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Blogging English Teacher Natalie Munroe Needs to See the Big Picture

“There are serious problems with our education system today…” wrote Pennsylvania English teacher Natalie Munroe in a Feb. 12 post on her Natalie’s Handbasket blog. Munroe’s biggest problem is that she publicly blogged about “disengaged and lazy students” and is now suspended from her job without pay.

Should Natalie Munroe have posted comments that disparaged students? Probably not. Teachers, like journalists, have a moral responsibility. Their speech should be moderate, not accusative, malicious, or derogatory. That she believed her blog was not being widely read is beside the point.

Having said that, I can understand what she is feeling about students who could seemingly care less.

In the 1980s and ‘90s I fought my own school wars.

Here’s what I know: Many of the unfortunate attitudes and behaviors Munroe has witnessed in her students were caused by the very education system that was supposed to be preparing them for her class.

No one should be surprised.

What amazes me is the unflappable, undeserved faith that parents, and teachers, have in the system.

Most parents, including me, were clueless about the experimental methods that had taken hold of the schools in the 1980s and 1990s. We expected the kinds of schools that we went to.

Who knew that educational policies had been turned upside down by social change agents’ education models funded through grants from non-profits like Rockefeller and Carnegie, outside the legislative process?

But unless a mom or dad came to school and hung out in the classroom, like I did, they might never know that their own academic goals for their kids had flown out the window.

Finally I understood. After trying for years to figure out why the academic standards in my kids’ schools were foundering, I saw state department of education documents specifically illustrating a major paradigm switch: We now had a “child-centered” model of education.

The papers are still vivid in my mind. There was a big circle, with the child at the center. Parents had been relegated to the periphery, one of many “stakeholders,” including teachers, business and government.  It was based onTotal Quality Management, a convoluted model of management created for post-WWII Japan.

What I had expected was a hierarchy, with parents at the top, then teachers, then students. That’s not what we had, at least not any more.

I found state department of education documents revealing changes in policy brought in by people like Theodore Sizer, former chair of the Brown University education department  and grand master of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Sizer’s model contained nine concepts, such as “the teacher as facilitors,” “less is more,” and “students as teachers.”  Many school districts across the country bought into his ideas.  I was treated like a treasonous spy when I inquired.

When I discovered our middle school was part of Sizer’s program (It was called RE:Learning in New Mexico, but had different monikers elsewhere), I finally understood why the social studies teacher taught map-making to my seventh grader for an entire year. “Less is more,” Sizer said. Parents were told it was “Geography of the Far East.”  But no one knew the truth about why there was no text book, no lessons on culture, films on foreign peoples, or reports to be done on life in other lands. Our kids were being cheated, and I was told to shut up about it.

William Spady, author of the new “Outcomes-Based Education,” mucked up the minds of thousands of teachers, brainwashing them against the merits of direct instruction.  Spady was paid handsomely to present his ideas at “in-service” teacher trainings across America.

As a result, I had trouble finding the teacher’s desks in my kids’ elementary classrooms. That’s because the teachers were no longer supposed to “teach.” They were supposed to “facilitate.” For science, kids were suddenly supposed to ask meaningful questions about their environment. No more paper-pencil testing in some classes. It was called “on-going authentic assessment,” one teacher said.

If I cared about the way my kids’ papers looked, whether they turned in neat work done in their best handwriting, the kids would tell me the teacher doesn’t care. Why should they?

If I cared about what books my kids were reading, they would tell me the teacher doesn’t care what they read. And it was true.

Many times in elementary school, the homework was busy-work, word searches, and puzzles.  But it took hours to complete. I would write a note at the top: “It’s ten o’clock and I’m sending my child to bed.”

Experimental models of education created at the U.S. Education Laboratories changed education from the inside out, from pedagogy to assessment to textbooks and classroom organization and management.

Munroe should read the back issues of the Blumenfeld Education Letter. For ten years, Samuel Blumenfeld documented every education change to hit the schools, everything that brought a good system down, causing the very problems she’s complaining about.

The whole-language movement created an entire generation of children who were not taught the structure of the English language. Kids who grew up to be teachers did not impart enough knowledge to Munroe’s students in the first place. Without an excellent command of written language skills, students are at a huge loss, not cut out for college, but for jobs like the one she recommends at the “Trash Company.”

Phonics taught right makes good readers of all but the most impaired students. But in my kids’ schools, I can only remember one teacher who taught it.

Spelling wasn’t even included in the “student outcomes” in some states. Few children can explain why you double the final consonant when adding a suffix starting with a vowel to a one syllable word — like “sit.”

One spelling textbook I read not many years ago insisted that “cher” is a suffix, as in the word “teacher.” I wrote to the publisher.

Forget about cursive handwriting. Most children never do make a permanent transition from print because cursive isn’t taught as a subject. No matter that cursive writing actually helps students learn better, creating stronger neurological pathways than print, and helping a person express himself throughout life. D’Nealian, I think, is a lousy substitute for Palmer.

The switch in pedagogy floored me. Around 1990, there was a change in how teachers were supposed to teach and grade students. No longer was “mastery” to be the variable and “time” the constant. Now “time” was the variable and “mastery” the constant. In other words, it no longer mattered how long it took for a kid to learn something. Failure was no longer an option.

Instead of an organized curriculum that expands a student’s subject knowledge with every passing year, my kids’ school work seemed unrelated, out of context. It wasn’t cumulative and logical, but a big hodge-podge of stuff, mostly presented on worksheets, and ending with some group project that showed what a student “knows and is able to do.”

An experimental model used in Johnston City, PA, told educators to accept the hand they were dealt. If the kids were lazy and unmotivated, teachers were to deal with it, not try to fix it.

During Goals 2000, schools were told to push “accelerated learning.” Students don’t need to learn the basics, paid consultants told the schools. Instead of learning facts they should charge ahead to more advanced concepts. Teachers were told to memorization is boring.

And don’t forget values clarification classes, self-esteem teachers, and multi-cultural education. All of these pseudo-subjects took time (hours, days and weeks); time kids might have spent investigating whatever subjects they found fascinating.

I often wondered if my kids were getting much in the way of academics at all.

Teachers fell all over themselves with “group-think” when my kids were in school. Don’t think it’s gone away. How can kids learn to take care of their own supplies if the teacher dumps all the crayons into one big bin?  Cooperative learning and group projects cater to mediocrity, the lowest common denominator: The motivated kids who do the hard work resent earning the same grade as the slackers. And the slackers never gain the skills they need to improve.

The tradition of rewarding mediocrity is another reason Munroe should be ticked off. But teachers still do it. They promise candy and pizza parties to little kids for accomplishing things they should do because it brings them intrinsic satisfaction. Maybe they were pointless to begin with and not worth doing.

Teachers praise the least bit of success, thinking students’ self-esteem will be damaged for life if they are told to try harder, to strive to do better.

Substitute teaching in a fifth grade classroom, I asked students in one reading group to read a paragraph, and when they finished, to tell me what the paragraph was about. They couldn’t do it. “The teacher never makes us do that,” one girl said, giving me the evil eye. I thought the kids were maybe the middle reading group, so I said, “Don’t you want to advance to the top reading group?” The girl answered, “We are the top reading group.”

I’ve witnessed teachers who pitied minorities to the degree that they would not ask them to do the same work as their Caucasian counterparts, or hold them to the same standards.

My daughter was made to stand and present a report in the sixth grade, but the teacher, trained to be sensitive to minorities, would not insist that a Hispanic student do the same.

What Munroe is seeing in her classroom is the result of many years of education “reform.”  

Before the 1970s, the public education system used to work. It prepared kids with a solid (and equal) foundation of organized, fact-based knowledge, entrenched in values that parents expected the schools to advance, and for which they paid taxes. Kids were prepared for what life threw at them and unafraid of a hard work.

Too bad we can’t say that today.

I gave up the fight. All four were homeschooled at one point or another. And then they grew up.

Parents and teachers have to understand that the playing field is unfair: People who work in the upper echelons of education have years to play with change, to fulfill their fickle goals for our children and pay homage to the reform model du jour.

Parents’ time is limited. They don’t get paid to fight for their kids’ education.  FFG

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