"The pendulum is a perfect, oft used educational analogue. Once started, the pendulum swings freely from its pivotal point, increasing speed, building momentum, swiftly moving along its predetermined path, gradually slowing and coming to a complete stop at the height of its swing. Momentarily frozen, the pendulum now begins moving slowly back toward whence it came, gaining speed, moving ever faster, becoming unstoppable slashing through its apex, swinging upward, decreasing velocity, once again coming to a stop. Here it pauses reversing directions. then begins sweeping back along an arc with powerful impetus, retracing its course once again and then again and again. Educational movements are like pendulum swings, traveling with an irresistible thrust; then, unheralded, a new campaign drives yet another educational cause back the other direction, gaining momentum. Each new crusade, at first invincible, soon succumbs and is superseded by an opposing force just as powerful and relentless as its predecessors, until it too is supplanted with a new fervid impulsion ." Bill Page, a teacher teacher.
Swinging on the Education Pendulum
by Bill Page
Some 40 years ago I was warned by an article in Time that classroom teachers would soon be replaced by a "black box." Arguing that a teacher standing in front of a class lecturing, stuttering, taking attendance and yelling at a kid in the back of the room could never compare with television programing potential. The article proclaimed educational TV the technology of the future. Television can transport students around the world or inside a human bloodstream, take students everywhere in exciting action, condensed time, living color, surround sound, multi-media, million dollar programming. Television can show Christopher Columbus in a realistic setting, kissing Queen Isabella goodbye while offering a cut-away shot of the Santa Maria's sleeping quarters and show Columbus being greeted by the island residents as he "discovers a new world."
How could a classroom teacher compete with that, especially if study guides and comprehension tests are made available? And besides, if some members of the class didn't understand something, the program could be replayed. Or it could be shown next day for anyone who was absent. What is more, it doesn't require a certified teacher to be in charge of turning the on-off, and volume knobs. Seems strange, doesn't it, that there is less educational TV used in the schools now than there was back when it threatened to replace me? What happened?
Learning From The Movies
Incidentally, the same argument was used in the early 1930's with regard to the popular new "talkies" coming out of Hollywood. As their popularity and quality increased, they were seen as an educational boon. What a way to learn! Movie shows were seen as "the Sesame Street" of "Roosevelt's New Deal Era." A Midwest farm boy such as I, who had never seen a mountain, an ocean, a cowboy or an Indian (Hollywood type, not Native Americans) or an airplane (up close) or a beautiful mansion or a rich person or a palm tree, could now see and hear real (Hollywood versions) Europeans, tall ships, grizzly bears, sky scrapers, and half dressed Fiji Islanders. Something must have happened. I can count on my fingers all the movies I saw in my entire 16 years of schooling. Had it not been for occasional Saturday matinees (only city boys went every Saturday) with Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Abbot and Costello, Sky King serials, RKO News Reels, Disney cartoons and selected shorts, I'm afraid I would never have become very worldly.
Sometime after the television scare, I was caught up in the "catch 'em being good, contingency management, operant conditioning, establish a baseline, intermittent reinforcement, behavior modification" movement. That lasted for many years because university opportunists from the education and psychology departments, along with the rat psychologists and "publish or perish" researchers, set up required courses so teachers could all become certified in token reinforcement, thus allowing universities to raise tuition, increase certification requirements, and get more federal money.
Whatever happened to the B. F. Skinner, "we can get anybody to do anything" behavior shaping movement?". For years, the movement was touted as eliminating learning problems and discipline problems. Now that whole movement is as dead as Skinner himself. Kind of makes me wonder whether the problem was that the concept didn't work; or that it once worked but now it doesn't; or that something replaced it. I haven't figured that out yet.
Remember the alphabet soup specials--IPI (Individually Prescribed Instruction), BSCS Biology, SRA Kits, or the Programmed Learning Materials with their tiny learning increments, immediate reinforcement, self-correcting format. Or, perhaps you remember the audio-visual bonanza with government subsidies that gave us an overhead projector in every classroom and more machines than the Audio-Visual Club could deliver. I could include here the remote controlled, closed circuit TV's, or two-way mirrors they installed so that I and others could see myself teach.
I feel compelled to mention the "Open School Movement" just long enough to reminisce about tearing down the walls, eliminating the halls, throwing out the texts, bells, periods, tests, schedules, report cards, and establishing teacher-controlled, variable, flexible daily schedules where the cross-discipline teaching teams scheduled each day for the following day. Where the students, who couldn't even decide whether they wanted a red cover or blue cover on their journal, were expected to schedule themselves daily and make all of their own learning plans. I mention it just enough to recall that, by the time we built thousands of new open school buildings with pods, clusters and little theaters, teachers were already partitioning off the open space with bookcases, improvised curtains, refrigerator cartons, and were teaching in a whisper in multi group classrooms that they hated.
Computers and VCR's
Then, the pendulum swung "back to the basics," on to "mainstreaming," and on to the panic created by "Sputnik" and then the "Rising Tide of Mediocre Reports." Education was deluged by VCR's, video tape programs, computers, CD-ROMS and surfing on the Internet, followed closely by computer classes where a kid could flunk "keyboard," if he or she didn't practice.
With that technology came the intrusion of the bureaucrats with their uniformed, unreasonable, unrealistic laws, mandates, requirements, inclusion, standards, testing and "teacher-proofing" procedures and materials. Over the same time period, "elaborate innovative programs" seemed to dominate education. The programs ranged from Madeline Hunter's Effective Schools and Adler's & Catterall's Different Ways of Knowing to Slavin's Success For All, not to mention multiple intelligences, habits of highly effective people, and thousands of ASCD Workshops on virtual schools and virtually everything.
A study at the University of Virginia showed that from 1992 to 1995, eleven different "core school reforms" were proposed at typical urban school districts. That is an average of one new reform every three months. Come to think about it, I enjoyed "getting my sensitivity trained." But I think I threw up every time I was forced to participate in a "Writing Behavioral Objectives" Workshop. Finally a company advertising 10,000 objectives in every subject at every level saved me from having to think about it ever again.
Enter the "Exit Polls"
Then suddenly, gone were the days when I was able to close my door, put construction paper over the glass, "do my thing" and declare of the latest imposed mandate, "this too shall pass." The politicians' from on high set up an "exit poll" in the form of state testing so they could disregard what I do in the classroom. If it doesn't show up on the test results, it doesn't matter what I did or what my kids actually learned. And, for good measure, they publish the class scores and school rankings in the newspaper, while throwing around statements about "vouchers," probation, reassigning, and "school takeovers."
A Little Discipline
Phi Delta Kappan's annual survey, done every year for more than 40 years, showed that "discipline" was the number one concern of teachers This included all the years that "Assertive Discipline" was the focus of every in-service meeting in every school district, and Lee Cantor's multi-thousand disciples went forth into all the world of education. Now in the year 2001, I am being told that the Discipline With Love, the Cooperative Discipline, and the As Tough as Necessary, movements will at last eliminate discipline as a problem. Yeah! Right! Sure! And Chicken Little said, "The sky is falling and I must run and tell the king, and other fairy tales."
Exercising my prerogative as a veteran teacher who has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, caught his share of truants and bathroom smokers; served, however reluctantly, on self-study committees; performed endless hours of lunchroom duty, bus duty and playground duty; risked heading the subversion and resistance movements in my school; slept through the inane teachers' meetings (with my eyes open, naturally); swung with the pendulum; served on the "bush patrol" at night functions, and learned to "out-bureaucrat" the bureaucrats, I feel imminently qualified to make two observations.
First, it's probably a good thing that schools are not effective. What if educators could actually change kids -- change their attitudes, beliefs, personalities, aspirations, behavior, knowledge, skills, et cetera. What would we have coming out of our schools? A bunch of namby-pambies, who have had a little art, a little music, have learned contempt for civics, and that history is memorizing dates, hate the mention of math, and will never read a book the rest of their lives.
In spite of our best efforts to make them all alike, kids come out as individuals. Personally, I'm glad we have nerds who like to communicate with computers; account types who can figure their own income tax, (and want to calculate mine, too); people who like delving into grease or blood up to their elbows and those who reject being conforming, achievement-anxious, teacher-people pleasers.
Second, in the twilight of my career, spanning more than four decades, I can honestly say that for the first 35 years I saw no change in education: the labels, the cosmetics, the jargon certainly the kids, society, and technology have changed, but the schooling has not. As I walk down the halls, and "Knock On Any Door," I see teachers in front of the class, presenting, directing, lecturing, leading, questioning. I see kids sitting passively, bored, turned off and tuned out. I see the text book and the accompanying worksheets, assignments, pop quizzes, homework, and rote memory as the core of most teaching.
Triumph Of the Text
For all our understanding of, and talk about, the constructivist theory, hands-on activities, brain-based, multi-sensory, contextual, differentiated, culture-based, manipulative, project, cooperative, collaborative, individualized, paired, high tech, authentic learning, I see the triumphant success of the text-book. We spend billions on text books. We adopt, we issue, we assign, we test, we teach the text It is our curriculum. We align our teaching, assessment and curriculum with the text. We have debates over texts, cram kid's backpacks with textbooks, and see teachers helpless and desperate without their text as a security blanket. In any given American History class, how many assignments in the course of a year are given in the text compared to the number of assignments of video tapes newspapers, or cable shows. How many plays, re-enactments, mock trials, debates, and guest speakers are offered? I rest my case!
Remember I said that, for the first 35 years of my career, I saw nothing but superficial changes? I can now report that in the last eight years of my 33 year career, I have seen real significant, profound changes. Sadly, the changes have been for the worse. Perhaps, even more sadly, the changes are particularly insidious because they are systemic, pervasive and come from the highest levels of national and state sources. The singular profound change with many variations, is most commonly known as "accountability," "high stakes testing" or just, "standardized testing" and by various other names such as "raising the bar" and "tougher standards."
Unfair and Unrealistic
The "pressure" created by this movement would be sufficient to condemn it. The threats it poses through ranking kids, teachers, and schools on unfair tests; the unfairness and bias of the tests; and the unrealistic, naive expectations would be sufficient in themselves to make the standardized, norm referenced testing process a disaster. But it has hundreds of thousands of teachers teaching to the test, using the worst possible teaching techniques, and reducing the school curricula to the lowest useless denominator. It has schools eliminating valuable experiences in art, music and even recess so we can prove kids "prepared" for the next grade and their teachers "accountable."
For almost everything one might desire to know about the stupidity and deleterious effects of high stakes testing, including what can be done about it,. read; The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools by Alfie Kohn, 1999, Heinemann Publishing, NH, $10.
Having entered the twilight of my career; having fought hard with what Susan Ohanian calls the "Standardistos,"and still clinging tightly, while bracing once again for the latest swish of the pendulum, I just may just hop off before the next plunge - "I'm not the swinger I used to be."
Note from a teacher reviewing this article:
This is the truth. I cannot fight the battle inside of me much longer. I am down to the point of screaming, "Who cares about my value added results?" When I do what I know in my heart is right, I am not teaching to the almighty test. I am teaching to the person - trying to inspire, motivate, connect, personalize. All, and I do mean all, of my colleagues have expressed utter, total frustration. No matter what might be "right for kids," it must be looked at in the light of test scores. Yuucchhh!