Educational Collapse Metastasizes
No school is an island; each school, each sector of education, is connected to the others. Influences flow among them. It's reasonable to think a nation's educational institutions will rise and fall together.
College professors may hope they can retreat to an ivory tower, untouched by the mediocrity in our public schools. Some professors may believe they are an intellectual aristocracy and, as such, cannot be contaminated by the rabble below.
However, the contamination relentlessly spreads and has for almost 100 years, ever since John Dewey and his progressive educators began to control public education. They wanted to shape the type of society that the U.S. becomes. Naturally, they want to control higher education, too.
To understand the depth and longevity of the contamination, we merely have to look at one of the seminal books of the 20th century: Educational Wastelands -- the Retreat from Learning in our Public Schools, written by Professor Arthur Bestor in 1953. Imagine that; 60 years ago, a distinguished professor of history took on the saboteurs of education at every level.
During the mid-1950s, Professor Bestor tried to mobilize all the academics in the country to join him in supporting traditional standards. He complained that left-wing professors were undermining higher education and trying to corrupt the training of future teachers.
Simultaneously with his campaign at the university level, Bestor unleashed his lightning bolt of a book against the phony K-12 educators he called "educationists."
In short, Arthur Bestor was a tough-minded visionary and should be the patron saint of all who see the interconnections among all levels of education. Bestor promoted his views aggressively, and at risk to his career. You can imagine the criticism directed at him by "educationists."
Bestor wrote from a sense of urgency. The situation, if anything, is more dire now than when he published his book.
K-12 education undermines higher education in two important ways. First, many high school graduates are poorly prepared for college. To accommodate these marginal students, colleges must spend more resources on remedial education and as well lower their own standards. (The National Association of Scholars tracks college requirements. The pattern, year by year, is that college grads know less history, literature, Western civ, foreign languages, etc.)
Second, K-12 education undermines higher education in a more subtle way. Public schools are overrun by dubious pedagogical theories and methods. Professors should be concerned that these empty fads will infiltrate and damage colleges.
The simplest way for academics to support the spirit of Arthur Bestor is to fight for high standards at every level. Oppose quackery where it's found. Mainly, know thine enemy. Ideally, professors would be able to explain the sophistries found in public education, and provide leadership to their communities.
A half-dozen theories and methods do the bulk of the damage. Some show up at all grades, in every subject.
Constructivism prevents teachers from teaching. Instead, students are told to find information for themselves. There is a lot of beautiful sophistry in support of making sure that less teaching takes place.
Cooperative Learning mandates that students are always cocooned inside a little group. Occasional cooperative projects might be a good idea. But nowadays many kids are always sitting at a table with four or five other kids. This is good training for socialism, but not for serious independent work.
Prior Knowledge forces the teacher to waste time assessing what each child already knows, instead of simply teaching all children what they now need to know. Apostles of Prior Knowledge pretend that students are trapped inside their previous knowledge. In real life, people pick up new knowledge easily. (Oh, the party's not on Friday? Saturday?! Okay.)
Learning Styles dictates that teachers find which learning style each student uses -- visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. This theory urges teachers to have a different curriculum for each student. Truth is, everybody learns with all his senses. And let's say someone is mainly a visual learner -- why wouldn't you want to sharpen the other senses?
Reading and Math curricula, at the elementary level, are among the most destructive of all. College professors don't normally hear of these things, but they do feel the effects as the damaged students work their way up to the college level. Whole Word, the biggest blunder in American education, requires that children memorize English words as graphic designs. This is the foolish approach that Rudolf Flesch exposed in his famous 1955 book. As for Reform Math, it's widely reviled by parents and mathematicians; Saxon Math and Singapore Math are preferable.
Point is, public schools are filled with counterproductive ideas. Who can oppose these gimmicks better than an informed and feisty professoriate?
The National Association of Scholars is one logical choice to lead the charge. Insist that K-12 education be taken up a notch. Make sure that college professors know how to deconstruct the scams.
QED: the best way to improve college academics is to improve K-12 academics. Indeed, the best way to improve the entire country is to improve K-12 academics.
Bestor was, by the way, remarkably accurate in his appraisal 60 years ago: "Until public school educationists ... acquire sufficient intellectual humility to accept the guidance of past experience and of the considered judgment of the modern learned world, no amount of financial support can possibly raise their schools above mediocrity." Bingo.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.