Many wonder why American public schools are so dysfunctional.
Study American public education and you will probably reach a point where you are reluctant to look further; because you have started to sense just how perverse the field is, and how destructive many of its practices are.
Throughout the 20th century, the Education Establishment devised scores of seemingly sophisticated pedagogies. Aggressively sold as ways to make schools effective and students smarter, these celebrated methods invariably turned out to render education less effective and students more ignorant. Conversely, the easiest way to improve education is to rein in current bad practice.
Let’s take a quick look at a half dozen of the most famous concoctions. I predict you’ll have a startling realization: all of these things are counterproductive. Worse still, they seem to be that way by design.
1) SELF ESTEEM: Consider a seemingly harmless and even appealing method called Self Esteem. When educators claim that this new approach will lead to greater self esteem, the public says, go ahead, surely everyone needs more of that! In practice, teachers are expected to give praise even when students don’t make an effort; students become complacent and less industrious. Even worse, you have a relentless pressure against making academic demands on children, because failure will damage their self esteem. You see where this is going? Finally, the teacher says, “Hello, class! You’re wonderful.” That is all that can happen. The moment the teacher actually teaches, the self esteem levels will drop, which cannot be tolerated. Self Esteem, all by itself, can render a school null and void.
2) CONSTRUCTIVISM: Constructivism’s basic claim is that children must invent their own new knowledge. A mountain of so called “research” make this process sound as if it is wonderful, necessary, and inevitable. But we need to ask, how would children learn the names of the states or the important events of the American Revolution? Now you start to see the flaw: basic information can rarely be taught with Constructivism. A child might need hours or days to “construct” his way to a page of facts. The teacher must constantly nudge children toward their “discovery” of “new” knowledge, much as children are given hints to find Easter eggs. In fact, these magical events won’t usually happen at all. Constructivism is vastly popular now in the public schools, a good explanation for why kids know so little.
3) NO MEMORIZATION: The Education Establishment came up with two slogans that have been used relentlessly for more than 60 years: “Rote memorization is bad” and “They can look it up.” This gospel (which cuts across all subject and all grades) states that children shouldn’t bother retaining information. Let’s confront what the Education Establishment is actually saying here: students should have empty heads. (Testing is kept soft and subjective so that students are not often asked if they know or don’t know something.) Since the time of John Dewey, there was always a hostility toward teaching foundational knowledge in the first place. But demonizing memory is the easiest way to make sure that, should anything be taught, nobody can recall what it was.
4) COOPERATIVE LEARNING: The whole point of Dewey’s collectivist theory is to create cooperative children. They work and play well together. The next step invariably was to put four or five children at little tables, to let them think of themselves as a group, not individuals. Work will be performed by the group. There was no individual achievement, only group achievement; no individual blame, only group blame. As a practical matter, children never learn how to think for themselves or act by themselves. They always have the shelter and comfort of being inside of a group. The better students carry the weaker students, and everybody’s grades are muddled. But that’s the point in the collectivist classroom.
5) NEW MATH/REFORM MATH/ NATIONAL STANDARDS: There are many separate curricula under those three headings, and yet they all have one thing in common: they mix advanced, complicated math with elementary arithmetic. The sales pitch is that children will learn to appreciate math at a higher level. The actual result is that children don’t learn to do basic arithmetic. The proper way to teach arithmetic is that children master the simple stuff (1+2=3), then move to the less simple, then to the intermediate, and so on. New Math and its intellectual descendants were failures, and were abusive to children. Learning long division is hard enough. Just imagine that the crazies at your school mix in base eight, set theory, some Boolean algebra, geometry, and pre trig. Result: almost nobody can do arithmetic in a confident, automatic way.
6) SIGHT WORD READING: Focus on the central fact that English is a phonetic language, like Latin and French. Its alphabet and word forms were designed to quickly communicate phonetic information, that is, you see a b, B, b, a script b, or B in any of hundreds of typefaces), and your brain immediately knows: buh . English words are so similar; and every word comes in many different forms: bright, BRIGHT, etc. It’s almost impossible for an ordinary human to memorize even 1,000 of these shifty little designs, never mind the 50,000+ word shapes you need. But the Education Establishment pushed Whole Word relentlessly, claiming that children must memorize the English language one word at a time as graphic configurations. I would argue that Whole Word is prima facie impossible. Memorizing even a few hundred sight words can take several years; so literacy happens very slowly. All the things that children used to learn in the first, second, third and fourth grades became impossible, not just reading but also geography, history, etc. Whole Word is, I believe, the official hoax of the Education Establishment. It’s the paradigm of bad education. It can’t work. It hurts children.
It’s good to acknowledge how clever, slinky and difficult to understand these six approaches are. The average parent doesn’t have a chance. I bet the average teacher has no clue that these things are toxic waste. Administered with love, they are still toxic. A library has been written extolling these methods. For me to debunk them in a paragraph is a tall order. But I’m hoping I can tempt you to linger over each analysis long enough to feel the contradiction, the sticking point, the sophistry that finally makes these things fall apart for you.
John Dewey and all the people who succeeded him were avowed Socialists. They wanted to make a new world. and as the New York Times once observed in defense of Stalin’s starving the Ukraine into submission, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Or a hundred million American kids.
The six gimmicks discussed could be called bait and switch. One thing is promised, something else is delivered. But I think these six are of a higher order, more like big time magic acts. I’m thinking of the really good tricks where you stare in wonderment and stammer: how’d he do that?? Each of these things is the best, most modern, most wonderful way to teach; but the kids inexplicably end up crippled and lobotomized. How’d the educators do that? When did it happen? The tiger was there, suddenly it’s gone. Like the kid’s future.
Coda: it’s crucial to get rid of these tricks. Schools have to leave the indoctrination business, toss aside the gimmicks, and return to the education business. Teachers actually teach. Kids actually learn.
(See related essays on Improve Education.org: “42: Reading Resources,” “45: The Crusade Against Knowledge,” “52: The Conspiracy Chronicles,” and others.)
Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of http://www.Improve-Education.org, an education and intellectual site. One focus is problems in the schools; see "56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education." Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is "THE EDUCATION ENIGMA."