One reads a great deal concerning education reform nowadays. It might almost seem as if this were some new trend in education. Indeed, it is not. I have been an educator for over thirty years. My field of expertise is reading. After teaching in a regular elementary classroom for a couple of years, I completed a master’s degree in reading and learning disabilities. Except for a five year break to attend seminary and serve as a full time minister, I have been a teacher of elementary reading. In 1995, I completed a doctorate in reading/educational psychology. At that point, I began teaching reading methods in a college setting.
Over my thirty years of involvement in education, I have seen many, many reforms. Some have come from the right, others from the left. In the field of reading, when I began my teaching, basal reading programs were in, and we attempted to teach every skill known to humanity. Next, whole language gained quite a following. Next, an oldie, but a popular one, reappeared: phonics. Now we are emphasizing a balanced approached-I think that is likely a step in the right direction.
We can easily extend this discussion beyond the boundaries of reading. When I started attending elementary school in 1960, math was a “drill and kill” activity. The expectation was learning of the basic math facts and procedures whether you understood them or not. It is rather easy to see if you learned under this method. Just attempt to explain “conceptually” why 1/2 divided by 4 is 1/8, and why to arrive at that one must “invert and multiply.” I am surprised at how many cannot explain the multiplication and division of fractions at the conceptual level.
When I was about half way through my elementary school education, the so-called “new math” hit the educational world. I remember well spending most of my fourth-grade year (when it started in Kansas City) marking that 5 + 2 > 1 + 3. I liked this math. I was not too good at the old stuff, and I found this a breeze.
People become very opinionated about educational reform. I have seen many a battle over the issue of whole language vs. phonics. It seems like everyone gets involves. Classroom teachers form strong opinions. Politicians form strong opinions and include reform as part their political platform. They know education is a hot button issue with voters. One group that I watch with great diligence is the religious right. It seems as if they have turned such aspects of educational reform as phonics-based reading instruction and support for the No Child Left Behind Act into something resembling religious dogma. It seems to make little sense, turning reading methods into a religious or quasi-religions crusade, but that is what the leaders of the religious right seem committed to support (James Dobson, for example).
I reiterate: educational reform is not new. With that notion disposed of, I would like to suggest three principles of any lasting and useful educational reform. These are characteristics of reform supported over the long haul by much research and dictated by commonsense. I have arrived at these through observation of reform cycles that I have seen throughout my years of work as an educator.
First, education reform cannot be test-driven. Currently, the watchword is accountability. From this perspective, teachers are cagey, lazy actors who need to have their feet held to the fire to make them perform. I have observed thousands of teachers over the years, worked with thousands of pre-service teachers, and supervised well over a hundred student teachers. I must admit, one does rarely encounter a lazy, careless teacher, but it is unusual. The attempt to control teachers and student achievement by means of standardized tests is a misguided approach.