'Teaching to the test': Part III

Posted: Aug 22, 2002 12:00 AM

While we ought to learn from our own experiences, it is even better to learn from other people's experiences, saving ourselves the painful costs of the lessons. In the case of the dominant educational fads of our times, many have been tried out before in other countries. Their failures there should have warned us that they were likely to fail here as well.

Our education establishment's objections to "teaching to the test" are echoes of what was said and done in China during the 1950s and 1960s, when examinations were de-emphasized and non-academic criteria and social "relevance" were given more weight. In 1967, examinations were abolished.

This was an even bigger step in China than it would be in the United States, for China had had extensive examinations for more than a thousand years. Not only were there academic examinations, for centuries most Chinese civil servants were also selected by examinations.

A decade after academic examinations were abolished in China, the Ministry of Education announced that college entrance examinations "will be restored and admittance based on their results." Why? Because "the quality of education has declined sharply" in the absence of examinations and this had "retarded the development of a whole generation of young people."

Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, complained about "the deterioration of academic standards" and said, "schools have not paid attention to educational standards and instead overemphasized practical work; students' knowledge of theory and basic skills in their area of specialization have been disregarded."

None of these failing educational fads was unique to China. They went back to the teachings of John Dewey, whose "progressive" ideas shaped developments in American schools -- and especially American schools of education, where future teachers were trained. Moreover, Dewey's ideas were tried out on a large scale in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, before they had achieved similar influence in the United States.

During a visit to the Soviet Union in 1928, Dewey reported "the marvelous development of progressive educational ideas and practice under the fostering care of the Bolshevik government." He noted that the Soviets had broken down the barriers between school and society, which he had urged others to do, and said, "I can only pay my tribute to the liberating effect of active participation in social life upon the attitude of the students."

Here we see the early genesis of the current idea in today's American schools that the children there should be promoting causes, writing public figures and otherwise "participating" in the arena of social and political issues. Another progressive educator, W.H. Kilpatrick, was likewise exhilarated to find that his books were being used in Soviet teacher training programs.

Kilpatrick was also delighted to learn that the three Rs were not being taught directly but were being learned "incidentally from tasks at hand." Here was the basic principle behind today's "discovery learning."

Even as visiting progressive educators from America were gushing over the use of their ideas in Soviet schools, the bad educational consequences were turning the Soviet government leadership against these fads. The commissar who had imposed progressive education on Soviet schools was removed shortly after John Dewey's visit.

When the romantic notions of progressive education didn't work, the Soviet and Chinese governments were able to get rid of them because they were not hamstrung by teachers' unions. They were able to restore "teaching to the test"-- which was not very romantic, but it worked.

The "barriers between school and society," which Dewey lamented, existed for a reason. Schools are not a microcosm of society, any more than an eye is a microcosm of the body. The eye is a specialized organ which does something that no other part of the body does. That is its whole significance.

You don't use your eyes to lift packages or steer automobiles. Specialized organs have important things to do in their own specialties. So do schools, which need to stick to their special work as well, not become social or political gadflies.