32. Impact of the Subject Area Mastery in Language Arts

The New Learning Infrastructure is not a patch job. It is a complete overhaul, coming from a different way of thinking about what 21st Century American education should and must be.

Its philosophical underpinnings have been around for a century and more. Central to the progressive movement in the early 20th Century.

Educational philosopher John Dewey led that movement, designed to be compatible with helping all Americans be more democratically engaged.

Dewey believed democratic involvement required a thinking citizenry. People who knew how to reflect, analyze, evaluate, and create. And they did so on a regular basis.

Schools requiring students to gain those abilities support and use curricular depth. While never ignoring foundational skills and knowledge areas. 

Neither do they overemphasize such basic skills as was the case with No Child Left Behind.

These schools recognize that how to read, write, and mathematically compute is critical to everything else in the curriculum. These skills are essential to communicate and create. The ability to read, write, and calculate helps us become better citizens, family members, and workers.

The No Child Left Behind initiative used that rationale. But NCLB bureaucratized and emphasized it so much — curricular depth was hindered in the name of measurable accountability.

NCLB did not attack progressive principles head-on. It succeeded in narrowing curricular imperatives by focusing on baseline skills in reading and mathematics. Through the use of standards, high stakes tests, and constricted application of ESEA funding.

NCLB also redefined accountability through use of data. Based primarily on student performance on high stakes standardized tests. Those data made it possible to classify and compare teachers, schools, districts, and states.

Number-based accountability. Simple, measurable, and seemingly precise and accurate.

But superficial and meaningless in human terms.

The New Learning Infrastructure vigorously accepts accountability. But it is different than numerically driven data and comparative inferences.

The difference is qualitative more than quantitative. It recognizes human diversity. It accepts intelligence as something found in different packages.

Qualitative data are descriptive narrations that paint a picture in which each human being becomes more within many dimensions.

  • More curious and effective.
  • More involved with life.
  • More creative and responsive to new ideas.
  • More effective as leaders or active participants in a dynamic and worthy culture.  

Many policy makers and administrators dislike qualitative data. They believe that type of measurement is not precise enough. Too open to interpretation, human foibles, and behavioral nuances.

Conversely, precision is too robotic. Robotic behavior in human beings was once considered valuable among accountants, technical workers, and others responsible for exacting accuracy.

But the 21st Century has a plethora of machines programmed to be precise. Via programs developed by people creative enough to design and build them.

In deliberations conducted by the subject area committee these points of disparity are laid bare. Teacher participants may not see it that way.

But Rebecca does. And Barbara and Mary must.

Barbara and Mary’s Story – Part 7

Rebecca provided a structure for SAC discussion about the language arts mastery statement. We wrote a work draft of the statement itself.

The work draft came from principles and syntax associated with a more progressive and universal view as to what public education should accomplish. For that reason alone, it will be viewed by some SAC members as blatantly biased in the current political climate.

The same is likely to be true among some members of the curriculum council and school board. They know the language arts curriculum will greatly impact the work of subsequent subject area committees. It will also influence district and school policies.

For that reason alone we are taking a chance.

If language arts SAC members accept our rationale, and create a curriculum characterized by depth, other elements of the curriculum will need to be structured that way.

Social studies would move from a historical overview and governmental basics to an examination of the impact of past events and decisions of leaders.

Math and science, already deeply affected by the STEM movement, could be even more influenced by practical applications that require considerable classroom time.

We had many preliminary discussions with Rebecca and Superintendent Ken Towers. Conversations designed to identify conflicting principles in simple terms.

And attempt to sort them out.

The positive result of those discussions was that both administrators were willing to take the risk. Knowing they would be on the hotseat with the board, parents, and patrons if the new approach became a political issue.

Ken and Rebecca knew that money and school purposes would be prevalent in the minds of some constituents. Those who believed curricular breadth is a product of efficiency. That public schools are meant to produce a competent workforce for a dynamic free enterprise system.

With that administrative go-ahead supporting us, we talked through how we would approach the language arts SAC.  

We knew the commonly accepted perspective is that a K – 12 language arts curriculum looks like an inverted pyramid.

It begins with children as young as five or six, learning basics. It terminates with young adults of 17 or 18 using those basics to expand their literary horizons.

Basic skills in reading and writing are taught in the early grades. Those skills are gradually applied to communicate ideas and information via writing, speaking, reading, and listening.

The usual debate involves transition strategies used in moving from basic skill development to transmission of sophisticated ideas and information.  Two very interdependent realms.

Reading recognition and comprehension, combined with writing and oral expression, are essential tools for human communication. So are listening and understanding.

But tools are important only when they are used skillfully and creatively. That is when things get tricky in curriculum design and teaching methods.

We felt ready to guide the language arts subject area committee toward the possibility of spearheading a district wide movement. It would require a careful approach and patience.

But we felt ready for the challenge.  

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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