If a company provides shoddy goods or poor services, many people love to blame the company's workers, rather than its managers. Perhaps it's human nature to blame the lowest-ranking available person whenever a problem arises. In a school, the lowest-ranking person is the student. Thus, we have always talked about children who are failing in school, rather than about how the school is failing those children. Low-income people also have a low rank. Thus, poor students' families have traditionally been blamed for the poor quality of the schools in poor neighborhoods. Now that powerful conservatives are trying to destroy the public workers' unions, pundits are increasingly blaming the failures in our schools on teachers and the teachers' unions. Yet if we really want to solve the problems in our schools, we must find the real causes of the problems. To do that, we must start our search at the top of the educational establishment.
To a disturbing degree, teachers in public schools are like assembly line workers. Assembly line workers have to install a particular part or do some other task as a unit passes by their workstation. Likewise, teachers are expected to install knowledge of a particular subject in a student's mind as the student passes through their classrooms. Unfortunately, the installation does not always go smoothly, especially if something went wrong at an earlier point on the line. If the problem is in some aspect of the design of the assembly line, you cannot solve the problem by giving punishments and rewards to the workers. Instead, you may have to train, discipline, or even replace the managers.
History teachers have told me that many of their students cannot read their history textbooks. Math teachers have told me about students who can do mathematical calculations correctly but cannot read the word problems on their exams. High school English teachers tell me that their students' writing is atrocious because the students have no grasp of grammar and cannot even spell. These are problems that should have been solved at an earlier point in the student's education. Like many assembly line workers, teachers do not have the authority to stop the line to solve production problems. Instead, the students just get passed along to the next workstation, whether they learn anything or not.
Many high school students are unprepared for high school because of what went wrong in the earlier grades. Some of these problems result from policy decisions that were made at the highest level within the educational establishment, such as the decisions about what teachers are taught in their education classes. Other policies are made by state or local boards of education, such as the choice of textbooks and teaching methods. Teachers who deviate from these policies are likely to be punished, even if their students are thriving.
The worst of these policies has been the deliberate use of an ineffective method of reading instruction. Instead of teaching children to sound words out, many of our schools are still expecting children to learn to recognize whole words as sight words, as if English words were like corporate logos or Chinese characters. This approach was shown in the 1840s to be ineffective. In the 1920s, it was shown to be the cause of dyslexia. Yet it remains central to the whole language approach that is still popular among educators, despite its miserable failures in California in the 1990s. The sight word approach is retained in the so-called balanced literacy approach that is dominant in educational circles today.
As long as schools are using sight words instead of phonics, they will be generating dyslexia instead of promoting literacy. The consequences are far more serious for children whose parents are poor and uneducated and thus have no other educational resources to fall back on.
Another bad policy was the decision to take the grammar out of grammar school. That policy has led to serious declines in reading comprehension, needless difficulty in learning foreign languages, and an overall decline in rational thinking. As I explain in my book Not Trivial, grammar was the first leg of the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar lessons provide the basic concepts that you need in order to study logic, which you need in order to become a reasonable person. Thus, stripping grammar out of grammar school pulls the rug out from under the child's intellectual and social development.
To me, it seems that the biggest problem we have in our public schools is the suppression of direct instruction in fundamental disciplines, such as phonics and grammar. This suppression was imposed in the name of constructivism, which is the name given to the preposterous idea that children truly learn only those ideas that they "construct" or figure out on their own. It has been an excuse to avoid teaching children any meaningful facts or having them practice any fundamental skills. It would be like expecting children to become jazz musicians without learning any music theory or practicing their scales.
From the perspective of the people who have real power within our society, the schools are working just fine. The better public schools in the wealthier neighborhoods provide an adequate supply of young people who can do well enough in college and professional school to fill the ranks of the professions and the white collar workforce. The problem is that the vast majority of the population is being robbed of the kind of education that would enable them to understand why the American Dream is dying or to take any meaningful action to secure their own future.
Although you can certainly find the occasional problem teacher, teachers in general are not the cause of the main problems in our educational system. Rather, teachers can be part of the solution, if you will let them. To solve our problems in education, thus enabling us to solve all of our other problems, we need a broad-based grassroots movement, with teachers, including public school teachers and college professors, playing the role of learned elders.
Laurie has worked as a medical editor and writer for many years. She is the author of Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free.
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