Vermonters for Better Education
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(05/01/00) Joseph Bottum is a book and art editor. When his daughter was an infant, he used to walk her around and pat her back, all the while chanting "She's such a good girl. Such a good girl. And she's very, very brave. True-hearted, pure-minded, and she spends her days thinking high and noble thoughts."
Now that his daughter is approaching school age, he has begun to wonder where one finds a school that teaches bravery and pure-mindedness, true-heartedness or nobility of thought. What's more, he doesn't know how to ask the questions to determine whether a school teaches these things.
He's not alone. Most parents struggle with the issue of school quality and how to measure it.
Surveys tell us, however, that parents do favor a few very specific education initiatives. For example, according to Phi Delta Kappa's annual Gallup poll on education, 72 percent of all Americans favor "stricter standards for social promotion even if it means that significantly more students are held back."
Seventy-eight percent of Americans also favor a "standard core curriculum that includes emphasis on English, mathematics, social sciences, and science."
A couple national organizations have caught up with the public's support of back-to-basics approaches. This spring, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended a refocusing on fundamental skills after previously urging teachers to emphasize conceptual understanding rather than basic skills.
In the same vein, the National Reading Panel, a congressionally mandated panel, also released a report this spring that suggests systematic, explicit phonics should be a routine part of reading instruction for grade school students - another "back to basics" recommendation in line with many parents' desires.
Why is this news? And why has this change taken so long? Perhaps because for some time there has been a disconnect between what the public wants from schools and what teachers of teachers think schools should be providing. This divide was clearly portrayed in an excellent report entitled "Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education." Released in 1997 by the nonpartisan organization Public Agenda, it found that:
Nine out of ten of them in the survey believe when teachers assign math or history questions, it is more important for kids to struggle with the process of finding the right answer than actually knowing the right answer. Fifty-nine percent of them think that the threat of flunking or being held back is not important. What do they think is important? According to this survey, teachers of teachers overwhelmingly believed that additional financial resources are more important than standards and discipline in the classroom.
It's difficult, to be sure, to find schools that can teach children how to be brave-hearted, pure-minded, and noble-thinking individuals. But most of us, in the meantime, would settle for ones that do a good job at teaching our kids how to read, write, and compute well. Teachers in the classroom are getting this message. Their own teachers, however, might need some summer school on that topic.