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When will Education take responsibility for its reckless, feckless ways?

Updated on September 13, 2012

SUMMARY: Education Establishment goes its merry ideological way, consigning millions of children to ignorance and illiteracy, without so much as a murmur of regret.

Onlookers often have the sensation that Education is a field out of control. Articles about Education can seem to be describing a long-unfolding train wreck. Apparently there’s no driver. No one is in charge. Nobody stands up and says, “My God, look what I’ve done. I’m so sorry.” No one is dragged off to jail.

After even a gigantic collision, ambulances haul away bodies; police collect evidence in little bags; the incident is marked closed. Nothing is explained, nothing is learned, nothing improves.

Ask yourself this question: have you ever heard, even once, of a leader or dignitary in the field of Education who apologized? For anything?

And yet, even as this has never once happened, we read almost daily about the continuous decline and mediocrity of our public schools. For example, we are told that only one-third of the children in elementary and middle school can do math at a proficient level. Only one-third can read at a proficient level.

Or perhaps the other two-thirds were on vacation or quarantined with serious illness. It’s not possible, is it, that they were actually sitting in a school day after day, learning nothing?

Anyone observing Education is likely to be dumbfounded by its improbable antics and shameful track record. Why is this allowed to happen? Who are the people responsible for this malpractice? These two questions must have sprung into millions of minds.

There are dozens of big paridigmatic stories that capture, over and over, the same sense of surreality. Here are two of the biggest:


During World War II, the military had to reject one million young men because they were too illiterate to train. The literacy statistics were plunging. It was a huge well-recognized problem. But in 1955 Rudolf Flesch published “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which vanquished the mystery. There’s no problem if you teach a phonetic language phonetically. (Indeed, at that time in the United States some school systems had never stopped using phonics and according to “Reading: chaos and cure,” another book published around this time, in many school districts “a problem reader is virtually unheard of.”)

What did Education do at this juncture? All of the top people formed a lobbying group called the International Reading Association (IRA), which held a big conference every year where most of the famous names in Education declared: we are the real experts on reading; Flesch is an idiot; phonics doesn’t work; sight-words are the only way to learn English; and kids who can’t read obviously live in dysfunctional homes plus the parents have bad genes so naturally the children are dyslexic.

Clearly, Education as a field should have listened to Flesch, and insisted that district-wide tests be conducted to find out what works best. In a few years, these questions would have been settled. None of that happened, shamefully enough. The Education Establishment continues to disdain phonics. Public schools went on churning out millions of functional illiterates.


Here’s the second most revealing story. About 1965, after great fanfare, Education came up with something called New Math. It was extraordinarily hyped. It was a total failure. It embraced every bad idea there was in pedagogy. Now, at that point, sensible educators would say, “We’ve learned our lesson; we won’t try any of those dumb ideas again.” But a few years later they were back with Reform Math, which was just a softer version of New Math. Oddly, the National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM), the National Science Foundation, and many other august groups pretended to learn nothing from New Math.

Almost immediately, parents by the millions announced their passionate dislike of Reform Math. Did the field of Education tremble with regret and guilt? Not at all. Education focused all its energies on discrediting the opinions of parents. Reform Math has had a 30-year run--it continues today--that has caused vast damage to America’s technical and engineering skills. Has there ever been even a single peep of apology from the NCTM?


In sum, Education is a marvel of mischief without remorse. Children by the millions fall into the gutter of ignorance but pretty much all you hear from the superintendents and professors of education is that parents are the real problem, the Internet is a distraction, and if only children would be given more remedial help, everything would be hunky-dory.

Education is a field that has not taken responsibility for its blunders and its failings. The damaging fallout from this irresponsible attitude has been vast. It can almost seem sometimes that Education has only a passing interest in education. It’s so much loftier to devise social engineering schemes than to trouble oneself with whether children can spell “schol.”

When Jay Leno goes Jaywalking and finds people who don’t know the sides in the Civil War or how many stripes are on the American flag, the entire top levels of Education should turn crimson with embarrassment. Quite the contrary. They almost seem to brim with pride that Americans are not burdened by any unnecessary knowledge.

If only, just now and then, some eminent authorities would whisper those magic words: WE’RE SORRY. Then you might hope that lessons have been learned and we might see improvement.

Probably Education would be struck dumb if anybody did apologize. The novelty would be that great. But it’s time. We need that novelty.

We need people at the top--probably new people--who are capable of regret and guilt. They would know when they’ve done a lousy job. They would insist on saying they’re sorry and that now they know how to do a good job. This would be a field taking responsibility for itself. For a change.


To some degree. this piece is tongue-in-cheek. I suspect (but how can it be finally proven) that the Education Establishment always intends to dumb down the schools. No accident about it. But if this is so, wouldn’t we expect the obligatory apologies? Just to be diplomatic? And here we come to the most dreadful thought of all. They don’t see any reason for apologizing. Much as Obama thinks we should all be happy to be poorer, the Education Establishment may very well believe that children should be happy to be kept ignorant and illiterate. As Professor Stanley Hall famously said a century ago: “The knowledge which illiterates acquire is probably a much larger proportion of it practical. Moreover, they escape much eyestrain and mental excitement, and, other things being equal, are probably more active and less sedentary. It is possible, despite the stigma our bepedagogued age puts upon this disability, for those who are under it not only to lead a useful, happy, virtuous life, but to be really well educated in many other ways.”

People who would defend illiteracy would comfortably make your child illiterate.


Bruce Deitrick Price is an author and education reformer. He founded in 2005. This site specializes in deconstructing theories and methods. There are articles on reading, math, constructivism, learning styles, prior knowledge, and many more. In particular, see "30: The War Against Reading" and "36: The Assault On Math."


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