The foibles of progressive schooling prompt a search for a better alternative
By Warren Kozak
Here’s how my formal education began: On a September morning in 1957, my mother and I walked the block and a half to 53rd Street School on Milwaukee’s northwest side. We went to the school office, she filled out some forms, said goodbye and “see you at lunch.” Here was another Kozak for the Milwaukee Public Schools to educate.
There was, of course, no choice, which made the entire process much simpler. Since we weren’t Catholic, the parochial alternative wasn’t an option, and if there were any private schools in Milwaukee at the time (there was one), I’m sure my parents never considered it.
There was good reason for my parents’ carefree attitude. The public school system in Milwaukee circa 1957 was first-rate. The teachers were committed professionals. The curriculum had not changed appreciably since my parents’ day. They were satisfied with their experience and found the public schools perfectly adequate for their children.
Twelve years later I graduated from John Marshall High School. I left for Madison the following fall, and that was that. The city and state had done their part. Now it was up to me.
More than 40 years later, the tables had turned. Now I was taking my child to school, not in Milwaukee but in New York City, and the process was more complicated and not necessarily better.
After looking at the public, private and religious options, we decided on a private school at an exorbitant cost. What I soon discovered was that, unlike paying more for a suit or a car, you don’t automatically get a higher-quality education when you pay top dollar.
My child was accepted at a nearby school that was famous for its brand of progressive education. What sold me were the school’s reputation and the nice walk up the street every morning. Even though we live in New York City, this brought back memories of my own neighborhood school.
It wasn’t until her second year at this school that I realized reputation is not always deserved and location is irrelevant. I began to question what exactly progressive education meant or at least how this school defined it. Fundamental skills-reading, writing, arithmetic-were no longer the foundation. Instead, there were creative exercises that, I was told, would teach students practical applications for the basics.
On further inspection, the lessons struck me as silly and overtly political. I saw a clear bias in the teaching of history that included some blatant misinformation. The lessons seemed to be a form of indoctrination. This hardly fostered critical thought.
Ironically, this new form of teaching had evolved after questioning the old form (think Milwaukee 1957). Yet I quickly discovered that this approach was strangely resistant to any criticism itself.
The indoctrination went beyond the history lessons. It permeated the entire culture of the school. No national holidays were celebrated except for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I believe MLK is an important part of our history, but so are Lincoln, Washington and the veterans we honor on Memorial Day for sacrificing their lives for our freedom.
On Columbus Day, our child was taught the arrival of white Europeans on this continent was really more a tragedy than anything to celebrate. When I raised questions about this, I was first ignored. When I persisted, I was ostracized.
The school could be genuinely bizarre. In the after-school chess program, which our daughter loved, there were no winners and losers (in chess?) because, I was told, all children were gifted in their own way. Competition was oddly snuffed out. Strange since we live in one of the most competitive cities on earth.
I dismissed my worries at first, realizing that I was not an educator. But there was one seemingly innocuous incident that finally made me wonder if we had made the right choice.
It was, of all things, my daughter’s first piano recital. In my 1950s mentality, a recital was a big deal, and it meant getting dressed up. I helped pick out my daughter’s best dress for the concert.
Upon arrival I realized she was the only child dressed up for the event. Worse, the other kids looked like slobs, with basketball jerseys down to their knees or similar garb. There was no indication the recital was special, even though for many of the kids it was their first time performing before an audience.
Sadly, the recital was typical of the school environment. The older kids were exceptionally rude. Forget about their sloppy dress; they would push ahead of you without ever saying “excuse me.” Those two words were clearly not taught at this school or at least not together.
Many kids were loud, which is not unusual for that age, but nobody corrected their behavior. Indeed, there seemed to be an inordinate number of behavioral issues at this school.
But what finally tipped the balance was this: Our daughter just wasn’t challenged. The “creative” lessons bored her. And I also realized that my wife and I had to constantly supplement her education. We worked with her on basic skills because she wasn’t learning them in school.
It was a teacher from another school who finally opened our eyes when she asked a very simple question: “What do you want to do with your child when she gets home, teach her subtraction or bake cookies? Isn’t subtraction the school’s job?”
By second grade, we began considering other schools. One immediately caught my attention-an all-girls school that is uncharacteristically old world compared to everything else. It has a strict uniform policy. In fact, everything is pretty strict.
When we went on a tour, I witnessed something in the first two minutes that made me long for this school. We were on the elevator when some high school girls got on. They were talking among themselves but not loudly or in an obnoxious manner. Still, an older woman standing in the back said in a quiet but firm voice: “Girls! Shhh!” to which the girls stood upright, apologized and remained silent until they got off.
We were guests, after all. But not for long.
Our daughter arrived nervously on her first day of third grade. But in spite of the fact that she didn’t know any of the other girls and was not familiar with the school’s traditions, she seemed to naturally respond to the learning environment.
This is a school that raises the bar and pushes girls to reach it. It works them hard. And it is competitive-just like the world outside. Our daughter is exhausted when she gets home. But she is also motivated and happy. And most of all, she is determined to stay in this school, and she knows she will have to work hard to do so. Her grades will have to be stellar. Her behavior, too.
It’s been four years now. She’s learned a lot. So have her parents. I now believe that the “broken windows” theory of policing-that paying attention to the little crimes curtails the bigger crimes-applies to education as well.
If children are allowed to come into school with mud on their shoes, we are communicating the wrong message. When children realize they have to clean themselves up-both literally and figuratively-and follow certain rules of behavior, you are telling them that school is important and that education must be treated with respect.
When students are told to address their teachers as Miss Jones or Mr. Wilson (as at my daughter’s new school), instead of Jamie or Stacey (as at her old school), the kids pick up on the fact that teachers are not their pals. They are the adults. They are in charge.
And when the basics are emphasized with a strong foundation in reading, math, science and history (instead of political indoctrination), guess what? This school is considered the best in the city, and this time its reputation is deserved.
This kind of success doesn’t have to be the domain of one private, all-girls school in New York City. Public schools can and, in my mind, should adopt this pedagogy as well.
Strict standards should be the norm because they produce positive results. Any and all politics-be they from the right or left-should be tossed out of the curriculum. The fundamentals should be emphasized. All students should wear uniforms. (It removes the headache of brand names, fosters school spirit, and the kids actually look better.) Teachers should not be called by their first names-even by parents.
In essence, the old approach of the Milwaukee Public Schools circa 1957 should be dusted off, reviewed, and parts of it should be reintroduced. I will bet that any school that does this will see better behavior and improved learning. I have.