“Verbal SAT scores in the United States took a nosedive in the 1960s, and since then they have remained flat. Despite intense efforts by the schools, reading scores nationwide have remained low.”
- E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
“The ‘Dick and Jane’ and ‘run, Spot, run’ school of letters does not stir the imagination, and it imparts small apprehension of norms. Apologists for this aspect of life-adjustment schooling believe that they are inculcating respect for values by prescribing simple readings that commend tolerant, kindly, co-operative behavior. Yet this is no effective way to impart a knowledge of norms: direct moral didacticism, whether of the Victorian or of the twentieth-century variety, usually awakens resistance in the recipient, particularly if he has some natural intellectual power.”
- Russell Kirk
- E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
“The ‘Dick and Jane’ and ‘run, Spot, run’ school of letters does not stir the imagination, and it imparts small apprehension of norms. Apologists for this aspect of life-adjustment schooling believe that they are inculcating respect for values by prescribing simple readings that commend tolerant, kindly, co-operative behavior. Yet this is no effective way to impart a knowledge of norms: direct moral didacticism, whether of the Victorian or of the twentieth-century variety, usually awakens resistance in the recipient, particularly if he has some natural intellectual power.”
- Russell Kirk
Reading or watching the news is always a dismal business. Recently, some of the most miserable of news stories have been those informing us of American education. I believe this is true no matter what your political point of view. Even if my own political persuasion were reversed in polarity, I still cannot see how I could rid myself of the growing sense that, in the face of what has really happened to U.S. education, so many of the education news stories that we are given are almost arrogant in their overt triviality.
New Item #1: One parent, with the support of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has lodged a complaint with the Los Alamitos Unified School District alleging that combining the graduation ceremonies of two middle schools into a 100,000-square-foot auditorium of a local mega-church (as the District has done for the past two years) is illegal on First Amendment grounds. “By our public school choosing a church or a temple or a mosque or a synagogue, it’s then endorsing that church or mosque or synagogue, regardless of whether there’s a cross,” argues the parent.
The written complaint cites the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in a recent decision, Doe v. Elmbrook School District, which ruled that holding a high-school graduation ceremony in a church building is an “Establishment of Religion” because of the building’s “proselytizing environment.” The court explained its reasoning as follows: “Regardless of the purpose of school administrators in choosing the location, the sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state.”
Obviously, Doe v. Elmbrook is now headed on its merry way to the Supreme Court. Also, needless to say, given that they used the word “religiosity” to describe the atmosphere within the architectural structure of the average American mega-church, we can safely deduce that the honorable members of the Seventh Circuit have not personally bothered to venture inside one of these buildings in the last decade or so.
News Item #2: Charter schools have been, or ought to be, a healthy and competitive alternative to state run education. Unfortunately, the textbooks being used by some charter schools are now actually being read. For example, the Biology textbooks being distributed, to more than sixty-five school campuses across three different states, have just been reported upon in Slate magazine. A few quotes from the school workbooks provide examples of the sort of “education” students are being given. These workbooks don't just question the theory of evolution itself. They also challenge things like the age of the earth: “Some scientists even question the validity of the conclusions concerning the age of the Earth.” and “How can scientists do experiments on something that takes millions of years to accomplish? It’s impossible.”
According to Slate, the actual History textbook in one Texas charter school is the populist A Patriot’s History of the United States (highly recommended by Glenn Beck) which teaches things like, oh say, how Feminism “created an entirely new class of females who lacked male financial support and who had to turn to the state as a surrogate husband.”
News Item #3: At Helen Hunt-Jackson Elementary School in Temecula, California, a first grade teacher tasked her kids with bringing something the next day from their homes to represent a family tradition and present it to the rest of the class. Six-year-old Brynn Williams brought the star that had been placed at the top of her family’s Christmas tree. When she began to describe how the star was “the Star of Bethlehem” the first grade teacher told her to stop right there, to be quiet and go sit down. The teacher then told this six-year-old that she was not allowed to talk about the Bible in school.
The usual and predictable noise of culture war ensued. Outraged parents complained to the principal. The principal explained to the parents that the teacher was right because the school’s rules were designed to protect other six-year-olds from “being offended” by a presentation of anything religious. Fox News quickly and humorlessly picked up the story and blew it beyond any sense of proportion. Then, the number of people on both sides who suddenly became “offended” increased exponentially.
The manner in which this story was reported is telling. No one excused the first grade teacher as having made a stupid mistake by being overly anal, instead she had to be (a) properly following a school policy that allegedly makes it Verboten! for six-year-olds to utter the phrase “star of Bethlehem”, or she was (b) deliberately attacking Christianity and the very foundations of this great nation. No news reporter questioned the assumption that a six-year-old would be subtle enough to slip in a proselyting brain-washing gospel message behind her show-and-tell on why a bit of tin foil was stuck at the top of a tree. No news reporter questioned the assumption that the other six-year-olds in the class would be sophisticated enough to notice and to be appropriately offended by such an obvious violation of separation of church and state. No news reporter questioned the assumption that this was a story worth reporting as ... news.
News Item #4: On January 16, 2013, House Bill 1472 was introduced to the Missouri House of Representatives. The language of the bill would require that all schools (public or charter) giving any “instruction relating to the theory of evolution” notify parents and allow parents the option of withdrawing their students from class whenever the aforesaid class would be teaching about evolution.
If you follow education news regularly, you will already know that the teaching of evolution is still one of the hottest stories about our schools. Anyone who thought that H.L. Mencken said what needed to be said in 1925 on the subject was overly-optimistic. Rules, regulations and legislation is still regularly being proposed, fought over, passed, violated, enforced, appealed, overruled, modified, rejected and amended over whether school science teachers and books are allowed to, or must be forced to, print or utter words like “theory” or “generally accepted.”
If a foreigner tried to gauge what the biggest problem in American schools happened to be by sheer number of news stories over the years, the teaching of evolution and/or intelligent design would most likely be it.
New Item #5: Highlighting the difficulties with standardized federal test scores, the state of Washington’s waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law is about to expire. No Child Left Behind required that federal funds be specifically allocated, between school districts and remedial programs, based on student test scores. (The idea was to have every child at reading and math levels appropriate to their own grades, measured, of course, by standardized test scores.) Washington’s state law does not currently comply with these requirements, which means that either (a) the state of Washington change its law, (b) the federal waiver already granted to Washington (once in 2011 and then again in 2013) be extended for a third time, or (c) the federal government begins mandating how the state spends allocated federal funds.
Apparently, Washington’s school “evaluation system” is only one year old. State legislators want student test scores to be able to be used in evaluating teacher performance and they crafted their “new” evaluation system accordingly. The U.S. Department of Education argues that No Child Left Behind mandates that student test scores be used to evaluate teacher performance. State Senator, Steve Litzow, sponsored a bill modifying the evaluation system to make it comply with federal requirements. Litzow said that he took out all the controversial language that he could from the bill so that the only difference between his bill and current state law was changing “can to must.” His bill was rejected by the state legislature. Senator Rosemary McAuliffe voted against it even though she had drafted similar legislation in January. She explained that she changed her mind because standardized student test scores are only “dipsticks in time.” “Our teachers and principals have built a very strong evaluation system,” McAuliffe declared. “We need to quit changing it every year.”
Sadly for the entire state of Washington, if the federal waiver is not extended again by August, almost every Washington school will be required to send a letter to the parents of its students informing them that their school is failing according to federal standards. The state of Washington would then be required to allocate federal funds to “off-campus tutoring programs for low-performing students.” In his statement after a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Education in order to obtain another waiver, Governor Jay Inslee declared: “there’s a possibility to develop a positive path forward that has a realistic chance of success.”
It is not a good sign that, when education is discussed and debated in the public square, these are the issues that attract the most attention. Anyone who reads today’s education news should be able to see that there is a more important underlying problem. In spite of how evolution is taught, in spite of whether casual religious asides are allowed or prohibited inside the classroom, in spite of the growing number of charter schools, and in spite of how much the federal government increases its education spending or even how strictly it attempts to enforce its most recently standardized test scores, the results of our current education system are still growing more and more abysmal.
The Current Failure of the U.S. Education System
Tactfully put, there were two major trends in American education in the Twentieth Century: (a) the progressive lowering of academic standards, for teacher training, university admission, and various bare minimum test scores, which then also concurrently developed along with (b) the steady plummeting of American students' test scores and literacy rates. Bluntly put, Americans have been growing stupider and stupider over the last hundred years as the teaching in our schools has been increasingly dumbed down, and then dumbed down again, and then again, and etc. (I do not make this claim out of condescension. I include myself as one of the stupider Americans. My own education and literacy is a joke compared to the education and literacy of any socially equivalent American of a century or more ago.)
The evidence is overwhelming and it has been noticed throughout the West, outside as well as inside the United States. “Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted,” asked Dorothy Sayers in 1947, “by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees?” That the corroded quality of public discourse was noted in England in 1947 is almost laughable to us now, particularly to those of us who would give limbs for the kind of sophistication and intelligence that recordings and transcripts of public discourse from the 1940s so clearly evidence. But that is only by comparison to the bloated, blinkered, narrow and lumbering “discourse” that we are now treated to. Sayers continued by asking: “And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?” I doubt Ms. Sayers could have ever guessed the level to which such a heart could sink to over seven decades later. Sayers also attributed, and I believe rightly, the level of discourse in the public square to the level of education of that public square’s civil society.
In 1969, Russell Kirk reflected that a culture will always evidence the quality of its own education: “In [Orwell's] 1984, Winston can find only rubbish on what few shelves of second-hand books he encounters in obscure shops; nearly everything published before the Revolution has been burned or pulped. The ‘democratic despotism’ dreaded by Tocqueville might accomplish, without formal political repression, the same result. The content of ‘basic readers’ in American public schools, for instance, has become thinner and thinner during recent decades: the great authors are supplanted by trivia.”
Kirk’s reference to basic readers reminds me of David Mulroy’s complaint when comparing modern daily readers with older grade equivalent readers from as late as the nineteenth century. In one popular intermediate reader, Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed & Brainerd Kellog, first published in 1878, students are asked to diagram sentences like: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” - Whittier. “I fear newspapers more than a hundred-thousand bayonets.” - Napoleon. “He that allows himself to be a worm must not complain if he is trodden on.” - Kant. “It is better to write one word upon the rock than a thousand on the water or the sand.” - Gladstone.
Compare that with the sentences today’s students are asked to diagram at the equivalent intermediate level: “The red kangaroo hops.” “A bright, colorful rainbow appeared today.” “They washed and dried the sticky pots and greasy pans.” “Aunt Amy and Uncle Andy sent their nephews, Bruce and Bobby, some cake and cookies.” There does seem to be a difference somehow.
“In evaluating the findings, our first explanatory attempt concerned the measurement instruments that showed the declining score trends. But we soon had to conclude that changes in scoring, scaling, testing conditions or test content could not explain the larger achievement decreases ... In general, test content changes might have to take responsibility for slight score changes, but they can definitely not explain the general phenomenon. Some non-content, technical changes in tests worked in the opposite direction. For example, we found that changes in two tests (SAT, PSAT) had resulted in scaling increases. Thus, accounting for these would even augment the magnitudes of achievement test score declines.”
Changing the standards is certainly one way to ignore a decline. In 1994, Charles Krauthammer reported in the Chicago Tribune of one instance of such a scoring tweak:
“The nation's SAT scores are going to be ‘recentered.’ ... When the modern SATs were started in 1941, the average score was 500. They have since slid 76 points in verbal and 22 points in math. Because ‘most infrequent users of the SAT expect the average to be about 500,’ explains the College Board, they tend to misinterpret the results. They think a 424 verbal is below average, whereas in fact it is today's sorry mean. We will now cure them of this debilitating misapprehension by ‘recentering’: By decree, every 424 turns into a cool 500.”
Rewritten and revised in order to make it appear as if the scores were not as low as they really were, American SAT scores could still at least have tolerable looking averages even after schools were failing to teach as they ought. Discussing the decline in functional literacy among American students, David Mulroy explains as follows:
“The clearest evidence of a problem in language arts instruction may lie in the well-known decline in the nation’s SAT scores. Both verbal and quantitative scores began to sink in 1963 ... The average verbal score dropped over 50 points, from 478 in 1963 to the 420s in the seventies. The quantitative score fell from 502 to 466 in 1980. Subsequently, quantitative scores rebounded somewhat, but verbal scores stayed in the 420s. In 1996, The College Board ‘recentered’ the SAT scores. The average verbal score for that year, 428, was reported as 505; the quantitative average was changed from 488 to 512. In 2002, the recentered averages were 504 (verbal) and 516 (mathematics).”
But one can only do this sort of thing so many times. More recently, both national and international test scores are looking even worse in spite of the fact that the United States spends more on education per student than almost any other developed country in the world. Deroy Murdock writes in National Review:
Look at recent numbers, The Washington Post reports that there is simply “no question that state spending per pupil has drastically increased since the 1970s.” And Education Week also reports that while test scores have fallen or remained stagnant, even adjusted for inflation, actual spending per student has radically increased.
Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was interviewed and asked about what increased U.S. education spending has meant:
“When you look at what really matters — student achievement — then the country hasn't made much progress since the War on Poverty launched, Mr. Hanushek said. He pointed to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and international tests that, he said, show U.S. student performance remaining ‘pretty flat’ over recent decades even as K-12 spending has risen dramatically. What's more, he said, high-spending states haven't shown dramatically better student achievement progress than low-spending states.”
Colleen Casey analyzes the numbers over at the Wall Street Cheat Sheet, demonstrating that, at times, schools with more federal money did worse while schools with less spending per student did better:
“A comparison of standardized test scores between the top and bottom spenders – Washington, D.C. and Utah – results in an inverse of expectations. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (or, NAEP) is a continual assessment of American students. Uniform tests are administered, and results can be compared by state. Utah, who spent the least in education spending in the 2009-2010 period, tended to score higher than the national averages, except in fourth and eighth grade writing. Washington, D.C. pupils had scores lower than the national averages. Utah has more schools and students, but fewer teachers than Washington. Even when federal revenues are added to the equation, Utah still spends less per pupil than Washington, DC.
The spending paradox is visible internationally as well. The United States spends more on education per student than any other developed country in the world, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (or, OECD). The report pegs federal per student spending in the U.S. at about $15,171 per student. The OECD average was $9,313. Even with a hefty education price tag, students in the U.S. do not out-perform their international peers.”
If this is all overwhelming, things look even worse when we compare ourselves internationally. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released their annual international report on education for the world’s most developed countries.
Not to be fazed by all this even a little, the current Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo has, for example, called for increased spending on New York’s schools, including fully state-funded full-day pre-kindergarten and he has asked for the borrowing of another $2 billion to fund the upgrading of technology for his school districts.
Reprioritizing What We Think Is Important
What is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of all, any informative discussion of the current state of our education system causes the eyes to glaze over and the mind to retreat with boredom. True education reform is simply not an issue that interests most Americans, nor do we consider it to be a top priority. The extent of our lackadaisical attitude towards education can be measured by the fact that we have allowed our schools to reach the point that they have now reached. But it can also be measured by actual discussion in the public square.
Looking at, by my count, one hundred and twenty-seven respectable public opinion polls on what Americans think are the most important political issues that our country faces going as far back as 2002 (and taken nationally by sources such as Gallup, Reuters, USA Today, CBS News, CNN, Newsweek, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Opinion Dynamics, The Pew Research Center, NPR, etc.), the importance of education as an issue has been almost completely ignored or belittled for more than the last decade.
For instance, looking at the most recent twenty-one polls through 2012 that specifically asked Americans what issue they thought was the most important, only 7 out of the 21 polls included, or even allowed for, education as an option. For example, a Gallup Poll conducted on June 20-24, 2013, asked the question, “Looking ahead, what is your greatest worry or concern about the future of the United States?” Answers ranked as follows: The Economy first according to 17%. The National Debt second at 11%. Jobs & Employment third with 6%. Wars fourth at 5%. Healthcare and three other topics all tied for fifth place each at 4%. And Education tied for last, along with National Security and Government overreach, each at 3%.
Among these polls, the best that Education placed in ranked importance was when CBS News conducted one from July 18-22, 2013, asking the question “Which one of the following do you think is the most important thing for Congress to concentrate on right now: the economy, the federal budget deficit, illegal immigration, health care, education, the environment, abortion, or something else?” The Economy took first place with 40%. The Federal Budget Deficit took second with 16%. Health Care came in third at 15%. And Education came in fourth place at 12%.
In the other five polls that mentioned education at all, it placed only at three and two percent.
In 2006, education reformer E.D. Hirsch, Jr., wrote:
“The public sees that something is badly amiss in the education of our young people. Employers now often need to rely on immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe to do the math that our own high school graduates cannot do. We score low among developed nations in international comparisons of science, math, and reading. This news is in fact more alarming than most people realize, since our students perform relatively worse on international comparisons the longer they stay in our schools. In fourth grade, American students score ninth in reading among thirty-five countries, which is respectable. By tenth grade they score fifteenth in reading among twenty-seven countries, which is not promising at all for their (and our) economic future.”
As far as any documented real-world results go, they have accomplished nothing other than the exorbitant spending of taxpayers’ money. Nothing changed that the schools were not already doing before, other than making schools spend even more time trying to prepare students for the newly required standardized tests. Meanwhile, our schools continue helping students test poorly and then graduating many who are still functionally illiterate, and more and more of whom require remedial math and English training and tutoring upon entering college or university.
I am reminded of the story that film critic Kyle Smith told about when the documentary film, Waiting for ‘Superman’, appeared in 2010. He arrived at the movie theater only to see large groups of protestors outside “standing in circles chanting slogans,” holding signs and generally trying to deter patrons from entering the movie theater. He discovered that the teachers’ unions had organized a protest of the documentary when he was handed a pamphlet entitled “THE TRUTH about Charter Schools in New York City.” Upon reading the pamphlet, Smith wrote:
“Here is the first sentence:
Access to a high quality public education is not something that should not be won in a lottery — it is a most basic human and civil right.
I read the sentence four times. Did it really say what I thought it said? Did it use a double negative to aver that access to a high quality public education is something that should be won in a lottery? Yep. Think of all the effort that went into organizing, writing, editing, printing and distributing this leaflet. And no one along the line caught that error. Really doesn’t restore your confidence in the teachers’ unions, does it?”
As bad as it all sounds, the really frustrating thing is that none of the attempts to remedy the problem seem to be working. In Waiting for ‘Superman,’ the toughest and most competent looking person working in education appears to be Michelle Rhee, who as appointed chancellor of Washington D.C.’s public schools. As soon as she began firing incompetent principals and changing what was clearly not working, she faced an incredible negative publicity campaign launched by the teachers unions against her. Ms. Rhee was then essentially kicked out, figuratively tarred and feathered, and then run out of town on a rail.
Even more frustrating are the reports of what the Obama administration’s latest “Common Core” standards really consist of.
On January 11, education historian, Diane Ravitch, who is a liberal, gave a speech heavily criticizing the new “Common Core” standards to the Modern Language Association. In her speech, Ms. Ravitch sounded both fierce and passionate:
“George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top have combined to impose a punitive regime of standardized testing on the schools. NCLB was passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law in 2002. NCLB law required schools to test every child in grades 3-8 every year; by 2014, said the law, every child must be “proficient” or schools would face escalating sanctions. The ultimate sanction for failure to raise test scores was firing the staff and closing the school.
“Then along came the Obama administration, with its signature program called Race to the Top. In response to the economic crisis of 2008, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Education $5 billion to promote ‘reform.’ Secretary Duncan launched a competition for states called ‘Race to the Top.’ If states wanted any part of that money, they had to agree to certain conditions. They had to agree to evaluate teachers to a significant degree by the rise or fall of their students’ test scores; they had to agree to increase the number of privately managed charter schools; they had to agree to adopt ‘college and career ready standards,’ which were understood to be the not-yet-finished Common Core standards; they had to agree to ‘turnaround’ low-performing schools by such tactics as firing the principal and part or all of the school staff; and they had to agree to collect unprecedented amounts of personally identifiable information about every student and store it in a data warehouse.
“No other nation in the world has inflicted so many changes or imposed so many mandates on its teachers and public schools as we have in the past dozen years. No other nation tests every student every year as we do. Our students are the most over-tested in the world. No other nation—at least no high-performing nation—judges the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. Most researchers agree that this methodology is fundamentally flawed, that it is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable, that the highest ratings will go to teachers with the most affluent students and the lowest ratings will go to teachers of English learners, teachers of students with disabilities, and teachers in high-poverty schools. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become obsessed with standardized testing, and have turned over to the testing corporations the responsibility for rating, ranking, and labeling our students, our teachers, and our schools.
Even if you believe that Obamacare is bad for the country, if it is really is going to hurt the economy as much as some economists say that it will, then we at least will still have a fighting chance to modify or repeal it, given the bad publicity that will naturally go along with its harmful effects. But, if the curriculum of America’s schools has just been processed, stream-lined and standardized into a system that is even more incompetent than what we have now (and that has already been adopted by over 40 states with very little opposition), then we are going to irreparably damage an entire generation in a way that will not be able to be “repealed” after the fact.
Ms. Ravitch was able to spend some time studying the only results that Common Core has produced so far. She continued:
“My fears were confirmed by the Common Core tests. Wherever they have been implemented, they have caused a dramatic collapse of test scores. In state after state, the passing rates dropped by about 30%. This was not happenstance. This was failure by design.
“Early childhood educators are nearly unanimous in saying that no one who wrote the standards had any expertise in the education of very young children. More than 500 early childhood educators signed a joint statement complaining that the standards were developmentally inappropriate for children in the early grades.
“There has also been heated argument about the standards’ insistence that reading must be divided equally in the elementary grades between fiction and informational text, and divided 70-30 in favor of informational text in high school. Where did the writers of the standards get these percentages? They relied on the federal NAEP—the National Assessment of Educational Progress-which uses these percentages as instructions to test developers. NAEP never intended that these numbers would be converted into instructional mandates for teachers. This idea that informational text should take up half the students’ reading time in the early grades and 70% in high school led to outlandish claims that teachers would no longer be allowed to teach whole novels. Somewhat hysterical articles asserted that the classics would be banned while students were required to read government documents. The standards contain no such demands.
“The fact is that the Common Core standards should never have set forth any percentages at all. If they really did not mean to impose numerical mandates on English teachers, they set off a firestorm of criticism for no good reason. Other nations have national standards, and I don’t know of any that tell teachers how much time to devote to fiction and how much time to devote to informational text. Frankly, I think that teachers are quite capable of making that decision for themselves. If they choose to teach a course devoted only to fiction or devoted only to non-fiction, that should be their choice, not a mandate imposed by a committee in 2009.
“In some states, teachers say that the lessons are scripted and deprive them of their professional autonomy, the autonomy they need to tailor their lessons to the needs of the students in front of them. Behind the Common Core standards lies a blind faith in standardization of tests and curriculum, and perhaps, of children as well.”
I am currently reading and conducting more research on the Common Core, so I will write on this in more detail in the future. In the meantime, let us consider a simple proposition.
Proposition: at a fundamental level, if the education of a society is wrecked and remains wrecked, then nothing else that society does to save itself will matter.
Assume, for the sake of thinking about this, that you honestly believe the economy and job creation is the most important issue in the United States today. What gives an economy an employable workforce? Education. What makes an economy innovative and productive? Educated thinkers. What assists those who do not have the skills to be employable to gain skills to be employable? Education.
Let’s pretend that you understand how economics works better than anyone else does. In a democratic system of government, you still have to persuade a majority of the populace that your economic understand is what will work. You will have to use logic and reason to the voters that a particular economic plan will work best. But what if they have trouble following a line of reasoning? What if discourse has devolved to the point that reasonable explanations and thoughtful, careful arguments are ignored because no one understands them? What if the average voter is no longer literate enough to be able to follow a line of economic reasoning? Then nothing else matters. The public will have to be educated first before anything else will happen. (Assuming, still, that you live in a democratic system.)
This applies no matter what your favorite or most hallowed political issue happens to be. It doesn't matter whether you believe that the national debt, national security, foreign policy, heath care, abortion, family values, social justice, social security, partisan politics or even corroded ideological narrow-minded bigotry is the issue that our country and government most needs to deal with. If the public is growing less and less educated, then reasoned discourse is going to grow less and less reasoned. If the voter is less literate, then he is not going to follow complicated reasoning. Simplistic rather than complex solutions will appeal to him. Magical solutions will be more convincing that practical or realistic ones.
Journalism will devolve into entertainment and ideological hacks shouting at each other. Public debate will deteriorate into the equivalent of a grade school level sort of discourse that occurs when bullies fight over lunch money. The more thought, time, research and reasoning that you invest into explaining what you believe is most important, the less anyone will understand you or care to listen to you.
If all this is true, then how can education not be the most important issue we are now facing?
There are many more examples, but I will focus upon only one more for the purposes of this essay. Consider once more the falling verbal scores and literacy of American students today. What if I told you that there is a century old organization of English teachers (the largest organization of its kind) that claims to be devoted to promoting literacy in the United States? Founded in 1911, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), has over eighty-thousand members and every year releases numerous publications about teaching. Consequently, the NCTE exerts great influence over both the content and procedures of English teaching in the United States.
And, then, what if I told you that the NCTE, the organization devoted to promoting literacy for American students, has spent decades convincing teachers to no longer formally teach English grammar?
That’s right. The largest organization of English teachers, devoted to promoting literacy in the United States, argues against teaching English grammar.
In his 2003 book, The War Against Grammar, David Mulroy writes:
“Over the years, NCTE publications have often provided a platform for teachers opposed to emphasizing grammar. Their anti-grammar stance is especially associated with the name of Charles Fries, a linguist from the University of Michigan. Fries first came to notice in 1925 with the publication by the Modern Language Association of his doctoral dissertation on the use of shall and will and was a prominent member of the NCTE for many years. He advocated the use of scientific methods by linguists. This meant that linguists needed to part company from traditional grammarians in two ways: First, they should refrain from telling people how they ought to express themselves and concentrate instead on describing the facts of language. Second, their definitions and rules should not require any intuitive judgments but should be based solely on empirical observations.”
Charles Fries thus applied modern linguistic theory, which opposes formal rules of grammar, to the teaching of English itself. Arguing that the teaching of traditional English grammar was both counterproductive and unscientific, his ideas have been accepted and promoted by the NCTE. For instance, in 1963, the NCTE published a report entitled “Research in Written Composition,” which concluded: “In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.” At their annual convention in 1985, the NCTE adopted the following resolution: “Resolved, that the NCTE affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.” In 1991, the NCTE published the Handbook for Research on Teaching the English Language Arts. It concluded: “School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice which should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing.”
Looking at the NCTE’s website today in 2014 is not encouraging. Under a link entitled “Blast from the Past: The Teaching of Grammar,” we can find the following:
“Did you know that the controversy over the direct teaching of grammar is not a new one? In the March 1946 English Journal, educator and former NCTE President Lou LaBrant wrote: ‘We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation ... between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing.’ ... Did you know ‘the reason many students don't retain grammar information is because they can't?’ Ann L. Warner raised this key aspect of direct grammar instruction in a 1986 English Journal article that noted ‘only about half the adolescent and adult population reach the highest levels of formal operational thinking’ needed to manage grammar in isolation.”
Combine that with other things like “Facts on the teaching of Grammar” and you begin to wonder why it is that NCTE bothers to at all. What you will find is a very large number of articles and links about how to teach using computers or “digital” technology. The NCTE seems to be convinced that the use of computers has revolutionized the teaching of English. They also seem to be spending a great deal of time discussing what they are calling “21st Century Literacies” (plural). On their front webpage, the “Featured Items” don’t look too promising. One, entitled “Adolescents and Digital Literacies” has a summary that states “Sara Kajder examines ways in which teachers and students co-construct new literacies through technology-infused practices.” Try to guess what that sentence means. There is, apparently, not only more than one kind of “Digital Literacy” but there will be even more kinds of them once you co-construct new ones right along with your students in a technological infusion.
to click that link you would be informed that “Through extensive interviews and classroom experiences, Kajder offers examples of both students and teachers who have successfully integrated technology to enrich literacy learning.” Well, successful technological integration is something we want, isn’t it? It certainly sounds exciting in a 21st Century sort of way. Technology, you understand, enriches what they call literacy learning rather than cheapens it. The promotional continues: “As part of the Principles in Practice imprint, Adolescents and Digital Literacies: Learning Alongside Our Students offers critical consideration of students’ in-school and out-of-school digital literacy practices in a practical, friendly, and easily approachable manner.” It’s nice of them really. How often are you offered “critical consideration” that is also friendly and easily approachable? Learning about the out-of-school digital literacy practices of students should help, shouldn't it? But this gets better.
Another link entitled “Literacy as a Shared Responsibility” leads to a page that quotes a Mr. K. Williamson, who declares: “As we move beyond earlier notions of ‘reading and writing,’ the boundaries between literacy processes blur, and responsibility for supporting literacy learners expands to include educators across all disciplines.” This quote is taken from Mr. Williamson’s blog. Intrigued, I went there to find more:
Apparently, there is something or other called “Shifting Literacies” that we are supposed to respond to. Mr. Williamson suggests, somewhat impenetrably, that teachers (here called “educator groups and teams”) need to be aware of all the nifty new gimmicks and boldly innovative technological infusions for the teaching of multiple, dynamic and malleable shifting literacies. Mr. Williamson is not at all ashamed to admit that the NCTE “has issued an updated version” of “its definition of 21st century literacies.” Nor does he seek to deny his interest in some things that he calls “affordances of new digital tools” or his conviction that “what it means to be literate has shifted - again.”
Mr. Williamson then links to the NCTE's new definition of literacy. They (the NCTE Executive Committee) tell us all about how their “NCTE definition of 21st century literacies makes it clear that the continued evolution of curriculum, assessment, and teaching practice itself is necessary.” (It is nice of them, really, to tell us what their definition makes clear before subjecting us to the definition itself.) The same Executive Committee calls literacy “a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups” and brings us word on how new “technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments.” (These are of course to be distinguished from illiterate environments, whatever they may be. Just don’t ask the National Council of Teachers of English.)
Next we hear of how all these literacies are also increasingly “multiple, dynamic, and malleable,” a nasty thought, which, if it weren't already complicated enough, also includes being “inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories ...” Well, those who are busy with important stuff like the dynamism and malleability of the life possibilities and social trajectories of groups and individuals with multiple literacies in complex literate environments certainly can’t be bothered about trivia like the appropriate coordination of the words of an English sentence so that it possesses at least one actual meaning.
Worse is in store. The Executive Committee also informs us that “Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to”, among other things, “Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships ... Design and share information for global communities ... Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information ... Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts ...” and “Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.” In educationistic prose, it is not a surprise when multiple information streams are simultaneous, but that stupendous verb pileup will call forth awe and envy in all professionals of education. That last bit, furthermore, is not entirely without wisdom, for many will surely testify to the curiously ethical responsibilities that derive from these complex technologically-infused multiple literate environments, or something very like them at least.
Mr. Williamson is so excited by this new global updated shifted definition of 21st Century multiple literacies that he explains to us (with appropriate rapture) how this “definition not only calls for proficiency with emerging technology,” but “it uses evocative new phrases to describe what literate people do.”
From his blog post, I can’t quite tell what “literacy processes” are, but that’s ok, because they are definitely achieving the desired blurring effect.
There also exists, as Mr. Williamson tells us, another document entitled The Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment which “builds on this more capacious definition of literacy.” (The NCTE does so very much love more capacious definitions.) And how is this new definition built upon? By “making explicit the implications of how teachers plan, support, and assess student learning” and this, in turn, “helps teachers and school-based teams assess their progress by asking direct questions about current practices.” The Executive Committee have their principles, you know. They will never, for instance, do anything without frameworks for assessment and they are deeply, oh so deeply, committed to anticipating “the more sophisticated literacy skills and abilities required for full participation in a global 21st century community.”
Mr. Williamson fondly ruminates that, as he watched “the work of educator groups and teams unfold,” he was struck “by the parallels between the student literacy skills and practices” and “the practices of educator teams engaged in collaborative inquiry.” To illustrate, he remembers how “the NCLE Asset Inventory challenges teams to evaluate how well they ‘work through a cycle of planing, acting, and reflecting on evidence about our practice.’” (The “Asset Inventory” was written to be a survey tool provided to help self-assess the degree to which the conditions and practices that lead to successful learning are present in day-to-day work experiences. This survey tool gives consideration to the content of professional learning in conjunction with the process of learning.)
I’d have been curious to see this “Asset Inventory” actually work. If the NCTE (or was it the F21stCCA? No, I think it was the NCLE) knows as much about multiple shifting literacies as they do about writing inventories, which seems inevitable, and if the “Asset Inventory” was written in English no better than the rest of their stuff, the reading of it, by any educated person, would lead to a serious self-assessment of a very high degree. Mr. Williamson, however, is unable to provide even one single instance of any self-assessment or reflection that led to any serious questioning here of “our practice,” and that tells us something about those teachers of English in the National Council.
Of course, one could have guessed it from the NCTE’s website. No one who cares about accuracy or precision in language could ever have written any of these NCTE documents on the redefining of shifting mutliple digital literacies, and no one committed to disciplined intelligence could bear to read it. That the NCTEers do write it, and that teachers of English do bear it, should disabuse us of the quaint notion that our English teachers have been trained in writing clear English prose.
This is the sort of thing that happens to one’s organization of English teachers when one’s organization of English teachers decides against the formal teaching of English grammar.
(Sidenote & Apology: I dearly love the essays of Richard Mitchell, and I hereby apologize to Mr. Mitchell for shamelessly ripping off his April 4, 1979 Underground Grammarian essay, “Eric Smeac’s Practice-related Information Domain” in order respond to Mr. Kent Williamson’s Shifting & Updating Definitions of Multiple & Dynamic Literacies. As soon as I started reading the publications of the NCTE, I had to immediately flee to Mr. Mitchell for help.)
The respected educator & author of a number of reliable English grammar textbooks, Martha J. Kolln, has called attention to how this contempt for the formal teaching of English grammar has influenced the education of teachers themselves:
The damage has now already been done to multiple generations. For the vast majority of the current generation of teachers, the education that they received was already fundamentally flawed to begin with. Remedying this will be difficult. It is going to require some self-education for some teachers and some mandatory remedial teacher training for others.
But, in some small corners of the country, there are still little examples that give reason for hope. There are still some teachers who are committed to teaching rather than to being infatuated with new educationist theories, new academic jargon filled pep talks and the forever new upgrading of classroom technology.
Pioneer Classical School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was founded in 2011. It is now restructuring itself in order to meet demand and provide education to children from kindergarten through the eighth grade. It will now be called the Jackson Hole Classical Academy. When one of the teachers, Moira Hyde, was recently interviewed, she described how their little school does things differently from the majority of the country’s schools:
“When we say classical education what we mean is focusing on the trivium: Grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And those things being the basis of a well-rounded education. It’s also going back to basics in that you don’t need to have some fancy textbook to learn something and you don’t have to have access to the Internet to learn something. There are true, honest ways you can learn.”
The school was started by the members of a church, but refreshingly, its purpose was not to shield its students from “the secular world” or to give religious teaching rather the teaching of evolution. Headmistress Polly Friess said:
“We believe that families and churches are responsible for spiritual instruction and we want to support it, not supplant it. We don’t use any Christian curriculum here. We don’t have a Bible study class or anything like that. We are not affiliated with any specific church but we are a Christian school because the whole classical tradition is based on the Western civilization, Judeo-Christian tradition. It just is. Christian families can feel welcome here as well as non-Christians.”
Founder and CEO of Great Hearts Academies, Dr. Daniel Scoggin, was also interviewed. He questioned the focus of other schools who are trying to appeal to children’s desires to work on their computers or iPhones:
“Our kids are so pounded with pop culture, you know? They are all so hardwired and cell phone wired. The average teenager right now sends and receives 1,800 text messages a month. The amount of visual media, screen culture consumption is off the charts. That’s OK, that’s the future. We’re not Luddites. We’re not trying to raise our kids in bubbles. But at the same time we want the schools to be a quiet, reflective space away from all the noise where they can actually engage real human face-to-face conversation. Where they can learn how to read and think clearly and solve problems both alone and with others.”
In other words, you can teach things like math and English effectively without computers and without pop cultural references. You don’t have to show your students Youtube videos or television episodes in order to bribe them for their attention. Thus, Scoggins explains: “We don’t use pop culture in the school. We don’t try to explain Shakespeare by talking about the latest movie. That’s dumbing down to the kid, saying you can’t understand Shakespeare for Shakespeare. You can only understand Shakespeare if it’s compared to Star Wars. That’s wrong.”
And their results are far different from the vast majority of other American schools: “We are really pleased with our college admission. Our average SAT score is 1830 and ACT is 27.3. Most of our kids are getting scholarship money and 95 percent of our kids are going on to four-year colleges and universities.”
Little classical schools are regularly turning out the highest level educations across the land. And, yes, these are the schools that teach old things like formal English grammar and dead-languages like Latin and even Greek. Liberal arts & humanities education has not been proven to be out-dated, irrelevant or impractical. Besides, Steven Spielberg and Mitt Romney were both English majors. CEO of Hewlett-Packward, Carly Fiorina, majored in Philosophy and Medieval History. CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, majored in history. Co-founder of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield, was a Philosophy major. Comedian Conan O’Brien majored in History & American Literature. Jon Stewart, creator of The Daily Show, was a Psychology major. Ted Turner and J.K. Rowling were both Classics majors. All these people did just fine.
Classical education, wherever it is still being used, already has proven results. There is a reason why these schools are considered elite and there is a reason why most of them are filled with students from primarily upper class families. If we really want true education reform in our country, then perhaps we should allow students from middle and lower class families the opportunity to receive this sort of time-tested elite education as well.
In conclusion, I dare you, the reader, to take even one hour to research the current state of the local schools in your city or town. Every school district releases test score results periodically, even if sometimes delayed. If you were to only look online, websites like http://www.schooldigger.com/, http://www.greatschools.org/, http://parents4publicschools.org/ and http://www.edreform.com/ all offer resources and information about rankings, test scores, dropout rates, college admission rates, parental involvement and advocacy groups. Then, if you were to compare the current results that your local schools are producing with the kind of results that they could be producing (say at places like here or here or HERE), you might wonder why in the world the majority of our country’s schoolchildren are being deprived of real education - why your local schools are not teaching the older things that our country's most successful schools are teaching.
Please remember. This should not be a matter of political partisan line drawing. Diane Ravitch, E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Susan Jacoby are all politically liberals. All of them have glowing things to say about classical education and ancient traditions like the teaching of grammar in grammar school. All of them would be natural allies to the conservative interested in ridding our schools of some of the more hapless 20th Century progressive reforms.
All the high-tech, digital age loving, 21st Century global economy jargon and standardized test fixations in the world are not going to change what has always worked in school. All the Academic educationalist experimentalist journals, studies, committees, sub-committees, executive committees and literacy assessment learning programs & procedures in the country are not going to suddenly figure out how to use a computer in a way that will make super-teachers who can finally capture the attention of their students. There is a right way to give the citizen of a democratic society the education that will prepare him or her for reasoned discourse in the public square. There is a right method of education that has already given students the well-rounded intelligence they need to succeed at any chosen career path. It was the classical model that had worked for centuries. We decided that right way of doing things was suddenly too old-fashioned and outdated and boring. We were wrong.
In 1928, T.S. Eliot complained that progressive reforms in our schools had produced a culture with “persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time.” He cautioned that “when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing - when a word half-understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the utter meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences for which we have read in the newspapers, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation,” that we would lack understanding in the very simplest and most elementary of things. Eliot would be distressed to discover (a) how prophetic he really was, and then (b) how things then became worse.
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