Several Lawrence teachers agree with criticisms of public education presented in a recent report from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
However, they say, the local school district already has recognized the shortcomings of some traditional educational practices and taken steps to adopt more effective methods.
The report, called "Tyrannical Machines," says that many educational practices began by filling needs but then became detached from and even counterproductive to their original purposes. Those practices nonetheless have been institutionalized on a large scale, creating "tyrannical machines" that now dominate American education.
One example is the development of "readability formulas," which were devised decades ago to make textbooks easier for children to read. "But arbitrarily limiting vocabulary and sentence length, as the formulas do, may leave children wondering why they should learn to read at all," the report says.
THE EFFORTS of textbook companies to avoid controversial topics and briefly summarize great historical events also make for boring reading, the report says.
Paul Stuewe, history teacher at Lawrence High School, agrees.
"I think textbooks have been watered down," he said. "I also agree that there's too much reliance on textbooks, but you can't use bad textbooks as a copout for not doing your job.
"In every class I teach, I have a supplemental book of readings to go along with the textbook, and I bring in a variety of sources to give a variety of different views."
Stuewe is the editor of the recently published "Kansas Revisited: Historical Images and Perspectives," a collection of readings on Kansas. The book, which Stuewe uses in his Kansas Studies course, includes such readings as an editorial by famed Emporia editor William Allen White and a speech by Paul Wilson, who represented the state in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case.
"We deal with actual primary documents so the students can read in the words of the people of the time what they were thinking and how they felt," Stuewe said. "The textbooks just provide a foundation to what I'm doing."
IN ANOTHER move against oversimplified texts, the district this year adopted a new reading textbook series for grades one through six. Jane Polcyn, the district's language arts coordinator, said the textbooks allow students to read whole works of literature that have undergone little editing.
Carol Abrahamson, third-grade teacher at Hillcrest School, said, "It's much better than the old textbook. It is designed to promote reading for comprehension, and it involves a lot of writing as well."
However, Abrahamson said, last year she experimented with literature-based reading, and her students read whole works considerably longer than those presented in the new textbook.
"We had such a great year that, in my opinion, even this new textbook pales in comparison," she said. Despite her tight teaching schedule, Abrahamson said she's "trying to have a foot in both worlds" by having her students read works not included in the textbook.
"Tyrannical Machines" also decries current methods of teacher preparation, citing the development of schools of education as the root of the problem.
"Separated from the rest of the higher education enterprise, education faculties advanced the idea that theirs was a separate discipline with a distinct body of knowledge. The courses that came to comprise the teacher education curriculum did little, however, to make that body of knowledge seem substantial," the report says.
ABRAHAMSON SAID she thinks teacher education is improving at least in that they are encouraged to use a greater variety of teaching methods in the classroom.
"It used to be teachers taught the way they were taught," she said. "Now teachers are encouraged to look at individual differences and individual learning styles.
"I think there is a problem if any one method is proposed to be the very best. Teachers should use a variety of tools and methods."
Abrahamson said she was against alternative methods of teacher certification, which allow professionals in different fields to teach without going through the traditional education curriculum. Those alternative methods would be unfair to those teachers who have gone through the work of being certified in the traditional manner, she said.
But Tom Christie, fifth-grade teacher at Deerfield School, disagrees.
"If we keep in mind that the reason we're here is to provide the best education for our students, then I think it's justifiable to allow easier certification for highly qualified individuals," he said.
"TYRANNICAL Machines" also criticizes the great importance placed on standardized tests, such as the SAT. "Secondary schools are judged by SATs: Local housing prices rise and fall; principals and superintendents are hired and fired" based on how students perform on the test, the report says.
Sandra Holloway, the district's director of student outcomes, said the district is developing other methods of measuring student achievement. The classroom performance of students is receiving greater emphasis. Tracking LHS graduates is another way to find out how well the district prepared students for higher education or for the job market, she said.