This is one of the
best pieces we've seen on the topic. From
a paper presented at the International Conference on Redesigning
Pedagogy, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological
University, Singapore, June 1, 2009.
David C. Berliner - America being a practical country,
a land for the promotion of Yankee ingenuity and dominated by
the interests of business, never was in awe of the liberal arts
or the humanities. There never was a golden age in America in
which the liberal arts and humanities flourished while the servile
arts were looked down upon. In fact, for at least the first hundred
years of widespread public schooling in the US, the practical
was deemed appropriate to teach most middle-class white students
and was considered even more desirable as the curriculum for
the poor and minorities, were they afforded any education at
all. The exception to this focus on the practical was for a small
and select group of wealthy, white, male students who did get
to study the liberal arts in upper high school grades and college.
Today may actually be
worse for poor children in the US than at any time in the last
half century. This is because the lower classes are being kept
from the liberal arts and humanities curricula by design. Using
the argument that we must get their test scores up, we in the
US are designing curriculum for poor children, often poor children
of color but certainly, numerically, for poor white children,
that will keep them ignorant and provide them with vocational
training, at best. Their chances of entrance to college and middle
class lives are being diminished, and this is all being done
under the banner of "closing the gap," a laudable goal,
but one that has produced educational policies with severe and
negative side effects. . .
Data show that changes
in the time allocated for teaching reading and mathematics in
elementary schools were quite dramatic between 2002 and 2007.
These are the years of the NCLB act and mandated high-stakes
testing. The time allocated to reading has been increased, on
average, over two and a third hours a week, while mathematics
time has been increased, on average, about an hour and a half
a week. What needs to be kept in mind when interpreting this
table is that the "average" masks relevant information.
It is likely that many school districts increased time in these
subjects a great deal more than the average, because the average
includes districts serving high-income children, who typically
score well on the tests used to satisfy NCLB requirements. Those
districts probably changed their time allocations very little.
On the other hand those serving low-income students probably
changed their time allocations a lot. . .
If reading and English
language arts consists of too much phonics practice; too much
drill and test preparation; too many worksheets for practicing
reading skills; not enough writing to express complex thoughts;
not enough reading for enjoyment; and not enough reading of academic
material to increase vocabulary in order to aid comprehension;
then the reading is more to foster the goal of basic literacy
and not literacy for its pleasure, or for its value in exploring
the arts, the sciences and the humanities. . .
Sadly, evidence exists
to support the hypothesis that the increased time spent on reading
and mathematics is not helping us make better readers and mathematicians.
A second look at reading
achievement and the effects of greatly increased reading instruction
on the performance of the various US states comes from the Educational
Testing Service. What is obvious is that average scores are not
increasing, and many states have actually done worse since the
enactment of NCLB. . .
The evidence is that the
schools with the poorest children, and therefore the schools
with the greatest likelihood of being sanctioned under NCLB,
are those where the reading curriculum in now often of the most
basic type. While such a level of literacy might have been good
enough at the beginning of the 20th century, it is hard at the
beginning of the 21st century to defend the forms of instruction
used and the kinds of literacy attained by the children in many
of our poorest schools.
We now know that for many
children the motive to engage in activities found pleasurable
for their own sake is diminished when those same tasks are rewarded.
This suggests that a significant number of poor and minority
children who really do enjoy reading for pleasure and edification
are much more likely to be turned off of reading because reading
has become a task governed by extrinsic rewards. In many schools
with the poorest students stars are awarded for rather trivial
multiple-choice questions answered correctly about books just
completed. . . Other schools have class parties for high numbers
of books read collectively per unit of time. None of these approaches
is wrong from a behaviorist theory, yet all of these short-term
motivational strategies are likely to have a negative influence
on continuing motivation to read. We don't know this, of course,
because we usually do not study the long-term effects of these
programs. But there is good reason to believe that continuing
motivation to read will suffer under some of these instructional
There is another theory
in our field that comes to mind when looking at these data. It
is related to time and learning. I did some of that research
myself. From all the research, and from the common sense that
is found in the humblest of homes, we have been able to derive
a sound educational law, namely, that the more time students
spend studying in some area of the curriculum, the more likely
they will have learned more in that area. Time and learning are
believed to be, and are empirically found to be, causally related.
But this principle of learning is directly challenged by the
reading data we have. Significantly more time spent in reading
is leading to less improvement on the high quality assessments
of reading that are used, the NAEP tests. This suggests that
students may be studying the wrong things, or that their motivation
is being undermined, or both. This is not good.
What do we know about
mathematics? . . . We see almost the same things we noted when
looking at reading. The exception is eighth grade gains for Hispanics.
All other cells show a pattern of higher gains before NCLB and
the additional time that was allocated for mathematics instruction.
Actually, we learn from
the 41 states for which there were complete data at the 8th grade
that mathematics scores overall did go up quite a bit over time.
Its just that in 24 of those states the gains were larger in
the three years before NCLB than in the 4 years after NCLB. So
NCLB seems to improve the gains in achievement in fewer than
50% of the states. And in about 10% of the states for which we
have data NCLB has no discernable effects at all. So in mathematics,
as was true in reading, NCLB does not seem a sensible social
While rarely taught as
well as the experts would like it to be taught, mathematics can
be even more boring and inadequately taught than ever before
under the threat of sanctions. Mathematics, can [be] a subject
that is a rich source of discourse and debate, of conjecture
and the testing of ideas, and even an important contributor to
democratic practices when taught correctly. But like reading
it can be turned into a drill oriented, teacher dominated subject
in which the increased time results in increased boredom and
dislike of the subject.
Moreover, in a recent
analysis by Jaekyung Lee, in RER, he pointed out that the achievement
gap between wealthier and poorer students has not been closing
at all on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the
best audit test America has. This all suggests that something
is quite wrong. Increases in allocated time ought to result in
increased learning. But if the increased time for learning reading
and learning mathematics results in a less interesting curriculum
for teachers to teach, and for students to learn, then the results
we are getting are actually quite sensible, though certainly
quite disheartening. . .
I am struck, as always,
by Dewey's prescience and our failure to take him seriously:
"Perhaps the greatest
of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns
only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral
learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes
and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the
spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned.
For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.
The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire
to go on learning."
Other odd data about contemporary
curriculum exist. For example, England has also tried to reform
its schools through accountability plans that are heavily test
oriented. And it seems to have problems similar to the US. In
fact, for the first time since IQ tracking was started, in which
an upward trend has been the norm for decades, IQs appear to
be declining quite dramatically in UK middle grades. And this
has occurred in a relatively short amount of time, according
to James Flynn, who gave us the Flynn effect and monitors these
trends worldwide. In truth, no one currently has a good explanation
for this downward trend. But at least one reason given is that
the UK has become a test-oriented culture and this has stunted
the . . .
Galton and McBeath surveyed
primary teachers in England. Teachers in their study regret that
time pressures no longer allow them to engage in informal conversations
with individual children during lessons, or to allow pupils,
at certain times, to pursue their own ideas and interests as
part of topic and project work. The British data tell us that
since the seventies this time has decreased by nearly 50%. Yet,
teachers regarded exchanges of that kind as highly rewarding
and motivating because they greatly enhanced the teacher-child
relationship and provided what some classroom practitioners described
as 'magic moments.'
Galton and McBeath quote
teachers. For example, a female with 23 years experience says:
"Too often the subjects like art, and history and geography
and the subjects that children really enjoy, and P.E., are squeezed
out and those children that are not academic are not getting
a chance to shine. We are actually turning them off education
rather than actually encouraging them to want to improve the
things that they are good at because we're not actually finding
out what they're good at any more."
Galton and McBeath report
that many teachers noted the creative subjects were being squeezed
out, with the consequence that there were fewer opportunities
for children to be good at something, to succeed or to excel,
and the teachers knew that this was not good for the children
and it made classroom management all that more difficult. The
emphasis on the core subjects, with increased focus on content,
simply meant that there was less space in the school day for
less structured activities, though it was in those kinds of activities
that some non-academic children excelled.
The British and US experience
is exactly what Hong and Youngs report happened to curriculum
in their study of Chicago and Texas, as that district and that
state responded to high-stakes testing. In Chicago the researchers
found that high-stakes testing seemed to narrow the curriculum
and make it harder for students to acquire higher-order thinking,
writing, and problem-solving skills. In Texas, it was found that
schooling changed in ways that emphasized rote learning, not
broad intellectual skills. Lipman also studied the Chicago schools
and reports that the accountability program insured that the
more affluent students in Chicago received a much richer and
more intellectually challenging curriculum than did the poor
children in Chicago. Poor minority children, in particular, were
required to memorize fragmented facts and information, and they
were constantly taught simple test-taking techniques. . .
Science, a field that
probably will be even more important in the 21st century than
in the 19th and 20th centuries, is down, on average, over an
hour a week as well. Although science is now one of the areas
tested under the NCLB law, and is a privileged curriculum area,
scores on the science tests do not count toward AYP. Thus, lack
of progress in science, and/or low performance on science tests,
can safely be ignored by schools and districts since no sanctions
attach to the test. Science, like social studies has been robbed
of minutes to expand time for reading and mathematics. Thus curriculum
that might help insure American economic competitiveness in the
future, and surely will contribute to intelligent citizenship
in our science- and technology-rich future, has been sacrificed..
Time for physical education
is down, despite the fact that our youth are more sedentary than
they should be, are quite overweight, and Type 2 diabetes is
becoming more common. It is easy to argue that physical education
is more important today than ever before, and it is acknowledged
as one of the most important ways to keep medical costs down
as we slowly move to universal medical coverage. Yet physical
education is sacrificed for the possibility of a few more points
on state tests that have to rise continuously to satisfy the
requirements of NCLB.
Lunch is obviously wasted
time for those who feel the pressure of testing under NCLB. Anecdotally,
therefore, it was not surprising that a teacher at a Massachusetts
district reported her concern that lunch at her elementary school
was less than 15 minutes on many days "so that more time
could be put in on the rigorous curriculum areas." "Rigorous
curriculum areas" is code, meaning the areas that are tested.
Anything else (social studies, history, government, art, music,
physical education) has been defined in her school as inherently
a non-rigorous subject. The school she reported on had actually
abandoned traditional luncheon meals and started serving finger
food-wraps and chicken nuggets-to get the students in and out
of the cafeteria faster.
Nationally, recess was
found to be down, on average, about an hour a week. We even discovered,
in Maryland, that naps for preschoolers and kindergartners were
forbidden by one county school superintendent.
Art and music, nationally,
are down an average of an hour a week. This is particularly troublesome
because the nation never spent a lot of time in these subjects.
. . .
[A] California study makes
clear that the arts are rationed: They are taught primarily to
the wealthy and not the poor.
Wealthier students, if
they are lucky, will be exposed to a wider range of the arts
and humanities in their high schools because the breadth of the
curriculum offerings in the high achieving schools has not needed
to be cut back. Students in these schools are usually passing
their state tests, their schools usually make adequate yearly
progress, and their parents have the political power and resources
to maintain a broader curriculum. These wealthier students, even
were they to miss some exposure to the arts and humanities in
the public schools, have parents who pay to provide them with
extra curriculum activities (music lessons, drama club, sports),
and they are much more likely to encounter the arts and humanities
in their colleges. But poorer public school students may not
be exposed to the ways of thinking embedded in the arts and humanities
at all, and since their college attendance rates are low and
getting lower at the most prestigious institutions of higher
education, poorer students may never get adequate education in
the arts and humanities.
The ability for students
to learn in areas that are of interest to them seems almost unlimited,
as seen in their commitment to their hobbies and to acquiring
skills in video games. But in this era of high-stakes testing
students cannot be allowed time in school to follow their interests.
The standards define what students should know at different grade
levels, and deviation from that plan is considered dangerous
because it might result in missing some items on the states high-stakes
accountability test. Of course schools never allowed much time
for individualized work, but now even the teachers that made
some use of problem-based or project-based leaning, forms of
instruction that could ignite students' interests through a curriculum
more personally tailored for an individual, are not allowed to
do so. . .
Rothstein, Jacobson and
Wider surveyed school administrators, school board members and
the general public to see if they prized similar goals for our
schools. Remarkably, all three groups performed almost identically,
indicating great consistency in contemporary American beliefs
about the goals of schooling. Not surprisingly the highest ratings
were to the basic skills. But not far behind "basic skills"
in the ratings of importance of particular curriculum goals,
was the goal of critical thinking. Yet given the high-stakes
testing environment, with predominantly decontextualized multiple-choice
measures used to assess what has been learned, there appears
to be no place in the curriculum to teach, and no way to assess,
critical thinking. Thus this major curricula goal for American
education, perhaps never taught well, is made even less likely
to be included in the school curriculum. This is even more of
a problem since the pundits all say critical thinking is a necessary
21st century skill. While we may not know how to teach critical
thinking well, we probably do know how not to teach critical
thinking well, and apparently have designed just such a system.
Nickerson offered a set
of ideas for thinking about the behavior and characteristics
that a critical thinker would display. He would say that the
woman or man displaying critical thinking skills would:
- use evidence skillfully
- organize thoughts and
articulate them concisely and coherently;
- distinguish between
logically valid and invalid inferences;
- suspend judgment in
the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision;
- understand the difference
between reasoning and rationalizing;
- attempt to anticipate
the probable consequences of alternative actions; - understand
the idea of degrees of belief;
- see similarities and
analogies that are not superficially apparent;
- learn independently
and have an abiding interest in doing so;
- apply problem-solving
techniques in domains other than those in which they were learned;
- structure informally
represented problems in such a way that formal techniques, such
as mathematics, can be used to solve them;
- strip a verbal argument
of irrelevancies and phrase it in its essential terms;
- habitually question
one's own views and attempt to understand both the assumptions
that are critical to those views and the implications of the
- be sensitive to the
difference between the validity of a belief and the intensity
with which it is held;
- be aware of the fact
that one's understanding is always limited, often much more so
than would be apparent to one with a non-inquiring attitude;
- recognize the fallibility
of one's own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions,
and the danger of weighting evidence according to personal preferences.
The list is certainly
daunting, but some versions of this is what the public wants
from our schools, and so we let the public down by going along
with NCLB and not working on these issues. . .
A substantial set of studies
informs us about how we can change things using precisely the
same social psychological mechanisms that have messed up the
system in the first place. If we could develop assessment items
that were worth teaching to we might use the rational responses
of teachers to high-stakes testing to affect instruction in more
desirable ways. . .
If we cared to, in social
studies or history, we might assess understanding of the Civil
War by asking questions taping:
Analytic skills: Compare and contrast the Civil
War and the American Revolution.
Creativity: What might
the United States be like today if the Civil War had not taken
Practical intelligence: How has the Civil War affected,
even indirectly, the kinds of rights that people have today?
Wisdom:: Are wars ever justified?
If we cared to, in English,
we might assess understanding of a novel like Tom Sawyer by asking
Analytic skills: How was the childhood of Tom
Sawyer similar to and different from your own childhood?
Creativity: Write an alternative ending to
did Tom Sawyer use to persuade his friends to whitewash Aunt
Wisdom: Is it ever justified to use such
techniques of persuasion to make people do things they do not
really want to do?
If we cared to, in science
we might ask the following questions to tap:
Analytic skills: What
is the evidence that global warming is taking place?
Creativity: What do you
think the world will be like in 100 years if global warming continues
at its present pace?
Practical intelligence: What can you, personally, do
to slow the effects of global warming?
Wisdom: What responsibility do we have
to future generations to act on global warming now, before it
If we cared to, in mathematics
we might ask the following questions to tap:
Analytic skills: What is the interest after 6
months on a loan of $4,000.00 at 4% interest?
Creativity: Design a mathematical problem
for a 10 year old involving interest on a loan.
Practical intelligence: How would you invest $4,000.00
to maximize your rate of return without risking more than 10%
of the principal?
Wisdom: Why do states set maximum rates
of interest that lenders can charge, and should they do so?.
The same politicians and
business persons that want high-stakes testing to be the cornerstone
of a school accountability system also want 21st century skills
developed. They do not yet understand that they cannot have both
at the same time. These are incompatible goals. . .
It seems to me that all
but the most privileged students come into public schools where
the pedagogy may actually be closer to that of the 19th rather
than the 21st century. In schools for the poor, Dickens's wonderfully
written caricature of a teacher, Mr. Gradgrind, still lives.
"Now, what I want
is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts
alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything
else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts:
nothing else will ever be of any service to them. . . . "