THE PROBLEM: Today’s business leaders seem to exert less influence than in decades past. Society’s movers and shakers do not appear to move and shake as they once did. But why? What has changed in the business community or in the larger society?
Traditionally, business leaders were aggressively involved in public education. There was a natural connection in that businesses constantly need skilled workers and astute managers. There was also a patriotic aspect. Business executives wanted what was best for the country. Everyone knew exactly what that meant: superior public schools.
Something has shifted in American culture. Arguably, business executives are not doing all they might do. Just as arguably, the business community is not the whole equation. A novel development in our society is that Education itself became a player. The Education Establishment (the top 1000 people, let us say) are now themselves movers and shakers.
The Education Establishment has money, power, and its own world-view. No longer committed to managing schools that the community wants, our elite educators are preoccupied with creating the sort of schools that they want. That is the problem.
It’s a safe bet that business leaders can hardly grasp the philosophical mindset that drives the educational community. That mindset is best described as collectivist.
In short, Commerce and Education are now two different cultures, as different perhaps as night and day. This chasm is a big part of the explanation for the declining influence of business leaders. The Education Establishment no longer cares what the business community thinks.
As a result, business execs have become bashful, somewhat confused suitors, politely requesting cooperation and assistance, not clear why these are less and less forthcoming. The elite educators are much more clear-eyed. They know that, to keep on doing what they want to do, they need only be polite, and dissemble when necessary.
BACKGROUND: It is one of the sad ironies of modern society that business executives, intent on improving education, would probably hire experts from the reigning schools of education. These PhD professors would be assumed to know the best ways to improve education. In point of fact, it’s these professors who have created the malaise that we must now try to fix.
This malaise started more than a century ago when John Dewey proclaimed that “the school is primarily a social institution.” This is the war cry of people who want to use the schools, not for teaching children, but for programming children. John Dewey’s crusade has been all too successful. Certainly there are rays of light; many parents force schools to do good things; just as many teachers insist on doing good things. But, across-the-board, public education rarely uses the most productive ideas, and instead focuses its huge resources on developing and retaining deeply flawed methods. These bad ideas, working together, are what people refer to when they speak of the schools being “dumbed down.” Eliminating these bad practices is the simple, cheap road to improvement.
Trouble is, these infamous ideas are precisely the dimension that the business community is least able to comprehend. This is a key point. Business people are practical people. They instinctively want to do what works; and they assume everyone else wants to do what works. But that is the worst possible assumption if you hope to understand the decline in the public schools.
The Education Establishment is not primarily concerned with what is practical. The Education Establishment is obsessed with social and political engineering, as laid down by John Dewey 100 years ago. The explicit goals were to create less independent, less individualistic children. The hope was for a more cooperative and interdependent child. THE KNOWLEDGE THESE CHILDREN LEARNED WAS SECONDARY. That they worked and played well together -- this was the focus. John Dewey and all of his colleagues were confident that the US would soon become a socialist country. They saw their job as preparing children for this new reality. It is this shortsighted and SECRET decision that has plagued us for the last century. Dewey plotted the idea of the school as collectivist training camp.
To feel the far-reaching difficulty of improving education, it might help to visualize an unpleasant picture. Imagine a thin gray jelly, a goo, reaching up to the roof level of the typical public school. Everyone in the community has to walk through this stuff, breathe this stuff, sometimes drown in this stuff. This goo is the sum-total of all the propaganda, misinformation, sophistry, alibis, hyperbole, hoaxes, and outright lies that the Education Establishment has told in the last 75 years. To discuss anything clearly, to agree on even the simplest definitions of what should be obvious facts--all that is difficult.
As a practical matter, altering this goo may be impossible. It is probably more practical to ignore the goo and refuse to accept its rule. In short, the business community should decide its priorities for itself and then fight for them. (You don’t need a professor of education to tell you that children should start with reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography; then segue into history, science, literature, and the arts. This eight-point program has been education’s default setting for thousands of years. Indeed, it is only the professors of education who would tell you to ignore the common-sense approach. That is why these people are dangerous and should not be consulted.)
It is only the American Education Establishment that has systematically tried to discredit every component of a practical educational philosophy. Whenever possible, they discard knowledge and basic skills. When they can’t, they belittle them or they dilute them. They try to fill up the day with innocuous, content-free activity. Their real goal is to make sure that children remain at a mediocre level (even though they have A’s on their report cards). A thin, watered-down, low-calorie education keeps all the children comfortably homogeneous.
IN SUMMARY: The simplest remedy for every education problem in America is to PUT SCHOOLS BACK IN THE SCHOOL BUSINESS, and teachers back in the knowledge business. What prevents the business community from promoting this sensible program? Here’s the answer. Business leaders have too often accepted at face value the claims and pretensions of the Education Establishment. The PhD educators claim they are objective and sincere in their quest for better education. None dare call them ideologues. Finally, the business executives shrug surrender and murmur, Well, you must know what you’re doing...
Wrong! They don’t. The correct answer is: “Statistics suggest that you educators have long ago lost your way; you have no claim to our trust; we’re not listening to you anymore.”
Look at schools around the world. All good schools are doing much the same thing: adults identify the stuff that’s worth knowing, and teachers give this knowledge to the children. That’s what we need to do. Nothing fancy, nothing abstract, nothing ideological. We stop social engineering, and start intellectual engineering.
The single best philosophy is simply told: take all students as far as each one can go, whether it’s in French, volleyball, biology, music, art, accounting, or history. It is not the purpose of the school to suppress or retard children. The purpose of the school is to work with the children that show up, and to give all of them the greatest chance for success in the rest of their lives. This approach is best for individual students, and for the entire nation. Unfortunately, our Education Establishment seems to believe the opposite in every case.
These professors, in order to pursue their ideological schemes, have perfected a wide range of pseudo-methods that plainly don’t work. Apparently, these approaches were chosen BECAUSE they don’t work. Business executives, in particular, will be so unsettled by this thought that they may start to sputter. As noted, executives are practical people. The idea of picking a flawed method precisely because it is flawed is like talking about eating dirt. How could educators align themselves with such nonsense?? Simple. Because they have other goals than the ones you are thinking of. They worship in the church of equal results. Achievement is almost a dirty word for them.
THE SOLUTION: Public schools are full of foolish methods designed to advance a largely-hidden agenda. A crucial step for the business community hoping to help the schools is to study and understand the flawed methods, and then work to get rid of them. One by one by one. Here then is a Terminator’s Guide to the dirtiest half-dozen:
ONE: Nothing better illustrates the cruel insanity of American public schools than the reading method called Look-say or Whole Word. It was first introduced in 1932, was the law of the land until about 2000, and still survives in what is called Balanced Literacy. The fundamental tool (the poison pill) is the sight-word, that is, the English phonetic word conceived of strictly as a visual design. The English language has 1 million words. You need at least 50,000 or 100,000 of them to go to college. Just one big problem: few children can master (i.e., identify at reading speed) even 1,000 sight-words. Children waste the first years of school struggling with a method that, even if successful, gives poor results. But most children do not succeed; they become functional illiterates and dyslexics. They end up with a great range of emotional problems, the best known being ADHD. An Education Establishment that would pick this method, and keep this method in the face of falling literacy, is not a group you need to listen to. (The proper method, as all successful schools will tell you, is phonics. Kids learn the alphabet, and the sounds of letters, and then how to process syllables from left to right. That’s called reading. Children should be doing it independently by the second grade.) Conclusion: eliminate sight-words, teach phonics.
TWO: New Math was used around 1962-1966. It came back in somewhat altered form a decade later as Reform Math. Arguably these are all the same botched methods for teaching math. They were so unsuccessful and resulted in so much decline in the country’s mathematical ability, the only reasonable conclusion is that math was not the goal (just as with Whole Word, literacy is not the goal). New Math and Reform Math emphasize advanced techniques, and spiraling from topic to topic; they keep the kids perpetually confused; they alienate parents from the teaching process, they make children dependent on calculators. Kids arrive in college not knowing what 7 x 9 is. It’s insane. Again, people who would come up with these ideas are not serious about helping children or helping education. Conclusion: use Singapore Math, Saxon Math, MathUsee, or Math Mammoth modified for American public schools.
THREE: Constructivism -- which is now the most popular approach in almost all subjects and grades--is another method that might sound good on paper but is a disaster when put into practice. Basic idea: children must invent their own new knowledge. It’s possible to imagine situations where you could maneuver children into having Eureka moments about this or that fact. (That is, children would learn the knowledge or construct it in a vivid way.) The problem arises in trying to create Eureka moments for the many hundreds of basic facts that children need. There is no way to set up a Eureka moment for Paris being the capital of France. (Some teachers talk as if Constructivism means that you search the Internet for information. That’s called research; and children have been looking in books for many centuries.) In extreme progressive schools, the only valid information is what the children choose to learn and then figure out for themselves. Some excellent education may take place under this rubric. However, at the end of the year, children probably know only a fraction of what they could learn if a good teacher just gets to work. Conclusion: teach facts; transmit knowledge.
FOUR: Cooperative Learning means the children sit around a table together and work as a group. Group responsibility. Group praise. Group failure. Group everything. This is great training if you want to create sheep. A little of it could be mixed into the standard curriculum from decades ago and maybe it would be a plus. But what you see always with our education experts is they will make a case for X, and then they try to drive out everything that’s not X. In war we call this a scorched earth policy; much is destroyed. Conclusion: children need to be able to work and think independently.
FIVE: No Memorization has been the official policy of progressive education for a century. It’s great for inducing factual ignorance and societal amnesia. The truth is, the brain is wired to want information and to know information. This is a tremendous survival tool. Whether a lobster at the bottom of the ocean, a bear in the woods, or an American walking down Main Street, all organisms need to know stuff. Business (and military leaders) find that high school graduates know almost nothing. It’s not by accident. It’s a policy perpetrated by people who scorn knowledge and don’t really believe in what is actually the essence of education. Conclusion: teach more foundational knowledge, from K to 12.
SIX: Fads Rule. It’s a pattern that needs correcting. There are dozens of these shallow gimmicks in the schools: Self-Esteem, Multiculturalism, Relevance, Critical Thinking, and many more. Everything the Education Establishment comes up with has this peculiar property: at the end of the year, students know little more than at the start. If you look closely at each method, you immediately see it’s a trick, a three-card Monte, a Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. The method pretends to do more but always does less. Self-esteem sounds like such a good thing, right? But what it actually does in practice is to justify throwing content out of classrooms because some students won’t be able to handle it and will thus feel bad about themselves. Presto, all content is vanquished. Conclusion: don’t trust the bogus claims of the latest fads. Trust common-sense evaluations of academic progress. If middle-school children can’t point to Japan on a map, they’re in a crummy school.
BOTTOM LINE:: The American Education Establishment traffics in bad faith and achieves bad results. The business community may not be able to reach these people as they are now constituted. Long-term, we need a better class of educators. Short-term. however, it is simpler to go around them and work at the community level, with school boards and local leaders, and in political elections. The goo created by the Education Establishment is not an accident. It is like the black ink squirted out by a squid to conceal its movements. David Gelernter and a number of other smart people think that all public schools should be shut down; and all schooling should be done by private business or at home. People reach these extreme conclusions because the public schools have been so debased. But very likely they can be fixed.
Business leaders should not feel guilty that they have not been more effective. Moving the Education Establishment is moving a mountain. In the future, go around the mountain. Ignore the false prophets of collectivist education. The school is not primarily a social institution; it is an educational institution. To say otherwise is the essence of quackery. The school has to serve the business community, the broader community, the military, and every citizen’s personal career and ambitions. It is not the purpose of the school to be a reeducation camp like the ones we might find in Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, or Chavez’s Venezuela. But that’s what our professors at Harvard and the University of Chicago have always dreamed of. Give these people credit. They’ve been remarkably skillful at bamboozling an entire society.
Practical education is a simple thing and easy to measure. Interview a random assortment of sixth graders. Ask the kids what seven times eight is; ask them if they know what the Amazon is. These are things that every adult ought to know. These are simple things that are easy to learn; and they can be taught in the earliest grades. Nowadays we have so many exciting new tools--videos, computers, cameras, the Internet--there is no excuse for slow, unproductive classes anymore.
Finally, you can best understand the idiocy of American education if you know about Professor E. D. Hirsch’s foray into California, where he addressed administrators at an elementary school. One of the officials asked what would be appropriate to teach to first-graders? Hirsch answered that they should know the names of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the names of the continents. At which point, a so-called educator objected: I can’t imagine why our children would need that information. It’s officials like that, and the people who train them, that have crippled American public education. Enough of these poseurs and their collectivist schemes.
In short, to improve education, simply banish the failed theories and methods so beloved by our Education Establishment. Ignore as much as possible the elite educators; these people have been addled by their addiction to social engineering. Embrace instead any array of proven traditional methods reinforced by the many powerful new educational tools we now have. We will experience an instant turn-around.
1) Report prepared by Bruce Deitrick Price/Improve-Education.org. See “56: Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education” on Improve-Education.org for a short version of this article.
2) Please quote, analyze, distribute, or otherwise discuss this report. It is only by encouraging greater public awareness that we can improve education.
3) For an article, interview or memorable comment, contact Bruce Price at Word-Wise Education, 757-455-5020 (Virginia Beach).
4) Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, marketing consultant, and education activist. He founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. He has 250 education articles, videos, and book reviews on the internet. He will be listed in Who's Who in America 2012.