June 23, 2010
What’s Wrong with Our Schools
Whatever happened to common sense in education?
Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, John Long
Whatever happened to common sense in education? If you are a parent, teacher, principal, or school trustee, perhaps this question has crossed your mind. Perhaps you have even heard the same question, or a similar one, from your children’s teachers, your neighbors, or your friends. Whether it is the lack of content in some school curricula, the anti-testing ideology promoted by many educators, the no-fail policies that have been enacted by some school boards, or the pervasiveness of what might be described as “edu-speak” or “edu-babble,” there is growing concern and skepticism with some of the more recent policies and practices in many public schools in North America.
As three educators with considerable experience, we have noticed with increasing concern how a number of these educational policies and practices have departed from what we consider to be common sense. Often we have been dismayed by what we have observed because it is contrary to our understanding of what is required for effective teaching, learning, and school management.
We think that public schools can become more effective for more students if they embrace a critical common sense that can subject the claims of the romantic progressives to serious scrutiny. We hope that our book will empower parents, educators, and others who are themselves already fighting to improve schooling. Also, we hope that our ideas encourage teachers and school administrators to question their own practices, and become more inclined to explain their educational practices to parents and other citizens.
In our view, results and outcomes relevant to the purposes of education should be the basis for the accountability of public schools. This accountability should not be anchored in excessive administrative oversight of the teaching process but in improved students' achievement. It should not be substituted for by the zeal of educational consultants or gurus earnest to have their innovations and prescriptions adopted by teachers, administrators, and school boards. If this means that some of our criticisms and recommendations are provocative to some teachers and administrators, school boards, professors of education, and state or provincial educational officials, then so be it. Trying to improve public schools should take precedence over gaining favor with those who are the educational establishment, an establishment that is not known for its robust debate of educational ideas and practices.
We engage in what may be called “the school wars” with skepticism about the reigning progressive ideology, and with specific attention to the most compelling contributions of common sense and educational research to improved educational practices. We believe that we should not discard educational practices merely because they are traditional. Rather, we should respect and sustain both traditional and modern practices that have proven to be successful. Furthermore, major educational innovations should be subjected to systematic evaluations so that we can scrutinize the claims of their sponsors. You may think that this means more research, testing, and assessment in schools. It does mean this, and we support such efforts wholeheartedly.
We also believe that the so-called progressives trivialize the school's role as an essential instrument of cultural preservation and transmission. They disagree that students need to encounter a socially mandated curriculum. In contrast, we argue that virtually all students who are capable must demonstrate the requisite knowledge and skills appropriate to a grade level before attempting the next one. Also, we argue that students are entitled to the educational rewards and benefits that flow from their ability, motivation, effort, and, of course, their achievements.
Therefore, we recommend, for example, that public schools must shift their focus to teaching and systematically evaluating students’ achievement in core subjects, and to upholding discipline codes more rigorously, especially in secondary schools where the lessons of citizenship can begin to show mature expression. We believe that homework, when properly designed, is an appropriate way of reinforcing basic skills and developing students’ responsibility and independence. Moreover, we see nothing wrong with saying that teachers must be knowledgeable about the subjects they teach and they must be able to deal critically with the promises of change advocates and other enthusiasts of the latest “research-based practices.”
A number of our suggestions may surprise some readers, but give them a fair hearing in the light of your own experience and judgment. The problems that exist in the current system of public education, and intelligent discussions about how we might address them, deserve the attention of us all.
Michael C. Zwaagstra
is a research fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who specializes in education policy. He has extensive teaching experience at a variety of grade levels and currently teaches high school social studies in Manitoba. He received his B.Ed., P.B.C.E., and M.Ed. degrees from the University of Manitoba where he won several academic awards such as the A. W. Hogg Undergraduate Scholarship, the Klieforth Prize in American History, and the Schoolmaster’s Wives Association Scholarship. As an educator, Michael is a strong proponent of raising academic standards, holding schools accountable for their results, and expanding the educational options available to parents. His columns promoting common sense education reform have been published in major daily newspapers including the National Post, Winnipeg Free Press, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, and Calgary Herald. He is also a frequent guest on radio stations across the country. His best-selling first book, What's Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them, was released in mid-2010.