Counterpoint: One big idea is just what schools need

  • Updated: August 15, 2014 - 6:23 PM

Contrary to a recent commentary, centralized direction is what works.

Those truly interested in K-12 education should understand that we need revolution (not “reform”), and that this transformation will occur at the level of the central school district — contrary to the major points made by Ted Kolderie in “The big idea? Lots of little ones” (Aug. 10).

Kolderie asserts that the chief question when seeking change should always be “How?” The real problem, though, is that we never ask, “What?”

So let me answer that question. What is an excellent education?

An excellent education is excellent teachers imparting a rich liberal arts curriculum in grade-by-grade sequence to all students throughout the K-12 years.

And what is an excellent teacher?

An excellent teacher is a professional with deep and broad knowledge and the pedagogical ability to impart rich liberal arts content to all students.

Kolderie’s main point is that meaningful change toward the goal of educational excellence must come from innovations outside centralized systems. This is nonsense. The best educational systems of the world are located in East and Southeast Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore) and the social democracies of Europe (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France). All of these nations centralize education at the national level and implement a standard curriculum in all schools.

This is the correct approach, ensuring a common knowledge base for all students, regardless of demographics. It is consistent with Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the creation of an informed electorate, and with the ideas of Horace Mann concerning education for all as delivered through “common schools.”

In the United States, though, we labor under the pretense of local control. Professors who train teachers in university departments, colleges and schools of education throughout the nation impart a harmful “constructivist” creed that takes student experiences, and current student and teacher interests, as the driving forces for curriculum. This seems appealing until one realizes that such a creed devalues knowledge as common cultural inheritance to which all students should have access.

The pretense of local control extends to school boards, which rubber-stamp superintendent initiatives until some offending behavior moves board members to action, or until (typically after a three- to five-year tenure) the superintendent abandons the district with a careerist move to another position. Sometimes board members are so bought and paid for by teachers unions that they obstruct superintendent initiatives.

Either way, the same attitudes and political struggles characterize school boards across America, while teachers and administrators are almost all trained according to the same “constructivist” ideology. So the approach to K-12 education tends to be the same from central school district to central school district. Local control is chimeric.

We can also dispense with Kolderie’s other misguided notions:

• Despite his unfavorable view of whole-class instruction, we should remember that the whole-class approach dominates in East Asia and is generously used in the Europe. It is efficient, conducive to teacher storytelling and to discussions, and in no way precludes technological and individualized approaches.

• Age grading ensures that all students at grade level are reaching an absolute standard. This is critical, and maintaining grade-level designations in no way prevents teachers from making more advanced material available to students who are ready for it.

• Kolderie implies that reliance on standardized tests is too one-dimensional. But standardized tests are the fairest, most objective measures of student performance, and they prepare students for a format that will also pertain to ACT and SAT exams used to assess college readiness. Teachers may always add such assessment instruments as portfolios, demonstrations and presentations.

• Kolderie also objects to what he calls the “boss/worker model of school.” But central school district personnel and building principals have the responsibility for devising and implementing programs designed to reach certain standards. Teachers have the obligation to ensure that students reach standards. School systems work best when administrators and teachers have a keen sense of their particular roles.

We should insist, in Minneapolis, that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson follow through on her very promising “Focused Instruction” and “High Priority Schools” initiatives — and give her support as she does so.

In doing this, we will be fomenting revolution at the central school district level, which in the United States is where such a transformation will have to occur.

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