K-12: The Land of Bad Science
I love WIRED magazine. I read it cover-to-cover every month.
If you want to know about a complex digital phenomenon such as Stuxnet, for example, read the story in WIRED. That's where Israeli and American brainiacs planted viruses and other malware in the Iranian nuclear program, thereby crippling it for several years. The complexity of this operation was almost beyond human grasp. Most of Iran's centrifuges and gauges were controlled by foreign enemies. Motors ran at destructively high speeds, but the gauges said everything was fine.
In one area, however, WIRED disappoints me greatly. The editors don't seem to grasp that Stuxnet-like phenomena abound throughout American K-12.
As with Stuxnet, you have viruses and malware planted in every public school. Genuine, efficient education is virtually impossible to achieve. Every aspect of the school's operation is compromised. Gauges don't give good readings; centrifuges run at the wrong speeds. Hostile forces seem to control everything. One is reminded of the famous A Nation At Risk report (1983), which declared: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
It was. It is.
Good pedagogical techniques are like an efficient machine or a well designed circuit. You get the most results with the least energy. That's what science is all about.
Well, here is some tragic news. You won't find such fancy outcomes in our K-12.
What our schools are full of is bad science and egregious engineering. That's where I tell you that to learn to read or do arithmetic, you have to hop on one foot, wear only denim, or whistle "Dixie." In other words, the pedagogy includes unnecessary and destructive steps.
Bad science, intellectually speaking, is almost as fascinating as good science. How exactly does it work? Who sets out to design something blatantly inefficient? Who funds and authorizes a clunker? (It's not just bad science. It's bad faith, and it should put people in jail.)
Throughout World War II, sabotage was a constant menace. The Germans relied heavily on slave labor; slaves often figured out how to create failure by design. Anything with a motor has ball bearings. A grain of sand can cause early malfunction. Or drop bearings on the floor and warp them a little; months later, a torpedo might veer off course instead of destroying an enemy freighter. That inaccuracy is exactly equivalent to some of the misguided theories and methods used in our public schools. These educational torpedoes, so to speak, are not intended to hit their announced targets.
Good educational practice requires not just sincere people, but lots of research and testing. Education has a lot in common with cooking and chemistry – they are all empirical sciences. You have to test and refine many recipes until you are sure you have found the best quiche, the ideal plastic, or the perfect way to teach arithmetic.
Any time a massive new educational scheme is imposed on the country more or less overnight, you know it's bad science and a fraud. The people in charge can have no idea whether they have the optimal answers. Whole Word was pushed into every school in 1931, as fast as resistance could be smashed. New Math was imposed the same way circa 1962. Reform Math was imposed the same way circa 1985. And then we had the onslaught known as Common Core around 2009. All of these things had the delicacy, and the helpfulness, of Hitler invading Russia in 1941. All were failures from the point of view of better education. But if your goal is to subvert the country, these initiatives were successful. They are all bad science and, in varying degrees, still damaging the local kids.
By contrast, let's look at what serious educational research looks like. Operation Follow-Through, from 1967 to 1977, pitted a half-dozen major educational theories against each other, using 200,000 students. Siegfried Engelman's Direct Instruction won overwhelmingly. The federal officials had promised Engelmann that the winning ideas would be put into practice throughout the country. In fact, the treacherous feds reneged on their promises and went on supporting the worst theories – i.e., various varieties of bad science.
Operation Follow-Through shows you two things: what the best theories are and that our Education Establishment is staffed by phonies. No similar testing has since been attempted, as the experts know that their ideas would lose.
WIRED and other educational publications should be interested in all facets of education. They should be especially fascinated by the blatant breakdown of common sense and logic that we see throughout our school system. Weirdly dysfunctional methods are preferred even though the proper methods are well known. Why? All these bad methods are like running centrifuges at excessive speeds. You wouldn't do this if you had benevolent goals.
Bad science appears in endless manifestations, like ugly prison tattoos. Let us consider a tiny example. Several decades ago, schools started emphasizing a gimmick called self-esteem. Anything that reduces a child's self-esteem is said to be bad; it must be eliminated. If the goal is to count to 20, and a few children can't learn this, what is the remedy? Should we give extra help to the kids who can't count? No. We stop expecting any kids to count to 20, so no one will feel bad.
All by itself, self-esteem can destroy a school system. Multiply this tiny example by dozens of other gimmicks and millions of kids. You will have a wasteland cleverly created by bad science.
The problem with our school system is that the lower-level people seem poorly trained to pursue excellence, and at the top there seems to be a cadre of dedicated subversives who deliberately sabotage our schools for ideological reasons. Socialism prefers leveling.
K-12 is the land that smart, well intentioned people abandoned. Education is a field where science is much more critical than is normally thought, and where science is routinely flouted more than anyone imagines.
Conversely, education well-crafted is a thing of beauty, and all students benefit. Why isn't WIRED leading the charge to find the best theories and methods?
Donald Trump promised to eliminate Common Core and return schools to local control. When this happens, the goal for all these newly liberated forces is simply stated: put good science back into the schools.