Jane Sanders: Testing is a ‘disaster’

If Bernie Sanders is elected president, he’ll take education policy “in the exact opposite direction,” said his wife Jane in a Nation interview.

“We don’t really believe in standardized testing,” said the former college president. “I think the standardized tests that they say: do you know fourth-grade English or fourth-grade history? I think is a disaster and absolutely would not support that.”

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

“Schooling is meant to help people be creative, to have their curiosity stimulated, and have them be actively thinking whatever they’re thinking about — whether it’s the stars, the universe, climate change, anything,” she said. “Having them be able to feel they can explore anything, learn anything.”

A former social worker and political consultant, Jane Sanders earned a doctorate in leadership studies and became interim president of Goddard College and then president of tiny Burlington College, an alternative school with a 25 percent six-year graduation rate. (She left the latter school in deep financial trouble.)

She’s a big fan of progressive education, which she defined as “just having the students have more of a say in what it is they want to learn.”

You might be studying philosophy, math, or English, but you’re learning about what your passion is. Instead of having there be a prescribed set of study — that has a person conveying that knowledge to you — the teacher, the professor is a facilitator to try to meet your needs and to get you thinking critically and writing clearly and communicating effectively.

What if thinking and writing aren’t the student’s passion? He can’t study philosophy or literature because he never learned “fourth-grade English.”

Taking the ‘self’ out of self-empowerment

We’ve Had 100 Years Of Progressive Education And The World’s Getting Worse, writes Jordan Shapiro, a fellow at Sesame Street Workshop’s Joan Ganz Clooney Center, in Forbes.  “A century of well-intentioned progressive trends in education may have cultivated a generation of entitled I-me-mine individualist ‘winners’,” he suggests.

Each wealthy kid who is taught to follow his/her passion, discover his/her true vocation, or find his/her authentic self, is also inadvertently learning that personal success is a kind of implicit manifest destiny.

Parenting norms differ by social class, writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids. “Well-educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent, self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline and obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.”

Reformers “try to spread the message of self-actualization more equitably,” writes Shapiro. They forget that “self-confidence and individual empowerment” aren’t neutral or equitable. “Winners necessarily require losers.”

Shapiro dreams of “new classroom rules, new district wide administrative systems, new school designs and new educational customs that will break the cycle of winners and losers, haves and have nots.”

We need to teach our children that the goal is not self-empowerment for the sake of the individual, but rather for the collective. They must learn not only how to identify and discover their unique gifts, but also how to offer them up in service to the rest of us.

Do winners require losers? If Johnny learns to read well, is that bad for Susie?

And teaching kids to serve the collective is . . . kind of creepy, right?

New math, old math: Who needs math?

Common Core math isn’t really new math, writes A.K. Whitney in The Atlantic. One hundred years ago, reformers argued for teaching all students — not just the smartest — to understand and apply math. In The Reorganization of Mathematics in Secondary Education, they backed algebra for all to teach “habits of thought and of action.”

However, progressive educators, followers of Dewey, pushed back, arguing that most Americans don’t need to understand math.

William Heard Kilpatrick, a very influential professor at Columbia University Teachers College, “set his sights on reforming math education, making it less about building the intellect and more about whether it was needed for everyday living,” writes Whitney.

Advanced math should be offered only to students with interest, talent and plans for engineering or science careers, Kilpatrick’s committee argued in a 1920 report, The Problem of Mathematics in Secondary EducationMost students could make do with arithmetic.

In 1922, 40 percent of U.S. students took algebra; that dropped to 30 percent by 1934. Twenty-three percent took geometry in 1922, but only 17 percent in 1934.

When progressive ideas about math fell out of favor, “deeper understanding didn’t quite catch on either,” writes Whitney.

Math was taught for understanding before the Common Core, responds Barry Garelick in a comment. Parents who object to how Common Core is being implemented have valid concerns, he writes.

I was in kindergarten when Sputnik went up and U.S. complacency crashed. We heard a lot about what “Ivan” could do that we kids couldn’t. That led to “new math” in the ’60s, which was all about understanding. It confused people too.

Shakespeare vs. progressive education

Shakespeare can’t survive the progressive, multiculturalist principles taught in teacher education, writes Mark Bauerlein, an Emory English professor, on Minding the Campus.

English teacher Dana Dusbiber refuses to teach Shakespeare because he’s too old, white, male and European, she wrote in the Washington Post.

She’s not some oddball, writes Bauerlien. Dusbiber learned in education school that students need to see their race represented in what they read. She was taught that “the past is irrelevant or worse,” that contemporary literature is “more real” than the “authoritarian” classics.

Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

Progressive education can’t admit that “Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance,” concludes Bauerlein. “If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.”

Why suburban moms fear the Core

Hysteria about Common Core teaching and testing has gripped suburban moms, writes Laura McKenna in The Atlantic. She likens it to anti-vaccination fears.

Millions of children will take new Core-aligned tests this spring.  “Conspiracy theories . .  .have grown out of parents’ natural instinct to protect their children from bureaucracies and self-styled experts,” writes McKenna, who’s a suburban mom herself.

White, middle-class parents, often very involved in their kids’ education “worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them,” she writes. They feel powerless to stop the juggernaut.

Social media fans the fears.

There are those Facebook posts promoting articles with click-bait titles like “Parents Opting Kids Out of Common Core Face Threats From Schools,” or “Common Core Test Fail Kids In New York Again. Here’s How,” or “5 Reasons the Common Core Is Ruining Childhood.”

 I can picture it in my head: articles with stock photos of children sitting miserably at a desk or ominous images of broken pencils.

Teachers across the country, including those in her suburban New Jersey district, are turning against the Core, especially if scores are tied to teacher evaluations, writes McKenna.  That’s influenced parents.

Some states have pulled out of the Common Core.  “More than half of the 26 states that initially signed onto the PARCC exam in 2010 have dropped out,” notes McKenna. A dozen states will use the test this spring, while 17 states will take the rival SBAC. The rest will use their own tests.

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.

‘We are building the Japanese garden’

Sol Stern recalls his sons’ progressive education at a highly regarded Manhattan elementary school in The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch in City Journal.

Many PS 87 teachers were trained at “citadels of progressive education” such as Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bank Street College of Education, Stern writes. They learned that all children are “natural learners.”

PS 87 had no coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Thus, my son’s third-grade teacher decided on his own to devote months of classroom time to a project on Japanese culture, which included building a Japanese garden. Each day, when my son came home from school, I asked him what he had learned in math. Each day, he happily said the same thing: “We are building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the lack of direct instruction of mathematical procedures, but he reassured us that constructing the Japanese garden required “real-life” math skills and that there was nothing to worry about.

In fourth grade, a new teacher assigned more “real-life” math problems. For example: How many Arawaks did Christopher Columbus kill in his conquest of Hispaniola?

Children were taught little about the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution and the Civil War, Stern writes.

“It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” the principal said, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”

In Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), E.D. Hirsch “convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good,” writes Stern

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading.

Hirsch is the “most important education reformer” of the last 50 years, concludes Stern.

Uncommon curriculum

Closing the vocabulary gap would help close the opportunity gap, argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, a guest on the Bridging Differences blog. Children from low-income families start kindergarten with an enormous vocabulary deficit, he writes. Preschools and elementary schools can build children’s vocabulary by teaching them history, science, art, music, literature and geography.

Yes, to little kids. (You know, the ones who are curious about EVERYTHING. Who can learn a TON just by listening to a good read-aloud story.)

E.D. Hirsch has argued for 30 years that the key to building students’ vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge. Once a child learns to decode, her “comprehension” ability mainly comes down to the store of knowledge she’s got in her head. If she can sound out words but can’t read a passage about dinosaurs, it’s not because she hasn’t been taught “comprehension skills”—it’s probably because she’s never been taught anything about dinosaurs.

Yet our preschools and elementary schools systematically reject this obvious approach because they deem it not “developmentally appropriate.” Furthermore, they say, why teach all those “facts” when kids can just Google them?

High-poverty schools make it worse if they delay teaching social studies and science — usually untested — until fourth or fifth grade to spend more time teaching reading in the early grades. This is “nuts,” writes Petrilli. “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

Building vocabulary doesn’t require a common curriculum, responds Deborah Meier. She’s all for teaching “stuff.” But there are many ways to do that, she writes.

As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration); (2) having a lot of adults around to interact with and smaller class sizes (like good private schools do); (3) engaging in studies that require collaboration between students and students, and students and adults—including adult-written texts; (4) encouraging reading in settings that are designed to naturally arouse interest—motivate—or that answer questions youngsters really want to know; and (5) remembering that vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling are most efficiently learned the same way we learn everything else that matters.

We learn to drive by driving and to cook by cooking, which means allowing 6- to 12-year-olds to read (and listen to) repetitive and engaging books which do not present too much of a “cognitive” or empathy challenge.

Progressive preschools don’t think knowing facts is “developmentally inappropriate,” Meier writes. But they believe direct instruction isn’t needed to ”

kick in this love of reading, of hobbies, of facts, of curiosity, of indefatigable and repetitive practice in subjects and skills” kids are fascinated by. “Our job is to extend” kids’ curiosity, she concludes. Too often, schools kill it.

The myth about traditional math education

“The traditional method of teaching math has failed thousands of students,” claim new math proponents. That’s a myth, writes Barry Garelick in Education News.

Garelick looked at math books and methods used in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

Mathematical algorithms and procedures were not taught in isolation in a rote manner as is frequently alleged. Concepts and understanding were an important part of the texts.

Then and now, nobody argues for memorization without understanding, he adds.

Traditional math education was working reasonably well, Garelick argues. In Iowa, test scores rose steadily until about 1965, and then declined dramatically for a decade.  This pattern was repeated in Minnesota and Indiana.


Source: Congressional Budget Office (1986)

Some researchers blame increased drug use and the rise in divorce and single-parent families for the decline. Garelick blames progressive education which called for student-centered, needs-based courses.

After taking not-so-early retirement, Garelick is now a student math teacher at a California junior high school.



Alfred North Whitehead on “inert ideas”

One of the most remarkable essays I have read on education is “The Aims of Education” by Alfred North Whitehead. First published in 1917, it calls some of our current “wars” into question, particularly the apparent battles between progressives and traditionalists. When Whitehead argues against the danger of “inert ideas,” he seems both progressive and traditional at once.

Whitehead (1861-1947) was a mathematician and philosopher. He co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. He is the founder (to some degree) of “process philosophy,” which he explains in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology.

Already, I am bristling, because the very idea of “process philosophy” sounds like so much nonsense. But when Whitehead says something, he makes you think–in a way that differs from what you might expect. His points don’t fall in the usual classifications.

The second paragraph of “The Aims of Education” reads:

In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas”–that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.

Now, this is interesting, because such “inert ideas” could consist of disjointed facts and big, vague concepts. In other words, schools that emphasize isolated bits of information and schools that emphasize ungrounded “critical thinking and problem-solving” are committing a similar error. They are giving students material out of context. As commenters on Michael’s most recent post have suggested, it is the motion of a topic that makes it interesting and memorable. Daniel T. Willingham has made similar points in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

But am I reading things into Whitehead? Not at all; here’s more:

Furthermore, we should not endeavour to use propositions in isolation. Emphatically I do not mean, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition I and then the proof of Proposition I, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition II and then the proof of Proposition II, and so on to the end of the book. Nothing could be more boring. Interrelated truths are utilised en bloc, and the various propositions are employed in any order, and with any reiteration. Choose some important applications of your theoretical subject; and study them concurrently with the systematic theoretical exposition. … Also the theory should not be muddled up with the practice. The child should have no doubt when it is proving and when it is utilising. My point is that what is proved should be utilised, and that what is utilised should–so far, as is practicable–be proved. I am far from asserting that proof and utilisation are the same thing.

Very interesting. So there should be “theoretical exposition,” short and thorough, alongside (and clearly distinct from) practical application. The theory should be presented in a systematic manner, but “interrelated truths” should be utilized “en bloc.”

In none of this can the details of the subject or the hard work of practice be avoided:

All practical teachers know that education is a patient process of the mastery of details, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. There is no royal road to learning through an airy path of brilliant generalisations. There is a proverb about the difficulty of seeing the wood because of the trees. That difficulty is exactly the point which I am enforcing. The problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees.

But what of the aims of education? What are they? Whitehead writes:

What education has to impart is an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas, together with a particular body of knowledge which has peculiar reference to the life of the being possessing it.

Here’s where things get a little shaky for me. What does he mean by “peculiar reference”? Does he mean that studies should be of personal relevance to each student? Or does he mean that a subject taught in motion is a subject made relevant–that the very motion, the procession from one idea to another, consitutes the relevance, as it helps us see where a particular idea comes from and where it is going? I believe he means the latter. He continues:

The appreciation of the structure of ideas is that side of a cultured mind which can only grow under the influence of a special study. I mean that eye for the whole chess-board, for the bearing of one set of ideas on another. Nothing but a special study can give any appreciation for the exact formulation of general ideas, for their relations when formulated, for their service in the comprehension of life. A mind so disciplined should be
both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts.

There is much more to the essay than I am conveying here. What’s tantalizing is that some of his ideas are so good and can be misunderstood so easily. They resemble, at first glance, some of the education jargon out there (regarding the “joy of discovery,” for instance) but mean something quite different. One need not agree with all of his points, but they raise the possibility that there is something beyond the oppositions familiar to us today.

I bring up Whitehead in my forthcoming book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. I am grateful to the mathematician who brought Whitehead’s essay to my attention.