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WHO SPEAKS FOR OUR SCHOOLS? Daniel Tanner Rutgers University "American schools are in trouble," declares John Goodlad in the opening words of _ A Place Called School, his penetrating study of schooling.1 But in the course of the history of American public education, there has never been a time when the public schools were not in trouble. Each epoch in the development of American public education has been marked by new waves of attack and new demands for reform only to be followed by counterreforms to undo the excesses of the predecessor reforms. The new attacks and demands have an old ring about them. Somehow it seems as though we have been there before, that we are verifying Mark Twain's Law of Periodic Repetition, "Everything that has happened once must happen again and again and again — 2 and not capriciously, but at regular periods, and each thing in its own period." Yet the attacks cannot be taken lightly because so much is at stake, and because each period is marked by a successive generation to be educated. Each new era of reform or counterreform has become a kind of ceremony in which our school leaders await the signal indicating the dominant tide to ride in a particular period. In the words of Kafka, "Leopards break into the temple, and drink the sacrificial chalices dry. This occurs repeatedly, again and again; finally it can be reckoned on beforehand and becomes a part of the ceremony." The Leopards have broken in and have done their thing, and so once again we can begin our ceremony here today. If our response is to be more than ceremonial, if our response is to be constructive, we shall have to reconstruct the educational situation — giving due recognition to the great accomplishments of the oldest public school system the world has known and the first system to be committed to open-access secondary and higher education . At the same time, we shall need to reconstruct the educational situation with a view -9- -10toward effecting needed problem-solutions, rather than following the dominant tide of the times. Sigmund Freud once commented, "There is a common saying that we should learn 3 from our enemies. I confess that I have never succeeded in doing so." One cannot say that our schools have not sought to learn from their enemies. During the short span of time since midcentury, our schools have shifted their priorities many times in response to their blamers. Witness how readily the schools shifted from the "back-to-basics" retrenchment of the early 1950s to the discipline-centered curricula with priority given to the sciences and mathematics during the late 1950s and early 1960s; from the discipline-centered curricula and "pursuit of academic excellence" to the call for "relevance" and "humanizing" the curriculum during the late 1960s and early 1970s; from "relevance" and "humanizing" to the retrenchment of "back-to-basics" during the late 1970s and early 1980s; and from "back-to-basics" to the contemporary call for "academic excellence" with the priority given to the sciences and mathematics. Witness the shift from the focus on the gifted and talented during the era of the Cold War and space race, to the priority given the disadvantaged during the "War on Poverty," and now back again to the gifted and talented. After more than a decade of curriculum retrenchment through "back-to-basics," public school educators would appear to be justified in welcoming the current wave of "national" reports calling for curriculum reform and greater financial support for our public schools at the state and federal levels. Anyone familiar with curriculum history could have predicted that the "back-to-basics" syndrome could not last. From the vast body of research over many decades on the so-called "essentials" or "basic skills," the lesson conveyed in the professional literature is that the fundamental skills are ineffectively developed when taught as ends in themselves — devoid of ideas and stripped from opportunities to develop the working power of intelligence. Thus it should not have come as any great surprise when reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress began alluding to the "back-tobasics " emphasis in seeking explanations...


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