Readin', Writin' and Rabble-Rousin'

Boulder school board president Stephanie Hult is an old liberal with conservative ideas--and a king-sized chip on her shoulder.

The board, for example, recently voted to increase high-school graduation requirements. Many teachers say hiking those requirements will simply discourage marginal students and raise the dropout rate. "I think teachers feel burned over these graduation requirements," says New Vista High School teacher John Zola. "We have our share of troubled kids and diverse kids." The higher standards, he says, "will only help the students who were already doing well."

A committee appointed by the board is also in the process of revising the curriculum for the Boulder Valley schools. Committee member Valarie Murphy, a mother with two children in the local schools whose husband, Dick Murphy, was appointed chief financial officer for the district by the board last year, wrote a report for the board last spring that lays out the back-to-basics philosophy in detail. Her 29-page paper calls for a return to a curriculum based strictly on phonics, traditional math drills, the rigorous study of grammar, and a reading list based on literary classics.

She believes education jumped off track after the government began supporting educational research in the 1960s. "It's been one fad after another ever since the federal government started funding education," Murphy says. "I think the schools are failing a lot of kids. It's the masses of kids who are being shortchanged by the emphasis on self-esteem."

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Her daughter attended middle school in Boulder, and Murphy was deeply angered by the middle-school curriculum. She says the students were given handouts to read in history class and told that if they misbehaved they'd have to read the textbook. "Her teacher was brilliant, but he'd been steeped in the education-school philosophy of letting the kids create their own knowledge," Murphy says. "To see him latch onto fads where textbooks were used as punishment was so sad."

As part of a class project, Murphy says her daughter was told to produce a video based on a TV talk show. Her daughter and several classmates then made a video based on a Ricki Lake program. "What in hell is that?" Murphy asks. "That's education? This is schoolteachers practicing psychology without a license."

In her paper, Murphy catalogues some of the more ridiculous ideas floated by American educators in the last few years--one professional group suggested that math students keep a journal to express their feelings about math--and includes several examples of the awful writing commonly found in education schools ("Efficient and effective language users practice and master their skills in the context of authentic tasks rather than in isolated activities").

The extent of Murphy's disenchantment with public education becomes clear when she speculates on educators' motives in "dumbing down" the schools. "The dumbing-down process will assure that our children are educated at a third-world level, become accustomed to living on third-world wages and competing with workers who work for third-world wages in foreign countries," she writes. Murphy goes on to quote an article former superintendent Damon wrote for a Boulder Chamber of Commerce newsletter. Damon wrote that "we must become more responsive to the challenge and opportunities of a competitive world," a passage that Murphy cites as evidence that local educators want to create an ignorant and easily manipulated workforce.

"Educators implementing these fads are not stupid people," Murphy says. "I think this whole movement is part of the whole world movement--that we want to level things out all over the world."

Murphy thinks Boulder's new school board is moving in the right direction but faces formidable opposition. "It will take ten years to fix the Boulder schools," she says. "How do you fire 3,000 people and start over? Every step of the way, the school board gets opposition from the psychobabblers."

The deep divide in the schools becomes clear when Marine is asked her opinion of Murphy. Many people in Boulder, she responds, regard Murphy as "a right-wing fruitcake."

Murphy says such name-calling is an act of desperation. "When people can't justify what they're doing, personal insults become a course of last resort," she says. "If disagreeing with Susan Marine makes me a fruitcake, so be it."

The arch-conservative Independence Institute isn't the sort of place you'd expect to find a member of the Boulder Valley school board. The institute is associated with ideas that are anathema to many public educators, including taxpayer-financed vouchers that parents can use at private schools. The president of the Golden-based institute, Tom Tancredo, has even advocated doing away with school boards entirely.

But last summer Hult spoke before a Vail symposium sponsored by Tancredo's group. During her speech, she shared her dismay with the "incredible liberal backlash" the board majority has encountered and her belief that only competition will save the public schools.

"We had thought rather naively that when we finally had a majority on the board we'd make a variety of wonderful changes sort of overnight, and things would be a lot better, and people would feel good about it," Hult told the friendly audience. "Instead, we got a recall."

Hult went on to describe her support for vouchers, adding that she knew her position could be controversial in Boulder. "Vouchers are going to inject that note of competition that we have to have," Hult told the crowd. "I'm in favor of vouchers, but don't let that leave this room, because in Boulder, that is really serious stuff."

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