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"My concept and their concept"

    Dave Ziffer reports on his personal odyssey with his local schools:

    March, 2006

    My wife and I enrolled our two daughters in our relatively affluent suburban school district for two years. Three of our daughters' four teachers apparently felt it was a waste of time to teach phonics, grammar, handwriting, or punctuation. As a matter of choice (not as a restriction of school finances) our daughters had no math textbooks but were given snippets of materials from what was apparently the teachers' own improvised math program, which they apparently thought was better than anything available in textbook form. The teachers apparently also felt that individualism is a character flaw and as a consequence our daughters seemed to spend most of their time doing group projects.

    At the end of two years of this sort of education we tested our elder daughter just after fourth grade. I asked her to write a paragraph on any subject of her choice, and what she produced was largely illegible and totally incomprehensible. We applied some more formal testing methods, and based on our evaluation she was fully three years behind. Not only had she apparently made no progress during her two years at the school, but she had actually forgotten the material she had learned in second grade prior to entering the school. She was so far behind that we doubted that any school anywhere could catch her up in time for high school.

    I suppose most people would assume that if their children were having problems in certain subjects, that the fault must lie with the children and not with the school. Certainly the schools, with their remedial reading specialists and nurses handing out Ritalin, are set up to convince parents that learning and behavioral problems are the fault of the child. But we knew better because my wife was a volunteer at the school. She could observe that the subjects in which our daughters were deficient simply weren't being taught, at least not in any rational sort of way.

    When I approached my school authorities to discuss the problems that I perceived in my daughters' educations, I quickly discovered that my district's concept of education and mine had little to do with each other. According to the staff at our daughters' school, there was no problem. My daughters, in their opinion, were typical. Their grades were fine. Their assignments all came back with expressions of approval at the top, regardless of content, it seemed.

    We asked to have our elder daughter placed in a remedial spelling class, since both the school's spelling curriculum and our daughter's spelling ability were, in our opinion, atrocious. But the school staff apparently felt that she was doing no worse than the other students there and refused to keep her in the class. The fact our daughter was almost unable to spell any words correctly appeared to be no concern of theirs. Apparently the district's standards for spelling were so unfathomably low that our essentially illiterate daughter was already meeting them.

    After my wife had exhausted the useless avenues of talking with my daughters' teachers and principal, I decided to take our issues straight to my superintendent. One of the things I discussed with him was my concern over the apparently total lack of phonics instruction in my daughters' classrooms. His response was to send me an article by one of the most fanatically anti-phonics demagogues of the 20th century, namely A. Sterl Artley, who was one of the authors of the infamous "Dick and Jane" look-say books. In his article (incidentally designated a "classic" by the International Reading Association) Mr. Artley informs his readers that phonics is not only useless but destructive to a child's reading development.

    I sent my superintendent a 16-page response to all of this, including a complete discussion of my daughters' experiences at their school, and never received a reply. My superintendent is retiring this year, incidentally. I presume that he will get the standard 75%-of-highest-salary pension, which means he will make more money retired than I make working, almost entirely at taxpayer expense.

    After striking out with my superintendent, I decided to try contacting three of my school board members. I started with my school board president. I called her and voiced my concerns and indicated my interest in my children receiving some formal instruction in phonics, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and math. Her response was to tell me in an aggravated voice never to call her again.

    After listening on the phone to my voicing of this same set of concerns and requests, my second school board member responded, quite simply, "Maybe the public schools aren't for you."

    The most receptive of the three board members I contacted actually went out to lunch with me a couple of times to discuss my concerns. At the end of the second meeting, he informed me that the district would never really give me what I wanted, and that I was "up against one of the most powerful unions in the country."

    I eventually came to understand that unlike in private industry, the public schools are more about keeping the teachers and administrators happy than about keeping the "customers" happy. Curriculum providers make tons of money off of this lack of customer accountability. In alliance with the teachers' colleges they churn our schools through an endless series of destructive and expensive fads: Multiple Intelligences, "cooperative learning", "inclusion", "democratic classrooms", whole language, "balanced literacy", "developmentally appropriate practices", "brain based learning", "jigsawing", portfolios, journals, and so on. No wonder there's no time for phonics, grammar, punctuation, and handwriting.

    So what ultimately happened to my daughters? They actually had a happy ending because we pulled them out of public school and home-schooled them up through eighth grade, after which we put them in a private college-prep high school where they did very well. Both are now at the colleges of their choice. During all this home- and private schooling my wife and I forfeited about $100,000 worth of tax-funded educational services that my district would have supplied to us, had we felt that the district's offerings were worth our daughters' time. Of course we continued to pay our school taxes while also paying for our girls' home- and private schooling with our own time and money.

    Yes my family received quite an education at the hands of our district, but it was not the sort we had expected. If I had to sum it all up in one sentence, it would be the statement I got from the second school board member I called in my quest for some educational sanity: "Maybe the public schools aren't for you."

    What we really need is an entirely new system where a variety of competing service providers can align themselves closely with the desires of their respective customer niches. Obviously there are a lot of people who don't mind that their kids will come out of 13 years of school unable to write a coherent paragraph, but I'm not one of them. Until my education service provider agrees with me about what constitutes a good education, discussions of all other topics are immaterial.

    -- David Ziffer

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