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Thursday, Jun 8, 2023

A 20th Century Miseducation

The movement toward standardized curricula that has swept across the nation over the last decade has increasingly come under attack. That movement was, of course, the result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 – perhaps the greatest domestic achievement of President George W. Bush, and I’m no great fan of the former president. The law was intended to ensure that students actually learned something in their classes – and held teachers, schools and districts accountable if they didn’t – by measuring achievement through standardized testing. Schools that didn’t measure up could lose funding and teachers and principals could lose their jobs – nasty, real-life consequences. As with any new broad federal law, there have been some unfortunate unintended consequences, such as instances of cheating by teachers and administrators to raise student scores. But the biggest complaint from naysayers is that we are now raising a nation of children who aren’t taught to think creatively or critically as teachers focus on “teaching to the test.” The latest critic to weigh in is no less than economist Edward Leamer, director of the closely watched UCLA Anderson Forecast. In a typically brilliant essay released last week as part of the forecast, he described the nation’s weak job growth with statistical precision. But he also took a pot shot at standardized testing, calling classrooms “very large and inefficient Xerox machines, where the lecturer reads the lectures, and the students copy it down. Regrettably, we reward teachers if their students can regurgitate the information on standardized tests.” The connection to the economy? Young people aren’t getting enough of the “creative problem-solving and analytic thinking” that they will need to compete for jobs in a 21st century where many mundane jobs are being replaced by the microprocessors. I won’t be one to defend gigantic college lecture halls. They certainly aren’t the best way to impart information, and I’ve heard UCLA has its fair share. And while I’m at it, I’ll presume Mr. Leamer is perhaps unhappy with the creativity levels of his students, otherwise I can’t imagine why he would come to this conclusion as an economist. (However brilliant he is, he’s not an expert on education.) But let me do my best to refute this line of criticism, at least from my own personal experience. As a secondary school student in the 1970s I was a victim of the prior wave of reform that swept the nation’s public education system. You may be personally familiar with it if you are a later generation baby boomer. Straight out of the ‘60s, it was all about inspiring students to think creatively, to break out of intellectual traps set by fusty elders who drilled students in readin’, writin’ and ’rithmetic. What did that mean in real life, in the classroom? Well, instead of learning any grammar we spent our time writing in journals in one class. In another, we were given go-at-our-pace grammar textbooks but never once do I remember a teacher diagramming a sentence. I remember one teacher who loved my reading so much she repeatedly made me read for my classmates, who apparently weren’t as good at that skill as I was. Hmmm. Might time been better spent doing some real teaching? Thankfully, New York State had standardized tests called Regents exams, but they were mostly given in math and science classes, while they were hit or miss for humanities classes. You know, classes where you might learn about poetry, literature, historical figures – the kind of “soft” knowledge that helps our creativity blossom through exposure to the finest minds. Yes, exceptional teachers could spark and challenge students, but more often we fell victim to uninspired lazy teachers who substituted the latest counterculture fad for real education. I can say this much: I have never forgotten my junior high English classes because there was nothing to remember. When I went to college, I made the comforting if disturbing discovery that my inferior schooling was not unique to our suburban New York City district. I’ll never forget in 1979 when I was a sophomore in English 101, the basic English-survey class. My professor at Cornell was the esteemed M.H. Abrams, the founding editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Several weeks into the first semester he turned to our class in exasperation and disgust. Here we were, a group of young Ivy League kids, many from public schools, and he complained sharply, “Didn’t you kids learn anything in high school?” The sad truth was, no, we hadn’t. So much for an education system that was supposed to foster creativity. In the end, the result was ignorance. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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