The Tragic Lost Opportunity of School Reform



Ronald W. Evans is a professor in the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University. His most recent book is "The Tragedy of American School Reform: How Curriculum Politics and Entrenched Dilemmas Have Diverted Us From Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is currently working on a book on the history of social studies in the accountability era.

I worry about my children. As a father, teacher, educator, and educational historian, I have a special window on what’s going on in schools. I worry about their social studies curriculum, or the lack of one. When history is taught, it seems students face an endless diet of worksheets and testing fueled by textbook-driven memorization. The problem is exacerbated by current trends in school reform. Most of what I observe, through dinner table discussions, helping with homework, and visiting classrooms, is a test-driven race through the textbook.

The problem with the overemphasis on testing in history and the social sciences is that it misses the point. Though it may tell us something about student knowledge of basic facts, it almost entirely omits the more important questions. Factual knowledge is better understood as the byproduct of a good education, and should never be the main focus. We have a crisis of purpose. Education in the humanities is not about how much you know, but the power of thought. It is more about how we think about the past and its relevance to ongoing questions and dilemmas. It is about the meaning of the past for today and tomorrow. It is about such questions as: What really happened? Why did it happen? What other choices were at play? Who benefits? What is its significance? What does it mean for us today and for the future?

Good social education enlarges the present. It expands our choices and our thinking. It challenges and deepens our most basic understandings of who we are, where we came from, and what policies to support on our deepest and most persistent issues and questions. In short, it illuminates the alternatives for thoughtful decision-making. It requires examination of relevant evidence from past and present, and consideration of what we value most in making the important choices we face as citizens of a troubled society. It is about connecting what we study in schools with the lives we live in the world of today and tomorrow. It is the kind of education we need in a democracy. Without such connections, it seems rather pointless.

One problem with the current education reform movement is that it ignores questions of purpose and instead focuses on pressure and performance. Of course, questions of quality are important. Having “high standards,” in the best sense of the phrase, is crucial. But questions related to the aims of education are much more important. Unfortunately, the current reform as it is applied to social education is making our perennial problems worse. Too frequently, history in schools is disconnected from students’ lives and devoid of meaning.

Not that this is a new problem. The dominance of textbooks, teacher talk, and memorization of “facts” has long been the bane of schooling. Many of our schools resemble a “mimicry factory,” developing human capital, controlling the mind, and killing the spirit. The corporate-driven standards, textbook, and testing regime has only made it worse.

It wasn't always like this. In the 1930s Harold Rugg and other progressive educators inspired by John Dewey created avant garde social studies programs that successfully linked student interest with social studies, melding history and the social sciences into an interdisciplinary study connected to persistent social issues. Rugg believed that the mass of people seldom deliberate thoughtfully on politics, and are instead ruled by fashion, whim, and illogical appeals. Hence, he championed the need for thoughtful, in-depth deliberation on public issues in schools.

In the 1960s, boosted by Cold War funding, scientists, social scientists, and historians created innovative curriculum materials. The “new social studies” as it was called, led by Jerome Bruner and others, focused on inquiry, discovery, and critical thinking. By 1968, emphasis shifted to a new focus on “relevance,” “activism,” “social issues,” and “values clarification.” Mini-courses were created and student interest was prized. The cutting edge of reform centered on inquiry, social criticism, and questioning.

Subsequently, these reforms came under attack during a tumultuous period of controversy, resulting in the end of an exciting era of innovation in social studies. In the 1970s, controversies seemed to crop up everywhere: Kanawah County, West Virginia; Warsaw, Indiana; Phoenix; suburban Boston; small town Idaho. Academic freedom struggles emerged in cities and towns across the nation as the “new social studies” went on trial.  Ted Fenton, a leader of the reform, called it a “national conspiracy” led by a small and interconnected group of extremists. And so, it was “back to the basics” along with a revival of traditional history defined largely as the acquisition of historical “facts.”  Unfortunately, this aim can lead to a lot of bad teaching.

What emerged by the 1980s was a reform movement focused on excellence, led by government but deeply influenced by long-term critics of progressive education: The Council on Basic Education, business groups, religious fundamentalists, textbook critics Mel and Norma Gabler, neoconservative educators Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, and backed by conservative funders with deep pockets such as the Heritage Foundation. Though they seldom declared this publicly, many of the reformers were deeply anti-progressive, and fancied themselves "slayers of Dewey-eyed educational dragons.”

The reform that emerged has done a great deal of damage. It was built on false premises: a “manufactured crisis” assuming that the schools are failing; the assertion that our nation’s leading role in international economic competition was threatened; the proposal that the solution could be found in a focus on “the basics.” Critics asserted that the problem with the schools was too much freedom, and that the cure might be found in standards and testing. In part, the new reform was a direct reaction to the turmoil and revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. Once started, it snowballed, and grew into what we have today.

And so, the standards and testing regime continues, driven by politicians seeking re-election and business people developing human capital, making the schools over in their own image. In the politics of schooling, these are dangerous choices that do not bode well for our future.

Social studies and history teaching today, in so many classrooms, is but a hollow echo of what might have been. Social education could become a thoughtful and intriguing education for democracy, focused on important questions and meaningful learning. Instead, my children and yours too often receive a parade of textbooks, worksheets, and tests focused largely on memorization, with too little depth and few connections to the important questions that might help them understand the significance of what they are studying and somehow make meaning of it. From my perspective as a father, a scholar, and an educator, this situation is a tragic failure.

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