Education's Intellectual Machinery Is Broken

When we contemplate public schools, two things are certain.  Almost everyone agrees that the schools are not as good as they should be, given the huge effort and expenditure.  Second, everyone has a theory.

You can hardly read a newspaper without some expert telling you yet another reason why the public schools are a mess.  Much blame is heaped on parents.  Other culprits include popular culture, the internet, teachers, the students themselves, and of course, the perennial favorite, not enough money.  We are often told, if only the American people cared, they would spend enough to create world-class schools.  Another set of discussions deals with administrative or organizational solutions: testing, accountability, charter schools, vouchers, teacher training, promotions, unions, class size, and many more. 

My conclusion is that all these theories remain more on the surface than people would like to suppose.  Equally troubling, the endless debates turn out to be distractions.  Millions of hours are sunk into solving problems that remain unsolved.  The practical result is that the public is demoralized and numbed.

Doesn't all this suggest we are not looking deeply enough?  We are not looking at what the professors of education call theories and methods.  It's probably safe to predict that if you have good ones, you'll get good results.  Unfortunately, we have bad ones. 

Let's look at the intellectual machinery, one wobbly gear at a time.

College teachers casually mention these days that they have incoming students who don't know what 6 x 7 is.  How could such a thing happen?  It all makes sense if you study Reform Math for even a few minutes.

This curriculum -- actually, Reform Math consists of a dozen parallel curricula such as Chicago Math, Connected Math, Everyday Math, TERC, etc. -- explicitly discourages mastery of basic arithmetic.  Reform Math tells teachers to "spiral" from topic to topic, guaranteeing confusion.  Furthermore, Reform Math continues an egregious practice first seen in New Math: children must study elementary and advanced topics at the same time.  They learn 6 + 10, some probability theory, counting on base 8, etc.  One can become disoriented just thinking about it.  Arguably, if you wished to ensure that children won't learn arithmetic, and that the United States would suffer declines on international testing, you would adopt a program like Reform Math.

Similarly, many of today's other popular methods -- Constructivism, self-esteem, Relevance, Multiculturalism, Cooperative Learning, No Memorization, to name a few -- often end up being roads to dumbing down.  That's not the stated goal, of course.  But the tendency in these approaches is to denigrate knowledge and reduce content. 

For example, who could be against self-esteem?  But in practice, self-esteem can be a pretext for cutting material that some students find difficult. All by itself, self-esteem can wreck a curriculum. 

Relevance says: teach stuff from the child's daily life, which is a very small world, indeed.  Multiculturalism says: study far-off foreign cultures, but don't bother telling kids much about the USA. 

Cooperative Learning says: kids should learn to work not by themselves, but only as members of a group.  Constructivism says: kids have to invent their own new knowledge; teachers must be passive facilitators.  How will students learn that Paris is the capital of France?  If at all, slowly...very slowly. 

The pattern is far too common: impressive-sounding jargon; relentless PR; oversized, overpriced textbooks; and promises -- many promises.  But finally the tree of knowledge is a bedraggled cactus shivering on the Arctic tundra.

I haven't even mentioned the most destructive method.  Fifty-five years ago, Rudolf Flesch explained why Whole Word cannot work and will lead to massive illiteracy.  (We, in fact, now have 50,000,000 functional illiterates.)  A curious thing happened.  Our Education Establishment circled the wagons, sneered at Flesch, and forced Whole Word into elementary schools up to the present day.

It took me a couple of years to grasp all the kinks in Whole Word.  Finally, I understood why Flesch was completely right.  English is a phonetic language; children must start with the alphabet and the sounds.  Whole Word conceals the existence of both.  From the point of view of graphic memorization, the English language is a chaotic jungle one million words wide.  First-graders are expected to memorize about 100 sight-words a year.  Prima facie, failure is built in.  Recent NAEP scores tell the story: only one-third of fourth- and eighth-graders read at a "proficient" level.  Why does the American public put up with this?

So if you want to know why public schools are mired in mediocrity, look at the intellectual machinery creaking out of sight.  We're talking about Rube Goldberg contraptions that whir mightily but manufacture not much. 

Finally, one never knows whether to suspect that our problems are due to incompetence or ideology.  I think we can assume that if Education Establishment, Inc. were a publicly traded company, all of the top management would be replaced.  

Here's the good news.  Medically speaking, knowing exactly what is wrong with a patient is the first step.  Our educational system is stricken by lots of dubious theories and methods.  They were systematically placed in public education.  We can systematically remove them. 

Bruce Deitrick Price writes about theories and methods on his site