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Take a young boy or girl from a typical American family who goes to a typical American school, and imagine that child growing up in France or Germany, Japan or Taiwan. Few would choose to make the experiment. Most Americans believe, as do I, that this country, with its traditions of political freedom and its generous optimism, is the greatest country in the world. But the evidence is strong that that very same young child would grow up more competent in those other countries than in the United States--through having learned much, much more at school in the early grades. Although our political traditions and even our universities may be without peer, our K-12 education is among the least effective in the developed world. Its controlling theories, curricular incoherencies, and what I call its "naturalistic fallacies" are positive barriers to a good education. Scholars from abroad who study American schools are astonished that our children, who score very low in international comparisons, are actually as competent as they manage to be. Considering their very American vitality and independent-mindedness, one thinks ruefully of what these children could become under a good, demanding, and fair educational system!
The importance of theories in human affairs was memorably stated by John Maynard Keynes: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. It is ideas, not vested interests, that are dangerous for good or evil." Keynes's observation was confirmed on a grand scale by the fall of communism, which consisted less in a failed political arrangement than in a failed socioeconomic theory that did not accord with the realities it claimed to describe and predict. If thousands of Marxist thinkers could have been caught for decades in the grip of a wrong socioeconomic theory, it is not beyond imagination that a cadre of American educational experts could have been captivated by wrong theories over roughly the same period.
For as long as there has been a historical record, educational theories have wavered in emphasis between two opposed but equally important needs in schooling: rigor and flexibility. But despite recent public pressure for school improvement, there has been little movement toward rigor in American educational theories. Although we are a diverse nation, our optimistic educational ideas and slogans tend to be uniform from one education school and reform movement to another. Dressed-up-like-new versions of old ideas still dominate for sociological and historical reasons that are briefly sketched in later chapters, one of which is called "Critique of a Thoughtworld." This American educational Thoughtworld is a juggernaut that crushes independence of mind.
What chiefly prompts the writing of this book is our national slowness--despite our reputation for practicality--to cast aside these faulty theories. Most current "reforms" are repetitions or rephrasings of long-failed Romantic, antiknowledge proposals that emanated from Teachers College, Columbia University, in the teens, twenties, and thirties of this century. The underlying assumptions of many "break-the-mold" reforms are anything but new. The Schools We Need attempts to explain why the slogans promulgated by this monolithic system of ideas have turned out to be positive barriers to school improvement, and why alternative ideas are not readily accepted even in the name of radical reform.
When businesspeople, philanthropists, and parents turn to experts for guidance, they continue to hear the high-sounding, antiknowledge advice that has been offered for more than sixty years--the very prescriptions (now to be facilitated by "technology") that have produced the system's failures. These continually reformulated slogans have led to the total absence of a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum, but are nonetheless presented as novel theories based on the latest research and as remedies for the diseases they themselves have caused. The rhetorical success but educational failure of these slogans bespeaks an intellectual Gresham's law under where bad ideas drive out good. In the midst of much expenditure of money and energy, this intellectual stasis largely explains the failure of educational reform efforts to date.
The failure is easily documented. Despite much activity, American school reform has not improved the nation's K-12 education during the decade and more since publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (1983). Among those of developed nations, our public schools still rank near the bottom; and in absolute terms, our children's academic competencies have not risen significantly. One reason for this continued stasis: the difficulty of spreading reform out into the vast system of fifteen thousand independent school districts. But it is doubtful that reform movements have succeeded even within the confines of their own model projects.
Typical is a recent report by the Bruner Foundation stating that an intensive school-improvement effort called the New York State Community Schools Program shows "no evidence of improved academic outcomes for children in New York City Community Schools." The most fully studied reform of all, Head Start, has produced extremely disappointing long-term academic benefits, despite strong evidence from other countries that early-intervention programs (which, unlike Head Start, use knowledge-based curricula) lead to permanent
academic improvement. Head Start, by contrast, while it does reduce later dropout rates and assignment to special classes, does not affect educational achievement beyond fourth grade. A beacon of hope in this reform scene is the current effort to create national content standards for different academic subjects. But so far, chaos reigns, and one must adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Remarkably, the disappointments of reform to date have not led educational experts to question the Romantic principles on which their proposals are based, but rather, to attack the messenger that is bringing the bad news--standardized tests. Whatever the shortcomings of these tests, no one has plausibly denied that they show a consistent positive correlation with real academic competencies. For example, no one has plausibly denied (implausible denials have of course been made) that the better one reads, the higher one tends to score on a standardized reading test. If reform efforts of the past decade were significantly improving our children's academic competencies, then the standardized tests, however imperfect, would yield some indication of it.
American educational expertise is not educational expertise per se. Very different ideas preside over the more successful systems of Europe and Asia. We need to pick up ideas, and clues to effective practices, wherever we find them. The inherent complexities of mass education and the contradictions and uncertainties of educational research ought to foster openness and pragmatism rather than reliance on hoary slogans. One of my epigraphs--"Who will reform the reformers?"--is adapted from the indignant Roman satirist Juvenal, but I do not intend to dwell on Juvenalian ironies. My purpose is constructive. The proposals in this book derive from mainstream research and from my distress at the social injustice that has resulted from our dominant educational theories. As soon as possible, these theories need to be replaced with better ones.