Written by Bruce Deitrick Price
Feeling brave? Got a cast-iron stomach? Not offended by decadence? Well, come with me and we’ll go for a stroll in the dangerous part of town, where society’s bad boys hang out. Yes, I’m talking about education.
One metaphor works best for this whole disturbing field, and that’s CSI. Imagine a really big crime scene, chaotic and messy, filled with walking wounded, people who can’t read or count, their brains empty, their thoughts incoherent.
What happened here? We need to figure out whodunit and why? A wife stages the death of her husband for the insurance; that’s an easy one. Public education, the crime scene we are entering, has hundreds of major suspects, their deeds spread over many decades, the evidence murky, mostly hidden from view. All we know for dead certain is that millions of Americans have been victims of a crime wave.
In 1955 Rudolf Flesch wrote a bestseller titled “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” To a large degree, Flesch triggered the reading wars and homeschooling. Good reading is so basic, so necessary for even the most elementary education. And it’s so easy to test; you put a newspaper in front of a child and say, read this. Then you know everything, possibly much more than you want to know. One of the most common scenes in America since 1935 is the illiteracy epiphany. Oh my God, our kid can’t read! Is he brain-damaged? What was our sin?
Flesch explained the whole thing. Nothing complicated. The public schools had stopped using phonics (kids learn the alphabet and the sounds that the letters stand for). Public school officials were forcing children to memorize words as graphic designs, as we memorize the Nike logo, currency symbols, or UN flags. Disciplined children with exceptional memories can possibly read with sight-words. Ordinary kids are destroyed. By fourth grade they might learn only a few hundred sight-words. But not with automaticity. Mostly, such kids just fumble and guess.
All right, so the top educators (i.e., professors of education and superintendents) really goofed. They launched an untested, unproven method, first called Look-say (and many other aliases). At the time you might have concluded all this was an innocent mistake. They meant well. But after Flesch explained the misadventure in 150 lucid pages and everyone knew the score, an odd thing happened. The Education Establishment went to the mattresses for Whole Word. According to them, Flesch was a crazed malcontent, a rat. Our elite educators (at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and such places) were going to make kids learn to read sight-words or die trying. Not the educators. It was the kids who would die trying.
The main method for teaching children to read in the United States from 1935 until quite recently has been sight-words. Even now, many educators pretend to embrace phonics, but children in the first and second grades are forced to memorize so-called Dolch words. This process guarantees that children are slowed down and confused. Does all this seem quaint and academic to you? Quite the opposite. It’s raw and ruthless.
This country has 50 million functional illiterates. These people should be reading books for fun. They can’t do this; and what makes it so poignant is that they have no idea what was done to them or how to escape from the hit. Meanwhile, the experts who did it to them give each other awards, grants, professorships, and million-dollar publishing contracts. Crime does pay.
Some might call the Education Establishment a RICO enterprise. For ideological reasons, they decided they didn’t want children to be individualistic or competitive. They wanted to make them all more or less the same. Our Education Establishment bought into leveling; and that meant a furtive undercutting of achievement, knowledge, and even reading. Kids who know too much will advance beyond the other kids and feel superior. You might think that reading is always a good thing; these progressive educators did not agree with you. A book published in 1958 mentions: “Public school administrators have gone so far as to assert that they look hopefully for the day when learning to read will not be considered more important than learning to sew or skate."
I told you, this is a bad part of town. Quacks and swindlers lurk everywhere. Ah, look, there is New Math, which did for arithmetic what Look-say did for reading. The boys in the back room must have been proud. But this gimmick, which flourished for a few years around 1964, was so obviously unworkable (and vicious), that the whole country laughed it off the stage. Kids couldn’t learn. Parents hated it. Teachers were bewildered. New Math vanished so quickly it’s easy to miss the main element of this story. Some of the smartest people in education (probably all with PhD’s) spent 15 years preparing this con. They went too far. Point is, they tried. Museums should be built to New Math. It serves to remind everyone that the Education Establishment has a predilection for shady products that damage children.
New Math morphed some years later into Reform Math. Kids couldn’t learn. Parents hated it. Teachers were bewildered. See a pattern?
There, in the shadows, more bad actors: Open Classroom, Life Adjustment, Self-Esteem, Multiculturalism, Relevance, No Memorization, Bilingual Education, the list goes on and on. Arguably, every method the top educators really love invariably turns out to be a Ponzi scheme.
The one thing these people are good at is marketing. Bad ideas with sweet-sounding names are forced into every classroom. Appreciate the genius in all these slick phrases: Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, Discovery Method, Whole Language, 21st-Century Skills, Common Core Standards, and many more. We don’t know what they mean but they sure do sound good.
In a short space, I can’t explain the inner machinery that renders each idea destructive. The important fact is that these gimmicks don’t work very well (and are routinely replaced by other fads) but they are pushed for a time with brutal abandon. In all other parts of life, if bosses come up with stuff that doesn’t work, they go out of business, they are fired, or voted out of office. But in education they are promoted. This is a gang or cult (more like a religion than most people realize). You can’t be successful unless you embrace the creed that your mentors embraced. And in this way education is locked in dumb.
The media don’t explain the cartel’s long and reckless history, and its far-left DNA. Typically, the explanations we see are shallow; and you may be left wondering why we have so many problems. So let’s cut to the chase. The cheap and easy way to improve education is simply to root out the dishonest ideas that the top educators have pushed for the past century.
Almost every article written on education, for more than 60 years, mentions in passing that one-third of fourth graders can’t read at grade level. One-third! So that’s this year’s batch of functional illiterates that the schools are churning out. There’s no excuse. Really think about it, and you’ll be angry. Good, now we can start taking back the neighborhood.
This article was first published in VEER Magazine, Hampton Roads, Va.
Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, and education activist. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. For related analysis, see “56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education” on that site.