What has this term meant historically?

Writing in the March 1977 Phi Delta Kappan, Ben Brodinsky reported that it has meant at least 12 different things, including (1) in the elementary grades, an emphasis on the 3Rs, with phonics advocated for reading instruction, (2) in the secondary grades, devoting most of the day to English, science, math, and history, (3) at all levels, teachers taking the dominant role, with “no nonsense” about pupils deciding the activities, (4) strict discipline, (5) promotion standards and (6) eliminating curricular “frills” such as art, or social services such as sex education.

Who, or what kinds of people, have advocated it?

Lots: political conservatives who want to get “social issues” out of the curriculum, taxpayers who want to reduce their tax bills by cutting “fluff,” employers who complain they can’t find high school graduates who can read or calculate, inner-city minorities who argue that their children have been ignored or shortchanged in instruction in basic skills. Of course, these groups don’t all conceive of back to basics in the same way.

Brodinsky noted that when a school system gets a new superintendent—especially one who is young, activist and black—a dramatic shift to the basics often follows, not because of outside pressure but because that’s what the new leader wants. Ruth Love took that course when she came to Oakland, Calif., in 1975 and, to some extent, when she came to Chicago in 1981.

What happened in the last back-to-basics movement, in the 1970s?

Some states and school districts introduced minimum competency testing as a requirement for promotion to the next grade and/or to graduate from high school.

Some schools introduced remedial programs in language arts and math, or reintroduced phonics. Some devoted more classroom time to language arts and math. And some became back-to-basics or fundamental schools, stressing the 3Rs, requiring regular homework and demanding neatness and decorum. In Philadelphia, there were 17 such schools, which enjoyed wholehearted support from black and Hispanic parents.

In sum, schools set themselves the tasks of repeatedly testing and teaching to assure competence in basic skills and mastery of the minimum knowledge considered necessary for graduation.

What gave rise to the back-to-basics movement of the 1970s?

Concern over headlines about declining test scores, lack of discipline and rising costs. At the time, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argued that in the 1960s, the curriculum became very soft, with more courses on “life skills” of various kinds, “ethnic studies,” etc. This was partly due to a large number of advocates who argued over 20 years that the schools were repressive.

What happened to that movement?

It was countered by the so-called excellence movement, journalist Thomas Toch writes in his 1991 book In the Name of Excellence. In the early 1980s, U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell, conservative educator Chester Finn and others argued that new skills were needed for the new workplace, and that the liberal social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had led schools to focus excessively on equity, opportunity and resources, and not enough on quality and what students actually learn.

In 1981, Bell created the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which then produced A Nation at Risk, highlighting a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The report argued that equity was best served by upgrading the quality of schooling. It defined educational excellence primarily in terms of students’ “performing on the boundary of individual ability” and schools’ setting “high expectations.” And it stressed the need for quality teachers and the need to raise teacher salaries to attract them. Indeed, the committee’s recommendations largely required additional money.

Leaders of the excellence movement, who tended to focus on high schools, also rejected the argument that it was discriminatory to expose a majority of students to demanding academic subject matter. They pointed out that, historically, only children from the higher classes had been allowed to attain such an education. To argue that “the masses” are incapable of intellectual exertion only guarantees that educational advantages will be monopolized by the few.

These advocates also criticized the progressive child-centeredness of many educators in the 1960s and early 1970s, who tailored curriculum and teaching to the individual needs and interests of students. Critics said this led to de-emphasis on subject matter and excessive emphasis on students’ emotional well-being at the expense of their intellectual development.

Why has back to basics re-emerged recently?

Again, there is concern over headlines about declining or static test scores, lack of discipline and rising costs. And employers still complain that high school graduates do not qualify for entry-level jobs. Further, the nature of work and the profile of public school students are changing.

In the late 1980s, the number of professional, managerial and technical workers for the first time exceeded the number of blue-collar workers. The majority of jobs, especially in the fastest growing industries, require math and reading skills and higher-level thinking, according to several business reports.

Meanwhile, the fastest-growing segments of the school population are racial minorities, which schools have had the least success serving. Between 1970 and 1980, the proportion of minority students in U.S. public schools rose from 21 percent to 27 percent; by 2020, the proportion likely will be almost 50 percent. Between 1979 and 1983, the proportion of students living in poverty rose from 16 percent to 22 percent, and this too is projected to increase.

What’s happening around the country?

In California, for example, the Legislature unanimously passed an “ABC bill” ordering the state to reform its textbooks so that children are taught the core skills of reading, spelling and math. That move came after tests showed the state’s 4th-graders tied with Louisiana’s for the lowest overall reading skills in the 39 states that participated in the testing. Legislators blamed the poor reading scores on the state’s wholesale move in 1987 to a literature-based approach to language arts, which prompted many schools to drop phonics. Now, according to the June 14 issue of Education Week, “Whole language is in, but so is phonics.”

At the same time, however, some locales and organizations have launched initiatives that fall under the excellence banner. For example, with substantial grants from the National Science Foundation, nine urban school districts, including Chicago, are striving to teach algebra by 8th grade and raising graduation requirements. In math and several other subject areas, professional associations have produced their own statements of essential knowledge that all students should learn. And some, like the math standards, challenge schools to take children beyond strictly book learning.

What are the pluses of a back-to-basics movement?

The schools may produce children who can read, spell and calculate better. Teachers’ authority may be restored. Individualized instruction may become more valued and used, since effective remediation may require it.

What are the minuses?

Schools may become weighted down by tests. Emphasis on basics may lead to acceptance of “minimal mediocrity.” Arts and creativity may be denigrated. Other important programs, like health, may be curtailed.

The curriculum may become overly focused on discrete subskills that can be packaged in set formats and presented to students for step-by-step mastery. This may work for some learning tasks but be wholly inadequate for others. Complex skills like problem-solving can’t always be broken down and compartmentalized in this way—nor are they as easy to test. In recent years, students in lower grades have shown marked improvement in reading, writing and other basic skills, but they have fallen behind in addressing more complex problems.

Janice Weiss, a Chicago writer, is now a policy analyst at the Chicago Panel on School Policy.

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