Moms vs. puppets — in 1948

If Only We Had Listened . . . to parents about progressive education, writes Core Knowledge blogger Lisa Hansel.

In 1948, the Washington Times-Herald criticized the poor spelling skills of high school juniors in New York. Only about 65 percent could spell everyday words such as “develop,” “meant,” “athletic,” etc.

The problem starts in first grade, said three mothers of public school children, who visited the newspaper office. Students aren’t learning anything, said Mrs. A. They make puppets.

The book on making puppets has diagrams with letters A, B and C, said Mrs. B. “But they don’t teach the children what letters are, or what they mean, or how to read, so how can they make head or tail of the diagrams?”

Mrs. A: “There’s a rule, too, against having any letters or figures on the blackboard. They claim a child of 6 can’t grasp those things and mustn’t be bothered with them, or his co-ordination will go bad—at least I think they call it co-ordination.”

Mrs. C: “Of course the fact is that a child at that age is as curious as can be, and loves to fool with pencils, and is usually just crazy to find out how to write like grownups, how to read the papers, how to count—”

Mrs. B: “Oh, yes, about counting. They don’t teach them nowadays to learn figures and add ‘em or subtract ‘em. Oh no—they’ve got to count beads on strings, or bounce rubber balls up and down. Ant they mustn’t learn to go above number 5 for a year or two, because that would strain their brains. Humph.”…

Teachers don’t believe the progressive methods work, said Mrs. C. But they’re afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up.

The editor and the mothers were confident these methods were being imposed on teachers, writes Hansel. “It’s a sad tale that I continue to hear—teachers who have to close their doors and find spare moments to bring rigor and research-based practices to their classrooms.”

When education reforms don’t work well, teachers get the blame, writes E.D. Hirsch. Teacher quality isn’t the issue, he argues. The problem is that most reforms have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Stop blaming teachers, concludes Hansel. Give them a coherent curriculum with more content — and fewer puppets.

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