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Why are schools of education such an oxymoron?

By Michael R. Shannon
web posted November 29, 2010

Most of the problems of modern public education originate outside the school building. The locus of the worst influences are schools of education that turn out teachers and administrators who have absorbed four to six years of fantasy–based theory and practice.

If these dreamy theories were confined to Ed schools the situation would be tenable, but that's unfortunately not the case. Implementation of these fads and fancies does real damage.

The most recent example takes place in West Potomac High School, located in Fairfax County, VA, where Principal Cliff Hardison attempted to deal two body–blows to education standards by first eliminating the 'F' from report cards and following that with a policy banning zeros for students caught cheating on tests.

I don't think anyone with a mere bachelor's degree would have the necessary woolly–headed thinking process required to formulate and then implement two policies like this, so I'm guessing Hardison has at least a master's degree in Education. Maybe even a doctorate.

Cheaters and the indolent were strongly in favor of these changes, once someone woke them and read the announcement. Unfortunately for Principal Hardison, outraged parents formed an organization called Real World, Real Grades to fight the changes. Parents were joined by teachers who could see how making high school an academic consequences–free zone would undermine their authority and the student's motivation.

Evidently the backlash took Hardison completely by surprise (another indication of a man with a rich fantasy life) and he was forced to backtrack on both.

His explanation regarding his reasoning pretty much makes my point. Hardison is an acolyte of "mastery learning" one of the newer Ed school fads. Most parents were under the impression we already had a very successful system commonly known as grades for indicating "mastery" of a subject. An 'A' indicates complete mastery, 'B' somewhat less "mastery" and so on.

But in Ed school grades are "punitive" and can be "false" measures of what students know. So what's "false" about an 'A?' At my house the son earns ten bucks for each 'A' on his report card and the grade is a useful rule of thumb for evaluating if he learned anything.

As for cheating, it is back on the forbidden list — along with bullying, drugs, weapons, OTC medicine, prescription medicine, traditional views on sex, traditional views on sexual orientation, traditional views on sex education and Christmas. Cheaters will once again receive a zero on their test.

Prior to Hardison's backtracking, his views on cheating had been influenced by "grading experts" producing a belief on his part that cheating should "result in a disciplinary consequence separate from an academic consequence." So under the new regime test cheaters would be given a chance to take an alternate test, but would also be denied privileges and be required to take an "ethics" study accompanied by a series of self–esteem booster shots.

This is the academic equivalent of allowing embezzlers to retain the money thereby keeping the incarceration consequences separate from the economic consequences. This soft tolerance for dishonesty also devalues the hard work of the students who studied for the test and made their grade without resorting to cheating.

This refusal to adhere to standards and recognize absolutes is not confined to secondary education. It permeates higher education, too. A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni revealed that students graduate from elite schools, including Yale, Brown, Cornell and Amherst, without being required to take any courses in math, science, history, economics, language, literature and composition.

Dean Katherine Bergeron, an apologist for academic apathy, told the Washington Post her goal is to teach students how to think, solve problems and change the world, not "download a compendium of facts."

But what do students think about when they are ignorant of the basics of history, philosophy, economics and literature? It's like building the most powerful computing hardware in the universe, yet not providing the finished product with any programming. You produce potential without purpose.

Closer to home, the redoubtable Principal Hardison suffered a setback but has not given up. This particular parent rebellion is only a small bump on the road toward his goal of a "smoother transition" to new learning and grading approaches.

In his public statement Hardison explains, "This initiative is a paradigm shift that conflicts with traditional grading practices... We will examine how we can avoid using grades punitively because our transformation into a Professional Learning Community (PLC) compels us to define essential learning, reward mastery learning, and tackle necessary teaching about responsibility and personal accountability in different ways than we have done in the past."

Translation: I'm waiting for the furor to die down, so I can complete West Potomac's transition to buzzword–based learning. ESR

Michael R. Shannon is a public relations and advertising consultant with corporate, government and political experience around the globe. He's a dynamic and entertaining speaker and can be reached at michael–shannon@comcast.net.

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