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Public Schools are a War on Children

Updated on August 10, 2013


Many public schools, teachers, and students are outstanding. The question is, are public schools on average everything they could be? Apparently not even close.

We hear a lot about a war on women but there is a far more widespread and destructive attack on the young of both genders. The damage does not show up immediately. It is revealed in time by our battered educational statistics, low literacy scores, and surveys of stunted general knowledge.

In 1983 a blue-ribbon panel said that the public schools were so bad they could well be an attempt by a foreign nation to hurt this country. The famous report was titled “A Nation at Risk.” Its conclusion should have frightened everyone into action. In fact, little changed.

Five years ago Bill Gates participated in a study of the country’s productivity. He and a large panel of other experts concluded that the public schools are so bad they are a threat to our economic future.

Again, nothing changed. The Education Establishment, perhaps best described as an entrenched cult, continued on its destructive path.

Charlotte Iserbyt is famous for writing a 700-page book called “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America.” Iserbyt argues that the decline in our public schools is too widespread and systematic to be accidental. Rather, it must be “deliberate,” a word that should send chills down every spine. The very people entrusted with educating the young are themselves the major obstacle to that education.

(If you have any doubt, see John Stossel's TV show.)

John Stossel's "Stupid in America"


How does one dumb down something as huge as America? Answer: you dumb down each individual child, year by year, to the degree you can get away with it, using the latest fads and gimmicks. In short, you conduct a covert War on Children.

The general strategy is to make fun of traditional methods that have always worked and push them out of the schools. Simultaneously, you concoct new theories and methods, all of which are hailed as educational breakthroughs. (Years later, it may become clear that the breakthroughs are more accurately described as failures or even scams. No problem. New breakthroughs are concocted every few years.)

In the teaching of reading, you use a method that is known to be inferior. (This method was first called Look-say and later promoted as Whole Word, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, etc.) Sometimes the parents and the community will complain and you have to back off. Just as likely, the community accepts the promises made and suffers with the bad results. As the decades go by, the country inexplicably has 50 million functional illiterates.

In the teaching of arithmetic, you don’t bother with basics and the mastery of simple methods. You jump the children from one exotic topic to another. You make everything boring and difficult. For example, you might try to teach fourth-graders about base-eight; onerous ways to multiply or divide; and meaningless bits of algebra, geometry or trigonometry. On the other hand, you can make everything mysterious and stupid. For example, you might present the problem 7+13; but instead of asking for the answer, you demand that children describe two ways of solving the problem. At the end of high school, the victims of such instruction are not able to figure out what a 15% tip is. They have little interest in studying more difficult math. The country’s pool of mathematically literate people dwindles. The result, decades later, is that we have to import engineers. The Education Establishment must make a big show out of producing a new STEM curriculum to correct the problems they themselves created. (The inferior method was first marketed under the name New Math and now Reform Math.)

In the teaching of general knowledge, you prevent teachers from teaching. They are recast as facilitators and ordered to stand to the side. Students are told they must figure out everything for themselves. This can sound adventurous; there may be dramatic successes. On average, however, students cannot possibly teach themselves the meaning of the American Revolution, for one example, as well as a good teacher can explain such a complex event. (This inferior method is called Constructivism or Discovery.)


Don’t get bogged down by the details on the surface. It’s the deeper pattern that must be understood and challenged. Everywhere we look in a public school, from kindergarten to the senior year, we find counterproductive approaches. It is these phony theories and methods that need to be rooted out and replaced.

This video, in under four minutes, presents the main obstacles to quality education.

Good School, Bad School--how do you tell?

All across the country, parents seeking reform spend millions of hours in having meetings, signing petitions, conferring with officials, and in general trying to save their children from these evil educational practices. As often as not, the officials will engage in crafty evasions and long, drawn-out strategic retreats.

After a year or perhaps five years, the parents might be told they have won. Usually this will not be true. In the case of math, for example, the officials will simply cancel one variety of Reform Math and substitute another equally bad. In the case of reading, the officials will drop one Balanced Literacy program and replace it with a clone. Nothing actually changes.

The parents make the mistake of settling for changes on the surface. Deeper tactics are required.

In reading, there is only one method that works; it’s called intensive or systematic phonics. Children learn the alphabet, then the sounds, then the blends; then they are reading. The crucial thing is to eliminate every vestige of Whole Word.

In math there is only one approach that works and it is readily available (for example, Saxon Math, Singapore Math, et al). The crucial thing is to eliminate every vestige of Reform Math.

In knowledge courses, there is only one approach that parents should accept, which is direct, systematic instruction such as you might find in the best private schools, classical academies, or in schools using Hirsch’s Core Knowledge. The crucial thing is to run from pretentious jargon (21st century skills, critical thinking, collaborative learning, and all the rest) and instead make sure the children actually learn the basic knowledge of the world that they need to succeed.

The war on children needs to be reverse-engineered. Instead of picking unworkable methods, pick workable methods. They are well-known and there for the taking. Instead of settling for second-rate and dumb, let’s insist on best and smart.


For a general statement of what school should be doing, see "A Bill of Rights For Students"

An interview with Charlotte Iserbyt.

Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld explains "The Dumbing Down of America"

For everyone confused about the Reading Wars and why phonics is essential, the following short video provides a simple explanation. (Please pass this video on to as many parents as possible.)

Reading Is Easy

© 2013 Bruce Deitrick Price


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