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SCHOOLS THAT WORK
Two titans of education square off on school reform. But both have= important lessons to impart to the nation's troubled schools
They are two guys in tweed jackets. Ivy Leaguers. Professors. Gran= dfathers. They are also vocal critics of America's schools, in a year whe= n education looms as one of the largest issues in the presidential race. = Both are convinced that public school performance is lagging because many= schools are, to put it bluntly, miseducating kids. And both have spent m= ore than a decade trying to help schools out of the wilderness.
But E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Theodore Sizer, each weighing in this fall with= a new book on education, take strikingly different routes to reform. Hir= sch is an educational traditionalist, Sizer a progressive. To Hirsch, kno= wledge is education's brass ring. The sorts of classroom strategies best = suited to knowledge building are often old-fashioned ones: a tough course= of study, book learning, in-charge teachers and lots of testing. To Size= r, schools ought to be about teaching students mental skills, like indepe= ndent and creative thinking. Students' curiosity should drive the curric= ulum. In-depth projects should replace standardized testing. And single-s= ubject teaching ought to be abandoned in favor of interdisciplinary study= =2E
At schools Hirsch has nurtured, like Roland Park Elementary and Middle S= chool on Baltimore's West Side, his philosophy is on display. Students in= Regina White's fifth-grade classroom perform a scene, theater-in-the-rou= nd style, from Don Quixote. Elizabeth Aliberti's sixth-grade pupil= s practice songs from the musical version of Oliver Twist. Each da= y is an expedition into core knowledge, from Bach to Michelangelo to the = science of rainbows.
The atmosphere at Hope Essential High School in Providence, R.I., where = Sizer's ideas flourish, reflects his emphasis on developing students' min= ds. Housed on the top floor of an inner-city building, the 370 mostly Afr= ican-American and Latino students of this school-within-a-school move thr= ough their day in 90-minute sessions. There are few textbooks. Teachers r= arely lecture. The curriculum is divided into four large blocks--math, sc= ience, English and social studies. In many courses, students study only a= few topics intensively.=
Two blueprints for reform. Two visions of what the basics of education s= hould be. While Bob Dole and Bill Clinton tantalize voters with pledges o= f billions of dollars for new tuition plans, new schools and new technolo= gy, Hirsch and Sizer address the most fundamental questions facing the na= tion's classrooms: What should teachers teach, and how should they teach = it? Smart answers to these questions are a sure way to improve schools, w= ith or without infusions of money or machines.
For decades, schooling battles have been fought along progressive and tr= aditionalist lines, and today the two camps are locked in opposition on m= ajor issues ranging from national standards to the teaching of reading. Y= et school reform doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. In fact, it= shouldn't be. Both Hirsch, with his traditionalist allies, and Sizer, wi= th his progressive followers, have valuable contributions to make.
Plato, not Play-Doh. "Vermouth. Half dry. Half sweet. Straight up= =2E Chill it," says Hirsch, Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English at = the University of Virginia, red half glasses dangling on his chest. He's = sitting in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, talking about education and ba= ttling a nasty cold. "Medicinal," he explains, as the waiter leaves.
Nearly a decade ago, the Yale University-trained expert on the English R= omantic poets vaulted into the leadership of the traditionalist movement = when he published a bestselling--and controversial--book, Cultural Lit= eracy: What Every American Needs to Know. In it, he argued that the n= ation's democratic institutions were threatened by a citizenry lacking a = shared cultural vocabulary. The schools' "holiday curriculum"--cutting ou= t paper turkeys at Thanksgiving and the like--wasn't doing the job.
In his new book, The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them,= Hirsch, 68, blasts the progressive teaching methods he says stand in= the way of the wide-ranging cultural knowledge he advocates. Schools rel= y too much on progressive techniques like interdisciplinary instruction, = ungraded work, "hands on" units and "cooperative" learning, he asserts, a= nd such techniques are often used badly. Instead, Hirsch stresses the val= ue of recitation, memorization, standardized tests and other traditional = devices. Verbal instruction, he says, should be an "essential and even do= minant focus of schooling."
Hirsch supports national education standards because he believes that to= give kids the knowledge they need, a school's curriculum has to be presc= ribed. "What kids should know each year should be engraved in stone becau= se the year is the unit of accountability." Able to navigate through Lati= n (as well as German, French and Italian) and always ready to take a comp= uter apart, Hirsch rejects the notion of the "child centered" curriculum,= in which subjects like ancient history and science are withheld from kid= s in early grades in favor of material focused on the students' world. "T= he presumption that the affairs of one's neighborhood are more interestin= g than those of faraway times and places is contradicted in every classro= om that studies dinosaurs and fairy tales," he writes.
In 1986, Hirsch created the Core Knowledge Foundation to help schools im= plement his theories. The foundation, funded in part with the educator's = book royalties, is now working with 350 schools in 40 states, including B= altimore's Roland Park. At such "Hirsch" schools, teaching cultural knowl= edge is indistinguishable from teaching basic skills like reading, writin= g and speaking. A culture-rich curriculum is crucial, Hirsch argues, beca= use a shared cultural vocabulary is a cornerstone of literacy. "To grasp = the words on a page we have to know a lot of information that isn't set d= own on the page," he writes. That knowledge then serves as a kind of inte= llectual Velcro, to which new learning can cling.
Cultural Literacy landed Hirsch in the middle of the then raging = culture wars, with multiculturalists and others on the left denouncing th= e book as elitist and authoritarian. But it was in reality a product of H= irsch's long interest in the theory of writing, a polemic less about the = shape of the cultural canon than about how kids learn to read and write. = In fact, Hirsch says, a traditionally taught core curriculum helps disadv= antaged students the most: "Kids from affluent backgrounds get knowledge = from outside school; those who rely on school to give it to them--disadva= ntaged students--don't get it" because schools aren't teaching it.
Habits of mind. Ted Sizer, 64, has been called an elitist nearly = as often as has Hirsch. Like Hirsch, he believes all kids should get a de= manding intellectual education. But Sizer, a Yalie who was dean of Harvar= d's graduate school of education in the 1960s and headmaster of prestigio= us Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., in the '70s, thinks the way to a g= ood education lies in progressive reforms. In a blistering 1984 study of = the nation's public schools, Sizer deemed the typical high school "a plac= e of friendly, orderly, uncontentious, wasteful triviality," notable most= ly for "the docility of students' minds." In classroom after classroom, h= e found a "conspiracy of the least"--an unspoken pledge by students and t= eachers to demand little of one another.
Like Hirsch, Sizer sought a way to help schools reform themselves. Backe= d by major foundations, he launched the Coalition of Essential Schools, a= n organization housed at Brown University, where Sizer served as educatio= n department chairman. Twelve years and $60 million later, Sizer's coalit= ion has grown to 238 schools, including Hope Essential.
In his new book, Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High Scho= ol, the educator reflects on his years in the school reform trenches.= He again takes aim at educational traditionalism in public high schools,= attacking the "lecture-drill-and-test systems" of many schools, "with th= eir swift march over lists of topics and unconnected material." The avera= ge school, he charges, is "stuck with the notion that a curriculum is pri= marily a list." To Sizer, true education means students who exhibit the r= ight "habits of mind," ask inquiring questions and utilize knowledge in t= houghtful ways.
Crucial to such thoughtfulness, he says, is interdisciplinary instru= ction. Grasping the complexities of a topic like immigration, for example= , requires investigating a host of other seemingly unconnected subjects, = such as history, economics, statistics, geography, even ecology. To encou= rage such probing, he urges schools to reorganize each day into longer bl= ocks of time and to increase team teaching.
High on Sizer's list of educational crimes is the reliance on standardiz= ed testing, a practice he dismisses as "giving at best snippets of knowle= dge about a student and at worst a profoundly distorted view of that chil= d." He calls instead for measuring students' achievement by having them p= resent "exhibitions" to their classmates. He strongly opposes national an= d state education standards, arguing that parents should control what the= ir kids learn through local school boards. To impose nonlocal standards, = he says, is a form of intellectual censorship, "a dangerous and potential= ly undemocratic road."
Common ground. School reform is a difficult road, as Sizer and Hi= rsch readily acknowledge. Sizer's book is far less sanguine than its titl= e suggests. "We are sobered by how hard it is to accomplish change," he w= rites. With Sizer's reform measures come new classroom roles for students= and teachers, and the task of battling union rules and school regulation= s. Faculty turf battles, tradition and simple cynicism have slowed the "S= izerization" of many coalition schools: Only a fraction have introduced h= is entire plan. Not by accident, a portrait of Don Quixote hangs in the c= oalition's offices. Hirsch's curriculum, for its part, demands a far grea= ter grasp of subjects like ancient history than the typical elementary te= acher possesses, and it often runs head-on into local curriculum edicts.<= P> Where the educators' efforts have been successful, however, the results = have been impressive, suggesting that reform is not an either-or proposit= ion, not a matter of selecting one philosophy over the other. To be convi= nced by Hirsch's argument for a core curriculum, one need look no further= than schools like Roland Park, with its diverse student body. Classroom = life in such schools is hardly the drudgery Hirsch's critics claim, nor i= s the course material "Eurocentric" or otherwise elitist. There are units= on African-American scientists, African and Norse myths, Maya culture an= d more. Diversity rules even in gym class, where students perform America= n Indian dances.
Roland Park's curriculum is a far cry from the school's pre-Hirsch versi= on, which was essentially a fat list of skills the Baltimore school syste= m wanted students to master, such as identifying the main idea in a story= or locating a body of water on a map--in other words, a curriculum built= on the belief that skills mattered more than what kids studied. The new = curriculum is far more demanding, but students rise to the challenge. "I = never thought of teaching astronomy or the Roman Empire in the third grad= e," says teacher Pat Wolff. "Originally, I said the kids are not g= oing to read this," adds fifth-grade teacher Regina White, whose students= read abridged versions of classics such as Julius Caesar and the = Iliad. "Now I know differently. Even in remedial classes, t= here's a lot of enthusiasm."
Test scores suggest as much. In the two years since the core-knowled= ge curriculum began, the proportion of fifth graders passing Maryland's s= tate social studies test has jumped from 27 percent to 44 percent; passin= g grades in science have risen from 34 percent to 47 percent and in langu= age usage from 18 percent to 49 percent. Other core-knowledge schools wit= h large populations of disadvantaged students report similar gains.
Attendance up. But if Hirsch's schools prove that traditionalism = doesn't equal mind-numbing learning, Sizer is right to make the culture o= f schools a priority. Too many schools are large, impersonal places; too = many students are alienated and apathetic. In many classrooms, the instru= ction is as dry and lifeless as Sizer paints it; students are required me= rely to parrot surface facts and figures, and many never learn how to put= their minds to good use. Sizer's assessment of standardized testing also= has merit: Tests drive down the level of instruction in many classrooms = as teachers match their teaching to the low-level skills often being meas= ured.
At Hope Essential, breaking the school day into large blocks makes relat= ionships between students and teachers more personal. In turn, student at= tendance is up, discipline problems are down. Interdisciplinary instructi= on gives students a richer understanding of what they are learning, exemp= lified in the student exhibitions so important to Sizer as alternatives t= o standardized tests. Last year, with the O. J. Simpson trial in the news= , a month's study of Shakespeare's Othello in an 11th-grade Englis= h class at Hope Essential culminated not in a multiple-choice test but in= a mock trial of the Moor for Desdemona's murder. Students explored the t= ragedy's insights into marriage, jealousy and responsibility. Their tasks= included reciting portions of the play, writing papers in the form of op= ening and closing legal arguments and a host of other activities.
Such intensive study pays off: Nearly 90 percent of Hope Essential's stu= dents are admitted to college, up from 18 percent at Hope High School bef= ore Sizer arrived. Hirsch himself is not opposed per se to exhibitions or= other Sizeresque methods--if they deliver enough of the right content.
Even Hirsch's conviction that knowledge building is schools' primary tas= k can be partly reconciled with Sizer's view that knowledge is secondary = to the teaching of mental skills, or "habits of mind." Hirsch's focus is = elementary school; Sizer's is high school. Indeed, when he talks about hi= gh school, Hirsch moves closer to Sizer's stance, suggesting that older s= tudents, secure in a broad knowledge base, be encouraged to "focus more n= arrowly and probe more deeply."
Nowhere is the value of merging the best of traditional and progressive = strategies better illustrated than in the thorny question of how best to = teach kids to read. Overwhelmingly, studies suggest that kids need to lea= rn phonics, the building blocks of sound-letter relationships, as traditi= onalists argue. But equally compelling evidence exists that kids learn su= ch skills faster and more thoroughly when teachers use progressive techni= ques to teach phonics, such as asking students to write stories using pho= netic or "invented" spelling.
In the reading debate, as in other school reform issues, many progressi= ves and traditionalists seem more eager to fight than to find common grou= nd, routinely misrepresenting each other's views and needlessly polarizin= g debates at students' expense. It is left to the rest of us to break thr= ough the overheated rhetoric, finding in both sides important pieces of a= national solution.
BY THOMAS TOCH WITH MISSY DANIEL IN PROVID= ENCE
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