Thursday, June 14, 2007

When I think back on all the crap I learned in ed. school!

Kodachrome by Paul Simon (with lyrics slightly altered by Dennis Fermoyle)

When I think back on all the crap I learned in ed. school,
It's a wonder I can teach at all!

In a post last week, I said that I am reading Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles J. Sykes, a book that was written in the mid-1990s. Sykes painted a very dismal picture of what was going on in American schools, and I belittled him in my post for the dire predictions he made about the country's future, because they have turned out to be wrong. I'm not taking anything back, but I must say that after having gotten into his book that Sykes's panic was understandable. If the education gurus of the 1990s had gotten their way, and gotten everyone to teach the way they wanted us to, Sykes might not have ended up being nearly as far off the mark on his prognostications as he was.

Sykes's book did remind me of all the crap that was being pushed on us by schools of education and workshops a decade ago--get rid of grades, get rid of all awards for academic achievement, focus entirely on your students' sense of self-esteem, go exclusively to cooperative learning and allow no competition whatsoever in the classroom, ability grouping is actually racism, get rid of pencil and paper tests, and the list goes on and on. I have to wonder who were the people in authority who made the decisions that this baloney was a good idea.

Sykes tells a horror story about what was going on in American classrooms in the 1990s. He gives numerous examples from the classrooms of true believers in the raging progressive education fads of the period, and in the process, makes anyone who is involved in education look like an idiot. Sykes's problem is that he doesn't understand just how few of those who were actually running classrooms during that period bought into those ideas.

When I was in Mt. Iron, Minnesota, we had a wonderful female English teacher who had a saying she repeated anytime a new progressive teaching fad emerged and began to be pushed upon us--"It's all bullsh--!" That saying became somewhat of a mantra for our entire staff. The same attitude was held by all of the experienced teachers when I moved to Warroad. When we were told that all of Minnesota would be moving toward Outcome Based Education--the progressive fad of the early 1990s--the feeling was that we could ignore it and it would eventually go away. Thankfully, it did.

It is certainly possible that there are more elementary and middle school teachers who became true believers in the progressive garbage that was being promoted by education gurus in the 80s and 90s, but I don't know one high school teacher from either of the districts I worked in during that time who did. Not one! Amazing as it may seem, most teachers do have some common sense. Most teachers have an idea of what has a chance of actually working in a classroom, and they can certainly tell when something they are trying isn't working. Most of us are not going to continually bang our heads against a wall because somebody with a Ph. D. has a theory.

I have said before, and I continue to maintain that a number of progressive ideas have some merit if taken with a grain of salt and a very healthy dose of common sense. We should be concerned about our kids' self-esteem, but not to the exclusion of everything else. I admit, that I do use cooperative learning, but only to supplement things that I've already taught, and I don't grade the way the promoters of it tell me I should, and I certainly have not eliminated competition from my classroom. I even took ideas from Outcome Based Education that made sense to me, put my own wrinkles on them, and they have helped my classes. But I have no doubt that if I had gone into it lock, stock, and barrel like we were told to, my classes would have been a joke.

I have to admit that I've gained something from all those classes I've taken and workshops I've attended, but not nearly as much as I should have. I'm also convinced that if I'd taken my learning to seriously, I would have been harmed--and that means my students would have been harmed. It shouldn't be that way. It's been six years since I last took a class, so maybe things have improved. Nevertheless, I would still say that if Congress is looking for someone to investigate when the test scores of American students aren't as high as they should be, the American colleges of education would be a good place to start.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing as it may seem, most teachers do have some common sense.

I suspect that many/most of the people that are in Mr. Sykes camp believe that teachers do have common sense. But if the teachers don't get to select curriculum, then at best they are doing damage control for something structurally broken. Not good.

I'm thinking that two examples of this are math textbooks (if you love a constructivist then consider the case where your state/district select Saxon math ... if you hate constructivism, then pretend the textbook you have to use is TERC) and elementary school readers (whole word vs. phonics vs. whole language). Reading is easier to manage yourself if the textbooks/readers aren't to your liking, but back in the early 1990s it seems that a number of teachers in California thought that teaching phonics was forbidden.

I might respect the local teacher's common sense, but if he/she believes that the law as written *forbids* the teaching of phonics, then even if he/she wants to teach phonics it may not happen (current law, I believe, requires phonics, so if you love whole-language, just reverse my example).

-Mark Roulo

6/14/2007 1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would still say that if Congress is looking for someone to investigate when the test scores of American students aren't as high as they should be, the American colleges of education would be a good place to start.

If Rita Kramer, author of "Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers", is to be believed, that would be an *excellent* place to start.

-Mark Roulo

6/14/2007 1:25 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark, you are absolutely right about many teachers not having the freedom to break away from an ineffective program, and I did think of that when I wrote the post. If you're an elementary teacher, and your school has a particular reading program, I suppose you're stuck with it. To me, that makes it almost criminal when someone in authority makes the decision to go with a program based on somebody's theory, even though there's absolutely no real evidence that it will work. Most high school teachers have a lot more freedom that way, so I guess I should count my blessings.

6/14/2007 5:55 PM  

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