Subject: "Reinventing the wheel of education"
Date: Fri, 29 May 1998 07:04:33 -0500 (CDT) The May issue of
"Basic Education" has a very interesting article by a parent.
"Reinventing the wheel of education" by Natalie Kramer
People often ask me: "Who are you to criticize the educational system?
What qualifications do you have to render verdicts on what works in
classrooms and what doesn't?" I don't have any qualifications. I am
just a mother who has seen three different educational systems at work.
I am also a mother whose decisions about her child's education have
led to results sought by most parents and educators. My decisions were
simple - I chose traditional, no-nonsense, direct instruction in the
My child is in fifth grade in a French school in Maryland. He has
been reading flawlessly for five years; he can do addition, subtraction,
multiplication, and division in his sleep, and is now studying more
advanced math and geometry with great enthusiasm and enjoyment.
What is the secret? There is no secret. He is systematically taught to
do these things. Some of the learning is rote; most is not. All of it
is structured, systematic, and sequential. The curricular programs at
his school use traditional, direct teaching approaches. The children do
not "discover" new skills and knowledge themselves at their own pace.
The school program sets the pace for them and the teachers help them
adjust to it. They are told what to learn and how to learn it.
Slowly, in measured increments, they are given more freedom as to how
they organize their work, both at home and in class.
Who sets the school program? Well, here is the bombshell: the National
Ministry of Education. Education is important enough to the French public
to make it a national priority.
I was educated in Russia where school programs were also set by a
central authority. I was in classes of 35 or 40 students. A sizeable
proportion of my classmates had alcoholic parents. Many came from broken
homes. Few of us were regularly read to, and some of our parents were
virtually illiterate. Most of us lived below the poverty line by today's
American standards. Despite all of this, we could all read by age eight,
do basic math by ages nine or ten, and produce reasonably well written
texts by fifth or sixth grade. Most of us had basic familiarity with
major concepts in science, geography, and history. All of us knew some
rudimentary English. Our spelling, grammar, and sentence structure in
English were better, in my assessment, than those of most of my son's
American friends. As for creativity, I don't believe we are any less
creative than our American-born counterparts. Most Americans of our
age are impressed by the education we received and say they wish they
had had the same opportunities.
When I hear educators talk about striving to reach a 70 percent achievement
rate in standards that would be considered modest compared with those
imposed on (and met by!) nearly all of my peers, I cannot help but see such
efforts as naive, albeit well-intentioned, attempts to reinvent the wheel.
When I was growoing up in Leningrad, there were two pedagogical institutes
where future teachers received their training in how to teach. They learned,
for example, that multiplication tables up to eight take second graders until
April to master, if they practice four times a week for fifteen minutes and
get three homework assignments on them a week. These teachers-to-be also
learned that teaching multiplication tables by rote only is boring and that
combining rote memorizations with interesting applications brings better
results. Future teachers were also taught in which proportion to combine
rote memorization with applications and how the optimal proportion changes
with the age of the students.
Sounds scientific? It is; teaching is every bit as complex as practicing
medicine or law. Only in America (and in Canada, perhaps), is a teacher's
job perceived as a constant act of inspirational invention. The constant
adaptation to local and individual "needs" is little more than an excuse
for not having an infrastructure supplying uniformly trained and competent
teachers. Throughtout history, teachers have been taught to teach in a
systematic and organized way. Their skills are viewed as those of
professionals, not of stand-up comedians or babysitters.
How can a difference in location of schools or individual philosophy
affect the techniques needed to teach multiplication tables, or reading,
or sentence structure? The methodology effective in teaching these
matters does not change depending on where a child lives, what
socio-economic background he or she comes from, or whether his or her
parents are divorced.
The fear of losing local control over school programs and teaching
methodologies and having it taken out of parents' hands is baffling.
Since when are important scientific decisions relegated to amateurs and
local politicians? Do parents or local medical boards set the safe dosage
of epilepsy drugs for children? When will solid scientific research, not
political and commercial interests, drive education as it does in medicine
and other sciences?
I was once told that if something works well, it makes little difference
why it works well. If locally controlled schools produced excellent
results, no one would question the wisdom of such a system. Should the
American tradition of giving states their individual rights, however, also
include the right to leave children unable to read, write, or do basic math?
Where does the fear of standards common to all states come from? What
would be wrong with setting some basic standards in all academic disciplines
that would be common across all states? How about exercising states'
individual rights by allowing children to exceed those standards? Why is
this issue so politicized? While the political forces battle out their
respective positions with fervor and passion, rivaling only clashes between
the most extreme factions in warring countries,don't they care about what
hangs in the balance? Will they ever stop long enough to see that
education is not a political issue and that our children should not be
pawns in these endless political games?
Questions are now being raised about which authorities should set
standards in education. Again, to those of us who have lived in countries
that have had this question answered for decades if not centurins, this
all seems like an attempt to reinvent the wheel. In France and Russia,
to cite but two examples, standards and grade-by-grade content for each
discipline are decided at the national level and implemented by local
When I was in school, once every year, the principal was advised by the
local educational agency of pending changes in methodology. The principal,
in turn, briefed our teachers. The changes engendered fine-tuning such
things as the amount of repetition suggested for each specific task.
The teachers did not have to create their own tools; they were given the
tools and taught how to use them.
In the French system, methodological changes are made just as carefully,
with just as much attention accorded to potential consequences. Children
undergo standardized national tests at the end of each three-year cycle.
The results are analyzed and used for revealing weaknesses in instructional
methodology, which are addressed on a national level.
I am often told that my child achieves good academic results because he
is bright and would do well in any school. That is very nice to hear, but
unfortunately, it is not true. My child does well when he is taught well.
He has two teachers - his Russian teacher and the teacher at his French
school - who both use time-honored, traditional methods of teaching.
They do dictations, recitations, and repetitive rhythmic drills in grammar
and spelling with their students. The methodology is specified in the
scripted, sequential lesson plans that they both follow. The results are
In his English classroom, on the other hand, where the teachers are not
familiar with the notion of scripted or sequential curriculua, the results
are quite different. The teachers improvise the program as they go along
under the pretense of trying to suit it to individual class needs.
My son had been doing nearly as poorly in these English classes as all of
his classmates until I started tutoring him. After that, things quickly
improved. It is true that my son is easy to teach, but you do have to
teach him if you want him to learn. Left to his own devices, which is
what the child-centered, unstructured instruction in his English classroom
had essentially done, he invented spelling and sentence structure, without
getting close to inventing the correct forms. His classmates, whose
parents do not fill in the gaps left by the teachers, still invent spelling
in fifth grade and some of them are still far from being fluent readers.
We have a saying in Russian, "the truth comes from the mouth of a suckling,"
which is merely a restatement of a Biblical verse. One time when my son was
eight and thoroughly confused by the homework his English teacher had given
his class, he said: "Mom, why doesn't my French teacher teach my English
teacher how to teach?" If only things were so simple.
Natalie Kramer is a parent in Rockville, Maryland