Education: The Great Equalizer?

Posted 39 months ago|7 comments|3,906 views
Horace Mann (1796-1859)
Written by
Virginia Beach, VA
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 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.)

Eugene, OR
39 months ago: I agree that education was what helped form the middle class and was a great way to equalize the lower and upper classes. Now because of budget cuts, tuition hikes, the loss of Pell Grants etc. and the attacks on the public school system in favor of privatization, it is getting so only the rich can get an education.

You suggest we need better teachers, but how do you attract the best and brightest when they don't pay enough to attract them. Everyone is moving to Wall Street. If Americans cared more about education they would be willing to spend more getting better teachers.

Perhaps we should study the methods of the other nations which are doing better than us. For one thing they have much higher standards. There is much more parental support for education because they want their kids to be better than they. In the US there is less respect and support for education especially science among conservatives. Finally the students go to school more and they work harder.

We used to require a minimum of 185 days of education now it is around 160 days because of budget cuts. compare this to 195 days in Germany and 200 in East Asia. Students in countries like Denmark and Sweden attend school 40 to 50 hours per week. Nations like Japan and India have much more homework and often attend tutoring school after regular classes.

Many schools here have an International Baccalaureate which is comparable to the best of 141 other nations. It is a year or so above regular high schools.
Dwayne Johnson
Dwayne Johnson
39 months ago: I guess if we are to revamp our educational system then we should not just limit ourselves to K-12 but include all aspects of education. Education is a life long experience. It starts long before kindergarten in the nursery and progresses way past college into the work field. Parts of education that are often over looked are listed below.

1)The Home- Here children pick up the habits and tools that will make them productive or miserable students.

2) College- Private Universities and Institutes of higher education take advantage of government money and guaranteed loans to draw in students but how well do they prepare them? If post college Americans are going back home to live with their parents because they can't find adequate work then the blame should resr squarely on those institutions.

3) Training for fields that are deficient- How many times do you here parents and educators tell our youth to follow their dreams. Instead of pointing out the various areas that are under staffed. Who is to say that a persons dream does not rest in one of these areas?

4) K-12 - As far as this very public area of education. I think the problem rests in the Unions. The Unions exist to defend the workers. It does not exist to protect the product. But in the case of teachers the product is the student but this is not the concern of the Union. You can spend a little or you can spend a lot that it don't amount to a hill of beans if the instructor is blowing out hot air. Start by limiting the power of the Unions in schools and we will begin to see a difference.
39 months ago: Education or lack thereof can be directly attributed to our recent failure as a country to come together to solve the economic problems that face us. Education in general has suffered since the early eighties+ Studies in the eighties revealed that the nations education system was utterly failing a huge percentage of students. That children were graduating high school without even the basic skills of language and mathematics.

Education has suffered primarily from taxpayer reluctance to foot the bill to ensure the future of this country. It is a simple cut and dried fact. We began in the eighties to increase class sizes and cut funding. We as a nation have turned our backs financially to the plight of teachers who in many parts of the country are still failing to make a living wage. We have allowed politicians to play with our childrens minds by allowing vast inequalities in educational benefits from district to district..

Those same children who the study reports found were left behind in the 80's and 90's are now adults responsible for deciding elections and policy both economic and otherwise. These poorly educated adults are used by politicians to further their agendas. Having no real knowledge of history either political or otherwise the undereducated adult has no basis for making truly informed decisions. They are more easily swayed by rhetoric and manipulated by the trust in authority that was instilled in them by the scholastic system.

These undereducated Americans now serve as the target for politicians looking to abolish the middle class and push forward an anarchistic agenda. It has been historically proven that the uneducated are the easiest to manage and manipulate. And the recent surge of the so called Tea Party provides an excellent platform for both.

In conclusion I contend that our current political and economic status can be directly attributed to the fact that our nation has over the past 30 years or so has been criminally negligent in the education of its citizenry.

I do not however blame the teachers unions. The Unions were founded so that these people who we pay a pittance yet expect to turn out educated and civic minded American citizens could be heard at a time when the school systems were basically taking advantage of their individual calling.
Virginia Beach, VA
39 months ago: Hmmm. Three smart people leave comments that somehow miss what the article is saying.
The problems go back well beyond 50 years; and most of that time we were over-spending.
The 70-year decline has resulted because the Education Establishment accepted collectivist dogma and became obsessed with social engineering (at the expense of intellectual engineering).
The first video explains all in less than 4 minutes:

Virginia Beach, VA
39 months ago: Saturday, July 29: I'm just now reading the WIRED article about Khan Academy. Wonderful development. This guy is teaching kids, directly and systematically, thereby countering what I called "doing things in slow, soft, fuzzy, anti-academic, anti-cognitive ways." Expect the Education Establishment to sneer at him. But I bet they're nervous.
Huntington, NY
38 months ago: Once again Bruce is right on target! This year I was interviewing tutors in NYC for my little business, I had two college professors who told me, "The kids are coming to us at a 9th grade level in reading, writing and math." Two writing professors, telling me that they are remediating these kids now in college. This confirms our greatest fears, we are failing and failing miserably.

Bruce, the key people to fire who hold the keys to "life and death" in our school districts are the Curriculum Directors and Reading Specialists, these key people decide on curriculum for millions of kids, (in NYC it's 1.1 million kids). You'd think they'd always choose the best, research-based curriculums, alas, they choose the curriculums that are trendy or perhaps they have a friend in the publishing business or they listen to publishers and their salesreps... This is BIG money Bruce and a BIG commitment, once a curriculum is chosen it's usually in for 3-5 years at the least because, "we have to give it a chance to see if it works." So we destroy another decade of human intelligence with our grand experiments on our kids.

I've always said, "Look, you have something you think works? Fine! If your test scores match or beat mine then we'll use it, if not, you have to use what I use. (My test scores are in the 90th percentile with the program I use.) "
Doesn't that make sense? A little logic would help, but our school districts are filled with trend-loving, money mongers who are misinformed and have never taught in the classroom.

Parents beWARE, Marva Collins is right, I've said it this way, "Parents think they're dropping their kids off to some kind of all perfect, kid-loving, church called Public School, especially the poorer parents." These parents MUST open their eyes, stay involved and stay vigilant. Protect their kids from this by learning and discerning and opening their mouths! The squeaky wheel gets the oil!
Virginia Beach, VA
37 months ago: PS. Arne Duncan may be a great guy; but he is now the front man for more and more federal interference. That's why I hate to see Princeton (my school) in any way supporting his activities. They all point in the wrong direction.

I just happened to be on Herman Cain's site; and look at how he perfectly sums up the whole situation:

"A critical component of improving education in our country is to decentralize the federal government's control over it. Children are best served when the teachers, parents and principals are making the day-to-day decisions, coupled with the leadership of local municipalities, school boards and states. What might work for a third grader in Oklahoma might not work for a third grader in Hawaii."

That makes so much more sense to me. Let's urge all candidates to advocate for more local control.

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