More than 150 years ago, Horace Mann fervently hailed education as "the great equalizer in the conditions of men."
Horace Mann, generally considered the father of US public education,
counted on good schools to fulfill American democracy. Poorer children, via effective education, would rise as far as their talents and hard work could take them. Social mobility would be guaranteed; merit would be the chief determiner of success.
Shirley Tilghman, the president of Princeton, recently praised Mann's vision, and lamented that we are not honoring it. She pointed out that our K-12 education system is "leaving vast numbers of students behind." Speaking at the school's June commencement ceremony, she cited many studies and statistics to demonstrate that our schools are doing a poor job. We are getting dumber whereas our global competition is getting smarter. Tilghman noted that "the relative performance of US students has been steadily declining over the past quarter-century." Tilghman, both a scientist and educator, painted a gloomy picture of American public education.
Much the same assessment can be found in the media almost daily. The evidence for decline, despite massive spending, is omnipresent.At this point, the next observation might well be that the people in charge of public schools don't seem to be very good at their jobs; perhaps we should consider replacing them with better qualified people.
What does a large company do when confronted by an underperforming division? All the top people in the weak division are fired or moved elsewhere. The executives responsible for the fate of the entire company bring in new and smarter management. In the case of the United States, the most underperforming division we have is public education. It needs smarter management.
I wish President Tilghman had explored this option. Instead, she mentioned the views of the man now in charge, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In discussing his ideas (which had been published earlier in the campus newspaper), President Tilghman was possibly too polite.
In Duncan's world, there's little problem with incompetence. Everything bad is always somebody else's fault.
Duncan called the unequal access of students to an excellent education "the civil rights issue of our times." The core problem, however, is not access, it's that once you are inside the system, at almost all levels, you are harmed by educational strategies that turn out to be inferior.
Another sophistry suggested that a student's chances of being at the bottom quarter and never finishing high school is almost entirely determined by family circumstances. Consider the possibility that it's those parents who are least able to defend their children against the depredations of an incompetent school system. Marva Collins, a great educator, famously noted: "Our children and parents surrender themselves to those who are identified as protectors, but who actually destroy them." Duncan is preaching the gospel according to education professors. He suggests the right to a superior education is compromised by us--you and me. Not at all. It is being compromised by those in control of public schools.
So, yes, we have education as the Great Equalizer. But Horace Mann was clearly thinking of children equalized upward. The sad genius of our Education Establishment is to equalize downward.
Arne Duncan and the Education Establishment would like to pretend that lack of money is the problem; parents are at fault; society is evil and uncaring; and everybody's to blame for not advocating on behalf of high quality K-12 education.
All of these discussions tend to shield the Education Establishment from proper scrutiny and judgment. Isn't it more logical to blame the officials actually in charge? Why do we give them cover and excuses? These people have a problematic track record going back more than 50 years. Let's hold them accountable.Look closely at the methods, the thinking, the theories, and the goals that prevail in our public schools. You will not be surprised that children end up dumb and dumber. You will be amazed they survive at all.
For almost three generations our public schools have insisted on using an unworkable method to teach little children to read. This method, usually called Whole Word or sight-words, says that children should memorize English words as visual designs. In point of fact, only children with exceptional memories can learn to read using this technique. So now we have 50 million functional illiterates and a million dyslexics. There is an obvious conclusion here. If the goal is to undermine literacy and all other school subjects, Whole Word is a good choice. (You can't talk about Whole Word too much. It is the dark heart of our decline.)
A similarly perverse engineering seems to have gone into New Math, Reform Math, and now Core Standards. Instead of simply teaching children to do basic arithmetic, which is where everything starts, these verbose, jargon-ridden curricula bombard children with a spiral of complex material; mastery is forbidden; calculators are required; and many Americans arrive at college unable to say what 7 x 9 might be. Again, if the goal is to suppress mathematical achievement, Reform Math programs are a good choice.
One method and approach after another seems to be designed to level kids lower. Again and again, the animus seems to be against content, basics, facts, knowledge and mastery. Instead, public schools specialize in doing things in slow, soft, fuzzy, anti-academic, anti-cognitive ways.Americans should cast a cold, objective eye on the machinations of our Education Establishment. Their record, there for everyone to see, is not a proud one. Don't suppose those bad stats are this year's blip. No, this is a relentless tide of sludge we've had since World War II. Common sense tells us that the people at the top must be all too comfortable with mediocrity, because that's what they repeatedly deliver.
President Tilghman, like Horace Mann, earnestly seeks an education that will equalize all children in the best sense, that is equalized higher. Our public schools, despite soothing rhetoric, are not fulfilling this expectation. They are, intentionally or not, fulfilling a blueprint for failure, both individual and cultural. Many Americans want to pretend that the top educators mean well. (How often we hear: If only they could get their act together!) There's no evidence for this optimism. The evidence is overwhelming that the Education Establishment is set in its ways, and these ways are bad for America. It is very easy to imagine a great renaissance in public education if we cease the social engineering and instead adopt methods that are knowledge-rich and intellect-friendly. Only then will we have education that is the Great Equalizer.
(Bruce Deitrick Price, an author, artist, and education activist, founded Improve-Education.org
in 2005. For more analysis of public education, see "38: Saving Public Schools" on that site.)
(The three YouTube videos explain quickly the decline in reading and education.)