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Not So Humble Opinion: June 13, 2012

Teachers: Not Really The Issue

At the risk of sounding precocious, I’ve been suspicious of new curriculum initiatives ever since I was 5 years old. Actually, it’s more like I have one very vivid memory from when I was 5 that I only realized the significance of much later, but it certainly planted a seed of wariness.

One day in kindergarten, my classmates were called up to our teacher one at a time during our usual playtime. When my name was called, I nervously approached the desk only to find my teacher pointing to a single word on a page. “Can you read this?” she asked.

“Ah-ah-ah…” five-year-old me responded.

“Apple,” she said, and I can still remember the almost palpable disappointment in her voice. At the time, I was upset because I had let my beloved teacher down. Now, I wonder if she was really disappointed in me because I couldn’t read, or if she was just disheartened by the curriculum she was being forced to teach. She had to ask me to read a word, knowing I hadn’t been taught the skills to sound it out; either I recognized the whole word, or I didn’t.

This was the early ’80s, when phonics was being phased out in favor of the Whole Language system of reading instruction. I never did completely understand it, but I believe it was a system of reading where you were supposed to be able to identify a word in a sentence based on the words around it. It’s not a very intuitive way to learn English (although not a bad way to learn Chinese necessarily, but that’s another topic.)

Needless to say, this whole school of thought never really clicked for me. The situation got so bad later on that my first-grade teacher had to inform my mother that I still couldn’t read. To her credit, my mother did not panic at this news; instead, she rolled her eyes and bought me a basic phonics workbook.

She likes to say that I was reading by the end of the day, but that could be prideful exaggeration; still, whether she’s fibbing or not, phonics worked. In another year’s time, I would go from the classification “Can’t read, poor thing!” to “reads several years above grade level for some completely mysterious reason, and please pay no attention to that non-sponsored workbook behind the curtain.”

This was probably the most egregious example of Karen the student being failed by poor curriculum, but it was far from the only one. I had problems in middle school, but I only survive by pretending middle school never happened, so let’s skip to high school, where I encountered the merry-go-round, Groundhog Day-like charm of the sequential math program.

Now when my father reminisced about his high school math courses, he used terms like algebra, geometry, and trigonometry - grand, robust concepts that even a non-mathematically inclined person like me could wrap her brain around. However, I did not get to take algebra, geometry and trigonometry: I took sequential I, sequential II and sequential III, which was all of those subjects mixed together in a blender, plus some pre-calc if your teacher was feeling particularly sadistic that day.

Instead of learning math concepts as part of larger thematic units, you learned all different kinds of random math in sequence for three years, going a little further in depth with each topic each year. In theory, this ensured that you had the opportunity to frequently review everything you had learned. In practice, you were already bored with all of these topics by the time you got to sequential II, and by sequential III they were practically coma-inducing. It played out like one of those elliptical nightmares you can’t quite wake up from, with the added bonus of long division.

I also endured one year of a combined English-Social Studies curriculum. This wasn’t too bad for social studies, but it thoroughly emasculated the literature; the constant refrain of “what does the literature teach us about the culture you just learned about?” made everything seem banal. Instead of seeing books in terms of stories and characters, each text became a didactic and entirely unnecessary addendum to our social studies textbook. I hated Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart when I read it for this class, only to realize when I read it again later on that it’s really a great book; it was much easier to appreciate it when it wasn’t being used to jam a message about the evils of colonization down my throat.

This is only a few examples of some of the bad curriculum I encountered, and I was lucky enough to attend one of the top-tier school districts in the country. If this was the kind of stuff I had to deal with, what kind of curriculum were most kids in average-to-poor schools seeing? Furthermore, I may not work in education, but from the communications I’ve had with people who do, it’s only gotten worse in the years since I graduated high school.

Criticizing teachers is all the rage right now and sure, there are some bad teachers, but the majority are dedicated to their students. However, my concerns with education are much more basic: What are the kids being taught, and does it make a lick of sense? Has a once important subject been stripped to a desiccated husk of its former self in a well-meaning, but misguided attempt to improve it, because if so, maybe that’s the kind of systemic-level problem we should address first?

Enough about teacher accountability, which is maybe Step 17 in a sensible plan of improving American education; I’d like to hear much, much more about Step 1 first.