Our School System in Decay

By: 
Al Jacobs

An unexpected non-financial article recently appeared in the Opinion section of The Wall Street Journal. Its author: Naomi Schaefer Riley, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The event: an interview with 92-year-old Eric Donald Hirsch, professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. The topic: Professor Hirsch’s claim to the effect “Bad teaching is tearing America apart.”

There are precious few Americans deprived of the pleasure of hearing over the past three-quarters of a century of this country’s scholastic defects and of the ever deteriorating quality of our schools – together with the students who are unable to obtain adequate education because of it.

However, the specifics Professor Hirsh provided during his interview made it abundantly clear just why instruction in this nation’s public school system is as bad as it is.

Of particular interest is Professor Hirsch’s assertion that “you’ll be surprised by how little whole-class instruction is going on, how little knowledge is communicated, and how there is no coherence from day to day, let alone from year to year.”

He maintains, further, “the current fashion is for teachers to be a ‘guide on the side, instead of a sage on the stage,’” quoting the latest pedagogical slogan … which, as he says, means “teachers aren’t supposed to lecture students, but to ‘facilitate’ learning by nudging students to follow their own curiosity.”

Everything the professor knows about how children learn tells him this is the wrong approach. He then added “If you want equity in education, as well as excellence, you must have whole-class instruction, wherein a teacher directly communicates information using a prescribed sequential curriculum.”

And he advocates a lengthy list of specifics, heavily weighted toward Western history and civilization – a list provoking charges of elitism, though he’s singularly focused on helping disadvantaged kids.

As he explains, “these youngsters are not exposed to this information at home, so they’ll starve intellectually unless the schools provide it.” He then added, “things are getting worse. Intellectual error has become a threat to the well-being of the nation. A truly massive tragedy is building. Schools are diminishing our national unity and our basic competence.”

When questioned when and why the deterioration began, he paused a bit before replying “It began in the 1940s, when schools unbolted the desks and kids no longer faced the teacher. They next divided children into small groups and instructed them to complete worksheets independently. Their verbal test scores then went down and the relative ranking of our elementary schools declined on a national level.”

He went on to explain “It’s the result of more than just style. It’s because of the faulty concept of a ‘child-centered classroom,’” adding emphatically, “a child’s mind is a blank slate.”

The Hirsch interview concluded with his refutation of the current belief in many quarters, that maintaining standardized tests are unfair because some kids are exposed to more specific knowledge than others. His belief is this is precisely why children deserve to be exposed to more content, for as he said, “Educators simply haven’t faced up to their duty to provide a coherent sequence of knowledge to children.”

Quite obviously Professor Hirsch’s extensive background in education gives him a unique perspective in what’s wrong with schooling. However, if we question the professional educators, their justifications for poor student performance are vastly different. Quite probably reason number one is a shortage of funds. Their claim: “Amounts allocated to the schools are insufficient.

If we cannot find funding for our public schools, how can we expect things like the achievement gap to close or high school graduation rates to rise? We must have more money if we are to achieve educational excellence”

A second reason regularly bandied about concerns educational equity, relating to a measure of fairness and inclusion and correlates to future quality of life. Those who come from families of higher socioeconomic status are privileged with more opportunities than those of lower status. Thus those in the latter group must be provided with a full opportunity for participation in all educational programs. The concept is now enshrined in legislation related to race and ethnicity with massive sums involved.

A third reason given for academic failure relates to a lack of diversity in gifted education. The talented and gifted (TAG) label is bestowed upon the brightest and most advanced students. A national obsession to make TAG mirror the contemporary and ever-evolving student body is now official policy, with the arbitrary assignment of higher grades to persons of certain racial and ethnic groups so all students will match one another irrespective of their actual academic performance.

Lastly, we continue to wrestle with the achievement gap. The U.S. Department of education releases every two years student performance data as it assesses reading and math achievement. The reports outline differences between students based on racial and socioeconomic demographics, where inequality is known as an achievement gap.

As for its elimination, there are countless discussions as to readiness skills, self-control and approaches to learning – none of which actually accomplishes gap reduction. The only way the achievement gap is ever reduced is by assigning the same grades to those on the bottom as are earned by those on the top.

It’s my contention educational officialdom conducts their many scholastic improvement programs in a manner guaranteed to perform no real function. I suspect the academic hierarchy intentionally ignores the single basic element fundamental to any improvement in school performance: the students’ individual academic abilities.

For some reason they insist all persons can function equally. You need only refer back to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, sponsored by President George W. Bush, based on the premise that setting high standards ensures disadvantaged students will rise to the challenge and perform acceptably.

I’ll share with you a personal tale. During the years I taught in a community college, one of my courses was a second freshman semester of inorganic chemistry. Although we had only 30 lab desks – limiting my class to 30 students – my department head permitted me to enroll 45. This is because I soon discovered no less than a third of each class consisted of students who proved incapable of fully mastering the math requirements of the first semester course, so they’d never be able to handle the second semester. With my first lab scheduled for the third week of the course, I expected enough of my class to drop out beforehand, so 30 lab desks became sufficient.

And it wasn’t a matter of them not having the time to study more diligently. The reason: they didn’t possess the intellectual ability to master the subject. And what is intellect? I’m thoroughly convinced it’s the brain’s ability to cognitively manipulate information – a genetic quality.

A final thought: I’m certain the real problem with America’s school system is that too many classes are filled with students, many of who truly have no business being there. In an earlier era, school customarily ended at the eighth grade. The adequately schooled graduates, with average IQs in the 90 to 110 range, then went on to farming or working in manufacturing. There’s no rational justification for today’s cadre of equally untalented youth to be dragged through 12 years of what constitutes modern education. High school and beyond should be reserved for those whose personal desires and intellectual abilities are sufficient to profit by it.

Of course in this case millions of educators at all levels would find themselves without a profession. The mere thought of this causes me to ponder the question as to where the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars might then go.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al may be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.

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