Written by Bruce Deitrick Price
An Internet forum asked this question: “Suppose you had $1 billion to spend, how would you improve education?” More than 30 people left suggestions, all of them smart, articulate, and sophisticated.
But something nagged at me. I sensed there was an unstated premise that all these respondents shared. A false premise.
Everyone seemed to assume that the Education Establishment is honestly trying to do a good job.
The premise goes like this: These elite educators mean well. They have the right answers. But for some odd reason, they can’t quite get their act together. All that’s needed, apparently, is for some smart outsiders to suggest a few new insights, which the Education Establishment will gladly rush into practice. Bingo. US public schools are saved.
The Education Establishment means well? This is such an appealing thought. We are eager to believe it....But where is the evidence for this assumption? In truth, there’s a lot of evidence pointing in the other direction.
We can see a clear pattern going back to World War II: declining literacy, declining SAT scores, declining academic skills, declining competitiveness against foreign students, declining general knowledge among the public. This across-the-board decline is often discussed in the media and widely known. So why would anyone still trust the Education Establishment? It’s not logical, as Spock would say.
Whole Word, the official way to teach reading, for 70 years, doesn’t teach reading. Quite the opposite. We have 50 million functional illiterates and 1 million dyslexics. ( I think history will record that Whole Word is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated against a large population.) Similarly, New Math/Reform Math, the official way to teach math for 40 years, doesn’t teach math; it teaches dependence on calculators. If you examine all the methods introduced in the last 50 years (Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, Multiculturalism, Self-esteem, etc.) you find the same perverse theme. Despite fancy rhetoric and glowing claims, these methods produce lots of fog, not much light.
Oddly, the public somehow manages to find hope and optimism in this record of failure. Albert Einstein is usually credited with saying, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results--that’s a good definition of insanity.”
Isn’t that a fair description of the nation’s faith in the Education Establishment? People so desperately want to believe that, yes, our experts know what they’re doing, they will get their act together any day now, they will stop turning out ignorant and illiterate children, and we will have schools we can all be proud of.
Common sense would seem to suggest the opposite conclusion; my own research certainly suggests the opposite conclusion. This pattern of educational decline has been going on for a half-century, in millions of lives. We have what statisticians call a big sample; and it’s mostly depressing.
Here is a more realistic, evidence-based perspective. Our Education Establishment, drunk on weird ideology, is doing precisely what it intends to do. It has its own agenda and world-view. According to its own values, everything is fine.
Just as a thought experiment, assume that last paragraph is 100% accurate. Voila. Doesn’t everything that happened in our public schools make complete sense? There is no accident, no mystery, no unexplained collapse. Our elite educators have created precisely the schools they intended to create. Conversely, they were always trying to undercut what schools used to be--i.e., places that teach knowledge.
The Education Establishment is hostile to “education” as most parents understand the term, and hostile to the aspirations of the community. These thoughts may be unpleasant but you will also find them very liberating. Now everything makes sense, doesn’t it?
All this hostility come from seven words that John Dewey wrote almost 115 years ago: “...the school is primarily a social institution.” Silly, that. Common sense recognizes the school as the preeminent educational institution. Dewey proved one thing, the pen can be mightier than the sword. With just a few words, he launched the subversion of American education.
The school is a social institution? Everybody with a brain yells: NO, Dr. Dewey, school is where we educate the children. As for socializing them, that happens in the family, community, sports, hobbies, organizations, and religions that they participate in. We will take care of the socializing. You just teach them how to read and write.
John Dewey said in effect: drop dead, parents of America. From now on we are going to socialize your kids our way. We will make them less individualistic, knowledgeable, and competitive. They will be more conformist, cooperative, passive, and dull-witted. In decades to come, the United States will be a socialist country. It’s our job to prepare for the future. We will create little socialists. End of discussion.
Long story short, John Dewey and his cohorts moved American education into the social engineering business, with less concern for what might be called intellectual engineering. Indeed, our educators were hostile to the intellectual, the factual, the cognitive.
We simply have to reverse the unfortunate process. Which costs no money. All we have to do is get the anti-education ideas out of the schools. We don’t want Whole Word or sight-words. We don’t want New Math, Reform Math, or Common Core Standards.
We want knowledge-based education. It will start a new golden age. We will try to teach kids information. The brain loves new information. We can have fun and school can be competitive within reason. Here is the only thing that matters. At the end of each day have the kids learned stuff they didn’t know in the morning? That’s it. Everything good follows from that.
To put it crudely but factually, our trouble is we have let extremists take over the schools. To remove the problem, remove the quacks.
(Bruce Deitrick Price--author, artist, and education activist--founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. See “56: Top 10 Worst Ideas In Education” on that site for further analysis of our educational malaise.)