Education Is Driven By False Premises and Practices

Bruce Deitrick Price in a recent article at perceptively noted that “teachers understand a lot less about what’s going on in their own classrooms than you might imagine.” He adds that the Education Establishment has “done a great job of making everything so murky that nobody understands what is going on.” Murky is a synonym for “shadowy” such as the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of The Republic.  The murkiness is premised on the belief that educational outcomes can be produced, even mass produced, independent of the commitment or natural abilities of the student.  Classroom settings and accepted behaviors, software programs, positive thinking, and making allowance for supposed cultural differences among various groups of learners would allow for more consistent success at a high level for most students.  This of course has proved false.

Earlier educators thought, correctly, that knowledge could be expressed, analyzed, and synthesized. While it was apparent that there were varying degrees of teacher communication skills, it was accepted and acceptable that some students would pass, some would barely pass, some would achieve in the average range, some would be above average, and a small group would excel in a significant way.

Now it is believed that if students can go at their own pace, if goals for outcomes are set and clearly stated, if the amount of material covered is limited, if students are allowed to learn in a more relaxed environment, if room decorations are more inspiring, and if, in fact, the whole process is more upbeat and friendly, that more learning will take place. Technocrats embracing software and sentimentalists who insist every student’s “dream” is legitimate have made an alliance whereby software systems, simplification of material, sympathy for the youths’ problems just growing up, and consciousness of cultural and racial differences will bring more and more students where they should be.

All these mis-assumptions produce shadows or murkiness because rationality, process, analysis, synthesis, consciousness, and factual completeness are thought to be controllable by administrative fiat and/or incentives that there be more uniform and higher levels of achievement.  Outcomes are pre-programmed via more comprehensive controls on the teachers, and by computers that assure that students will get to where they should be… eventually. When administrators tell teachers their expectations should be high, it is a coded way of saying that they should give higher grades, teach to the tests (not the curricular requirements), and make sure that the words “grade inflation” never pass through their lips.

One of my colleagues when I was teaching high school in one of the worst behaved and lowest performing high schools in New York City -- a well-educated gentleman from West Africa with two Master’s Degrees from leading schools in France -- asked the principal, “How can the motto of our school be ‘Success Is Our Business’ when most of the students are failing?”  A short time later, he was taken out of the classroom on phony charges and remained waiting for his hearing for two years.  He was cleared, as we knew he would be, but meanwhile the principal succeeded in getting this naysayer out of the building.  It was a lesson to all who remained.  We only talked about “success” even though the students in 11th grade typically did not know how many inches were in a foot (one day I had occasion to ask this question to two of my classes and not one could provide the answer).

A teacher evaluation system developed by Charlotte Danielson and introduced in 1996 gained traction in the New York Public Schools and has contributed to the murkiness. It addresses four domains of teacher activities including planning and preparation, classroom environment, professional responsibilities, and instruction. And teachers are evaluated as being Ineffective, Developing, Effective, or Highly Effective. This breakdown alone reveals the open-endedness of teacher responsibility.

In former times, before schools became one stop social agencies, teachers were evaluated exclusively on instruction. Were they in command of the material? Was the material presented clearly? Was there some rapport between teachers and students? If students were not paying attention, that was not automatically attributed to the teacher as a classroom management issue. If many students failed, it was assumed that they were not studying hard enough or did not have the ability to comprehend the material. No benchmarks for “expected” grades were set. Teachers did not have to submit paperwork to justify failing a student, as is the case in many high schools today. New teachers were expected to have lesson plans. Classroom decorations were not included in a teacher’s ratings.

In more recent times, group projects and activities – called cooperative learning – found widespread adoption beginning in the 1990’s. Under this modality, even if only one student in the group did all the work and got all the right answers, the entire group would get the grade achieved by that one.  This became very popular, and was forced on all of us to some degree. One principal even said to me when I resisted, “You should embrace this; it’s a lot less work for you.”

For many decades, IQ was considered to be an important factor in student achievement, but in today’s climate, method of instruction, not IQ, is the end-all and be-all. In fact, IQ tests are not even administered in many large school districts, but are deemed racially biased.  Further, we also now find much greater emphasis on standardized tests than before the 1990’s. Standardized tests automatically limit the amount of knowledge or personal application that is required. Tests are automatically selective. One cannot test everything. So if one teaches to the test rather than first and foremost teaches a curriculum, then one is automatically attenuating the curriculum. New York State has many standardized subject tests called Regents Exams. These tests were originally created to make sure that a minimal knowledge of the subjects was achieved throughout the State. Now the tests are used to raise course grades because the grades in the standardized tests are included as 20% of each student’s course grade. First the standardized tests were dumbed down to raise the scores.  And then, as the scores rose, the State mandated inclusion of the test grade in the course grade.


When I was teaching at a high school for gifted students, I told one of my colleagues about the

murkiness being engendered by the present parameters for producing academic success. Teacher evaluation, software systems, manipulation of grades, and “high expectations” (a not-so-veiled threat of reprisal against teachers should they give lower grades) are the order of the day.  I reminded him of the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which shadows were mistaken for the real thing. And stated that the present criteria and goals being set by and for educators were being taken as real and central whereas they were shadows.    

Do you think he appreciated this exhortation from an older colleague? No way. I could see the scorn and contempt in his face, not unlike the chained prisoners in Plato’s Cave when the philosopher returns to explain that the shadows on the wall are just that  -- shadows and not reality.  Yes, the teachers are being dominated by false consciousness and are becoming increasingly confused.

Image credit: Blue Diamond Gallery

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