The curriculum crusades

"We've trained chimps to have a more sophisticated access to knowledge"

By Letters to the Editor

Published June 5, 2000 7:34PM (EDT)

The curriculum crusades
BY JAMES TRAUB (05/31/00)

James Traub is absolutely right: Progressive, "child-centered" education dogma ignores the evidence against it and harms children.

Progressive ideas work best for the most advantaged students, who have competent, experienced teachers and parents who can supplement their education at home. And even in this group the "whole" classroom doesn't work for many kids.

When teachers teach knowledge and skills, directly and systematically, disadvantaged students benefit the most. They also benefit from frequent testing to show who needs more help and which lessons need to be made more effective.

Liberal educators aren't friends of students. Their dogma is keeping the children of the poor semiliterate, ignorant, powerless and, for another generation, poor.

-- Joanne Jacobs

I have to say that I disagree with the opinions expressed by James Traub in his article on the failure of "progressive" teaching systems. Now, I'm only in ninth grade and 14 years old, and I had no idea that there was such a thing as "progressive" teaching. But as it turns out, I was taught fairly progressively. In grade school, I was in a gifted and talented program that taught students by a different curriculum than the rest of the school. Focus was placed on individualized teaching, with only seven or so kids. Projects were open-ended, encouraging creativity, and I learned math by using my curiosity to find patterns and ways to solve problems.

The fact is that education can't be based on the foundation of "majority wins." The education I experienced would never have worked on another kid, and I don't know if I could have learned multiplication tables and the laws of grammar even if I tried. Vague generalizations about what's best for every kid in every situation in the end are best for no one but the teacher, who can comfortably have kids copy down charts, tables and the name of the emperor of China during the construction of the Great Wall.

-- Devin Chalmers

The Neanderthals at the Harvard Graduate School of Education just don't get it, do they? All their sacrosanct gooey, gushy, touchy-feely self-esteemy, let-the-children-teach-each-other dogma has resulted in a generation of citizens who can't read, can't write, can't add and don't know squat. Everyone knows it but the Enlightened Ones in the graduate education schools! Their experiments on our children have failed on a huge scale, and the responsibility lies squarely on their august shoulders. Sadly, they're too inbred and nearsighted to recognize the smoking crater that they've created in American education.

Put these charlatans out to pasture where they belong! Run 'em out on a rail before they infect another generation of teachers and students! But before they go, make them write this on the blackboard a few million times -- that's once for each young mind that they've ruined: "Children like to be challenged. Children need to be challenged. Knowledge is survival. Duh!"

-- Leslie Wakeman

As a reformist of what in Traub's world would presumably be classified as a "liberal" approach to education, it's hilarious to be tacitly condemned by generalizations which only prove, albeit arguably, that you can teach children to repeat what they're told. Forget that we've trained chimps to have a more sophisticated access to knowledge.

In fact, what's curiously missing from Traub's analysis is the number of teachers who practice "liberal" approaches to education. Grad schools aside, the relationship to theoretical currents in higher education and the classroom is anything but synchronous. Not to mention that, even in higher education, it's not like the lecture course is anything close to extinct. I have visited with classes and teachers all over Texas and it's safe to say that many teachers employ a variety of techniques for various projects, but that the overall classroom experience still involves much of what Traub classifies as "conservative."

Traub has the benefit of initiating an analysis so clumsily broad that it's difficult to figure out where to begin disagreeing. For example, citizenship courses, parent-involvement initiatives, project-based learning, service-learning and peer mediation classes are all examples of nontraditional approaches to education that remain nonetheless unscathed by any specific argument offered by Traub. To be sure, for some of these reforms the primary purpose is not to teach "basic" skills in the sense that a standardized test would have you understand it. So what? Are we to understand that reforms that don't intend to address basic skills should nonetheless be held accountable as failures by not addressing them?

The real wake-up call will be for conservatives who must be forced to reckon with the fact that education is complex and solutions to its challenges aren't as easy as returning to the monologue-centered classroom, with students as empty receptacles for information. After all, is the question really about what we want students to "know," since most of the factual information that they absorb will be of little pragmatic use in their later life, or is education about how we want students to be as citizens, how we expect mature individuals to incorporate data from reality, how we expect them to form arguments and how they should make intelligent decisions? I guess for Traub all every kid needs is a stern lecture and the Ten Commandments pasted on the lunch room wall. Lest we forget, the Columbine murderers aced their standardized tests.

-- Terry Sawyer

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