Reader's View: History, research often ignored in quest for better schools

December 8, 2013 

We should learn from history, but do we? An excellent example of "non learning" is public education. Early in the last century abuses of child labor led to compulsory school laws. Across the country hundreds of school buildings were built to "contain" children.

For the next 50 years, the primary function of school was containment. Since children of the same age were easier to manage, a lock-step graded, one size fits all school model was in place. Teachers primary task was to maintain order, take roll and let the textbook do the teaching. Discipline was the criterion for success in teaching. Children, regardless of academic performance, were kept with their age group, socially promoted if they failed to learn. Over half dropped out.

In 1900 most of us lived in rural America, on farms and in small towns. We were independent, self-sufficient. Then came World War II, and the world as we knew it was no more. The world shrunk; isolationism was impractical for we were part of an international community. By 1960 most of us lived in urban America and our lifestyles made a paradigm shift.

Along came the information age and social revolution. Technology and machines replaced common labor and created more sophisticated jobs. The job market demanded a high school education or more. Job preparedness became essential to avoid unemployment and excessive welfare. In addition, every citizen should be worldly wise, understand what the founding fathers meant by "freedom of thought, freedom from tyranny, freedom of opportunity."

But change, especially the rapidity of change, has polarized society. Some are able to adjust, but many find change too much. They go into "future shock," the inability to handle change and therefore react negatively, seek to stem the tide, return to the past or even ignore what is.

Beginning with the '40s and '50s, teacher preparation markedly changed as research on learning poured out of universities and foundations. National accreditation demanded that colleges preparing teachers must prepare teachers to be facilitators of learning; be able to deal with all the variables in learning. We know that all children can learn but at different rates, in different ways, in different configurations, the variables which impact learning are infinite. But the present school structure, the containment model with its one-size-fits-all, lock-step design mitigates against effective teaching and learning.

Today teachers do the best they can to help every child learn despite the setting, lack of support, resources and time. Consequently, the quality of student performance has improved but not to optimal levels.

Starting in the '60s some school districts redesigned their system to assure learning. Continuous progress, mastery learning, individualized instruction, large and small grouping patterns, flexible scheduling, differentiated staffing and other models were successful but costly and discontinued.

Unfortunately, the public demand for learning has not translated into an awareness or willingness to pay the cost. Schools for learning cost considerably more than schools for containment, but politicians refuse to recognize that learning costs more.

Instead we have a host of "changes" proposed by politicians, self-serving corporate types, and self-appointed experts who ignore research and propose ideas which only shuffle the chairs. No Child Left Behind, testing, vouchers, charter schools, career ladders, computers, online courses are different but have little effect on learning.

Research indicates what needs to be done, but our self-styled authorities, some interested only in personal profit, ignore the evidence. Across the country and in Idaho, legislators and others openly assert that research is meaningless.

Will we ever learn?

Lilburn E. Wesche, Ed.D., of Boise, is a professor emeritus at Northwest Nazarene University.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service