K-12: Drain This Swamp

Donald Trump promised to drain the swamp in Washington.  This task is especially urgent in that large, malodorous part of the swamp known as Education.

The Education Establishment makes everything murky and unproductive by an endless spew of jargon, incoherent theories, goofy methods, phony research, and new names for failed ideas.  Finally, no two Americans can talk constructively about anything in education.  It's as if they are talking across vast linguistic and cultural barriers, not over coffee at Starbucks.  Education is now the fog-shrouded domain of dumbing down.  Pervasive murkiness is a big part of the reason why so much educational reform remains stymied.  Nothing moves fast in a swamp.

Here, then, is a simple formula for quickly draining the educational swamp: eliminate all the counterproductive ideas introduced over the last 85 years.  That's it.  These bad ideas, like the viruses in your computer, did not appear by accident.  They were systematically and deliberately placed in the schools by John Dewey's socialist "change agents."  The good news is that these bad ideas can be removed in that same deliberate way – just as a technician removes viruses from your computer.  Presto: schools will be better and cheaper.

Start by eliminating any reading instruction that is not phonics.  (That would include such folderol as Whole Word, Whole Language, Sight-Words, Balanced Literacy, High-Frequency Words, Dolch Words, Fry Words, and others.)  Systematic phonics teaches a simple sequence: kids learn the alphabet; they learn that each letter stands for a sound; they learn to blend those sounds.  This process moves much faster than many people might realize, given the current low level of performance.  Phonics experts say most children learn to read in the first grade, and usually by the midpoint of first grade.  If children aren't learning to read in the first grade, you know you are in a swamp.

(To accelerate reading and other academic activities, children should learn cursive handwriting.  They may or may not use this skill later in life; this doesn't matter.  Cursive serves a vital purpose in the early years of school: it makes children more precise, careful, and observant.  Learning cursive speeds up both physical and cognitive abilities.)

Discard the last vestiges of New Math, Reform Math, and Common Core Math.  Despite superficial differences, these pedagogies agree that basic skills need not be mastered, instruction should spiral wildly from one topic to another, non-standard methods should be emphasized, and if every student ends up dependent on a calculator, that's fine.  The frustration level is very high; these dysfunctional methods typically make children cry and adults scream.

The biggest boondoggle in public schools is called Constructivism.  (Like any good criminal, it's known by a bunch of aliases, such as Project-Based Learning, Experiential Method, Discovery Method, and others.)  The idea behind all these names is brilliantly perverse.  Here it is: teachers must not teach.  They can hang around in the back of the room.  They can murmur approval, but they must not teach directly to the students.  Students are expected to teach themselves.  Almost everything labeled Constructivist should be thrown out.  Teachers must themselves be well educated; they can then be let loose to do their job.

Another idea that should be eliminated, for the most part, is called Cooperative Learning.  Children work in small groups.  They think as one, create as one, and succeed or fail as one.  Here we have socialist world-building inside each classroom.  Socialists love this idea.  However, as you can imagine, students lose the ability to think independently and to solve problems by themselves.  Furthermore, teachers don't have a good read on which kids are advancing at a proper pace and which need help.

Another prejudice to discard as soon as possible is the one against memorization.  Wouldn't it be better if children actually acquire knowledge, an outcome collectivist ideologues disdain?  Apparently, their goal is that all children end up equally empty-headed and mediocre.  Ideally, children would again be able to memorize multiplication tables, poetry, dates, famous people, place names, spelling, grammar, anything they would be better off knowing.  Let education begin!

Still another content-killer is the sophistry called self-esteem.  If Mike can spell Mississippi and Ted cannot, Ted will feel bad.  This can't be allowed.  So what does the school do?  It makes sure Mike doesn't learn to spell any more long words.  The acquisition of knowledge is slowed down so slower kids will feel okay about themselves, but in return, they are locked in place forever.  Meanwhile, the smarter kids are taught to accept low goals and standards.  This one pathetic little "virus" can crush a school system all by itself.

Another in-your-face sophistry is called Multiculturalism, which is often partnered with Relevance.  Multiculturalism says kids can study only foreign cultures.  This leads to the absurdity that American children know the names of Chinese rivers but don't know the name of the Mississippi.  Relevance cuts from the other direction, insisting that children should study only the world they live in.  If interpreted narrowly, this approach keeps children from learning foreign countries, ancient history, and anything the child does not encounter every day.  In practice, anything you want to add to a K-12 curriculum can be dismissed because it's not Multicultural or it's not Relevant.  In consequence, very little is taught in our public schools.

QED: Our Education Establishment is diabolically clever.

Let's also throw out the idea, long ago popularized by "progressive" educators, that if a classroom is confused, disrupted, and not very different from a playground or lunatic asylum, the children will learn faster because it will be oh, so creative.  This might be true occasionally; more typically, this is just a sophistry in defense of chaos.  Send children outside for physical activity. In the classroom, let children run and play intellectually.  Create a mood that will encourage serious learning.  Disorderly, dangerous classrooms reveal that the Education Establishment is not serious about learning.

Our high-level educators are obsessed with social engineering, not so much with academic progress.  I believe that all these bad ideas were injected into the schools as a way of putting the brakes on intellectual success.  The biggest brake is obviously prolonged illiteracy.  If kids can't read, they can't learn.  The other gimmicks enumerated so far, when piled on top of semi-literacy, create the ineffective, horribly wasteful K-12 we have now.

You can't ask parents to be more involved when the system is incomprehensible by design.  The Education Establishment seems to love strategies that don't work, and then murkiness to cover up this tragic truth.  If we want a rebirth of education, we need far more transparency and clarity.  Only then can parents and community leaders understand what's happening to the children.  Only then can the country have the schools we need.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his education site Improve-Education.org.  For info on his four new novels, see his literary site Lit4u.com.

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