Monday, March 28, 2005

Divergent aims

Jenny D. is asking a good question. She wants to know how institutions like schools can gain acceptance and respect from the public?

I believe that schools pose a special problem. By and large parents and policymakers know that all is not well with pre-collegiate education. What may be less well known is that the education establishment is dominated by an education creed at odds with what many parents and policymakers expect -- a creed that disparages subject matter, explicit instruction and academic achievement in favor of some nebulous goals.

In a paper called Aligning Teacher Training with Public Policy Prof. J. E. Stone examines the divergent aims of the public and educationists.

What are the outcomes sought by the public? Parents and employers want students to have thinking skills, but they place equal or greater importance on academic fundamentals[7]. As Different Drummers found, “Most typical Americans—along with most employers—are alarmed by the number of youngsters they see who lack even basic skills, particularly such fundamentals as spelling and grammar. But for education professors, training teachers who stress correct English usage is a distinctly low priority.”[8] Education professors consider the public’s concerns to be “outmoded and mistaken.” In a word, professors are learner-centered but parents and employers are learning-centered.

All of this is to say that the teacher education community is comfortable with weak academic standards because they believe that education cannot be judged by whether it produces recognized forms of academic achievement. Instead, they hold that the important outcomes of education are the task-specific enhancements of intellectual ability that are presumed to result from learner-centered educational experiences. The knowledge and skills valued by parents and employers are considered secondary, incidental, and dispensable.

As college presidents talk with teacher educators’ about improving educational quality, they should bear these distinctions in mind. So should policymakers and the public. When teacher educators speak of good teaching, they do not necessarily mean actions intended to bring about the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills. In the learner-centered view, such recognized educational attainments are options, not requirements.
Speaking the same language about different things.

Not only are educators and policymakers using similar terms to refer to very different ideas about education, neither side seems to understand the inconsistency. Most policymakers want schooling that produces high minimum levels of conventionally measured knowledge and skills. Their expectations include the higher-order intellectual skills but the basics are seen as indispensable. They assume that educators respect those priorities and are using the best available means of producing the desired outcomes.

Teachers are given to understand that learner-centered practices are the latest and most pedagogically sound means of producing what policymakers want—or at least what they should want. Few have a clear understanding that these so-called state-of-the-art methodologies are recycled versions of a pedagogical concept that is marginally suited to academic achievement.


Jonathan Kallay said...

While I question the very existence of an 'educational establishment' and your use of the 'educationist' label, there is definitely not enough discussion about the basic premises of primary and secondary education. Too many people take their understandings of what schooling is about for granted.

One of these ignored conflicts is over the idea of equity in education, which you rightly bring up often. Unfortunately, you also dismiss the idea as a product of 'left wing indoctrination,' an oversimplification that does not exactly encourage debate. 'Who should education serve?' is a very complex question. If the answer is, as many people do believe, 'everyone', then it is difficult to justify an educational system that only educates a small portion of the population. The magic formula for educating more people, better has not yet been discovered and probably does not exist(understandable given that no one really agrees on what "well-educated" means). Yet, rather than 'disparaging subject matter, explicit instruction and academic achievement,' this is what educators are trying to do.

Instructivist said...

"While I question the very existence of an 'educational establishment' ..."

How can there not be an educational establishment?

What would you call all the state boards, superintendents, instructional officers, ed schools, dozens of interlocking letter soup organizations, myriad consultants and gurus, methods textbook writers, etc?

Garbo said...

Regarding Jonathan Kallay's comment:

"...there is definitely not enough discussion about the basic premises of primary and secondary education."

I agree wholeheartedly, and Instructivist has made some good headway with this post.

"The magic formula for educating more people, better has not yet been discovered and probably does not exist..."

Though there is nothing magical (in the Harry Potter sense) about their methods, there are schools all over the country that are educating virtually all of their low-income and minority students to high levels of academic achievement: see "No Excuses" by Casey Carter, available at the Heritage Foundation's website. We educators need to study and emulate these successes rather that presupposing the task of educating all children to be impossible.