Significant change usually comes about not by introduction of something new but by reinterpretation of something old. Among the more interesting illustrations of this premise is that of Arthur C. Clarke, who in 2001: A Space Odyssey uses it to account for no less than the evolution of mankind. Back eons of time, so the story goes, herbivorous man-apes roamed the parched savannas of Africa in search of food, a search that had brought them to the brink of extinction. Their miraculous transformation from man-apes to ape-men did not come about until they realized that they were slowly starving to death in the midst of plenty, that the grassy plain on which they search in vain for berries and fruit was overrun with succulent meat. Such meat was not so much beyond mankinds reach as it was beyond his imagination. To negotiate the necessary transition, the man-apes had to reinterpret their environment.
The history of education can also be viewed as a sustained series of reinterpretations, which, because they remain human, retain remnants of the man-apes primeval flaw a certain primordial rigidity of the imagination that renders us unable to grasp what lies immediately at hand because it fails to correspond with what comes habitually to mind.
When it comes time to characterize the educational environment of the past few decades, it will undoubtedly be remembered as an era of reform. Cries for reform in education are by no means new to schools, of course, but seldom are they the focus of such prolonged and concerted attention as they have lately received. Not since the days of Sputnik have we witnessed such massive concern about what was happening or not happening in the nations classrooms. In the sixties the thrust of reform focussed on the teaching of science and mathematics and spawned a period of curricular innovation that carried us well through the seventies. It was an exciting time to teach, a time filled with openness and optimism and plentiful support.
But with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a new interpretation struck. Suddenly, it seemed, everything had gone awry: the schools had somehow fallen derelict in their duty to prepare the nations youth to meet the manifold challenges that awaited them. Schools had degenerated into Shopping Malls, SAT scores had plummeted to new lows, teachers had descended to shocking levels of incompetence, and content had turned to jelly.
Subsequent reports by other foundations, commissions, and blue ribbon panels confirmed the assessment. American schools are in trouble, said John Goodlad. After years of shameful neglect, according to Ernest Boyer, educators and politicians have taken the pulse of the public school and found it faint. Horace Smith Ted Sizers mythical English teacher was forced to compromise, but dares not express his bitterness to the visitor conducting a study of high schools, because he fears he will be portrayed as a whining hypocrite."
Today, with the No Child Left Behind act, schools are embroiled in the tribulations of accountability, with high stakes testing roiling instruction that must teach to the test and urban communities that must struggle just to keep their schools open. Meanwhile, as vouchers swell enrollments in private schools, charter schools have begun to siphon off students and teachers from the public schools.
As a schoolmaster for the past forty-five years, I view these changes with trepidation.. A little too close to Horace Smith for comfort, I am nonetheless in no mood to compromise. Although I do not doubt that I am biased, it doesnt seem to me that my students have changed significantly over the years, nor for that matter the fundamental problems of education across continents and decades. And while I am thankful that my country is worried about its teachers and its schools, my