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Education Reporter

School-to-Work & Other Unworkable Ideas
By J. Martin Rochester, Ph.D.

During the 1980s, when my wife and I had two children in elementary school in the University City School District in the metropolitan St. Louis area, I noticed over time that the newsletters sent home by the school principal contained fewer and fewer references to "rigor," "homework," "standards," "merit," and "discipline."

Instead, I saw increasing references to "equity," "diversity," "self-esteem," "inclusion," "multi-culturalism," and all the buzzwords that we now hear ad nauseam. At first, these buzzwords sounded innocent enough - after all, who could be against equality and diversity? Gradually, I realized that the buzzwords represented a sea change in K-12 thinking that was moving the schools away from a commitment to academic excellence toward mediocrity.

We decided to move to the neighboring Clayton school district (where we assumed they still knew what academic excellence looked like), and yet we continued to fight the same battles over the next decade. In many ways, Clayton is a wonderful, world-class district that served my kids well (they graduated from Clayton High School in 1993 and 1997 respectively), but I saw how even the best school districts can get caught up in the worst sort of nonsensical "pack pedagogy" associated with progressive/constructivist ideas. I should stress that these nonsensical ideas are not confined to public schools but are increasingly finding their way into private and parochial schools.

What is obviously needed is balance, i.e., blending the best of the traditional pedagogy with the best of the newer pedagogy, but unfortunately, the reformers do not understand the concept of balance - it is not in their vocabulary.

My own analysis of what ails K-12 education boils down to two problems: First, there is an inadequate focus on academics in our schools - that is, there is a growing "social" mission as schools are increasingly assuming functions traditionally performed by family, church, and other institutions. Second, to the extent that academics are still the stuff of schooling today, there is a systematic dumbing down - a dilution of quality due to declining expectations and standards. School-to-Work is a manifestation of the convergence of these two trends.

It is true that School-to-Work and the other garbage in place today is simply the latest incarnation of progressive education that has dominated our schools for a century. But what is new and different is that this dumbing down now extends to all kids, including the best and the brightest and the most highly gifted. The bottom is admittedly being raised up somewhat by the emphasis on "standards," but in the process we are lowering the ceiling for the middle and top as part of a giant leveling project. Look at the anti-textbook, anti-lecture, anti-homework pedagogy being prescribed for the St. Louis Career Academy, a local alternative, vo-tech school,* and you will see that it is the very same model being pushed in world class and college prep districts.

A former assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Clayton school district once told me that her goal was "mass excellence." I had to explain to her that mass excellence is an oxymoron. Here are a few examples from my own experience to illustrate how mass excellence works:

1) At Wydown Middle School, a School-to-Work consultant was brought in to talk to a class of students, 99% of whom will go to college, including Harvard, Yale and other elite schools, and proceeded to tell them they should not necessarily consider going to college, that there are many ways to have a productive life.

2) The school board recently approved a "violence prevention" curriculum, although we've been told there is not enough time to teach grammar and multiplication tables. I wrote the board a memo saying: "Let me state in the strongest terms possible that I did not spend megabucks to buy a home in the Clayton school district so that my kids could receive instruction in violence prevention aimed at curbing their killer instincts or turning them into amateur Mahatma Ghandis."

3) In an Honors English class at Clayton High, my son did a juvenile cut-and-paste scrapbook as the capstone project for a Greek mythology unit where he cut out things like Nike shoe ads from the newspaper. When a parent asked the teacher how she could have high school students, especially honors students, do such juvenile work, she reportedly responded: "Haven't you ever heard of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences?" She was referring to the nonsensical theory - now so popular - which says schools should not just focus on the two traditional intelligences (verbal/linguistic intelligence and mathematical/scientific/logical reasoning intelligence), but also musical, spatial, intra-personal, interpersonal, and bodily kinesthetic intelligences (what I call scribbling, dribbling, musing and schmoozing), as if there are enough hours between 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. to do all this. We can't even get kids to master one skill, like writing a complete sentence, but we are supposed to have drawing, singing, dancing and prancing across the curriculum.

4) In an 8th-grade English class, my son used Play-Doh to express his feelings about prejudice.

5) Perhaps the kicker was a Clayton High English teacher who actually had her students produce a Cliff Notes version of stories they were reading, complete with the famous or infamous bright yellow covers, and had them proudly submit the crib sheets to Cliff Notes, Inc. for possible publication.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Many of the teachers were brilliant teachers who had been sucked into the dumbing down currents of our time.

The operative principle among K-12 reformers is, as the ad in the Chris Farley "Tommy Boy" movie put it: "If at first you don't succeed, lower the standard." If you can't spell, no problem, we have inventive spelling and spellcheck. If you think the Concert of Europe is a rock band, no problem. All you have to do is "locate" and "access" information on the internet. If you don't know that 2 x 2 = 4, no problem. You can use a calculator. I find it ironic that trendy types tend to put down students who respond well to lectures and traditional pedagogy as "dependent learners," yet the reformers are producing an entire generation of students who cannot function without a machine next to them at all times.

How is this affecting higher education? There is lots of fallout, but, in all fairness, K-12 is not entirely to blame for the problem. It is partly a product of society at large - notably an MTV pop culture that substitutes sound bites and jazzy visuals for thoughtful deliberation and substance.

We in higher education are ourselves part of the problem and may indeed be the root cause, since most of the nutty ideas emanate from academia. I do not have to tell you about the role played by schools of education - read Rita Kramer's Ed School Follies. The leading standards-setting bodies in the disciplines, such as the National Council of Teachers of English (which gave us whole language) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (which gave us fuzzy math) are heavily populated by university faculty. Constructivism itself, which is the main paradigm dominating K-12 education today, is an offshoot of postmodernist thought which has taken over the academy and which rejects the existence of any true, objective body of knowledge (with the sole exception of its own theories).

We are at fault, also, because so many universities have such lax admission standards that high school students have few incentives to perform well prior to entering college. Students suffering from "test anxiety" can now take as long as they want on the SAT exam; once on campus, they can claim "lack of concentration" and assorted other disabilities as grounds for forcing professors to relax standards. Grade inflation is rampant, and we now have courses of study such as "popular television," offered by my alma mater, Syracuse University, so that students can major in "Beavis and Butt-Head" or, for the more hi-brow types, "Melrose Place."

So I submit that there are lots of folks to blame for what is happening, although I would argue that K-12 education remains the number one culprit. For many years I have witnessed a decline in academic preparation on the part of students entering my own university, and I have heard similar complaints expressed by colleagues at other institutions throughout the country, including elite schools. What is evident in today's student body is a poor work ethic, an aversion to reading and listening, an inability to write polished prose consisting of complete words and sentences using standard English conventions, an ignorance of history, an entitlement mentality regarding good grades, a devaluing of traditional notions of scholarship, and a disrespect for the teacher/student relationship and for learning itself. Kids learn all this first in K-12, where "rigor" and "merit" are now four-letter words.

We in higher education are having to devote ever more time and energy to remediation, euphemistically called "academic development." The U.S. Department of Education reports that more than 80% of all public colleges and 70% of all private colleges, including Ivy League schools, now feel a need to offer remedial instruction.

There is a profound anti-intellectualism in our culture. Schools have been the one place in the past where the intellect has been allowed to flourish, but that is now at risk with recent trends, especially the proliferation of School-to-Work consultants who, in pushing for so-called "practical skills," send a message to students that they should not be interested in any intellectual pursuits other than those that translate instantly into making a buck. Free market corporate interests are no less to blame for this than the social engineers.

America's universities have until now been the envy of the world, but if present trends persist, there may be little worth envying anywhere in American education. However, I close with the plea that you continue to fight for academic excellence against those who would destroy it. I would not be fighting this battle if I did not think it was ultimately winnable and well worth waging.

(* See Education Reporter, July 1998.)

Dr. Rochester is Professor of Political Science and a Fellow in the Center for International Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he has taught since 1972. He has authored several books and published numerous articles in newspapers and scholarly journals.

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