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A Busy Executive’s Guide To Why Public Schools Are Dysfunctional

March 6, 2013

The bleak statistics are well known. This country has 50 million functional illiterates. We don’t compete well on international tests. Students reach college not knowing what 7 x 8 is. The Pentagon complains constantly that more than half of our teenagers are not fit for military service. Major corporations spend billions on remedial classes, teaching adults basic information they should learn during their school years.

Why, why, why? It’s all very mystifying for most people. What is so difficult about teaching kids to read, write, do simple math, and find the US on a map?

Fact is, elite educators have perversely embraced one flimsy theory after another. All the while, traditional, proven methods are tossed on the trash. If you went back to a public school today, you might not recognize the place.

Probably the first thing you would notice is that children no longer sit in desks facing a teacher. Often, they are divided into little groups of five or six students who sit around a table. This approach is called Cooperative Learning. All work is group-work; praise is group-praise; blame is group-blame. M. J. McDermott in her famous YouTube video “An Inconvenient Truth” noted that when she went back to college as a 40-year-old, she was surprised that the kids coming directly from high school had such poor skills: “Common problems included, one, an inability to work alone, to solve problems without checking in with other people all the time…”

If you want to create independent thinkers and self-starters, Cooperative Learning may be the worst possible approach. If you are trying to create members of a herd, it’s a good choice.

Another disingenuous theory, operating in almost every classroom these days, is called Constructivism. It requires children to invent their own new knowledge. Meanwhile, teachers can no longer be sages on a stage; they must be guides at a student’s side. Even worse, teachers may be relegated to the back of the room, and renamed Facilitators. Their job is to flit quietly about, dispensing smiles of encouragement, while the students try to reinvent the insights and facts generated by 10,000 years of human history. Basically, education becomes Easter egg hunts where kids discover what they are nudged toward discovering. Everything else is terra incognita. Something simple like “Paris is the capital of France” is not easily “constructed.” However, it is quickly taught.

Most people of a certain age remember the horror story known as New Math, circa 1965. It was a flop and it was buried without regret. But the same ingredients were recycled into a witches’ brew called Reform Math (ca. 1985). As before, advanced concepts are mixed with simple concepts. The best methods for solving various types of problems are not taught. Children “spiral” about from topic to topic, but mastery is not a goal. Kids are not asked to know the multiplication tables. Reform Math sparked a massive amount of parental opposition. (Probably that’s why the educators had created 12 separate Reform Math curricula, with different names but the same dark heart.) Now all this failed math pedagogy is being recycled into Core Standards–Mathematics. You can go to corestandards.org and see for yourself.

The bottom line is that children are moved very quickly to dependence on calculators. They don’t know any techniques in an automatic way. Years later, when they have to add a column of numbers in a restaurant, they’re always starting over as if still in fifth grade.

Meanwhile, let us never forget that reading has been in shambles for 75 years. About 2000, the Education Establishment changed gears slightly, allowing more phonics back into the classroom, under the banner of Balanced Literacy. However, first- and second-graders are still forced to memorize printed words as shapes or designs (instead of learning to see the sounds represented by the words). This is the mistake that Rudolf Flesch wrote about in his famous 1955 book, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”. This is the flawed theory that created those already-mentioned 50,000,000 functional illiterates. Tragically, the Education Establishment keeps pushing it.

Next, consider the strategy called Self-Esteem. This requires that students be praised even if they do a bad job. Predictably, students become complacent and smug. But Self-Esteem is much more lethal than that. It is often used to destroy content on this basis: if a child doesn’t learn something, the child will feel bad. What is the answer? Teach the child better? No, never that. The answer is to eliminate everything difficult or challenging from the classroom.

Still another common tactic is called Multiculturalism. This requires that third-grade students learn the history and geography of Africa or China, but not the equivalent facts about their own country. Multiculturalism is used to curtail knowledge about a student’s own world. Recall that a few decades ago, the big fad was Relevance, which required that students learn ONLY those things that were in a child’s immediate world. This theory justified ignoring a lot of history, science, and geography. Point is, our Education Establishment seems always to find a clever excuse for not teaching facts once considered essential.

There’s another strategy almost as devastating as all these others but you don’t often hear it talked about. It is best called No Memorization. Children are never expected to actually know anything. The idea of telling the child that there are three oceans–Atlantic, Pacific and Indian; remember those names — is obsolete. The goal now seems to be a fact-free classroom. Children talk about things, but they don’t learn things. Meanwhile, the education professors don’t want testing that will reveal how little the kids actually know. The answer? Students prepare portfolios or projects. You cut pictures from magazines showing the subject you are studying. The teacher says, “You understand this topic; you get an A.” That’s called “authentic assessment.” It’s actually rather inauthentic, as the whole point seems to be to circumvent what used to be considered ordinary standards.

All of these dangerous fads have been thoroughly mixed in with yet another: Learning Styles. In this theory, every child is unique and should probably have an IEP–Individualized Education Program. Imagine the chaos and anarchy, not to mention huge amounts of extra work, as teachers try to devise a separate curriculum for each student. This is supposedly sensible because some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners, some are kinesthetic learners, some are one kind, some are some other kind. I recently talked to a fifth-grade teacher, a man, who told me that he used no text books. He said he prepared a special assignment for each student, each day. OMG, as the texters say. Even if you can find teachers willing to do all this extra work, there is still the matter of cultural divisions: every kid is learning something different. What can they discuss with each other? Where is our common inheritance?

Finally, all of these dubious theories–almost a dozen of them–are forced into schools against a background of routine violence, more cheating, greater tolerance for lateness and incompletions, and a general embrace of approximate answers or fuzziness. (The only thing that public schools are firm about is that students mustn’t carry anything that might be considered a weapon or a drug. Recently, in my part of the country, a sixth-grader was suspended for 10 days because he passed a little bag of oregano from one kid to another. This is insane, but indicative.)

Now you can see why we have millions of students who can’t read very well, can’t count very well, don’t know much history, science or anything else academic, but have been told for years that they are special, talented and wonderful. This is not a good way to prepare children for the real world, a world that may be hard and competitive.

Probably you’re asking about all of this, but why? Are our top educators incompetent? Do they have a foolish weakness for fads and novelty? Is it true that our top education professors have been far-left politically for almost 100 years? Is it simply that these educators are adrift in their own theories, no longer able to see that theory is not reality? I suspect ALL four reasons are synergistically in play, with the politics more important than normally imagined.

Finally, what difference does it make? In all other fields of human endeavor, when the bosses do poorly year after year, they are fired. We don’t have to know why they did a bad job. We just have to know they should be replaced.


Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet, and education activist. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005.

Bruce Deitrick Price is a regular columnist for Veracity Voice


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