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Back when I attended high school, at a private religious school in California, everyone’s favorite class was Humanities. The teacher, a Fellow of the National Endowment of the Humanities, modeled his class after the old Greek idea of the Trivium: grammar, logic, rhetoric. We all loved his class, despite how hard we worked. More importantly from the school’s standpoint, after taking his class we achieved spectacular scores on our standardized tests. Other teachers wondered what it was that made his Humanities class so successful; yet when he suggested that the entire school adopt his methods, the administration said no. They felt that the school needed to more closely model its curriculum on the standards of the State of California. This is of course the same California whose public schools were ranked 43rd in the nation by Morgan Quitno Press for the 04-05 year.
At least my school chose to follow a flawed model. California’s standard public schools have no choice at all. They must comply with mandates from on high specifying what they teach, how they teach it, and what materials to teach it with. And the mandates are often driven not by how effective they are at teaching children the skills they need, but by political concerns, education PhD’s pushing fancy new programs in need of guinea pigs, or lobbying by textbook companies. And this problem does not end with California. All across the country, our children are subjected to public schools where teachers simply don’t have the option of teaching the way they think works best.
Particularly damaging are the abysmal textbooks used today. Cornell professor Donald Hayes examined textbooks published between 1860 to 1992, and concluded that “Honors high school texts [in 1992] are no more difficult than an eighth grade reader was before World War II.” Things have only gotten worse since then. Dr. John Hubisz noted in his review of middle-school science textbooks that a textbook is far more likely to be rejected by a state government for “offensive” material than for factual mistakes; naturally, publishing houses openly admit to employing more censors than fact-checkers. Hubisz concluded that “Not one of the books we reviewed reached a level that we could call ‘scientifically accurate.’ ”
Mathematics books fare no better. When the Education Department endorsed ten textbooks in 1999, 200 mathematicians and scientists, including 4 Nobel Prize winners, wrote an open letter to Secretary Richard Riley criticizing all ten texts, and calling for the government to retract its endorsement. Small wonder that among the 34 developed nations of the OECD, United States fifteen-year-olds ranked 29th in math in 2003, “significantly below average.”
Meanwhile, despite a large and growing body of research showing that studying fine arts can powerfully boost student’s academic performances, the arts are always first in line to be cut. The Council for Basic Education’s 2004 report “Academic Atrophy” found that a quarter of public school principals are reducing their fine arts instruction, and a third plan to do so in the future. These numbers are much higher for minority schools, who arguably need the fine arts most. At the same time, cuts are reported in elementary-level civics, geography, and foreign language.
In a global economy increasingly dependent on highly educated workforces, it is incredible that we have let our public schools dumb down our children. As a country we cannot remain at the top for long if we continue to produce students with such horribly abused minds.
What can be done? In California at least, parents and educators are flocking to charter schools. A charter school is a public school run by the teachers, parents, and the local community, and has significant autonomy from the state bureaucracy in determining their curriculum and teaching methods. The RAND Corporation, in their report, “Charter School Operations and Performance” (Zimmer and Guarino 2003), found that while nonclassroom-based charter schools had poor performace, classroom-based charter schools outperform public schools “…across grades and subjects except in elementary math, where the scores are slightly lower.” Moreover, charter schools offer broader education in the fine arts and foreign languages, and do it all using less money per student than comparable public schools receive.
The secret to charter schools is that they can teach in whatever way they think best. Free of the educational tyranny of state government, charters can choose their own teaching materials from anyone who can provide a quality product and tailor their methods to the needs of their students. The charter-school model has been shown to work, better than the standard public schools that have resisted every attempt at reform. For the sake of America and its children, we should promote charter schools across the country.