Education Reform: Italian Group Shows Americans How It's Done

Here are two harsh realities about American education.  K-12 schools are mired in mediocrity.  Second, the Education Establishment and the high-level people who should be improving the schools seem indifferent to academic improvement.

My sense is that the only people crusading for genuine reform are traditional intellectuals.  Alas, these are outsiders with little power.  Meanwhile, Bill Gates, the federal government, and scores of "progressive" front groups pump billions into backing bad ideas. The media and cultural institutions that should be involved in education look the other way.  The fix is in – that's the irresistible impression.

So it's very inspiring to see a group of upscale Italians try a different approach to this long-festering problem.

The group is named Thinking Ahead (the actual name is Pensare Oltre).  The  members are from many  prestigious fields: business,  academia,  entertainment, the arts, psychiatry, sports, medicine.  We might call them literati and glitterati.  They agree that education is sick, and smart changes are urgently needed.

The starting point was their anguish at finding that children in public schools are beset by many psychological problems that were not historically associated with elementary school.  In fact, Italian children were replicating all the bad experiences that the United States has gone through for the last 70 years.  Children weren't learning to read or do arithmetic.  They exhibit weird (and often illusionary) psychological problems – in particular, ADHD, learning disabilities, and dyslexia.

Italians had the sense that psychiatry was meddling in and indeed perverting education.  Behaviors that had always been considered normal for children were suddenly given technical names and complicated remediations, including drugs. 

Leave the children alone.  Let them be kids.  Stop putting labels on everything.  These are the rallying cries of Pensare Oltre.  Their slogan is "Be treasured, not treated."

The good news is that toxic problems in Italian schools have awakened many of the country's best people.  They want to know how they got into this mess.  They want to rethink education, improve methods, and stop the labeling of children.

A few months ago, Pensare Oltre had a conference, attended by 100 people in Milan, to address the difficulties in education.  The name of the conference was "The School Rethought—Let the Value of Knowledge Flourish Again."

The distinguished participants included Senator Josefa Idem (Education Commission of the Senate); Enza Blundo (vice president, Bicameral Commission on Childhood); Valentina Aprea (education councilor of the Lombardy Region); Luisa Piarulli (president of ANPE, National Association of Italian Educationalists); and Professor Ivano Spano (professor of sociology, University of Padua).  Most of them presented a paper.

The good news for the future is that Pensare Oltre plans to prepare and test more effective teaching methods, with a big emphasis on phonics and traditional ways of teaching mathematics.  There is a growing consensus in Italy that education went in the wrong direction.  Now it must be straightened out, and these people hope to do this vital work.

Here we have a wonderful sign of hope in education.  These Italians are thinking big and using their prestige in the battle.  We desperately need a group like this in the United States.

Why do our VIPs refuse to help?  Can you name a Hollywood star who is loudly critical of public schools?  Can you name someone on Wall Street or in business who came out immediately against Common Core?  Where are all the political and religious leaders in this country, the foundations, the academics and artists who can explain to the public why K-12 is such a wreck?  In this country, everything is backwards.  Billionaire bigshot Bill Gates and American  aristocrat Jeb Bush defend Common Core when they should be leading the fight against it.

It's instructive to note that Americans are typically told that Italian is a perfectly phonetic language; if only English were like Italian, we are told, there wouldn't be any need for  eliminating phonics and using sight-words.  But guess what?  The Italian education system introduced sight-words widely into Italian public schools.  Italian kids were being tormented and diminished in precisely the same way that Americans kids were being tormented.  You're not surprised to find these pathologies in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and other English-speaking countries.  But it's quite startling to hear Italy and sight-words mentioned in the same sentence.  The implications are that the Italian school system allowed itself to be compromised by the faux wisdom of such "literacy experts" as Frank Smith and Ken Goodman. 

A further implication is that there does seem to be a global effort to dumb down schools.  The oligarchs are all too eager to use inferior theories and methods.  What a mother lode they have!  They can employ all the quackery first introduced and refined in the United States, the paradigm being sight-words to teach reading.

In education, we have had, to paraphrase Auden, "a low dishonest century."  Everyone who steps into this tar pit gets dirty.  Most obviously, the children are damaged and discouraged.  Parents are overcharged and pushed around.  But even the people inside the system, from teachers all the way up to the highest administrators, are corrupted by far-left ideology, and the dishonesty required to keep this evil machine running.

(Personal connection: I heard about Pensare Oltre because they went on the internet looking for someone who could explain why sight-words would be introduced.  I've been in contact for several years.  One of the papers presented at the conference was a compilation of passages from three of my American Thinker articles: "Education as a Cause of Mental Health Issues," "Why we have more than 40 million functional illiterates," and "Whatever Happened to Phonics?")

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education sites  (For info on his four new novels, see his literary site