From “Dreams of Better Schools,” a review of two new books on American education in The New York Review of Books comes this gem on continuities in public education policy over the last nine years:

So it is all the more remarkable that it was under George W. Bush, a president full of platitudes about the virtue of local autonomy and the folly of “big government,” that Washington entered the field of public education more aggressively than ever before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, supported by many liberal Democrats, notably the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, required that states institute standards defining what students must learn grade by grade, test student achievement school by school and district by district, and improve—or, in the absence of improvement, eliminate—schools that fail to meet the standards.

In general, the Obama administration remains committed to such mandates. As part of the “stimulus package,” it has announced plans for dispensing some $4 billion on a competitive basis to states that adopt what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls “common, internationally benchmarked K–12 standards.” The new initiative is called “Race to the Top,” and one of its provisions encourages the growth of charter schools that are exempt from many of the regulations governing the hiring, firing, and promotion of teachers, and whose charters are subject to revocation depending on performance as measured chiefly by test results.

So the new boss is not that different from the old boss, educationally-speaking. Tenure is under attack everywhere, by everyone. Republicans like doublespeak. Shocking claims, I know.

But here’s the part that really gets me riled up:

Rose, by contrast, observes a gifted teacher reading a story called A House for Hermit Crab with her first-grade students. She has furnished the classroom (probably at her own expense) with a glass case containing live crabs, and has the students watch their behavior in different environments—cold water, warm water, dry surfaces—and then write about what they have seen. The exercise helps them learn how “to observe closely and record what they see, to form hypotheses, to report publicly on their thinking, to gain the feeling of being knowledgeable.” And it is also an introduction to the pleasure of writing as an act of communication. For Rose, a good teacher can turn almost any material to good use.

To which this professor of English literature replies: would it kill you to use literature to teach literature–instead of using it as a mere gateway to science or social studies?

A lot of people rightly note that some college-professors cop-out of their responsibilities as teachers by blaming primary and secondary schoolteachers. Of course this happens. But on the other hand, it’s easy to take that stance too far. As a teacher who wants to teach his students as they come to him, it seems useful to think critically about the kinds of training they’ve had before they walk through my door. You do this not to sling blame, but to try to understand what they’ve taught your students so that you can build on it.

Sadly, when it comes to teaching literature and reading, the answer is too often “not much”:

Although stories and poems play a prominent role in the education of children, literature itself is rarely the subject of teaching–at least not in North America. Young children reading Charlotte’s Web might be asked to develop their language skills by inserting vocabulary words into webs made of twine and hung in the classroom, or to expand their creativity by exploring what it feels like to try looking radiant, or to build their knowledge by developing an interest in the habits of spiders. But in American and Canadian classrooms, they’re seldom asked, as they are more often in Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, to consider a text as a text–to explore the ways in which is provides the pleasures of literature we outlined in the previous chapter.

Even when texts aren’t being used at the basis for vocabulary or science lessons, study of them tends to focus on nonliterary concerns. Standard guides…define literature as vicarious experience that offers children insight into the feelings of others, as a transmitter of cultural heritage, and as a resource for the development of cognitive and linguistic skills. These guides say much about the usefulness of literature in teaching these subjects and skills but surprisingly little about literature itself, or about the means by which ardent readers respond to it, think about it, and take pleasure in it. In fact, the educational uses of these guides recommended in these guides distort the experience of reading in a way that might actually prevent children from enjoying it. Ardent adult readers of literature and children who happily read it on their own don’t often do so as a means of investigating spiders or of conscientiously setting out to learn how to be more tolerant or more imaginative….People who like reading literature read it, primarily, because they enjoy the experience of reading it. They like doing it in and for itself.
–Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 3rd ed. (2002)

Of course, anyone who teaches in a university English department knows what comes next, regarding composition outcomes. I am not even going there.

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