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An Interview with Martin Rochester

Mar 18, 2013 by

J. Martin Rochester is Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Loui

J. Martin Rochester is Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science
at the University of Missouri-St. Loui

Michael F. Shaughnessy -

  1. You have not written a book-length k-12 education book since Class Warfare 10 years ago. What has changed since then?

A lot has happened –the growth and demise of No Child Left Behind, the development of the Common Core standards and the Obama administration’s efforts to tie school reform to the efforts by Bill Gates and others to base reform on assessment of teacher quality and student learning outcomes, and other developments as well. However, especially in k-12, the more things change the more they stay the same.

I am reminded of the comment of Arthur Levine, the former head of Columbia University Teachers College, made around the time I wrote Class Warfare: “We will never have national standards since the conservatives do not like national and the liberals [progressives] do not like standards.” This is essentially still the case, as these battles are still being fought on both sides of the political spectrum.

More importantly, I have not seen one iota of progress in improving academic standards in k-12 in terms of rigor and challenge.

  1. You have published several article-length commentaries, such as “The Progressive View of School Choice,” in Flypaper (Fordham Foundation) on January 17, 2013. Could you summarize the main points for us here?

Just as when I wrote Class Warfare, the “progressive education” paradigm still dominates much of k-12 in the United States, that is, the stress on the “student-centered,” “active and cooperative learning” classroom. Although some traditional pedagogy has made a bit of a comeback, the schools of education still dominate the training and credentialing of k-12 teachers along with their in-service professional development; and there is no question that schools of education remain as hopelessly committed to progressive pedagogy as ever.

What prompted the article was an interview I had with a local high school principal in St. Louis. I lamented the fact that it was getting more and more difficult to get students in k-16 to read dense gray text (aka books) since they were so used to the instant gratification of the Internet (the Wikipedia sound-bite culture, the click-click of the mouse, glitzy graphics, texting and tweeting, etc.). His response to me was that “today’s students are so much smarter than yesterday’s students since they, unlike in the past, choose their own books to read.”

I was flabbergasted that the mere act of choice is now equated with increased intelligence and academic rigor, as if “I choose, therefore I am” is the new mantra of education. I noted that this mindset led at my own local high school to a student in an Honors English class selecting Paris Hilton’s autobiography as the semester research project, and I had to wonder how many kids, given the choice, might choose, say, Moby Dick. The larger point was that it is strange that, at a time when so many educationists do not want to expand parental “school choice,” they do want to expand the choices open to children.

  1. You also wrote “In Defense of the F-Word in K-16 Education,” which was also published in The Flypaper on May 31, 2012. What were the main points you tried to make there?

The F-word refers to failure, i.e. flunking students. I noted that the entire “self-esteem” paradigm that most k-12 schools had adopted in the 1990s translated into administrators telling staff that “failure is not an option,” so that this only fueled grade inflation and made it almost impossible for teachers to flunk kids even if they made no real academic effort; students were being given at least a passing grade even if they turned in no work, on the assumption that they could never recover from a zero or even a grade of 50, deserved or not.

This was grounded in the work of Rick Dufour and other education gurus who wanted to put all the onus on the teacher on whether students succeeded or not, and presumed that the proper “intervention” could produce a passing grade. These same k-12 products then entered my classroom with the attitude of the student I had recently failed who told me “you should be embarrassed to fail a student.” She had done no work in the course, but assumed, thanks to her k-12 experience, that I was the one to blame.

4) What do you see as the problems with the “student-centered” paradigm that dominates so much of k-12?

Some student-centered learning of course is appropriate and good. However, it is utterly naïve and pretentious to think that children can take the lead in their education as much as ed schools urge. As I say in my book, little Johnny and Shirley can barely find the potty, yet –with reggio and similar pedagogy, as early as preschool — they are now supposed to do “critical thinking” and decide whether to read or play in the sandbox and, again, if they read, pick what to read.

I recall an instructional tech guy named Bob Clapp leading a workshop on my campus several years ago, when he claimed “we are now moving from the old model of “teacher 90% and student 10% to student 90% and teacher 10%.” I said that was a bunch of claptrap and asked whether anyone had ever calculated how much wasted time occurs when you have students who know almost nothing interacting with other students who know almost nothing. I also wondered why we were going to pay so much money to instructors for glorified day care, whose job was mainly putting kids in a circle for “pair-share.”

5) Now, can we discuss grade inflation? How pervasive a problem is it? And how much of a problem does it cause when these student reach college ?

The problem is huge. There is a real reluctance to grade with strict standards. It is partly due to a kind of “Alfie Kohn” resistance to grading and competition that infects much of the k-12 culture. But it is also a collective action problem, meaning that, even if a school board recognizes the problem and wants to mandate that staff grade in a more rigorous fashion, there is a reluctance to issue such an edict since there is a fear that their district’s students will be disadvantaged when they apply to colleges unless all districts grade equally rigorously. When students get to college, they are used to passing if they have a pulse and used to getting the “gentleman’s C” if they do just the minimum of work.

What is more, colleges are now being pressured to adopt the k-12 “coddling” paradigm by instituting all kinds of “support and retention” (aka remedial) services, partly because so many students are in need of such and used to such and partly to keep the cash register “cachinging”, so that students stay in school and keep paying tuition. Indeed, at my university, the multicultural relations office just instituted “relaxation” and “stress-reducing” activities around mid-term exams that included yoga exercises, anything to keep students happy and not too stressed, never mind that they study less and less. See the recent book by Prof. Arum, Academically Adrift, that documented the decline in studying by college students in recent years. So, the relaxation of standards in k-12 is definitely affecting higher education.

6) There seems to be an unwillingness to flunk students. Even when I taught, I was accosted by principals who pretty much demanded that some type of “extra credit“ be conjured up somewhere, somewhere, someway. Is anyone studying this phenomenon?

I know of no studies on this. Extra credit as much as anything has contributed to grade inflation. It is not only extra credit. It is also the “redo” culture, that is, if at first you don’t succeed, you get second and tenth chances to redo exams and papers.

7) Let’s talk student responsibility for learning- what is your perspective on this?

There are several “villains” who contribute to our k-12 “problem.” First are the students themselves – too many students fail to be willing to do the work, period. Next in rank order are the parents, who too often make excuses for their kids not turning in homework or papers on time; the 1966 Coleman Report rightly noted there is a limit to what schools (teachers) can do in the absence of strong home support systems (parents who turn off the TV, read to their kids, insist on respect for the teacher etc.). Next come the education schools and the administrators who parrot their latest education school training, who push pedagogies that are a disaster (e.g., whole language reading instruction, fuzzy math, and other such curricula) and also do not support teachers when it comes to enforcing discipline of disruptive kids.

Next come teachers themselves, who also often buy into the latest fads without protest and who take Mickey Mouse “grad” courses in education schools rather than serious, demanding advanced courses to deepen their subject matter expertise of the discipline they teach, all to move up the salary scale. And finally I would list boards of education, most of which are clueless about these problems, who should be pushing for such reforms as merit pay but too often are afraid to rock the boat.

The point is that I agree with folks like Diane Ravitch that movies like Waiting for Supermen put too much of the onus for failure on teachers; but she and others fail to acknowledge the complicity of schools (administrators and teachers at times, in league with education schools and the professional development industry). So kids/families are partly to blame, but also schools.

8) Now, what about the family’s responsibility? Can it be evaluated, should it be evaluated, and how so?

The family, as noted above, has a major, prime responsibility. I should add that some like Diane Ravitch want to blame “society,” that is, poverty. But this is being too charitable to parents and taking them off the hook too easily. After all, how much money does it take to turn the TV off? How hard is it to take your kid to the local public library, which has a free, inexhaustible supply of books in almost any community of any size? Poverty can be an obstacle, but we see too many poor parents overcome such obstacles to think poverty is destiny. Take the case of Dr. Ben Carson, head of pediatric neurology at Johns Hopkins Medical School, an African –American who grew up dirt-poor and , according to him, had a mother who could barely read but nonetheless found a way to impress upon him the importance of education.

Let me add that I do not mean to be so critical of Diane Ravitch, since I have great respect for her as a giant figure in k-12 who inspired much of my own thinking, but I feel she has limited her latest criticism to “the suits” (Bill Gates and the corporate types pushing for greater accountability) when the culprits are much broader.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

We could talk for hours on this subject, but this should do for now. The only other observation I would make is that it speaks volumes as to how confused the current k-12 discourse is when within conservative ranks –the ranks that have led the way in calling attention to the need for improvements over the years – not only have the likes of Ravitch done an about-face but there is considerable disagreement, especially surrounding the Common Core standards (e.g. Checker Finn and the Fordham Foundation has been generally supportive of the standards project while folks like Sandra Stotsky, Will Fitzhugh, and Williamson Evers have spoken out against them).

J. Martin Rochester is Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, One University Blvd. St. Louis, MO 63121

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