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Education Reporter

A Traditionalist's List of 20th Century Education Disasters
By Kenneth M. Weinig

My fellow educational traditionalists might substitute some of their own items (or renumber others) in the following list of disastrous developments in education. But I think we would all agree that this list includes phenomena that have made major contributions to the decline of public education during the last half of the 20th century, which, contrary to popular opinion, includes the year 2000.

Here is the list:  
10. Multiculturalism. What started out as an innocent, well-meaning attempt to add or enhance inclusiveness in curricula (for example, celebrating the achievements, holidays, cultures, and other attributes of those besides European-Amer-icans) is now out of control, having mutated into a leveling of all cultures to the point of denigrating things American.

9. Failure To Challenge Gifted Students. Why is this group often not challenged? Because educators assume one or both of the following: First, that those intellectually "quicker" are also highly motivated and need little structure; second, that it is wrong to provide for the gifted a curriculum that would place them visibly ahead of "the rest." Instead, we have "enrichment" programs often involving the arts or technology, where students have many choices and are left to learn at their own pace.

A related phenomenon - and actual policy in some districts - is the deliberate refusal to group gifted students with peers. The straight-faced alibi is that they can grow so much from helping those less able.

8. The Misinterpretation of Bloom's Taxonomy. We all learned this in Education 101: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. However, Benjamin Bloom's hierarchy of learning levels, from lowest to highest, has often been misapplied. Teachers have been taught to expose pupils to the higher levels and shun the lower levels, which are given such pejoratives as "rote memorization of facts," "regurgitation," and so on. Of course, to ignore these "basics" is like trying to build the roof of a house before laying the foundation. A dearth of basic facts and information makes mastery of "higher levels" of knowledge impossible.

7. Rabid Developmentalism. In the field of early-childhood education, develop-mentalism is practically the only philosophy in town; it is rigidly applied and often overlooks unpleasant empirical evidence. Yes, we can observe stages of natural development where most children (that is, the average) can optimally learn various concepts; however, we should not forget that this is a generality, and that a little prodding will not produce a mental meltdown.

6. Faulty Educational Theories. Sometimes grouped under the inexact label "progressive education," a number of romantic hypotheses have metastasized in the education schools and, of course, resulted in the indoctrination of thousands of educators. These include egalitarianism, overemphasis on self-esteem, feeling over thinking, and a contempt for authority in general and direct instruction in particular. The question "How can we educate students for a democratic society by using authoritarian methods?" came to be answered, "We can't," or, "We shouldn't"; however, the nation that has led the world in technology since Edison's time and defeated Hitler produced its educated citizens from classrooms where pre-1970 teachers were, for the most part, authoritative, respected leaders of their respectful students.

The philosophy that mankind is basically good and not in need of direction is not a recent one, but during the late 1960s, it exploded. Teachers in many universities were told to avoid being authority figures. Arrange the chairs in a circle to show how we're all equal: I'm your moderator, not your teacher.

As the adult-child distinction was minimized, the tendency to reduce all knowledge to pure subjectivity grew: There is no real answer to most questions, so what do you think? At first, this shunning of objectivity was relegated to the arts (poetry interpretation, literary criticism, etc.), but more recently it has been seen in the form of creative spelling, optional answers to math problems, and even the politicization of the hard sciences.

Closely akin to egalitarianism is the much-written-about overemphasis on a student's self-esteem. This movement has many manifestations, all masking true achievement and trying to minimize real differences in students' abilities. Heterogeneous grouping, aimed at eliminating the hurt feelings of the less able and/or less motivated, furnished the fertile ground for "teaching to the middle." Mainstreaming, even when special instructors were added to aid the severely disabled, made effective learning even less possible. When not all students made the honor roll, the honor roll was either eliminated or not published. Curving grades became common. When disparities still could not be disguised, "multiple intelligences" were discovered.

5. The Re-Norming of the SATs. As Paul Copperman points out in The Literacy Hoax (1977), the Scholastic Aptitude Test was one of the few constant, reliable measures of verbal and mathematical competence since it began in 1941. A score of 500 on either the math or verbal sections, which was the original norm, meant essentially the same thing in 1941, '51, '61, '71, '81 and '91. Not so in 1996, when an adjustment was made to address the major decline in student scores since 1963, their peak year. In my own school, the mean score on the SATs (taken by gifted 7th graders under a special program) jumped 83 points from 1995 to 1996, yet the academic ability of the two classes was approximately the same. If, in the face of a declining number of home runs, the baseball commissioner were to require all ballparks to move their fences in to the 250-foot mark, the results would be about the same.

4. Anti-Merit Faculty-Compensation Systems. Ask any competent principal to name five teachers she would gladly let go, given the choice. Then ask her to name the five teachers she would keep if she had to let go all except these. Next, ask essentially the same two questions of the president of the school's PTA and the teachers' union representative. Then ask some random students who have spent a few years at that school, "Who were your best teachers, the ones who taught you the most and really cared about you? Who were your least favorites?" When all responses are compiled, an amazing correlation emerges: most will list the same stars and duds.

Despite the inability to rate educators using a productivity measure appropriate to the business world, what prevents us from compensating accordingly? Answer: reluctant principals and resistant unions. They bleat, "Who are we to judge someone on the basis of one or two classroom visits?" True professionals do not advance economically strictly on the basis of seniority and number of college credits. The most perceptive teachers realize that their mediocre peers, often more highly paid owing to more years of service, hurt the profession and cause taxpayers to vote against referendums.

3. Teacher Tenure. Tenure is fundamentally unfair, a one-way street for the employee. What recourse is there for a principal or superintendent when a teacher turns in his keys without notice in October and never returns? There is no criminal, civil, or financial penalty, and school attorneys are even advising administrators against writing negative references. On the other hand, if a principal asked for a teacher's keys without notice. . . .

2. Students' Rights Court Decisions. Due v. Florida A&M University (1963) and Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), respectively, gave students procedural constitutional due process rights and certain rights of free expression. The latter decision stated that the word "persons" in the U.S. Constitution included minor students. The precedent of legally equating students with adults opened the floodgates for similar decisions during the next decades, which had the cumulative effect of shattering the in loco parentis status that had existed in the public school system since its earliest days.

The parent-school partnership is great-ly weakened as the new century begins. Teachers fear the absence of backup from administrators in disciplinary matters, and administrators fear lawsuits from parents. I believe a case can be made that union demands for teacher tenure grew at the same rate that teachers' control over students was taken away.

In almost every opinion poll, parents list poor school discipline at or near the top of their complaint list, but the courts have gutted a very strong means of positive behavior reinforcement that schools once had.

1. Church-State Court Decisions. I remember when in 1963 the Supreme Court banned Bible reading and prayer in public school classrooms. Although the strongest support for the decision came from the famous atheist Madeline Murray, the American people did not revolt. After all, Christianity was not a state religion. They did not foresee, however, that the censorship of prayer and sectarian theology would result in the banishment of values.

The vacuum was inevitably filled with moral relativism, situation ethics, and "values clarification." Powerful and effective words like "evil," "wrong," "immoral," and "sin" were replaced with feeble terms such as "inappropriate" and "bad choice." School boards soon found that this "wall" of separation had other implications. Teachers could conduct themselves in their private lives in ways which, a decade earlier, might have resulted in their loss of employment. Now the once universally understood term "proper role model" became purely a matter of opinion.

Like the students' rights decisions, this 1963 religious decision caused the proliferation of restrictions. Schools soon found that they could punish and/or remove disruptive students only by wading through thick procedural red tape (given the noble term "due process"), and that their preventive measures based on moral absolutes were gone. No longer could they even tell a cheating student that his act was morally wrong.

Traditionalists do not believe that the First Amendment's intent was to create a secular society. John Adams stated that the United States was founded on the premise that its people embraced universal moral and religious beliefs. The public school system will never recover unless the American people restore to it at least some measure of ideological unity.

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