Either They're Dishonest or Clueless

Debra J. Saunders

6/1/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
When there's evidence that a traditional form of teaching works well, California educrats are swift to act. Alas, acting means writing a letter that takes umbrage at the notion that traditional pedagogy can work. Last month, the San Francisco libertarian think-tank Pacific Research Institute released a survey that blasted California State University, which trains more than half of California's teachers, for cleaving to "student-centered" instruction. (Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall described the "student-centered" philosophy as fearing that direct teaching "may inhibit the learner, diminishing curiosity and deflating creativity.") The institute cited research that found "teacher-centered" instruction -- where the teacher uses lesson plans, drills and lectures -- to be more effective, especially for poor kids. The institute also found that CSU education schools are knee-deep in the student-centered muck. The survey was not peer-reviewed. One researcher cited in the survey complained to a CSU dean that PRI selectively (if accurately) reported pro-teacher-centered findings, but not contrary information. CSU fired off a letter that attacked PRI's "simple 'either/or' characterizations" such as "student-centered" versus "teacher-centered." Then, defying logic, it endorsed "a highly student-centered approach." "It was such education double-speak," noted Lance Izumi, co-author of the survey, that he felt vindicated. CSU's Paul Spence told me that it is not "helpful" for the institute to put things in such "black-and-white" terms. CSU Dean Paul Shaker called the terms "a false dichotomy." He likened the division to the rancorous reading wars that pitted phonics' fans against boosters of whole language -- that is, who advocate teaching reading by instructing children to look at words in context. Instead of quarreling, he said, smart educators went for "balance." Nice rhetoric -- if you don't know that "whole language" advocates gave lip service to phonics, but refused to teach it systematically, as is necessary. They dismissed it as "drill and kill." Today, a CSU reading text argues that phonics "trains students to be passive and obedient." Where phonics prevailed, faddists convinced educators to include their less-successful methods as a salute to "balance." Of course, even professors who believe in whole language have a right to teach. Those of us who believe in academic freedom would not want to see CSU try to get rid of teachers because their ideas are no longer in vogue. The problem is: Bad, trendy pedagogy appears to be in vogue at CSU, and no official wants to recognize it. Campus mission statements and frameworks extol "constructivist" approaches, "cooperative learning" and "a learner-centered perspective," while deans denounce "either/or." They tell me education isn't about "either/or." Wrong. Either a child graduates from fifth grade, or he doesn't. Either you send your child to public school or private school. Either Gov. Gray Davis is going to have a chat with CSU, or he'll rely on prayer to improve how teachers are taught. You see, when CSU is presented with good arguments for teacher-centered learning, the deans don't want to hear them. They don't see success, they only see choices they don't want to make.