We all sense that public education in the United States faces tremendous challenges, and that something must be done. But what, exactly, is the problem? And what should we---what can we---do?
At TheBestSchools.org, we just did an interview with the man on the left, Henry Gradillas. He, perhaps more than anyone, knows what needs to be done to turn around American education. He is our hero and you can read our interview with him here.
Recommend a teacher for the $20K #BestInEducation award today!But if you need convincing that American education is in crisis, consider the following objective indicators:
First, American students perform poorly on standardized tests in comparison with students from other countries. On one recent such math test (the PISA for 2012), the U.S. ranked below Slovakia, well below Vietnam, far below our neighbor Canada, and very far indeed below our main geopolitical competitor, China.
Second, administrative and financial turmoil exists in our public school systems. Teachers go on strike for higher wages and better working conditions at the same time that major municipalities and schools districts are losing their credit ratings and defaulting on their pension obligations. As a result of past strikes and cozy arrangements between teachers unions and corrupt big-city political machines, the money is simply not there. The teachers can strike all they want, but the result is always the same: layoffs, firings, school closings, and larger class sizes.
In the meantime, parents are voting with their feet and leaving the public schools in droves---either for charter schools or for the suburbs---which means that public school enrollments are declining. Which leads to even greater financial strain.
We do not mean to say that public school teachers are solely to blame for this mess. Teachers today are being asked to do an impossible task---basically to compensate for all of American society's ills. And they are the ones who suffer the most from the slow-motion collapse of public education in this country, apart from the kids themselves.
But something is clearly wrong somewhere. Throwing more money at the problem is simply not an option---and not likely to help matters much if it were.
Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have tried imposing federal standards on the nation's quarter million public schools in the form of nation-wide testing. This has merely resulted in "teaching to the test," the elimination of subjects from the curriculum---like music and art---which are vital for forming well-rounded and civilized citizens, and the dumbing-down of the tests themselves. Even the SAT test, which is supposed to provide an objective measure for colleges to decide on which high school students to admit, has just been dumbed down.
Introducing competition into the mix in the form of state-funded charter schools has been a healthy move. It has certainly helped to challenge the status quo and shake things up, as competition always does. But as long as the charter schools continue to operate according to the same discredited principles as the failing public schools---as seems unfortunately too often to be the case---we should not look for much improvement from that quarter.
The one subject that is seldom discussed in the court of public opinion---the proverbial elephant in the room that no one dares refer to out loud---is the liberal educational philosophy underpinning the whole corrupt system. We believe this is the main factor in the present death spiral of public education in America.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (below, right) taught that children are naturally eager to learn, and teachers should let children explore their own interests at their own pace. (One wonders if Rousseau was ever within shouting distance of a roomful of squirming six-year-olds.)
Then, about 100 years ago, in this country, John Dewey (below, left) added to Rousseau's utopian ideas the insidious belief that the social sciences should be made "scientific." This meant that such fields as psychology and teacher training should ape the natural sciences, even if it was impossible by the nature of their subject matter (human beings) to imitate the mathematical and experimental methods that made the natural sciences so successful in their own sphere.
Dewey's thought remains the philosophical foundation of just about all graduate schools of education across this country---with the inevitable result that teacher education is one of the most faddish, jargon-ridden, and intellectually barren fields in the entire academy. Which is saying a lot! The graduate education of teachers in this country today is a sad caricature of real scholarship and genuine learning.
Both Rousseau's starry-eyed idealism and Dewey's scientism suffer from the same essential defect. They deny basic truths about human nature known to former generations intuitively from time immemorial---such as, if you reward a behavior you get more of it; if you punish a behavior, you get less of it---on the basis of crackpot ideology and wishful thinking.
Then, to make matters worse, the damage that these flawed philosophies have done has been compounded recently by the cult of political correctness. Far too much time in our schools is spent essentially brainwashing children---telling them what they ought to think about controversial social issues, instead of teaching them the skills, knowledge, and values they need to succeed in life.
Too many are also being taught that they are victims entitled to redress, instilling in them a sense of grievance and entitlement, instead of the virtues they will need if they are to have a chance of living decent, worthwhile, and thus happy lives.
The very idea of virtue has become taboo in too many of our schools today. And yet the inculcation of the traditional virtues---honesty, industry, promise-keeping, delayed gratification, self-control---is a far more essential element of any child's education than the assimilation of any particular facts or skills.
Education is impossible without discipline. But discipline is not just about keeping kids in line or preventing them from acting up. Discipline comes from the word "disciple," which refers to someone whose job it is to learn. Discipline describes what it is about a school environment that makes learning effective.
Unfortunately, discipline in our schools has gone the way of virtue. All too often, today's public school classrooms border on pandemonium. The teacher must shout over the voices of students to be heard. Students are allowed to insult and swear at teachers to their faces without repercussions.
"You can't punish children for that---that's their culture" is the excuse offered by the apostles of political correctness. And what few resources in the way of discipline that are available to teachers are just "slaps on the wrist." Come to think of it, a real slap on the wrist would get a teacher fired, if not thrown in jail, in today's Through-the-Looking-Glass educational environment.
This is unacceptable. No civilization can stand for long while its younger generation is systematically corrupted morally by the very institution charged with its moral formation, and education is always in the business of moral formation (whether educators admit this or not).
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Despite this gloomy picture, some rays of sunshine may be spotted. In fact, there are a number of very bright spots on the horizon, such as Geoffrey Canada, founder and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone; Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, co-founders of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP); and Success Academy's Eva Moskowitz, who is currently battling New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to preserve school choice in the Big Apple.
Another such Hero of American Education (no, there is no such Order of Merit in this country---yet; but there sure ought to be) is the subject of our most recent interview: educator, author, and former high school principal, Henry Gradillas.
Gradillas (right) is best known for his role in making possible the stunning achievement of math teacher Jaime Escalante (below, left) at Garfield High School in East Lost Angeles in the 1980s---a story dramatized by the popular 1988 film, Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos as Escalante. In a nutshell, Gradillas and Escalante together turned a typical failing urban school completely around, ultimately making it possible for hundreds of Garfield students to take and pass the AP Caculcus exam.
But Gradillas is a significant figure on the American educational scene in his own right---not just for his past contributions, but also for his present crusade to bring his educational philosophy to a wider audience, in order to help save the current generation of America's youth, particularly in the barrios and ghettos of this nation's big cities.
We are proud to share Dr. Gradillas's insight and experience with our readers. Above all, we are delighted to be able to help him bring his message to a new generation and a younger audience through the medium of the Internet. Here is his interview.