Illinois Loop
Your guide to education in Illinois
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The Illinois Loop website is no longer updated on a a regular basis. However, since many of the links and articles have content and perspectives that are just as valid today, we are keeping this website online for parents, teachers and others researching school issues and solutions.
Broken links:If you encounter links that no longer lead to the desired article, it's still often possible to retrieve them. Most of the linked items include a sentence or more from the original. Copy a section of that text, and type it into Google surrounded by quotes. More often than not, Google will find the article at a revised location.
-- Kevin C. Killion, writer, editor and webmaster


What's Wrong With Our Schools?

Is There ONE Best Way to Run a School?

    Is there only one way to run a school?

    Does rhetoric about "best practices" point to a single "best" way to teach children?

    Of course not.

    But ed school theorists insist that there is one "best" method. Not only that, they claim that they know exactly what it is!

    Consequently, most American schools have moved to that "constructivist" approach and continue to expand its usage further in their classrooms. But mounting evidence calls the whole constructivist framework into question.

    While there are many subtleties and variations in designing an education program, there are two main themes.

    Education researcher Diane Ravitch succinctly defined them in an essay (May 12, 2005) in the Wall Street Journal. Let's compare two quotes from that article side-by-side:

    On one side, beloved by schools of education, are the century-old ideas of progressive education, now called "constructivism." Associated with this philosophy are such approaches as whole language, fuzzy math, and invented spelling, as well as a disdain for phonics and grammar, an insistence that there are no right answers (just different ways to solve problems), and an emphasis on students' self-esteem. ... By diminishing the authority of the teacher, constructivist methods often create discipline problems. On the other side are those who believe ...
    • that learning depends on both highly skilled teachers and student effort;
    • that students need self-discipline more than self-esteem;
    • that accuracy is important;
    • that in many cases there truly are right answers and wrong answers (the Civil War was not caused by Reconstruction); and
    • that instructional methods should be chosen because they are effective, not because they fit one's philosophical values.

  • Establishment Ideas, and the Anti-establishment Critique, Martin Kozloff, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, October, 2003. Dr. Kozloff introduces us to "the two opposing forces in the war in education: the establishment and the anti-establishment." From there he sets up each of the tenets of the Romantic "establishment" camp, and subjects each with an "anti-establishment critique." It's very solid, very clear, and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

  • Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Education Models (PDF), Commonwealth Education Organization: As a very practical benefit to parents, board members and others who are just beginning to learn about this "war" over school design, this convenient chart (click below!) compares some of the practical differences that often appear between the traditional and progressive education models. Parents: which do you want for your own children?

  • Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers? by George K. Cunningham, Ph.D., Pope Center Series on Higher Education Policy, January 2008. This HIGHLY RECOMMENDED paper pulls no punches in distinguishing substantive education from the fluffy theory-based programs that prevail in our nation's schools, and just as clearly assigns the blame on schools of education. From the intro:

    "Most people believe that the purpose of schools is to ensure that young people learn the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in life. Accordingly, they expect teachers to impart skills and knowledge to their students. ... That view, however, is not generally accepted in schools of education, where the great majority of teachers receive their training. The philosophy that dominates schools of education ... stresses the importance of objectives other than academic achievement, such as building self-esteem and multicultural awareness.

    "The dominant 'progressive/constructivist' philosophy in education schools leads to teacher training that prescribes a student-centered classroom where the teacher's role is to serve mainly as a facilitator for student-directed learning. Under that philosophy it is regarded as bad practice for teachers to actually do much teaching. They are supposed to act as 'the guide on the side' rather than 'the sage on the stage.'

    "Unfortunately, the progressive/constructivist approach is markedly inferior to traditional, 'teacher-centered' pedagogy, particularly when it comes to teaching students important skills like reading and math. Most students do better if they are taught with traditional methods, such as 'direct instruction.'"

Constructivism and Your Children

    As a society, we've been chasing the chimera of progressive education through most of the 20th century, and now it's come home with a vengence.

    We have kids who can't read or spell very well, can't multiply or make change without a calculator, can't form logical arguments and can't think coherently, who don't know the difference between the Civil War and the American Revolution, never heard of the Reformation or the Enlightenment, and who haven't a clue what Charlemagne, Newton, Jefferson or Dickens did.

    They can't sit still because no one ever told them to just sit down and listen, they can't think or work independently because they've been depending on their collaborative workgroups since Kindergarten, and they don't know how to ask questions because they have little experience in dealing with definite factual answers.

    Later in life, they take vacations to places they can't find on a map.

    But they do have terrific self-esteem.

Decoding the Lingo

  • Terminology Every Parent Must Understand:

         Do you think it's just wonderful that your kids' school says it is "child-centered", using "developmentally appropriate" classes with "collaborative activities" and "discovery learning" with an emphasis on "critical thinking"? Do you nod your head in agreement that a "drill and kill" on "mere facts" to be "regurgitated" is a bad thing and that "less is more"?

         If so, then it's vital to your kids that you read Terminology Every Parent Must Understand. This convenient, comprehensive report will help you see through the muddled rhetoric used to justify changes at your children's school..

    For more on the quirky language of modern education, go to this page:
    Eduspeak: Learning the Lingo

What Teaching Methods Work Best?

  • What Is an Educrat? by Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle, January 4, 1998.
        "What is an educrat? ... I use [this term] because it captures a special kind of person in the education world: pinheads who are so process-oriented that they are more excited in the process of learning than the myriad wonders that can be learned. Simply put, educrats believe in process -- as opposed to educators, who believe in results. Educrats focus on how children learn. Educators focus on what they learn. ...
        "What is the difference between an educator and an educrat? ..."
        The remainder of this powerful article gives many succinct descriptions of those differences! Highly recommended.

  • Which Teaching Methods Work Best? (PDF) -- excerpt from Facing the Classroom Challenge: Teacher Quality and Teacher Training by Lance T. Izumi with K. Gwynne Coburn. (There is a link to the full report in the next item.) "The experimental research evidence overwhelmingly shows that teacher-centered methods are more effective in improving student achievement. For example, Jere Brophy of Michigan State University and Thomas Good of the University of Missouri examined dozens of methodologically-rigorous studies and concluded that 'students learn more efficiently when their teachers first structure new information for them and help them relate it to what they already know, and then monitor their performance and provide corrective feedback during recitation, drill, practice, or application activities.' Brophy and Good also say that 'Students achieve more when they spend most of their time being taught or supervised by their teachers rather than working on their own (or not working at all).' Further, according to the late famed Harvard researcher Jeanne Chall, 'the traditional teacher centered-approach generally produced higher academic achievement than the progressive student-centered approach.' Chall also found that 'the evidence on the superiority of structured, teacher-centered methods for lowsocioeconomic- status children is so consistent over the years that it would be difficult to reject.'"

  • Facing the Classroom Challenge: Teacher Quality and Teacher Training (PDF) by Lance T. Izumi with K. Gwynne Coburn, Pacific Research Institute, 2001. This groundbreaking and important study looked at evidence for what works in the classroom, and compared the findings to what prospective teachers were being taught. After reviewing quantitative research studies, Izumi and Coburn concluded teacher-centered methods are more effective in raising student achievement ... but schools of education favored less-effective student-centered methods. A few brief examples give a flavor of the problem:
    • "Content knowledge is not seen to be as important as possessing teaching skills and knowledge about the students being taught." (from a San Francisco State University pedagogy textbook)
    • "No longer can teachers expect to be fountains of wisdom and convey knowledge to passive students." (from a CSU Fresno textbook)
    • Advocating less student "sitting, listening, receiving, and absorbing information" and more "active learning in the classroom with all the attendant noise and movement of students doing, talking, and collaborating." (from a required text at CSU Dominguez Hills)
    • "We cannot afford to become so bogged down in grammar and spelling that we forget the whole story," which includes "racism, sexism, and the greed for money and human labor that disguises itself as 'globalization.'" (from a CSU Dominguez Hills multicultural textbook)
    • "There is no place for requiring students to practice tedious calculations that are more efficiently and accurately done using calculators." (from a San Francisco State University math text)

  • The "Laws" of Learning by Laurie H. Rogers, Education News, October 8, 2008.
         "A central tenet of ... constructivist teaching is that children should work cooperatively in groups to 'explore' and 'discover' ... figure out concepts on their own. Reformers say this method makes [school] interesting and fun and leads to 'deeper understanding.' ... I'm not sure how much fun this process actually is for the students, who tend to be concrete thinkers and who generally appreciate straightforward, logical approaches to learning. Experimentation in groups can be fun for them, but I suspect they'd rather it come in small doses. Otherwise, they can become stressed out trying to teach themselves 5,000 years of math in the small snippets of time they have available to them.
         "I was thinking about this while reading an Air Force Training Manual from 1974 called Principles and Techniques of Instruction. The manual is old, its cover is lost, and the pages are yellowed. It's been around the block � well, around the world, actually. It contains much valuable information about teaching, learning, leadership, ethics, guidance, counseling and critiquing effectively � all presented in an incredibly concise, straightforward, readable and accessible format.
         "As I read through this manual, I caught myself nodding my head in agreement, saying at one point to the cat, 'Now, that's what I'm talking about!'"

Why Constructivism Doesn't Work

  • "Romancing The Child" by E. D. Hirsch Jr., Education Matters, Spring 2001. Hirsch criticizes the "Romantic" notion of how children learn, and passionately presents the case for practical, common-sense, validated methods. Excerpts:

      "The Disney Corporation's Celebration School sounded like yet another fairy tale from the creators of the Little Mermaid and the Lion King. It was supposed to be the ideal school, set in Disney's newly created Florida community, Celebration. According to the New York Times, the school was to follow the 'most advanced' progressive educational methods. ... Such methods, although they have been in use for decades, have rarely worked well. The Celebration School was no exception. As the Times headline put it, there was 'Trouble at the Happiest School on Earth.' The Times article began, 'The start of the school year here is just a few days away, so it was no surprise that there was a line of parents at the Celebration School office the other day. But the reason for the line was: they were queuing up to withdraw their children.' Parents said they were dissatisfied with the lack of clear academic goals and measures of achievement, as well as with the lack of order and structure that accompanied the progressive methods."

    In this article, Hirsch goes on to dissect the invalid premises of progressivist, "Romantic" views of education that have led our school systems astray. Highly recommended!

  • "Roots of the Education Wars": a speech given by Prof. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., related to his article (above), "Romancing the Child".

  • Fourteen Rules Kids Won't Learn In School by Charles Sykes. A classic!

  • Fad, Fraud, and Folly in Education by Martin A. Kozloff, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, November 2002. This is an excellent introduction to the power of fads and fashions play in education, which fads are particularly harmful and why, and why they are so seductive to education theorists who should know better.

  • If It Quacks Like a Duck, It's Probably Baloney by Martin A. Kozloff, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, April 2002. Dr. Kozloff says, "Our nation has begun to look at scientific research on which methods of instruction and which curricula in reading and math work best and which do not, and at what is taught in schools of education. However, in the meantime, ordinary citizens ought to know the difference between sound instruction and snake oil." He then goes on to list some of the key red flags to watch for in education (with clarity, accuracy and humor!)

  • What Do Teachers Teach? A Survey of America's Fourth and Eighth Grade Teachers (PDF document), by Christopher Barnes, Center for Civic Innovation, Manhattan Institute, September 2002. Dave Ziffer, one of the founders of the Illinois Loop, says that "the only reason that public schools enjoy as much support as they still do is that most parents are still harboring the illusion that the schools are still somehow similar to the schools of their own youth." This new report from the Manhattan Institute demolishes that illusion. Long-time education reformers know that ineffective methods dominate education, this survey and study prove it.

  • Project Follow Through: A case study of contingencies influencing instructional practices, Cathy L. Watkins California State University, 1997.

  • Substance, Not Process by James O'Keeffe. "Be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. -- Progressive aphorism.
    Pretty words, pretty poison. ... Most teachers are sadly unaware of the dogma-as-science attitude that permeates today's American education establishment from the very top. New teachers can't enter the profession without being inundated with 'best practice' ideology ...
    "On some levels, constructivism appeals to the romantic in all of us. Why, that's just how I'd want my child to be taught! we might think. It's student-centered! It's authentic! It's developmentally appropriate! And it's so pretty! Now we begin to see why the seductive, ethereal lingo deployed by educrats continues to confound not just teachers but the American public at large. If you're not for constructivist education -- if you're an old-fashioned, teacher-centered instructivist, let's say -- you must be anti-child, and nobody wants to be associated with hatred of children, least of all teachers and parents. And that, in turn, is the reason why so many educrats can preside over asylums, rather than sane schools, and get away with it, year after year. Might it also be the reason why about half of all new teachers quit the profession within five years?"

  • School "Facilitators" Flunk the Test by Fred A. Strine, guest columnist, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 29, 2008. Here's a solid dissection of "student centered" theories, by a veteran Seattle teacher. Excerpts:
         "Ban facilitators, the word and all its forms, and put on probation anyone caught in a classroom still claiming to be one. Re-establish the traditional teacher-centered classroom, and soon we won't need a [state test] to demonstrate progress.
         "Education requires discipline, both intellectual and behavioral, and discipline must be imposed before it becomes engrained. ... To inculcate discipline in others, a leader must model excellence and self-discipline. Traditional teacher-centered classrooms had such leaders. By contrast, student-centered learning allows the inexperienced and the undisciplined to become the standard. Who then is the model for students when today's teachers merely facilitate as 'guides on the side,' leaving students to discover on their own? Instead of turning to a traditional subject-expert in a teacher-centered environment, students now turn to their friends. ...
         "Our schools are not producing enough real self-esteem based on genuine achievement measured by a respected, educated adult. Instead, the facilitator system generates phony, Hollywood self-esteem -- a cocky, anti-intellectual sense of entitlement that shouts, 'Facts and information be damned. My opinion is as valuable as any facilitator's.'
         "With the advent of teacher as facilitator, respect for teachers in general has declined. ... When teenage minds become convinced they know as much as or more than the adults in charge, contempt for authority is the blatant byproduct. ...
         "Most real learning requires real work. ... Most of the time, however, intellectual inertia needs a genuine push toward knowledge. Facilitators are too wimpy, too passive to push anything or anyone."

  • "Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology", by John R. Anderson, Lynne M. Reder and Herbert A. Simon, Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University. Excerpt: "The argument that knowledge must be constructed is very similar to the earlier arguments that discovery learning is superior to direct instruction. In point of fact, there is very little positive evidence for discovery learning and it is often inferior (e.g., Charney, Reder & Kusbit, 1990). Discovery learning, even when successful in acquiring the desired construct, may take a great deal of valuable time that could have been spent practicing this construct if it had been instructed. Because most of the learning in discovery learning only takes place after the construct has been found, when the search is lengthy or unsuccessful, motivation commonly flags."

The Attack on Knowledge

    "The central educational fallacy of our time:
    that one can think without having anything to think about."
    -- Heather Mac Donald

    Nurturing The Life Of The Mind: If Schools Don't Value Intellect, Who Will? by Kathleen Vail, American School Board Journal (cover story), January 2001. This is a wake-up call for school board members, alerting them to the anti-knowledge philosophy that pervades education theory. Excerpt: "[S]urely our schools are bastions of intellectualism? Not necessarily. Your parents and community, even your teachers and administrators, perhaps even you, might unwittingly be holding back your schools from cultivating intellect in your students and exposing them to the joys of the life of the mind. ... Schools are places where we send our children to get a practical education -- not to pursue knowledge for knowledge's sake. Symptoms of pervasive anti-intellectualism in our schools aren't difficult to find ..."

  • Who Is to Blame for American Teens Ignorant of History and Literature? by Rita Kramer, March 13, 2008.
    "It was like ... the movie 'Groundhog Day,' where the same thing keeps happening over and over. ... The headline in question: 'Survey Finds Teenagers Ignorant on Basic History and Literature Questions.' ... Because the same headlines announcing the same deplorable facts appeared 25 years ago, and nothing seems to have changed in the intervening years.
         "Beginning in the sixties, the mission of the schools has been redefined. The institutions training our teachers have come to see their job not as transmitting our culture but as changing it, not as passing on an understanding of the history and traditions of a democratic United States of America but as pursuing an agenda of ... social activism. ...
         "For the past half century this has been the message young people who want to be teachers have been getting along with a curriculum heavy on pedagogical methods and light on subject matters -- a lot of emphasis on how to teach and very little knowledge of anything to teach. ...
         "All of this has prepared a couple of generations of American schoolchildren to be barely literate and hardly able to deal with simple arithmetic. By the time these students reach high school, a vast dumbing-down has become necessary to keep them afloat. When third grade is the new eighth grade, much has been lost along the way. ...
         "So we are failing to educate an informed citizenry, an efficient workforce, or a people proud of their nation's special character. Unable to articulate its worth, unaware of its gifts to them, how can the coming generations be expected to defend it?"

  • And What Did We Learn In School Today? by Dan Sernoffsky, September 01, 2005. "It's time for a quick quiz. Divide 304,487 by 931. But do it without a calculator.
         Question two: Find the sum of 5/9, 5/6, 3/4 and 11/36.
         Those are two of the math questions students expecting to graduate from eighth grade in the state of Washington were expected to answer. In 1910. Other questions required students to identify the author of Rip Van Winkle and The Raven, among other short literary works. Students were also asked to state the qualifications of a U.S. Senator, and to identify the Senators from Washington. They were required to diagram a sentence. They were required to identify Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant and Clara Barton, and to state their historic significance."

  • How Can Learning Facts Make Thinking More Enjoyable -- and More Effective?
    by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, American Federation of Teachers, Spring 2009.
         "Perhaps instead of learning facts, it's better to practice critical thinking. Have students work at evaluating all that information available on the Internet, rather than trying to commit some small part of it to memory.
         "Appealing though it may be, it turns out that this argument is false. Data from the last 30 years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that's true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most -- critical thinking processes like reasoning and problem solving -- are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just in the environment). ...
         "Much of the time that we see people apparently engaged in logical thinking, they are actually engaged in memory retrieval. ... When faced with a problem, you will first search for a solution in memory, and if you find one, you will very likely use it. In fact, people draw on memory to solve problems more often than you might expect. ...
         "That's not to say that all problems are solved by comparing them to cases you've seen in the past. You do, of course, sometimes reason. Even in these situations, background knowledge can help. ...
         "Most or all of what we tell students about scientific thinking strategies is impossible to use without appropriate background knowledge. The same holds true for history, language arts, music, and so on. Generalizations that we can offer to students about how to successfully think and reason in the field may look like they don't require background knowledge, but when you consider how to apply them, they actually do."

  • Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, Winter 2002, American Federation of Teachers. The contents page of this issue of the AFT magazine says, "Getting students to apply their knowledge in new situations is important--and a sign of growing expertise. But, says the cognitive scientist, reaching this goal generally requires that students have a large store of knowledge on the relevant topic. Just knowing how to 'solve problems' or 'apply knowledge' won't do the trick." The article itself says, "Cognitive science has shown us that when new material is first learned, the mind is biased to remember things in concrete forms that are difficult to apply to new situations. This bias seems best overcome by the accumulation of a greater store of related knowledge, facts, and examples."

  • The Destruction of American Education, by Alan Caruba, April 19, 2004. "So, let's sum things up. The present educational system does not effectively and successfully teach children to read or write well. It does not teach history or civics well. Pocket calculators have replaced the learned ability to compute anything in any way. It requires large numbers of those children to be medicated with mind-altering drugs. A growing number of school districts around the nation are either in revolt or finding creative ways to fudge the numbers required by "No Child Left Behind." The largest teacher's union is more interested in political activities than educational achievement. A high school diploma is too often a worthless piece of paper."

  • "Educational theory rests on quicksand ...
    Good thinking usually comes from good information.
    Bringing Content Back into the Center of Education by Jerry Morris, Boston Globe, June 2, 1997. "For decades, educators have watched fisticuffs erupt between process and content. Process involves methods, strategies, and techniques for diagnosing and solving problems. Content involves the facts, knowledge, and ideas needed before a solution can be achieved. ... If you want to become a stockbroker, a lawyer, a commercial truck driver, a ship's captain, or an engineer, you study a specific content. You gain a great volume of knowledge and then process it. After the learning, you can analyze, synthesize, and make judgments and evaluations. ... Educational theory rests on quicksand. It assumes that problems can be solved using strategies, techniques, and thinking processes without having solid background in a given area. If your car is running poorly, do you want a mechanic who has critical thinking skills, or do you want one who has knowledge and thinking skills? The same could be said about your heart surgeon, lawyer, or plumber. Good thinking usually comes from good information."

  • Why Johnny's Teacher Can't Teach: Ed Schools Purvey Multicultural Sensitivity, Metacognition, Community-Building -- Anything But Knowledge by Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Spring 1998. This groundbreaking article should be read by school boards and anyone else hiring teachers, and certainly by anyone considering becoming a teacher! Some excerpts:

    "the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about."
         "For over 80 years, teacher education in America has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense. That dogma may be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. ... The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about. ...

    "Once you dismiss real knowledge as the goal of education, you have to find something else to do."
         "Once you dismiss real knowledge as the goal of education, you have to find something else to do. ... In thousands of education schools across the country, teachers are generating little moments of meaning, which they then subject to instant replay. Educators call this 'constructing knowledge,' a fatuous label for something that is neither construction nor knowledge but mere game-playing. Teacher educators, though, possess a primitive relationship to words. They believe that if they just label something 'critical thinking' or 'community-building,' these activities will magically occur. ...

         "The ultimate community-building mechanism is the ubiquitous 'collaborative group.' No activity is too solitary to escape assignment to a group: writing, reading, researching, thinking -- all are better done with many partners, according to educational dogma. If you see an ed school class sitting up in straight rows, call a doctor, because it means the professor has had a heart attack and couldn't arrange the class into groups. ...

         "Collaborative learning leads naturally to another tic of the progressive classroom: 'brainstorming.' Rather than lecture to a class, the teacher asks the class its opinion about something and lists the responses on the blackboard. Nothing much happens after that; brainstorming, like various forms of community-building, appears to be an end in itself."

What Harm Is Being Done?

  • The Other Crisis in American Education by Daniel J. Singal, Professor of History at Hobart & William Colleges, Atlantic Monthly, November 1991. (The link is to another source that has posted this important and influential article.)
         "Two crises are stalking american education. Each poses a major threat to the nation's future. ... The first crisis, which centers on disadvantaged minority children attending inner-city schools, has received considerable attention, as well it should. ...
    "The overwhelming majority of these students attend suburban schools ..."
    "The second crisis, in contrast, is far more academic than social and to a surprising extent invisible. It involves approximately half the country's student population--the group that educators refer to as 'college-bound.' Although the overwhelming majority of these students attend suburban schools, a fair number can be found in big-city or consolidated rural districts, or in independent or parochial schools. Beginning in the mid-1970s these students have been entering college so badly prepared that they have performed far below potential, often to the point of functional disability. ...
         "Our brightest youngsters, those most likely to be headed for selective colleges, have suffered the most dramatic setbacks over the past two decades--a fact with grave implications for our ability to compete with other nations in the future. If this is true--and abundant evidence exists to suggest that it is--then we indeed have a second major crisis in our education system. ...
    "... the extraordinary dearth of factual knowledge they bring to college ..."
    "No account of the present condition of college students would be complete without mention of the extraordinary dearth of factual knowledge they bring to college. Horror stories on this topic abound--and they are probably all true. ... Indeed, one can't assume that college students know anything anymore. ...
         "No matter how fascinating or valuable a new detail might be, a person finds it almost impossible to hold in memory and have available for retrieval unless it can be placed in some kind of larger context. Providing that basic intellectual scaffolding used to be a major function of a good high school education. Year-long survey courses in history and literature, covering the United States, Europe, and the world, were designed to ensure that college-bound students would have the necessary background to make sense of the new subject matter they would encounter in college. Yet few high schools today teach that kind of curriculum. ... Little wonder that so many students experience great difficulty in absorbing detail; since they have no context in which to fit what they read ...
         "A check of the typical high school curriculum would disclose that plays are favorite choices these days (they tend to be much shorter than novels and make easier reading), along with personal memoirs. The rich diet of fiction and poetry that used to be served up--Dickens, Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Thoreau, Dickinson, Milton, Melville, and Steinbeck--is increasingly hard to find. ... The rest of the English curriculum also reflects the impact of the sixties. If the reports I get from my students are accurate, it would appear that formal drills on grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and diction are infrequent these days.
         "Observing the performance of students who have been arriving at college campuses over the past decade, one can only conclude that the present generation of American parents has been failing in its obligation to provide its offspring with a high-quality education. ... Is it right or sensible to place our children at such a strong disadvantage before they even begin their adult lives?"

  • The Failure of Progressive Education:
    Survey Says Employers Find Grads Lacking Basic Skills
    by Anna Bray Duff, Investors Business Daily, November 12, 1999. Excerpt: "The promise of the progressive movement in education was grand: a more humane system of schools that would better address the needs of individual children, producing smarter students and adults prepared for their roles in society. The results, however, were anything but grand. However good the intentions, the progressive education movement helped leave American students lagging the world in critical skills. At home, it helped entrench the very inequality of opportunity that schools were supposed to help overcome."

  • K-12 Education Reforms Not Working, Manufacturers Say by George A. Clowes, School Reform News, January 2006. "according to the latest annual employer survey ... by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Manufacturing Institute, and Deloitte Consulting LLP ... manufacturers expressed significant dissatisfaction with the quality of K-12 education. An overwhelming majority of respondents -- 84 percent -- said K-12 schools are not doing a good job of preparing students for the workplace, up from 81 percent in 1997. The top three items cited by employers as evidence of unpreparedness were: lack of basic employability skills, such as attendance, timeliness, and work ethic (cited by 55 percent); deficiencies in math and science abilities (51 percent); and deficiencies in reading ability and comprehension (38 percent)."

  • K-12 Establishment is Putting America's Industrial Leadership at Risk by Robert J. Herbold, member of President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, managing director of Herbold Group, LLC, and a retired executive vice president and chief operating officer of Microsoft Corporation. "There are some very worrisome trends in the United States with respect to our global share of science, technology, engineering and mathematics expertise. Our share of this expertise is decreasing significantly, both at the bachelor's and at the Ph.D. levels. I will provide below the basic data that show those trends, suggest the reasons behind them, explain the attendant risks and offer some solutions."

  • Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based experiential and inquiry-based teaching (PDF) by P. A. Kirschner, J. Sweller, and R. E. Clark, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86 (2006). (Also available here.)
    From the abstract:
         "Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, ... these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. ... Recent developments in instructional research and instructional design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described."
    From the introduction:
         "Disputes about the impact of instructional guidance during teaching have been ongoing for at least the past half-century. ... On one side of this argument are those advocating the hypothesis that people learn best in an unguided or minimally guided environment, generally defined as one in which learners, rather than being presented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themselves ... On the other side are those suggesting that novice learners should be provided with direct instructional guidance on the concepts and procedures required by a particular discipline and should not be left to discover those procedures by themselves ...
         "The minimally guided approach has been called by various names including discovery learning ... problem-based learning ... inquiry learning ... experiential learning ... and constructivist learning ..."
    From the conclusions:
         "After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even for students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance while learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge."

  • From our "college" page:
    Colleges Try to Cope With The Failures of K-12: Here is a collection of articles on how colleges address the weak preparation of today's entering college students. Only one in three 18-year-olds is even minimally prepared for college, according to a recent report. "Remedial" courses abound in colleges, serving anywhere from a fifth to a half (half!) of entering students. Professors report that they need to simplify content and reduce demands if students are to learn anything at all. What's going on here? As one article puts it, "What, the colleges moan, has K-12 been doing with the kids all these years?"

Do We Need Progressive Reforms?

    "'Progressive Education' has had a firm lock on America's schools for decades and each year they try to pretend that the enemy is some imagined bogeyman that's making kids learn facts through rote memorization."

  • "Progressive" education already IS the mainstream:
    Huntington Lyman, Ph.D. writes,
    "I have taken education courses over the past fifteen years at Brown, Yale, Wesleyan, Georgetown, and the University of Virginia without hearing any teacher promote tracking, standardized testing, or the curricular emphasis on content. In addition, I have worked in elementary schools and high schools over past twelve years without seeing much 'drill and kill,' memorization of decontextualized facts, or pedagogical emphasis on standardized tests. I have never actually seen a classroom with desks bolted to the floor, and very few where the desks are in rows."
  • Getting the B.S. in Education: A Glossary of Ed-land Euphemisms and General Nonsense:
    "The 'Rote Learning' Straw Man
    "This is a big one. Ed schools, and teachers in general, like to pretend that there is some traditional teacher out there who is the norm and bores his or her classes with lectures, facts, and information. This phony concoction is often accompanied by the phrase, 'drill and kill,' in which students are imagined reciting meaningless facts which are deadening their minds. Check out a local school classroom today and you'll search long and hard for any remnants of rote learning or drilling of information. You definitely won't find much concern for -- or even belief in -- facts. 'Progressive Education' has had a firm lock on America's schools for decades and each year they try to pretend that the enemy is some imagined bogeyman that's making kids learn facts through rote memorization."

  • Kevin Killion's statement to the Chicago session of the National Math Advisory Panel, April 20, 2007. Excerpts: "In Chicago, some 290 schools use progressivist, constructivist math programs in early grades. On the flip side, we have been able to identify only 5 -- count 'em -- 5 conventional CPS schools that use practice-and-mastery math programs ... Now the suburbs. The Illinois Loop has collected info on the math programs used in 118 suburban K-8 districts in five collar counties. We find that progressivist, constructivist products are the math foundation in 77 percent of those districts."

  • Putting the Fox in Charge of the Hen House; Or, Why School Reform Often Fails to Improve Education by J. Martin Rochester, Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and author of Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Betrayed Kids, Bewildered Parents, and the Attack on Excellence. In this article, Prof. Rochester argues that so-called "progressive" or "constructivist" practices are in truth very self-serving for the teachers and theorists who espouse them. Here are some excerpts:
    Although students certainly should be encouraged to take initiatives and engage in "discovery," critics rightly have called constructivism the equivalent of "the Socratic method minus Socrates" and have questioned how realistic it is to expect children to teach themselves. ...

    Professional development of teachers now stresses process (atmospherics) rather than substance (content). In language arts, one no longer is supposed to get his or her hands dirty drilling students in grammar, punctuation, and the rigorous use of standard English conventions, but rather is expected to teach the "writing process" and promote "creativity." In math, computation skills are out and "problem-solving" is in. In history, facts are passé and "critical thinking" the reigning fad. Since there are no longer right and wrong answers, teachers do not have to perform the labor-intensive task of carefully reviewing student work and denoting errors with a red marker. Teachers no longer have to know the basics themselves, much less insure their students do, since this is considered demeaning and boring for students and teachers alike. Everybody is a college professor "wannabe," everyone a member of a "community of scholars," from little Johnny and Shirley, who have trouble finding the lavatory or the laboratory, to the teacher, whose job description now revolves around the heavy load of seating kids in circles rather than rows.

Why Is Fixing the System So Difficult?

  • Why is Education So Hard to Reform? by Chester E. Finn, Jr., Ph.D. This beautifully-written article is concise and clear, and yet manages to quickly encapsulate most of the main issues in the decline of education, which Dr. Finn lists as ...
    1. We know more about the quality of our dishwashers than the quality of our children's schools.
    2. More emphasis is placed on what goes into education than what comes out.
    3. Adult feet don't get held to the accountability fire.
    4. Consumers lack clout.
    5. Weak competition encourages weak performance.
    6. Too few of the best and brightest come work in schools.
    7. The education profession is awash in fads and bad ideas.
    8. Even Houdini couldn't escape the red tape.
    9. Schools are expected to solve all of society's problems.

  • School Reform: Easier Said Than Done by David W. Kirkpatrick, December 30, 2007.
        "Perhaps no institution, occupation or profession is as difficult, or impossible, to reform as public education. ... It isn't that needed reforms are not introduced or that, in those rare instances where something better is introduced and shown to work, other districts don't replicate it - it's that there is virtually no recognition that they exist. Curiosity and interest in what is occurring in their field seems to be almost nonexistent in the ranks of public educators.
        "When doctors, with whom teachers dearly love to be compared, introduce a new technique, such as heart transplants, or an advance, such as the polio vaccine, its use often spreads rapidly throughout the profession and becomes so common that in some instances, of which polio is one, the medical condition may virtually disappear.
        "In the public schools, however, even the successful pioneer is rarely hailed as a model but, rather, is viewed as a threat or a troublemaker and may even be treated as a pariah."

  • "Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine)" by Douglas Carnine. Education experts tend to ignore research-based practices like Direct Instruction and instead embrace constructivist methods that are not backed by good research. This Fordham Foundation report explains why. You can view the web version, or download a PDF version.

  • The Tyranny of Dogma, a chapter from Education Reform 1995-1996 by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Diane Ravitch, August 1996. Excerpts:

    "To be sure, educators pay lip service to diversity and the uniqueness of each school, classroom, teacher, and pupil. When it comes to instructional philosophy, however, all the dominant approaches can be traced to a common ancestor: the progressive-education movement that arose in the early part of this century.

    "Strategies that heed this orthodoxy are described with such phrases as 'student-centered,' 'child-centered,' 'learner-centered,' 'developmentally appropriate,' 'discovery-based,' 'self-directed,' 'constructivist,' and the like. Their names, details, and emphases vary. These features, however, are less important than what their common dogma excludes. Practices that are deemed 'teacher-directed' or 'knowledge-based' or that involve 'direct instruction' are most certainly not welcomed by contemporary instructional theorists. The pedagogic tent, it turns out, is not very big at all. ...

    "The reigning orthodoxy demands not only obeisance, but also the exclusion of dissenters. The results of rigorous studies and pilot projects that don't conform to progressive ideology are dismissed, while airy speculation, vacuous theories, and sloppy evaluations that buttress the prevailing wisdom are published in Ivy League education journals. Unproven methods are thus imposed on thousands of America schools. The failures that often follow are predictably attributed to lack of funding or time (no matter how much of either was available). Other excuses include lack of faith, inadequate staff development, ignorant parents, or a malevolent society. Never is it admitted that the concept itself may be flawed and the method ineffective, much less that different methods were ruled out and never tried."

    Other sections of "The Tyranny of Dogma" discuss: Whole Language and California, Mathematics: England Shows the Way, The Romance of "Natural" Learning, The Instructivist Alternative, and The Case for Diversity and Balance.

  • Education Myths by Jay Greene, American Enterprise, July/August 2006. It is just about impossible to uncover what's ailing the education system without tackling its most pervasive myths. This article identifies seven common myths that dominate established views of education these days. Dispelling these misconceptions could open the door to long-awaited improvement in our nation's schools. They include:
    • The money myth
    • The teacher pay myth
    • The myth of insurmountable problems
    • The class size myth
    • The certification myth
    • The rich-school myth
    • The myth of ineffective alternatives

    "We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake."
    -- C. S. Lewis

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