Monday, May 14, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

On the Educational Establishment and its Critics

Today I heard a discussion, almost a robo-documentary, because it was unchanged since the first time I heard or read it, on a National Public Radio program, "Talk of the Nation", which is usually less unintelligent.
So I will break my resolve not merely to opine on current events in these Essays.
For a half century I taught children at every level, and also knew other children in and out of my family, who learned to read slowly and with difficulty.  My most varied experience was while I taught as a Sister in an Episcopalian teaching order.  That dyslexia is varied and real I know very well; besides, I had experience with children who came to our school (Grades K–12) with English as a second language.
I was astonished and shocked to hear the same old arguments in favor of promoting to the next grade or 'keeping back' (as one said then), those who could not read at the end of Grade 3 (most usually, since at that point reading must begin to be used seriously to manage other subjects and understand instructions).
Of course, school districts that can afford them offer tutoring and other remedial programs, but no different  considerations were discussed.
There wasn't even any consideration given to the use of computer programs to let students who needed to get the presentation of, for example, science problems or 'word problems' in arithmetic by hearing them read aloud through earphones or 'buds'.
More gravely, there was no discussion at all of alternative structures of elementary education that do not lock-step all the subjects of the curriculum to the Grades, year by year.
Not only do many schools inspired by Maria Montessori place children flexibly, but I recall observing a school in Berkeley, California, nearly half a century ago, which, observing (it is common knowledge among teachers) that growing children progress variably in verbal and in arithmetical and in spatial and mechanical understanding, with some slow readers or non-readers being quick and advanced in other subjects, had all the children, though age-grouped for homeroom and part of social studies, placed just where they needed to be, for so long as they needed to be, especially in the fundamental verbal and mathematical skills.  Nor did they stay locked in a particular placement.  As soon as the appropriate level was reached, say in decimal fractions, for example, children could move on to another level or category.  And verbal and mathematical expertise could be applied to classification, explication, and quantification of natural sciences.
Now, that's not revolutionary.  And it needn't be more expensive than locked-step Grades and all the problems, and even tragic outcomes, that go with them.
One teaches children in all their variety if one wants a nation of educated adults.  I don't mean that great scientists and philosophers and artists can be made, but to make adults literate and to help children to keep their self-respect while learning as their varieties of mental growth demand does seem to be the only thing that really matters in elementary education.
There.  I won't talk about this again.  But I have taught so many teenagers and undergraduates who are scarred by bad elementary education, and I have been told by any number of very intelligent, even brilliant dyslexics, about their hell in the primary grades, that I thought about this all day long.  N.B.: I'm not even venturing to discuss graver learning difficulties; dyslexia alone is not so hard that a good tutor cannot help with it.