K-12: Character Assassins

Once upon a time, schools tried to improve the character of their students.  Be neat.  Be punctual.  Be accurate.  Do your homework.  Don't copy anyone else's work.  Dot your is and cross your ts.  Remember, practice makes perfect.

In a similar way, the Boy Scouts urged boys to be little gentlemen.  Scout Law dictates: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent."

For much of American history, few questioned these values.  Benjamin Franklin declared the prevailing view: "nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue."

Alas, all that is gone with the wind from the classrooms of America.  Evidently, Progressives figured out that the converse of Franklin's insight is also true: nothing is more destructive to the public weal than to deform and train down youth in ignorance and immorality. 

Progressives hit the country with a double-whammy: sabotage of both academics and character.

If you haven't paid attention to K-12 for a few decades, the first thing you notice is that education officials relentlessly and openly undermine academics.  No direct instruction.  No memorization of facts.  No systematic mastery of any subject.  No concern for grammar  spelling, etc.  It's surprising if students know where Alaska is on a map or who won the Civil War.

Have you gotten used to all that?  You'll probably still be surprised when you realize that a lot of what goes on in public schools is targeted not at academics, but at the moral development of students.  If they are slouches – shallow, ignorant, and narcissistic – that seems to be what our social engineers want.

These days, our schools are engaged in an anti-gentleman crusade.  Don't try too hard.  Don't worry if the dog ate your homework.  It's  normal to cut corners and leave work unfinished.  Lateness is okay.  Incomplete is as good as complete.  Wrong answers are acceptable if you explain your tactics.  Cheating is okay because everyone does it. 

Here is a scary snapshot from a teacher commenting on this country's best students (AP Chemistry).

Today ... my students are chronically tardy and absent, often refuse to do even the most trivial work, and experience a diluted and simplified version of what I once taught. If I write something on the board, when I turn around a dozen phones have materialized and are actively being typed on. When I try to do fun things like labs and projects, the students complain and mope as if I was walking them to prison. They lament (out loud) how awful it is that they just can't look up the answers like all the other classes.

Students refuse.  Isn't that word a terrifying revelation?

Let's face it: a lot of life is doing things you wish you could avoid.  You don't want to take extra care with a project, but you do it anyway.  In the process, you get stronger and more disciplined.  This will help you in the future, no matter what job you have.  But the schools are saying, Skip all that; let's smoke a joint and chill.  They are saying, Become the useless slug no one would want to hire.  Be the weak link in every chain.

Whenever the official experts bother to touch on these concerns, they are the devil's advocate.  An article on Edutopia blandly asserts what is surely controversial (boldface in original):

Myth #2: Homework Boosts Achievement. There is no evidence that this is true. In Finland, students have higher achievement with little or no homework and shorter school hours. The more important factor is what students experience during the school day. Project-based learning, as one example, places the emphasis on what is done during the day. If students choose to do more after hours, that's their choice. There also may sometimes be other good reasons to assign homework, but there should be no illusion that homework will help increase student achievement.

You see, there is always some deep reason, some brilliant expert, to give schools an excuse for aiming low.  Why bother with homework?  Edutopia says it doesn't matter.  Nowadays, almost nothing matters.

I knew a woman five years out of Vassar who still had incomplete papers hanging over her.  Finally Vassar said, you have to do these papers, or you lose all the credits you acquired.  The point is, they corrupted her in the first place.  They let her get away with being lazy, undisciplined, and dissolute.

The part that is not clear to me is, what happens to the cheaters later on?  And how do the lazy, corner-cutting students compete with students who have learned to work hard?  Cheaters know that their grades are meaningless.  They don't have the knowledge or abilities their schools claimed  for them.  They will have to spend their lives covering up.  Some of our ditzy administrators probably insist they are trying to help students by cushioning them from the shocks of real life.  But that's not a help; it's a curse.

According to one pundit, "[s]tudents claim they are so stressed from school that they demand no grades be given for their poor attendance or non-performance; sadly, half the schools in the country have obliged."

Schools have gotten increasingly permissive.  There is clearly some diabolical intent.  It's almost as if the social engineers had a meeting and said, Okay, how do we fix it so kids never turn out right?

Can we reverse this trend?  Yes, by going back to what we had 50 years ago and before.  Tell students they can't cheat, make it difficult for them to cheat, and punish them when they do.  Start in the first grade teaching things simply and systematically, all the while making it clear that the students are expected to learn the material.  Our current schools do it the opposite way: make everything chaotic, but then – wink, wink – make clear that nothing much will be expected.

Put simply, the current education decline was caused by discarding traditional approaches and then letting progressive ideas overrun the landscape.  Let's do the opposite. 

Get rid of progressive ideas, and restore traditional education.  All that means in practice is that public schools do what private schools do every day.  Sounds good to me.

Bruce Deitrick Price deconstructs theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.  His new book is Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?

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