Where Al Shanker Stood: Quick Fixes In Education

In this "Where We Stand" column, which was printed in the New York Times on March 27, 1983, Al Shanker quotes historian Paul Gagnon to argue that we need to think long-term about the purposes of public schooling and agree on a carefully chosen set of education reform priorities. Failing this, they warn, the U.S. will forever be caught in a churn of futile, quick-fix reform initiatives.

It never fails. Whenever there's an educational problem, there's always an attempt to solve it with a quick fix. The current problem - the shortage of science and math teachers - is no exception. A quick fix just won't work. Of course, there are a few things that can be done to ease the problem. The most promising short-run idea is to encourage teachers already teaching in other fields but who have a good background in math and science to switch.

But we won't solve the problem until we know why we have one. It is not just that private industry pays more. It's that there aren't enough students graduating from college in these fields to satisfy the needs of business and the teaching profession. Most students stay away from math and science in college because they didn't get enough of a background in high school. Why? Because math and science course are more difficult than many electives, and most high school students, given a choice between tough courses and easy ones, choose the latter. And it doesn't start there. It goes back to elementary school, and not just with respect to math and science but with the ability to read problems and think them through ... willingness to discipline oneself, to work long and hard.

The following letter was written to The New York Times (but not published) by Paul A. Gagnon, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Its author also sent it to me. It's worth reading and thinking about before we commit ourselves to the latest crash programs:

Fred Hechinger's story, 'Nation Seen as Ready for Better Schools' (Times, February 15th), gives us fresh proof that America has no settled purpose for public education, thus no settled notion of what to teach, and thereby little chance of attracting our ablest young people into teaching, no matter what the short-term incentives. 'Better Schools' for what? For another crash program in mathematics, science and engineering. Why? We are frightened again. On the roller-coaster of educational fashion we are back at Sputnik Rise, renamed Honda Hill. Governor Winter of Mississippi is quoted as saying 'The fate of this country is in the balance,' and Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts wants 1983 to be 'the breakthrough year to make the United States competitive again.'

Bright college students who think of teaching - they are few - will have questions to put. Where were our leaders five years ago? On the carrousel of Foreign Languages and Global Consciousness. Some who answered the Carter Commission's call for new teachers in those subjects may already be out of jobs, or next to go. For that matter, where were our leaders only two years ago, when, in Massachusetts alone, 300 mathematics and science teachers were fired so that budgets could be met? Most to the point, where will they be five years from now? Nobody knows, for we have no steady aims in schooling, only quick fixes for whatever ails us in the morning.

No school subject is respected as worthy in itself or, sadder still to admit in a democracy, as vital to the long-term personal and professional needs of America's young, or to their political maturity. Subjects come and go in national swings of obsession and indifference. We have whirled through more conferences, commissions and crash programs than any people on earth, never pausing long enough to grasp that we shall never achieve effective schools and a seriously professional teacher corps until we manage to respect and to bring into steady balance the three ancient aims of education: preparation for work, for active citizenship, and for private personal cultivation. None alone is enough. Each is needed to nourish the other two. And each implies a good deal of what is most worth teaching to everybody, in all seasons, crises or no.

Where were we forty years ago when the Harvard Redbook on General Education (yes, in mathematics and sciences, too) told us all this? Where are we now that Motimer Adler's Paideia groups tells us once again, in The Paideia Proposal, that a largely common, academic curriculum in the high schools is still the only way to equal, democratic education and to the maximum competence in the greatest number of graduates?

If we had but half-heeded the Redbook in 1945, would new crises have tumbled in upon us every few years since? By steadfastly pursuing each of the three aims of education, we would all along have been teaching, to all of our students, plenty of mathematics and science, foreign languages, literature and the arts, geography and history, instead of filling the high school curriculum (and half the elementary) with modish, meaningless electives. Our latest fright will bring us no lasting reform, for that can proceed only out of sustained democratic purpose. Judging from the instant utilitarianism of the high-tech scare, such purpose is nowhere in sight.

- Shanker Institute Staff