Sunday, September 6, 2009

So You Want to Improve Education?

By: Bruce Deitrick Price

Well, first of all, be stone-cold realistic about this project. The Education Establishment, that is, the people in charge, don’t give a darn what you want. They have been dumbing down the schools of the US for almost 100 years, relentlessly, ruthlessly. They won’t look kindly on your efforts to improve education. They will think you presumptuous and insubordinate. They are in charge of education, you are not, and that’s that. So you should anticipate that they will mislead you, obstruct you, song-and-dance you, and in general treat you like the silly, irrelevant person they know you to be.

Still want to improve education? Okay, let’s get started:

Reform One: the single most important change we need is that teachers must major/minor in the subjects they will teach. They absolutely must not major in Education. They must, throughout their teaching careers, be Experts in the subjects they are teaching. Only in America can someone major in Education and end up teaching Chemistry. It’s so ridiculous you can deduce immediately that the people who made this possible were not serious about education.

Reform Two: the second most important reform we need is that states which now require teachers to join the NEA (a highly politicized union) must change that law. If teachers want to join a union, that’s their business. Coercing them to join sounds a lot like an un-American abuse of power. Let’s take the politics out of education, especially the far-left ideology that has always been more concerned with social engineering than with genuine education.

Reform Three: fix reading instruction. Reading is the single most essential skill; education can’t really begin until reading is learned. Phonics proponents have always said they would teach virtually all children to read by the end of first grade. On the other hand, proponents of Whole Word, Sight Words, Dolch Words, and all non-phonetic approaches have never claimed that they would teach children to read more than a few hundred words per year. This is what lawyers call prima facie malfeasance. The victims of this wrong-headed approach turn out, in large percent, to be functionally illiterate, dyslexic, or able to read only with great difficulty.

Reform Four: the next most important skill is arithmetic, which should be taught in a smooth progression from the simplest bits to the more advanced aspects. Reform Math programs (a/k/a New New Math) should be eliminated from the schools because they muddle the basics, mix in advanced concepts with simple concepts, and prevent children from mastering even the simplest arithmetic. (It’s helpful here to note that private schools and the homeschooling community tend to reject New New Math.)

Reform Five: kids should learn facts. The Education Establishment has for many decades waged war against memorization. “They can look it up” is the cry of this anti-intellectual cartel. No. “They” won’t need to look it up because “they” will know it. Starting in the first grade, children should learn the simplest facts (the names of the oceans and continents, for example). They learn foundational information; they build on this; and then they build another layer on the first layer. As the years go by, they become what used to be called educated. And they like it that way -- because facts are fun, and knowledge is power.

Reform Six: root out all the phony methods introduced by the Education Establishment during the 20th century. Vast energy was spent devising and promoting sophistries whose actual impact was negative. There are DOZENS of these clunkers, each one more destructive than the next. Self Esteem said you had to praise children even when they had the wrong answer. Constructivism said children had to create their own knowledge, an absurd project requiring many extra years. Multiculturalism said that knowledge about faraway places was just as important as knowledge about a young student’s own city or country...The point is that all these sophistries are destructive. They are a kind of mental crabgrass growing everywhere in the public schools. So the first order of business is to clear away the weeds.

All right, suppose we have achieved these six reforms. What would the resulting schools look like? Like almost all the best schools have looked for many thousands of years. But less severe perhaps, more ingenious in the use of teaching aids (thanks to the digital age, we have so many more of them now).

Point is, the old-fashioned schools worked very well. Ordinary kids learned the basic information they needed to be citizens, to read the daily paper, and to advance further academically if they chose. So much of the claptrap introduced in the public schools the past century never had anything to do with education, only with social engineering. All these ill-advised additions have warped our judgment of what a school should look like and, indeed, all that a school can hope to accomplish. What we need to do is to recover the best of the past, blended with the best of the new possibilities.

About the author: Bruce Deitrick Price discusses these themes (and dozens of others) on his site See, in particular, "38: Saving Public Schools." His fifth book is “THE EDUCATION ENIGMA--What Happened To American Education.”

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