Giving aid and comfort to great teachers

Jay Mathews
Columnist May 4

My high school U.S. history teacher, Al Ladendorff, turned his classroom into a laboratory for critical thinking. He even asked us to tell him where the textbook was wrong. My wife Linda’s English and history teacher, Bill Goodfellow, required each student to write a research paper every year, some of them thousands of words long.

Our high schools were ordinary, but they had a few extraordinary teachers, as many high schools have. Smart administrators let Ladendorff and Goodfellow take their students to unusual heights. Unfortunately, the teachers’ methods did not catch on, probably because the forces that ruled American education at the time were not pushing for deeper analysis and more research by students.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

A half century later, we still need those reforms. Most history courses demand little beyond memorization of some names, dates and concepts. Teachers rarely ask students to critique textbooks’ failure to probe neglected topics such as trade law and Supreme Court appointments, as Ladendorff did.

As for writing research papers, private-school students do that, but such work is not required in most public schools, even in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Washington area, except for schools that have the International Baccalaureate program.

These days, the largest force for change in our schools is the movement to install the Common Core State Standards in 45 states and the District. The national standards attempt to inject more complexity into reading assignments and require more in-depth research assignments. They encourage more coherence and focus on key subjects in math, since comparisons with more successful teaching abroad show that American math instruction tends to be too broad and too shallow.

Many people don’t like the Common Core. As is always the case with reforms devised by human beings, some parts of the standards are vague and confusing. In the past, new standards have not produced great jumps in achievement. Some political conservatives see the Common Core as a federal attack on local school decision-making, even though the standards were conceived and developed by state governors.

But the Common Core, particularly its focus on depth, provides encouragement and political shelter to modern-day Al Ladendorffs and Bill Goodfellows who want to challenge their students in unaccustomed ways. Individual teachers who make such leaps often meet resistance from parents, students and colleagues. Why are you making my child question established authorities? Why do I have to write so many papers?

With the Common Core in place, creative teachers have answers for those who think they are going too far: I would like to be more lenient with these students, but the new standards won’t let me. I have to get them ready for a state exam very different from the ones they have had before.

Nationwide changes in school practice can be erratic and slow, but they can make a difference, often for the better in the hands of good teachers. Consider the movement to get more students to take algebra sooner so they can use it in their high school science classes and take higher-order math in high school.

Linda and I were introduced to algebra earlier because the Soviets had orbited the Sputnik satellite two years before we started high school and policy leaders decided it was time for more math and science. A $32 million College Board research project in the 1990s reinforced that notion by showing most students benefited by having Algebra I no later than ninth grade. Math teachers’ ambitious ideas had more traction than they had before because of that policy change.

The usual arguments in favor of the Common Core standards don’t include giving aid and comfort to the Ladendorffs and Goodfellows in our schools. But I think they deserve the support. It is one more good reason to give the changes a try.

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