The Ideological Classroom

By Martin Harris

Martin Harris

Once, there was supposed to be an internal logic in debate. That’s why, when Rhetoric was a taught subject (in your Humble Scribe’s own high school years, it wasn’t, any more, and the former subject was available only to those who signed up for the Debate Society) students used to learn the now-forgotten (or maybe deliberately rejected, in some cases) skill of keeping discussions of, say, political theories, on track. Seen in that light, the present “debate” over the state of K-12 education often seems to go off-track.

Example: the assertion that “reduced class sizes improve student achievement” is rebutted with “then why are test scores stagnant or down?” which draws the reply “we’ve bought tests which show increases, and besides, students today are so problematical that today’s ‘basic’ is yesteryear’s ‘proficient’, and besides, tests don’t show much, anyway.” Not a way to achieve “synthesis” out of “thesis” “and antithesis”. And just so for the argument over ideology in the classroom.

A book review on the webpage of The Textbook League has a nice two-liner on the subject, describing how the author “…demonstrates that instruction in reading has been degraded into a vehicle for the preaching of socio-political ideology…” and “…tells us why many of today’s students will not even attain competence in reading, let alone learning to enjoy it.” One rebuttal points out, with historical correctness, that there were some sectors of public education, back when Dick and Jane was still the basal reader, which couldn’t bring their low-income, rural or slum, students to ‘proficient’, and so today’s score averages aren’t any worse; but its logic lapse shows up when you compare the test scores of middle-income students then and now. Today even such once-100%-student-proficiency schools as Pennington Elementary (HS attended) and New Trier High (HS didn’t attend) now show reading proficiencies down by half on the Federal tests, by a third to a quarter on the State-purchased tests. Another rebuttal argues that the Dick and Jane reader was just as ideological as today’s multi-culti (apparently a catchword in the industry, quoted in Sandra Stotsky’s 1999 “Losing Our Language” critique) mixing of various politically-correct themes with the basics of literacy and numeracy, but that its social-structure agenda was subversive and concealed then, and a different and better one is out in the open now.

The result of this sort of obfuscation and denial has been a “we’re outta here” response by the pro-academics side of the question; probably (unproveable) driven by rising middle-class/voter discontent with the present K-12 trends -even Boston Latin ain’t what it used to be-politicians (the National Governors’ Association) and educators (the Council of Chief State School Officers) have moved to design and sell a Common Core of Education Standards, a grade-by-grade set of specific learning goals, starting with reading and math, which has so far been adopted by 42 States. You can find it all on the Common Core website. I don’t have the column-inches here to recite the various (tendentious?) pro-status-quo arguments against the Common Core, but I will ask you to examine, say, the math standards and see whether they make sense. Humble Scribe opinion: yes, even though you’ll not find “long division” or “multiplication tables” in the prescriptive language. Further HS opinion: good as the CCES objective-definition is, it won’t change a thing within the ideological classroom. Math and reading teachers didn’t have a CCES when they led us, all 30 or more using the same instructional workbook, basal reader, or whole-novel, to numeracy and literacy (mostly, our parents had pre-K’d us) in their well-run classrooms back then; and most of them don’t need one now. They need to be (in most cases) permitted to teach: first, literacy and numeracy as the broccoli, if you will, and then, but only if time permits, maybe a little multi-culti (but objectively presented) as the dessert. In some few cases they’ll need administrator orders: first broccoli, then, and only then, the dessert which must be, for any competent adult, more fun to ramble around in than foundation-work mastered in their own vanished youth. The ideology problem comes (Humble Scribe guess) from widespread executive suite insistence on ideology displacing basic literacy and numeracy objectives, and from less widespread but anecdotally visible evidence of some few teachers running their classrooms on the same set of priorities. Maryland’s just announced decision to embed the essentials of reading and math within an over-arching environmental-sensitivity framework illustrates the priorities at the executive-policy level; the remarkably-posted recent student complaint about teacher-ideology in one of her classrooms at Middlebury High illustrates the occasional problem at the instructor level. Any State’s CCES-based set of curriculum standards can be as duly adopted as any parent might wish, and it won’t matter if the policy at State or district level is actually one of prioritizing the social-engineering objectives ahead of the individual-competency objectives. Maryland, for example, adopted the CCES a year ago, but that didn’t deter the State Ed Dept from revealing its real ideological priorities by adopting the environment-first/letters-and-numbers-second approach more recently.

Nor only did the Common Core prescription language refrain from specifically demanding the once-standard classroom priority for basic subject matter at each grade level, which, a few decades back, was uniformly successful at reaching near-100% proficiency levels in most (admittedly, not all) districts across the nation; it was also cautiously drafted to avoid the other problem-which-dares-not-speak-its name in contemporary public education: the disengaged or disruptive student, who, for various sensitivity reasons, must now be tolerated within, and not removed from, his opportunity to wreak havoc with the learning expectations of his classmates. Recently a few States have drafted statutes (see earlier columns on this subject) to restore teacher control of the classroom to something approaching decades-ago levels, but the number is even fewer than those still declining to sign on to Common Core.

Probably (HS opinion) Caroline Hoxby, the education researcher no longer at Harvard for guessable reasons, was right: the best way to restore, within the traditional K-12 structure, the once-standard achievement levels isn’t the endless debates or curriculum re-designs which always look good but never work; it’s the economic pressure of parent choice to send their kids elsewhere until basic-competency priority is restored. The proof will show in the test scores.