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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

What Are You Teaching My Son?

Educators caught up in grand schemes and socially well-intentioned ideas should start paying attention to parents' concerns.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
Phillip, my 12-year-old son, is an excellent student who wants to learn. Unfortunately, he is being de-motivated by a school system that publicly proclaims its academic standards but privately has put a higher priority on social concerns. Except for an applied sociology course in conflict resolution, my son's 7th grade classes do not sufficiently challenge him. He normally has only 10-20 minutes of homework a week. Although Phillip is attentive and compliant, he thinks the pace is too slow and the content frequently shallow.
Last year, Phillip was state geography and creative writing champ. Lucky me. Lucky teachers—you would think. But academic accomplishment is no longer paramount. Instead, the curriculum has softened and playtime activity frequently passes for teaching. The talk is all about sharing, celebrating, and facilitating; not about working, studying, and teaching.
Phillip's principal and teachers have told me that education is their first concern, but they tell one another that middle school is a time for socialization, collaborative training, and accommodation of hormones. While seemingly convinced of their own social and moral rectitude, they appear to fear I might not approve. They are right.

Higher-Order Thinking?

From the earliest grades, factual learning is sacrificed to "higher-order thinking." But how can students develop the latter without first building a base of the former? One middle school principal explained to me that some students are simply incapable of learning multiplication tables. He didn't think this mattered, however, because calculators are readily available and cheap. Why deprive such students of their "learning opportunity" to develop higher-order skills by insisting that they learn the multiplication tables?
The unintended results of this absence of academic rigor are diminished student achievement and motivation. In our community, which is deep into social concerns, standardized test scores have been sliding downhill for the past five years. Our children are now below the national average in spelling and math.
When my son graduates from high school, I want him to be articulate, literate, and numerate. I want him to be conversant in science to the limit of his ability. I want him to have a sense of the greatness of his country's heroes, and to know what past events and conditions have led to the current state of national and international affairs. I also want my son to form his own views. I do not want his judgment colored by specific political and social perspectives.

Social Engineering

Teachers want to use my son to help those who are less gifted, which is a laudable aim in itself. The problem with this forced redistribution of intellect is that it limits my son's educational opportunity and intellectual growth. Advocates of collaborative learning argue that it's more important to encourage socially desirable aspirations than to develop individual students' knowledge base and intellectual skills. I disagree.
I am dismayed that public education's priorities are inimical to my own. I am aware that students have differing needs. But I expect school to challenge my son and help him to reach his full intellectual potential. I want teachers who insist on individual responsibility and performance, who are directly engaged with students in the teaching process.
Mixed ability grouping and cooperative learning—the sine qua nons of contemporary public education—do not equip graduates to succeed in the modern world. In the wake of widespread, painful downsizing in many industries, there is more of a premium than ever on individual initiative and expertise. Graduates must be able to survive in a lean, highly competitive environment.
As social concerns displace individual academic achievement and development, educators seem intent on restructuring society. The misguided emphasis on multiculturalism, for example, is dividing Americans into claimant groups, each with a sense of guilt or grievance.
Because public education is for everybody, educators should accommodate parents' concerns. If they can't convince parents on the merits of an idea, they should not play with words and numbers in an effort to do so. This merely fuels the anger that large segments of the population have expressed, and advances the school choice movement. It also deepens an already palpable sense of discouragement and poor self-image among teachers, who are, after all, the ones who bear the brunt of parental disapproval. These dedicated professionals suffer from the poor methodology and content thrust on them.

A Noble Experiment

Whether it's outcome-based education, full inclusion, or heterogeneous cooperative learning, enthusiasts refer to research-based methods, but the research fails to predict what happens in the classroom. There is always an absence of comparative data demonstrating that what is proposed works better than existing methods. Instead, we get lots of moral imperatives and condescending tolerance of our uninformed views. To judge from the professional literature, many educators seem to want to be exempt from any external controls. They exhort teachers to take risks, but it is my child—and his future—they are experimenting with.
The fact is, the goal of educational research and "research-based methods" is societal restructuring—at the expense of organized educational goals. Further, the education establishment's approach seems to be: If this grand scheme or that doesn't work, drop it and go on to the next well-intentioned idea. New approaches blossom and recede as the profession first becomes enamored of and then disenchanted with successive competing approaches.
Educators frequently put all this into perspective by saying the history of public education is one of cycles of movements. That may suffice for the practitioner engaged in a decades-long career, but my son gets only one crack at a basic education.

Allan H. Bloom has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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