Dear Valerie Strauss,
I’ve been writing about education for many years; I’d like to share with you my explanation for why the public schools are mediocre despite huge budgets.
Newspapers are full of analysis that I don’t think tells us much. There is definitely something counterintuitive about the field of education. It makes me think of optical illusions, such as the one way where steps are going up AND they are going down.
The problems in education are hidden in plain sight. They are the theories and methods endorsed by our Education Establishment. If you examine these theories and methods one by one, you find a surprising consistency: all are more destructive than they are helpful.
The breakthrough for me was reading theory. Ever since 1931, the Education Establishment pushed Whole Word (or sight-words) as a way to learn reading. It doesn’t work; it cannot work. But they keep pushing it. Freeze that frame. Everything you need to understand education is right there.
Reading is the paradigm. But the same pattern replicates itself over and over. Each new method is much praised and massively promoted; we are supposed to accept it as a panacea. A decade or two later the stats get worse. We look closely at this thing and we realize that it’s not working. But the Education Establishment doubles down.
You probably remember the famous drawing from Gulliver’s Travels: a huge man held down by dozens of tiny, almost invisible strands. Public schools are something like that. Kids don’t learn to read as well as they should. They can’t do arithmetic as well as they need to. They don’t learn basic knowledge as well as they could. They are encouraged to guess and approximate....There’s an across-the-board attack on every aspect of the kid’s education and every aspect of the kid’s character.
On an optimistic note: I believe all these ideas were systematically inserted into the schools, and they can be systematically withdrawn from the schools. I suspect you could improve quality by 10% and cut costs by 10% almost without lifting a finger. You would just have to stop using all the bad ideas.
If we try to decide motive, we will get lost in political discussions. I know people who say it’s a far-left plot, while others say it’s a far-right plot. A documentary called “Zeitgeist” maintains its neither the left or the right, just ruthless SOB’s at the top who want everybody else to be stupid.
Well, Valerie, my purpose is to urge you to throw this analysis out there, provoke the public, and challenge the elite educators. Inquire innocently as to why they can’t do a better job.
The main thing is to open up the debate. Get people talking.
What I fear is not just the terrible stats but a terrible paralysis. I don’t see the Chamber of Commerce, Mission: Readiness, the media, the elite universities doing anything. I think the Education Establishment has deliberately battered everybody into passivity. People hear the same arguments over and over for decades, but nothing changes. Superman does not show up. Ordinary citizens feel helpless. If the official leaders can’t do anything, what can parents do?
The only hope is that the grown-ups get more involved. The smart, practical people (and I think you’re one of those) can start pushing the envelope, start agitating, start pointing out that the emperors of education are not only naked but abusing children.
Okay, that’s my explanation. If you want details for any aspect of it, please tell me.
PS: For details, see this short discussion of individual methods: “Top 10 Worst Ideas in Education.” LINK
NB: Valerie Strauss blogs on the Washington Post as The Answer Sheet. I originally created this as a letter to her, but she didn't answer so please pass it along.