Amateurs amok -- call in the pros
By Marion Brady
Special to the Sentinel
March 27, 2005
'War is too important to be left to the generals."
So said Georges Clemenceau, twice prime minister of France in the early 20th century. Generals, he thought, were likely to be short on perspective, with imaginations hemmed in by military backgrounds, training and experience.
That possibility notwithstanding, it doesn't take too much digging into history or current events to know that ignoring professional military expertise isn't usually a good idea.
What Clemenceau should have said, then, is "War is too important to be left entirely to generals." Amateurs will sometimes be able to see a problem freshly, but when there's a battle to win, a heart to transplant, a bridge to build, an airliner to fly, deciding whether to go with an amateur or a professional is easy. When a job is difficult and important, we call on professionals.
Except in education. After the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, business leaders decided that education was too important to be left to professional educators. So they used their political clout not to help professional educators, but to shove them aside and take over.
The public went along. And goes along. Thoughtful people who'd consider it crazy if politicians told surgeons how to operate, engineers how to build bridges, or airline pilots how to fly, see nothing wrong with educational amateurs in Washington and state capitols running the education show. The nation's governors recently wrapped up this year's education-policy conference, issuing for the umpteenth time their standard education-reform formula: "Raise the bar, especially in math and science."
America is now deep into an amateur-engineered, single-strategy educational experiment. TEST! PASS! FAIL!
Many amateurs think this is a wonderful, long-overdue policy. Indeed, it seems to make so much sense that teachers who question it are likely to be viewed with suspicion. Good teachers, many believe (those deserving to be called professionals) constantly "raise the bar." Good teachers welcome being held accountable. Good teachers aren't overly concerned with students' self-concepts. Good teachers raise test scores.
Professionals know it isn't that simple. To cite a minor example of educational complexity: Professionals know that the areas of the brain that control mathematical thinking usually kick in earlier in boys than in girls -- sometimes as much as four years earlier. Girls eventually catch up, and after about age 12 there's no measurable difference in innate ability, but, in the meantime, there's that third- or fourth-grade standardized test the amateurs have put in place.
So what often happens? Little girls take the test. Then they (and their parents) jump to false conclusions about a lack of mathematical ability, conclusions that may follow them through school and life, forever affecting performance and school and career choices.
An amateur-mandated, high-stakes, standardized test -- a test that ignores male-female differences -- turns what the professional knows is a non-problem into a potentially serious problem.
That kind of thing happens all the time. Amateurs think there's a "standard" level of reading for 9-year-olds. Professionals know better. Amateurs think that kids who can't read "at grade level" can't learn anything else. Professionals know better. Amateurs think test-makers know how to write culture-neutral tests that precisely measure skills and abilities. Professionals know better. Amateurs think hanging negative labels on kids and schools doesn't seriously affect performance. Professionals know better.
Why do the amateur educators in the Business Roundtable and Congress enjoy more respect and influence than professional educators? There's a slew of possible sociological explanations, but a simple one is important. As in everything else, the less known about something, the simpler it seems to be. What separates amateurs and professionals is ignorance of complexity, and when it comes to complexities, every kid in every classroom is a walking bundle of them.
Take the matter of grade retention. Professionals know that "grade level" is an invented, arbitrary idea left over from the school-as-factory era, know that academic gains from grade retention are almost always temporary, know that kids mature at different rates, know that individual differences are America's greatest intellectual asset, know grade repeaters rarely graduate, know we've created no alternative career paths for "non-standard" kids, know that helping helps a lot more when kids don't think they're stupid. And they know this just begins the list of complex issues being ignored by grade-retention legislation.
If the fog of political rhetoric ever lifts and the true state of education in America becomes clear, don't blame the professionals for the chaos. Their opinions have been ignored for years.
Marion Brady, a longtime educator, lives in Cocoa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.
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