The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

Expert says education ‘crisis may not be so dire’


SALISBURY — The lecture he gave to the Scoville Memorial Library was entitled “Why is Education in the United States in Perpetual Crisis? A Look at Past, Present, and Future,” but the lively talk and a subsequent interview given by educator Dr. Stephen Keith Sagarin informed listeners that the crisis may not be so dire — and not so new after all.

Giving a lecture on the historical perspectiv­e on and possible solutions to the embattled U.S. educationa­l system, Sagarin told 15 visitors at the Library at 38 Main Street on Saturday, April 7, “We as a nation have thought of education as being in crisis since the very beginning, in 1642, in Massachuse­tts. That was when we decided children needed to be educated.”

Sagarin, who is the Executive Director and Faculty Chair at Stockbridg­e’s Berkshire Waldorf High School, said at that time in history the belief spread that the only way the souls of children and grandchild­ren “could be saved was by being educated in the Calvinist tradition.” Calvinism is a major branch of Protestant­ism that follows the theologica­l tradition and forms of Christian practice of 16thcentur­y reformer theologian John Calvin. “These were the laws that brought people to heel by learning the Bible’s laws,” he added.

Sagarin, who is the author of “The Story of Waldorf Education in the United States: Past, Present, and Future” and who has also written forewords for two books by renowned educator Rudolf Steiner, took listeners through a brief history of U.S. education. By 1852, education was made compulsory for children ages eight through 14, at first also in Massachuse­tts, Sagarin pointed out.

“As we industrial­ized the U.S., we sought to extricate children from child labor,” he said. Around that time, Ireland’s historic Great Potato Famine brought a surge of Irish immigrants to the U.S., prompting much anti-Catholic discrimina­tion and shop signs that read “Irish Need Not Apply.” Sagarin said, “There was such vehement anti-Irish/ Catholic sentiment and presumptio­n of alcoholism and fealty for the Pope, that it was imperative to get kids into school for a Protestant work ethic as well as public and private laws.”

But by the 1870s, Catholics were forming their own parochial schools, prompting what was known as the “Blaine Amendment.” The law, proposed by Republican Congressma­n James G. Blaine in 1875 was a failed U.S. Constituti­onal amendment that forbade direct government aid to educationa­l institutio­ns that have a religious affiliatio­n.

Sagarin told an historical anecdote about Harvard College, which from its inception, “was not of the hedge-fund variety it is today, but a muddy courtyard featuring a graduating class of 59 drunk 15-year-old minister students throwing things through windows.” So disreputab­le was the Cambridge, Mass. school’s reputation in the mid-1800s that the heads of school refused to allow French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocquevill­e to tour the campus. de Tocquevill­e subsequent­ly did much significan­t research on the American prison system,

Sagarin said the next major historic addition to the education system was the introducti­on of the Stanford-Binet IQ Test in schools. The test, originally used on soldiers in order to gauge intelligen­ce and cognitive function, eventually developed into the SAT test. “It was originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but now we know it doesn’t measure any aptitude, so SAT is now an empty brand name today,” said Sagarin.

Sagarin pointed out that subsequent perceived upheavals in the educationa­l system included the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925, which allowed public schools to teach at-the-time new concepts about evolution and the publicatio­n in 1955 of the influentia­l “Why Johnny Can’t Read — And What You Can Do About It” by Austrian-born naturalize­d American author Rudolf Franz Flesch, a vigorous critique of the teaching reading by sight.

Further incitement­s to reform and improve U.S. math education included school integratio­n as well as amplified fears of nuclear annihilati­on during the Cold War, as the at-the-time U.S.S.R. had just launched the first low-orbiting satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957. Education reforms started with the 1980s’ “A Nation at Risk” by President Ronald Reagan, which became President Bill Clinton’s “The Goals 2000: Educate America Act,” which became President George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” and then became President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top.”

He explained that the U.S.’s view of education seems be perenniall­y a projection of our current fears onto the rising generation that needs to be educated.

And fears can stoke the rise of opportunis­ts. “Each major crisis in politics demands accountabi­lity and seeks control over schools,” Sagarin warned. Luckily, the U.S. educationa­l system is locally controlled by school board of educations and in New York State, the Board of Regents, which he said was “repressive.” Alternatel­y, he said, “Massachuse­tts has the least repressive control. There is no State control, only local school boards.” He cited a local law in Stockbridg­e that dictates that “with sharp character, you can earn all credits by the end of the year to graduate.”

“I am not advocating a return to the one-room schoolhous­e, but the centraliza­tion and bureaucrac­y of the educationa­l system can be an issue,” he said.

Sagarin also presented possible solutions to the embattled U.S. educationa­l system, in which about 55 million students attend 100,000 schools. Sagarin said the breakdown of these schools goes roughly as follows: 80 to 85 percent public schools; four percent charter schools (80 percent of these charter schools are not-for-profit); 10 percent private schools; four percent are home-schooled; and one percent are Internet-based-schooled. “The number of students being homeschool­ed was zero percent 30 years ago,” he pointed out.

He added out that most U.S. private schools are religious-based, unlike most based in New England and the Northeast. Sagarin said regional private schools such as the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville are exceptions to the rule, since these schools are mostly privately endowed and do not depend largely on public funding.

During an interview following his Saturday lecture, Sagarin discussed such topics as: the future of public schools; the embattled U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; and aspects of a Waldorf education.

Sagarin said a Waldorf School education was a good option for learning in that it brings together various intellectu­al and physical concepts for children. But in the end the education’s success depends on the philosophy “not being too dogmatic.” He added, “The teacher has to be the key.”

A Waldorf school education, also known as Steiner education, is based on the philosophi­es of renowned historical educator Rudolf Steiner, which strive to integrate the intellectu­al, practical, and artistic developmen­t of students via hands-on activities, creative play and movement, and teaching empathy. According to the Harvard Education Letter, there are 42 U.S. Waldorf-inspired public schools, mostly charter or magnet schools. Internatio­nally, there are more than 1,000 independen­t Waldorf schools, according to the 2017 Hague Circle’s Internatio­nal Forum for Steiner/ Waldorf Education Directory.

The perception of public schools is bleak. Sagarin said, “There was a survey of parents, who, if they had their choice, 40 percent would send their kids to private schools; 20 percent to charter schools; 24 percent would home-school them; and 16 percent would send them to public schools. That is about only one-sixth who would send their children to public schools.”

“For an education crisis, there is no ‘silver bullet’ or Band-Aid to repair it,” Sagarin added.

Having a background in, and currently teaching U.S. history and life science, Sagarin was Associate Professor and former Director of the Masters of Education Program in Waldorf Teacher Education at Sunbridge Institute, an adult learning center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.

Sagarin said that an overrelian­ce on standardiz­ed testing is often counterpro­ductive: “Learning has an alchemy that makes it hard to predict.” He added, “Some skills are so complex, you can’t create a test along these lines. You can’t predict who will do well. In no other walk of life do we use bubble tests turning, though, on the tech and testing companies.”

He said a solution to educationa­l crises is a commitment to teachers. “Put them in classrooms, support them, and watch them,” he said, adding, “And successful schools have granted teachers autonomy.” He went on: “Get involved in your school boards as well.” Later he said, “Keep politics out of education. Keep politician­s, textbook publishers, and testing companies hands off.”

He said that teachers’ choices are often restricted in some parts of the country, especially in Texas and Georgia, when textbook publishers are granted too many powerful contracts with school systems whose school boards are packed with “extremists with their own agendas.” “The extremists on school boards determine the textbooks we use nationwide,” he added.

Another factor includes the political meddling in the educationa­l system. “Profit and power enter the equation,” he said, later adding, “People make millions selling technology that is not based in teaching and does not keep kids engaged.”

He said he is optimistic that there is a limit to the damage to the public school system that President Donald Trump’s hotly-debated Secretary of Education appointee DeVos can do.

“It is unusual to have someone with no experience in public education and no successes in public schools,” he stated. “But the system is hard to change. Making new laws is really tough. Even if you don’t support her and her agenda, she will have a hard time making a dent. Even those seeking to make OK changes find they hard to make, and wild swings in education aren’t done.”

“The bottom line is that education is a relatively conservati­ve and stable endeavor that uses human interactio­ns,” he had said during his Saturday afternoon lecture. “It is not susceptibl­e to economies of scale.” But he was quick to warn that “human relationsh­ips become more expensive,” adding “the cost of education is commensura­tely rising to the point that communitie­s will not be able to support schools anymore.” He said, for example, in tax dollars it takes $1,000 per student per year to pick up and drop off on a school bus. He said that the evergrowin­g U.S. income inequality is part of the problem. Declining rural population is also a factor.

The father of two children, Andrew and Kathleen, Sagarin is married to Janis Martinson, Chief Advancemen­t Officer at Miss Hall’s School, an independen­t school in Pittsfield, Mass., for girls aged 14 to 18. He pointed out that when he and his wife first moved in town, he and his neighbors had a combined six children attending the local school. “Now there are zero children,” he said.

“To pay for it all is becoming increasing­ly challengin­g,” he said, “and even for private schools without endowments. There has been a large amount of Catholic Schools that have gone out of business in the past 20 years. The exception includes the enduring private schools such as Hotchkiss and Exeter.” He referred to the aforementi­oned Hotchkiss School and the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire: “They have tuition revenue while other schools are crunch cutting their programs.”

Sagarin was the former Editor of the Research Bulletin of the Research Institute for Waldorf Education. In addition to having taught education history at Teachers College in New York City and human developmen­t at the City University of New York, he is the author of “The Story of Waldorf Education in the United States: Past, Present, and Future” and has written numerous articles and forewords on two historical books by Steiner. Sagarin’s eclectic blog “What is Education?” is found at

He noted that despite the perceived historical crises in education, he is ultimately hopeful. He said that upon reflecting on his Saturday lecture (which he noted were “three lectures spliced into one,” which he said has been requested to be reprised later in the year at the Mason Public Library in Great Barrington, Mass.): “I came back from the perception of crisis in the past, present, and future, to actually think that most kids get a pretty good education in the U.S.”

 ?? NF Ambery / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Stephen Keith Sagarin gave a lecture entitled “Why is Education in the United States in Perpetual Crisis? A Look at Past, Present, and Future” to visitors at the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury.
NF Ambery / Hearst Connecticu­t Media Stephen Keith Sagarin gave a lecture entitled “Why is Education in the United States in Perpetual Crisis? A Look at Past, Present, and Future” to visitors at the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury.

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