At over eighty years of age, reading the interesting and varied commentaries on Diane Ravitch’s recent spectacularly successful book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I took to wondering what had come before the onset of so-called progressivism began to dominate the teaching practices of the nation’s public schools. Roughly speaking, taking hold in the 1950s and ‘60s, how had these since compared to those of the ‘30s and then the wartime ‘40s when I was in school?
I went to a Long Island K-8 private school with every possible advantage. The curriculum was specific, systematic, and substantive, taught by agreeable, college-educated, effective teachers. I remember learning how to read, starting in the earliest grade, sounding out the syllables, and how to write, on paper lined as a guide to the proper size of letters. As for substance, I remember best, in perhaps 3rd grade, spending what seemed like the whole year, but certainly a semester, on learning the history and geography of New York State, including the construction of the Erie Canal and its significance to the state’s development and history, lodged in my memory to this day. Math was divided into two distinct parts – ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’, abstract being the times tables and addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and concrete being ‘word problems,’ using the mechanics of ‘abstract’ to find ‘concrete’ answers. English was also divided into two segments, grammar and literature, taught separately, but similarly related.
As for tests, there certainly wasn’t any anxious test-preparation; in fact we never knew when they were coming. From time to time we would come to school as usual, but instead of the usual routine, tests from some source outside the school were distributed, without time for anxiety we took them, and the results were reported to our parents. As for in-house grades, at intervals those with averages at the top of the class were rewarded by getting to carry the national and school flags at weekly whole school assemblies.
My subsequent high school years were passed at a top-of-the-line girls’ private high school in Boston, with a faculty and curriculum so effective that the first year at Radcliffe, then the pre-co-ed incarnation of Harvard for women, seemed a let-down. Meanwhile the parents of my later-to-become lifelong best friend, immigrants from eastern Europe, landed penniless at Ellis Island and were still struggling during her early childhood in the Bronx. There she went to the nearest public school, receiving basically the same substantive K-8 education that I did, followed by four years at a very high-quality all-girls public high school. After that came NYU and Harvard Law School, where she and I met in the second class to admit women. Her two brothers both became doctors and she a much honored supervising Legal Aid attorney.
During roughly the same span of years I spent summers in New Hampshire where I came to know the local 4-H Club agent who, though I didn’t know it at the time, was also a public school teacher. A few years ago I had the good fortune to meet her again, by then aged and long past retirement but with clear memories, and I asked her about her training to be a teacher. She told me that she had attended the so-called “normal school” in the nearby small city of Keene, since evolved into what is now Keene State College, which includes an education school, successor of the normal school. Her training, she said, included practical matters such as classroom management, but most of it was like high school all over again, courses in English, both grammar and literature, history, geography, science, etc. etc., only much more rigorous and detailed than in high school, to be taught to the children at a level suitable to each grade.
She retired just as our public schools were entering the new era in which such prescribed subject matter was denigrated as “mere facts,” teachers were trained to focus on what children seemed to want to learn, and to act accordingly. The results we see before us.
Is such reminiscing just backward-looking? I think not. Surely the technology of the present offers unprecedented opportunities to convey essential substantive knowledge in irresistibly effective new ways. Gertrude Stein, hardly a stodgy traditionalist, delighted in being taught English grammar by diagramming sentences, resulting in thorough understanding of the structure of the language, essential, as she saw it, to maximum creativity in using it. Yet such practices were banished by progressivism, as discouraging to children’s imaginations, written and spoken English usage suffering consequent mortal damage. Only now is it dawning on a few pioneers that interactive computer programs, diagramming correct and expressive speech, illustrating the roles of nouns, verbs, etc., and perhaps featuring notable and admired public figures as exemplars, may offer a way to re-introduce the potency of correctly spoken and written English language to the young.
What puzzles me most, perhaps, is that Arne Duncan and the new education establishment in Washington appear not to understand, not just the implications of examples from the past as possible guides to current school reform, but that of existing schools, like those that have thus far educated the Obama children. Not to widely replicate such schools, which would be impossible, but at least to absorb the thinking behind them.
The famously progressive University of Chicago Lab school where the Obama girls started out describes itself as ‘unregimented but demanding,’ focused ‘on teaching students to analyze and critically solve problems, rather than simply absorb facts,’ where they ‘learn to be independent and responsible in their studies’ … but where students also ‘pursue a rigorous curriculum in reading, writing, mathematics, and science’ and ‘begin in the early grades to study foreign languages, music and the arts … .’ Similarly, Sidwell Friends in D.C. where they now go offers an equally specific curriculum: “English instruction includes grammar, vocabulary, composition, reading, and literature. …Mathematics: In fifth and sixth grade, students work with fractions, decimals, percents, and integers …Social studies: Fifth graders study the Middle Ages around the world … Science: The science program is organized around themes drawn from the scientific disciplines of biology, chemistry, and physical science; Modern and Classical Language: Fifth and Sixth graders take Spanish. Seventh and eighth graders take French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or Latin … .”
Shouldn’t our public school leadership nationwide at least aspire to such a feast?
Louisa C. Spencer is a retired environmental attorney, a longtime supporter of curriculum reform, and a retired Trustee of the Core Knowledge Foundation. She also served for several years as a volunteer teachers’ aide in low-income New York City elementary schools.