No child left behind & the tapestry of faith

While I was driving today, I was feeling a little sleepy so I listened to a talk radio show — a sure way to raise my blood pressure and wake myself up. They were talking about the “No Child Left Behind” act, and as I listened I realized that the requirements of “No Child Left Behind” closely resemble the educational reform movement going on within the religious education department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). But first I have to tell you more about the talk radio show.

The show focused on a new survey released this week by the Center on Educational Policy (CEP) which assessed the effects of year four of the “No Child Left Behind” act. In order to meet the reading and math requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” according to CEP, many school systems are having to cut back on other subjects. In the words of the report:

71% of school districts reported that they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics — the subjects tested for NCLB purposes. In some districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or both—sometimes missing certain subjects altogether. Some districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessaryto help low-achieving students catch up. Others pointed to negative effects, such as short changing students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that might keep children interested in school. [Link to this passage; scroll down to page vii]

As usual, the show had people who liked “No Child Left Behind” and people who didn’t, and they heaved fairly shrill arguments at each other. But no one got into the deeper issues of “No Child Left Behind.”

At a deeper level, “No Child Left Behind” uses an essentialist philosophy of education — that is, there are certain essential things that people need to know. Essentialism often stresses a “back-to-basics” approach, with a closely defined body of knowledge and facts that must be mastered by all persons. CEP’s report also assumes an essentialist approach, CEP just defines the essential body of knowledge a little more broadly. And on the talk radio show, the argument centered around what should and should not be included in mandated tests. But what if you doubt the validity of the essentialist philosophy?

Just like “No Child Left Behind,” the UUA’s new Tapestry of Faith curriculum plan takes an essentialist philosophy of education. Instead of reading and writing, “Tapestry of Faith” focuses on:

Unitarian Universalist religious identity development, faith development, ethical development, and spiritual development. Big questions, central stories, spiritual practices, sustained anti-bias foci, and UU Principles and Sources….

But the overall philosophy appears to be the same: learners have to learn a few essential things. And the debate over “Tapestry of Faith” has so far ignored the issue of educational philosophy.

What might be alternative educational philosophies? A progressive educational philosophy would emphasize social problem solving, “educating for democracy,” and learning based on the direct experiences of the learners (think John Dewey). A romantic naturalist philosophy would say that we don’t need school at all (think of the “unschooling” movement). A reconstructionist educational philosophy would have learners working towards building a new social order as a part of their learning (think Paolo Friere, or Greg Stewart’s “Way Cool Sunday School”). More possible educational philosophies here.

I’ve been committed to progressive education, in the sense of “educating for democracy,” for many years now. As someone deeply committed to democracy, I find essentialism lends itself too easily to authoritarianism. And the educational debate I want to have would ask which educational philosophy will best support democracy (either in our nation, or in our denomination). But so far, all the educational debate I have heard has stayed at the level of talk radio — it never gets to the deeper philosophical issues.

6 thoughts on “No child left behind & the tapestry of faith

  1. Abs

    I see what you’re saying — and before I worked with elementary special ed. students, I had a different educational philosophy. Before I taught these students I believed in the inclusion model for sped students, and I also believed that these kids need to have those educational experiences that you’re talking about. But then I saw the effects that well-administered, appropriate instruction in reading and writing and math can have on kids who need extra support. My kids actually enjoyed leaving their classroom and coming to see me – even when they were missing something “cool” in class. I’m sure that the reason they were so enthusiastic was that my instruction was providing them with the tools they lacked to make sense of other subjects in school (like science and social studies).

    The key, though, is that the instruction has to be started early enough, taught WELL, and with the goal that the kids will be up to speed and back integrated into their regular class as soon as possible (preferably by the end of fifth grade at the latest). So, does that make me an “essentialist”? I hope not!! But maybe it does…

  2. Administrator

    Abs — I think you bring up the most important point when you say that thing have to be “taught WELL” — any thoughts on how to help teachers teach better?

    As for whether or not you’re an essentialist: The difference between the essentialist and the progressive educational philosophies often comes down to why you teach what you teach. If you’re teaching reading and writing and arithmetic because you know that every kid should have those skills so they can go out and get jobs and stay out of trouble, you’re probably an essentialist. If you’re teaching reading and writing and arithmetic so kids can be good citizens and function in a democractic society (which you believe requires an educated citizenry who can read ballots and understand budgets), then you’re probably a progressive.

    Progressives would also echo John Dewey and say that education isn’t preparation for life, it’s life itself. Therefore those with a progressive philosophy of education are more likely to work with the direct experiences that kids have. I believe this echoes what you say when you comment that your sped kids wanted to learn how to read so they could go and do things like science and math: you were drawing on the direct experiences of those kids. Actually, most of the sped teachers I have known have been more on the progressive side of things — from experience, they know that you have to start where the kid is and go from there.

    Hope this all makes more sense….

  3. ms michelle

    I think this is yet another VERY important bit of writing from you, Mr. Rev. Dan, and really think YOU need to write the text book…

    if not, I’ll have to incorporate YET another exceedingly long quote from you in the next draft of the UU text book of mystagogy and pedagogy (soon to be a major motion picture)…

  4. Jean

    Essentialism also makes it quite simple to get rid of “problem” kids. I worked in our local high school for a year, and watched how kids get weeded out. Often if a kid wasn’t getting math/english/whatever essential skill, he or she would be labeled a “problem” kid, a kid who didn’t “want” to learn; not wanting to learn would translate into punishment (detention) which would take the kid out of the classroom and dumped into a basement room where the kid would then be forced to sit in one of those desk chairs, not allowed to read or write or talk or anything. Just sit there. Clearly, no learning of anything — essential or otherwise — took place. Or maybe it did. The kids learned this: if they’re different, or frustrated, or bored in a classroom where rote learning is taking place — and, yes, often essential skills are taught that way; they don’t have to be, but they often are — their difficulty in the classroom was never an indication of anything wrong with the classroom. It was an indication of something wrong with them. These kids may not have started out as “problem” kids, but they learned how to become just that. And, need I add: most of these kids were from lower income families, or of a different race than white.

    An anecdote, maybe a non sequitur: One of the worst teachers in that high school, a man who found great pleasure in ousting “problem” kids, has retired, become a realtor, and now lives in a huge house, in a very white, very wealthy neighborhood. One, I presume, with no “problems.”

  5. Rudy

    I will answer your question to Abs (I know her and will take a liberty) on how to make teachers teach better and say that the answer is in your other sister’s blog. Pay teachers more, make teaching a cool profession, attract talent, and give them the respect that they deserve. Hello????????????

    But then again, I live in a dream world where everybody has 8 toes per paw. Meow.

  6. Administrator

    Rudy — Duuude! ya big black-and-white-and-furry bag of purrs! good to hear from you. I think you’ve hit on an important point. I would only add that one of the (unintended?) results of an essentialist educational philosophy is that it has tended to lower the perceived importance of teaching.

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