they had not read it carefully. None of the teachers seemed familiar with or interested in document number 2, the district’s own lengthy Curriculum Guidelines, prepared by committees of teachers meeting over a period of many months. The Course Selection Guide is little more than a useful list identifying all course offerings. The syllabi record what has been taught in a particular course or section, not a program of study approved by the school.

It is not easy to describe the first two official documents. The state Framework of Standards and the lengthy district Curriculum Guidelines (themselves based scrupulously on the state Framework) presumably lay out a course of study for all students. As they stand, these two documents do not and cannot serve this function. They mention no authors’ names and no titles of books to be read. Only the science and mathematics documents specify topics for a particular grade. Elsewhere entry after entry stipulates that students shall examine, investigate, analyze, understand, and interpret immense intellectual topics such as “fiction” and “nature and nurture.” The verbs teach, learn, and study do not appear. Because they clump four grades together, these documents cannot, for example, provide an answer to the question: “In what grade are the following materials taught: the solar system, Athenian democracy, dangling modifiers, the Founding Fathers.” Such items do not even appear.

The nearly impenetrable pages of the state of Vermont’s Framework of Standards plus the Addison Northeast Curriculum Guidelines add up to an elaborate professional camouflage of the fact that at no level—state, district, or school—is there a coherent, sequenced, and specific curriculum. The teachers on the curriculum committee for accreditation had good reason to ignore the district Curriculum Guidelines. They propose no course of study, no coordinated sequence of subjects within the core fields. I’m not saying that our district curriculum is watered down or lopsided or old-fashioned or newfangled. I’m saying that those six hundred pages contain no useful curriculum at all.

What then fills these pages in multiple copies which no one reads or consults? In large part they contain bland hortatory statements about what students “should know and be able to do.” It’s almost a mantra. Yet the two major curriculum documents refer to no specific content, to no simple lists of items such as osmosis and Martin Luther King Jr. and, one hopes, Martin Luther.

And what also fills these pages, in the place of what to teach, is lengthy instructions about how to teach these unspecified materials. Our district Curricululm Guidelines of recent years devote increasing space to “Best Practice in Teaching,” identified as “an inquiry approach, which is based on constructivist principles.” The documents to which one looks for the articulation of curriculum turn out to be presentations of a pedagogical doctrine, constructivism, much in dispute and which has appropriated to itself the dubious slogan and sales pitch “Best Practice.” Most board members don’t know what “constructivist” means and, if they read that far in the Curriculum Guidelines, they don’t ask. Constructivism refers to the half-truth that full understanding occurs only when students learn for themselves from hands-on experience without direct instruction or teacher intervention.

I cannot draw general conclusions about American education from the above description of Mt. Abraham Union High School and of the supervisory union district it forms with five elementary schools. I have observed only this one case. At conferences where I have presented some of these materials, other participants have not hesitated to respond, “That’s a pretty good description of my district.” I have not myself surveyed other schools and districts.

By going back to school as a board member, I have come to the conclusion that my school and its district have no ascertainable curriculum and no effective curriculum document. Various sources continue to provide topics to be taught—individual teachers, lesson plans, habit, informal consultation, tradition, inertia. Even without the guidance of a curriculum, education goes on. Teachers teach. Students learn. They may even study. Budgets are voted in. The caravan passes. But all is not well. Is there anything to be done?

2.

During the two years it took me to discover the absence of an adequate curriculum at Mt. Abraham Union High School, I was also trying to reeducate myself about public education, elementary and secondary. I subscribed to magazines—American School Board Journal, Teacher Magazine, Educational Leadership. I discovered all over again in books the intellectual excitement churned up by the history of education. That subject embraces the survival of democratic institutions, the conflicting claims of reason and religion, the nature of human cognitive development, the importance of personal leadership, and the constant distraction of intellectual fashion. (At the moment, we cringe or bask in the glare of several fashions: multiple intelligences, constructivism or discovery learning, personalized learning, and critical or higher-order thinking. They are all powerful half-truths.)

My reeducation in education led me to a curious discovery. At the turn of the twentieth century in the United States, two famous yet now partially forgotten experiments in education were going on at the same time unbeknownst to each other.

One experiment was in effect a bold rescue mission beginning in 1887 to save a lost girl from incarceration inside her own body. A seven-year-old named Helen Keller, both deaf and blind, responded irrepressibly to the teaching genius of Anne Sullivan, barely in her twenties. Helen learned to communicate and to read through her fingers. Then she could discover and experience the teeming world around her not only by touch but also through the miracle of books. Helen completed The Story of My Life at age twenty-three in 1903 and graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College the following year. The psychological, cognitive, and pedagogical significance of the Keller-Sullivan experiment has been explored afresh since 2003, on the centenary of her first book.1 This astonishing case history and parable belong as much to science as to folklore and to literature.

By now, you may have recalled the other major educational experiment at the turn of the century.

In 1894 the enterprising president of the newly founded University of Chicago recruited from the University of Michigan a thirty-five-year-old philosophy professor to become head of the combined Departments of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy. During his ten previous years at the University of Michigan, John Dewey had published a stream of articles and four books in philosophy, psychology, and social thought, earning himself a sturdy national reputation. Three circumstances—the natural development of his research, his marriage to a brilliant teacher who was his intellectual equal, and the birth of their three children in whose upbringing he took an active interest—combined to steer Dewey strongly toward education. At Chicago, he threw himself into pedagogy projects and decided that, like any self-respecting science, the field of education needs a laboratory, an experimental setting, in which to develop and test its hypotheses. Dewey rapidly funded, founded, and staffed the University Elementary School, soon to be known as the Laboratory School, with himself as principal, his wife on the staff, and their children attending. The school opened in 1895 with sixteen students and closed in 1903 with 140.

  1. 1

    See my restored editions of Helen Keller’s two most revealing and beautifully written books: The Story of My Life, edited with Dorothy Herrmann (Norton, 2003) and The World I Live In (New York Review Books, 2003).

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