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38: Saving Public Schools--A New Paradigm

 

Why is education reform so difficult to pull off?
This article explains why, and maps out a new approach.

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No matter how much money is spent,
literacy rates plunge and SAT scores fall.
General knowledge throughout the society becomes more scant.
Our better students can’t compete against better foreign students.
The depressing statistics are all around us.

Everyone admits the public schools are doing a lousy job.
The question is, why can't we do more to improve them?

Typically, ed reformers promote two remedies:
the adoption of new policies or the imitation of best practice.
Both are saying, here’s the correct way to do things.
These are sensible paradigms for improvement.
Unfortunately, they don't work now because our Education Establishment
tends to be ideologically rigid and pedagogically narrow.

Our top educators (the ones in charge) have embraced a century’s worth of bad ideas, including impractical proposals made by the counterculture in the 1970s and counterproductive methods created by far-left elements back in the 1930s. There’s still bad DNA left over from John Dewey’s era. Our educators have married these ideas, and spawned generations of unfortunate offspring. 
 
The bottom line is obvious. You’re probably wasting time telling these people what they should do. Oh, they might permit a little tweaking. Fundamentally, however, they will ignore you and wait for you to go away. So we need a more radical approach. We need an intervention. Tough love and all that. When you’re dealing with alcoholics, you take away the booze. When you’re dealing with the morbidly obese, you don’t give them more ice cream. In the case of our educators, we need to take away their favorite bad ideas. We need to prune and to delete. One by one by one.

We need to deconstruct and discard all the ideas that have done so much to sabotage public education in our country. This approach expresses a new paradigm for Saving Public Schools. Its essence is that first we SUBSTRACT; only then can we successfully add. Here’s a run-down of things we need to put in the trash:

 

 
READING: The King Kong of bad ideas is variously known as Whole Word, Whole Language, Dolch Words, or Sight Words. The underlying absurdity is that English is not what it is, an alphabetic/phonetic language, and that students must memorize words by their shapes as one memorizes logos, faces, or Chinese ideograms. Ordinary people are hard-pressed to memorize even 2000 word-shapes, never mind the more than 100,000 words that you need to be literate in English. This idea is so monumentally stupid, only the most recklessly anti-American educators would dare to suggest it, at least that’s my verdict. And yet, tragedy upon tragedy, public schools across America continue to inflict Dolch Words and Sight Words on their students, more than 50 years after Rudolph Flesch explained the folly. (We all know a stopped clock is right twice a day, and that in throwing out terrible ideas, we might lose the occasional grace note. However, I’m satisfied from all my research that Whole Word is an intellectual perversity, and we’d be better off if we eliminated every tiny trace of it. I am particularly indebted to Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld for articulating the anguish of children transformed into dyslexics by this short-sighted pedagogy.)
 
 
Keep in mind that Whole Word has created 50,000,000 functional illiterates. I think this is an important number because so VAST. It tells me that the people pushing this hoax had to know what they were doing. Maybe we should excuse a million failures or even five million. Accidents do happen! But fifty million??
 

 
ARITHMETIC: Remarkably, our educators concocted, in the field of mathematics, a second King Kong. As with Whole Word, this scam also has many names and many reincarnations. The basic gimmick was launched around 1960 and called New Math. The public rejected it; but educators went underground and reappeared with a dozen new variations collectively called Reform Math. Parents jeered that a more accurate name was New New Math. The official names are MathLand, Everyday Mathematics, TERC, Connected Math, at al. The common malpractice in all of these things is to forget that the natural human sequence is: crawl, walk, run, dance. The New Math programs scramble child’s math with college math. Unnecessary verbiage, and quick shifts from topic to topic, guarantee confusion. The standard ways of doing arithmetic are scorned. Children don’t learn mastery of even the simplest procedures. The sickest part of the sophistry is that educators claim that children are learning to “think about math,” even as children are unable to do even the most elementary math. The schools fatuously say, “No problem. We want them to rely on calculators anyway!” Students arrive in college not knowing what 6 times 7 is.
 
Genuine mastery of basic things is much superior to a perplexed non-mastery of sophisticated things. Again, let's entirely eliminate this crab grass--Reform Math--and return to essentials.
 

AIDING AND BETTING THE NONSENSE of Whole Word and New New Math are a slew of slippery sophistries that have the effect of disorienting children, undercutting academic standards, and dumbing down society.

NO MEMORIZATION: Perhaps the single most damaging sophistry is this sing-song: “Rote memorization is evil. So children shouldn’t be made to memorize anything. Why bother--they can look it up.”

FUZZY: Another dogma promotes a contempt for precision and accuracy; this sophistry is alluded to by such names as Fuzzy Math, Fuzzy English, and Fuzzy Thinking.

CONSTRUCTIVISM: A third bit of sabotage from the same menu goes by the fancy term Constructivism. All it means in practice is that children are expected to make up their own variations of all knowledge. A dubious idea even if you have a decade to spare. In the normal course of events, it’s simpler and more efficient if teachers tell students what 5000 years of civilization and history have deduced.

COOPERATIVE: Another bad idea is called Cooperative Learning, which demands that children not learn to think independently but only as members of a group.

PRAISE: Self esteem means everybody gets good grades no matter what. Anything difficult--that might cause loss of self esteem--must be eliminated.

DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE / DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES / READING READINESS: Different names, same goals--to create an alibi for slow progress; and to divide classes into sub-groups that will make sure teachers are too distracted to be effective.

TOO NUMEROUS TO MENTION: For the last 75 years Education has presented a litany of marketing phrases without much educational content: open classroom, affective learning, child-centered education, active learner, bilingual education, higher-level thinking, portfolio assessment, creativity curriculum, alternative assessment techniques, invented spelling, outcome based education, balanced literacy, and many more. 

DECLINE: Mix in all of the above with a much reduced concern with standards, discipline, and responsibility. Cheating, for example, is more common, as is buying essays on the Internet.

 
LET IT BE NOTED: any idea, even a bad one, might work in small doses and used with care. The obvious problem with so many of the methods used in the public schools is that they burn like wild fires for a few years, upsetting proven structures and displacing much better ideas. In other words, silly fads in BIG DOSES. The deeper problem is motive. Why is an idea introduced in the first place? A trusting soul might say, oh, surely, they mean well. If you study the flawed reading methods endorsed by our educators, you will not remain trusting. And yes, they might mean well if judged in terms of their collectivist dogmas; which is not to say they mean well in terms of making your children smarter. 
 

 
SO LET'S ADD IT UP: kids can’t read and they can’t count. You can’t expect them to be accurate or precise, or to remember anything. They are kept busy all day reinventing the wheel, discussing their feelings, or engaging in so-called higher-level thinking about things they know little about. Their pervasive ignorance is hidden by making them work in groups, and giving everyone high grades.
 
Now, when you watch Jay Leno go Jaywalking, you won’t be surprised when people can’t name the sides in the American Civil War, the country where the Pilgrims came from, the body of water to the west of California, where the pyramids are, or how many Justices sit on the Supreme Court. It was once said that TV is a vast wasteland. This isn’t true; there are many valuable programs and indeed whole channels devoted to educational programming. The vast wasteland is public education in the USA.
 
(Parenthetically, two months after writing that paragraph, I ordered and read Arthur Bestor's book "Educational Wastelands--The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools." Bestor was a distinguished historian and professor. Consider how strongly he worded his title. And then consider that this book was published in 1953! Many of the themes I explore on this site, Bestor was articulating 55 years ago. Did the educators listen? If only!)
 

 
THE OLD SWITCHEROO: It’s helpful to note that throughout the 20th century, a semantic trick helped to spread this wasteland. Parents say, “We love education; we desperately want our children to be well-educated.” Everyone knows they are thinking of reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography, to be followed by history, science, the arts, and literature. Meanwhile, educators say, “We love education; we desperately want to educate your children.” But by this they mean social engineering, political correctness, indoctrination, and propaganda. The educators are quite truthful when they say they love “education.” But they have switched definitions. The lying starts when they don’t bother to explain any of this to the parents. Our educators know how their words are being heard, but they go on being disingenuous.
 


AND IN CONCLUSION: mea maxima culpa. Sensitive souls might think I’ve been a bit rough on our elite educators. It was intentional. Don’t you think they deserve it? These people have created 50 million functional illiterates (and I’ve seen higher estimates) and dumbed down an entire country (with consequent harm to everyone's standard of living). Do these saboteurs still have moral standing? Do they deserve anybody’s respect? I sometimes wonder why they aren’t in jail. Seriously, I do believe this is the question that all Americans must answer: wouldn’t we be better off if all our so-called educators took up other work?
 
The one thing they are good at is devising sophistries and mind-numbing arguments. Typically, they will divide every issue into twenty micro-questions and quibble you to death. They will maneuver you into discussing every policy on their sophistical terms, in homage to their ideological priorities, and based on the premise that they mean well. Let’s suppose from now on that they don’t mean well. Our national plight is much more easily explained if we assume that they have a perfect instinct for the wrong way to do things.
 
The new administration says it needs to raise taxes to pay for a “revamped education system.” These words can only mean more of the same, but worse. So I think there is a certain urgency. We need to eliminate a century’s worth of bad ideas, and start over with a renewed emphasis on basics and academics, albeit taught in the most clever and creative ways.
 
Sure, school should be fun; children should smile a lot. I’m all for fun, games, creativity, and even wildness. But the whole process has to go somewhere, has to ensure that at the end of each day, students know more than they did at the start. It's this last part that our educators seem to consider a totally unreasonable requirement. I can imagine them yelping, "But why should kids know more? What's the point???" Sure, that would be funny if it wasn't so sad.
 


Thomas Jefferson noted the terrible curse under which we live:
a country cannot be both ignorant and free.
Our freedom is ebbing because our knowledge is ebbing.
Which reminds us of George Orwell’s totalitarian slogan:
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
I remember reading this as a teenager and not getting it.
What kind of people, I wondered, would consider
ignorance a form of strength??
Sadly, throughout the 20th century, many American educators
appear to have been all too eager to serve this stunted little god.
I get it now...
OUR IGNORANCE IS THEIR STRENGTH.

 

RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE:

30: The War Against Reading

34: The Con in Constructivism

36: The Assault on Math

37: Whole Word versus Phonics

45: The Crusade Against Knowledge 

56: Top 10 Worst Ideas In Education 

 

April 24, 2009: Thomas Friedman of the New York Times announced that "today, educationally, we are a nation in decline," with serious consequences to follow...At least the Times got something right. They apparently agree with the premises of this site. But here's the interesting part. There's no mention of why the decline took place. Not a peep! Friedman can't come out and say, as he should, that "Liberals, like the people who are running the Times into financial bankruptcy, have been busy running the schools into intellectual bankruptcy." So I end up saying it. Just trying to fill a vacuum, you understand. 

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2009-11