How do we achieve genuine reform in K-12 education?

May 12, 2016 by

kids Hendon

Bruce Deitrick Price – The editor of an alternative news site asked me if I have suggestions on how to reform public schools. “Yes,” I said, “but first I want to point out how really difficult this simple request actually is.”

The real question is whether we are willing to explore beyond the often-mentioned suggestions and deal aggressively with the underlying problems? If not, we will accomplish nothing.

My impression is that our Education Establishment maintains the status quo (widespread mediocrity achieved at exorbitant expense) by making sure the debate stays largely superficial. Typical articles on education discuss the proper role of homework, the place of charter schools, fair pay for teachers, the training of teachers, how wonderful the new superintendent is, appropriate punishments, whether schools should be in session all year, what to do about snow days, and dozens of other matters that are not pivotal.

Here’s what you rarely see in your local paper: an interest in anything fundamental. A school is shaped by what education professors call “theories and methods.” Our public schools are undermined by dysfunctional approaches that virtually guarantee failure. That’s what we need to fix.

People ask, how can we improve our schools; and they seem to believe that this is a cosmic project. No, in some ways WHAT to do is almost the simplest question in the world. Just look at people who are doing it successfully. Look at almost any private school, Classical Academy, or Montessori school. The people running these schools believe in education and routinely reach their goal. Copy these schools and you will be fine. (Every city has some excellent private schools. Do the public school administrators ever call the private schools for advice? Virtually never. That tells you a lot.)

The real mystery is WHY our Education Establishment does not pursue the obvious things they could do? Instead, they choose methods that don’t work very well -– look at all the stats for proof of that. Until you understand how our top educators think, you will never fix our education crisis.

I can sum up the history of the last hundred years in education this way: every leading figure was a self-described progressive. G Stanley Hall, John Dewey, and all the people who came later were obsessed with creating a new kind of child. In a word, that child would be cooperative and happiest as part of a group. Academic achievement was secondary and sometimes considered problematic. If your child knows X and my child doesn’t, my child will feel inferior; social divisions will open up in the class. We can’t have that. You could argue, why not make sure everybody knows X? Good question. But as a matter of historical fact, our Education Establishment has preferred a degree of leveling in order to gain social harmony (and as well perhaps social control).

The question is, how far are they willing to go? The striking thing about our Education Establishment, going back almost a century, is how true they were to their vision, no matter the cost. They assume that if you want to make omelettes, you have to break eggs. (That is what Walter Duranty of the New York Times famously commented in defense of Joseph Stalin and the famine he engineered in the Ukraine. Total deaths: at least six million.)

There are dozens of disastrous methods in the schools but let us consider the paradigm. That would be so-called Look-say (also known as Whole Word, sight-words, Dolch words, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, and many other aliases). This method requires that children memorize words as graphic designs. It’s an impossible task except perhaps for children with photographic memories. What used to be taken for granted (reading in the first grade or two) became a vanishing mirage. Not only can children not read, they develop cognitive problems requiring, at great expense, remediation, psychiatry, and pharmaceuticals. If there’s one thing indicating sickness in our schools, it’s the continued use of sight-words in the early grades. I would bet that if this one abuse were fixed, we would eliminate 50% of our educational problems.

But you won’t read about that in the media. As I said at the beginning, the Education Establishment keeps the debate shallow and murky. (The media become de facto accomplices.) How then can parents defend their children?

In a few words, here’s what we need: a new set of people at the top and and a new set of methods. Just imagine that all the proven traditional ideas were coupled with all the new digital tools: education would present exciting new vistas.

Unfortunately, all the bad theories and methods have become institutionalized and lucrative. K-12 education is set up to make failure and dysfunction very profitable. As Upton Sinclair noted: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, if his salary depends on him not understanding.”

We don’t have enough grown-ups in the game. Success in the future depends on ordinary citizens becoming more involved in K-12. Everyone should learn how the bad ideas end up dumbing down students. Let’s work to get rid of those ideas, and to make education transparent.

(PS: the editor of the news site did not use this article. I suspect he is afraid of the NEA. Far from being “alternative,” his site echoes conventional wisdom. And the schools get worse and worse.)

Bruce Deitrick Price’s education site is Improve-Education.org. (His four new novels are presented on his literary site Lit4u.com)

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Lady Ella-Rebecka Marlen-Summers

    Society needs reform. Reforming’ Education’ and ‘Schooling’ is just prolonging the agony otherwise.
    REMOVE COMPULSION to learn…..Young minds have natural curiosity that suffices to motivate learning.
    SCRAP MASSING youngsters together…..it’s dehumanising.

    ‘Education’ is the facilitation of human potential.
    ‘Schooling’ is the nurturing of effective socialisation.

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