A new poll conducted on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers shows a large majority of respondents are unhappy with the public schools. The pollsters asked parents what they want in education. The overwhelming response was less focused on social issues and much more on reading, math, and science.
This is not surprising. Parents have generally wanted strong training in cognitive basics for their children, and the US school system fails miserably in this regard. For example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests are often referred to as “the nation’s report card.” The 2019 results were dismal. In seventeen states, fourth-grade reading scores—already low—not only showed no progress but dropped even lower than the 2017 results. Reading scores for eighth graders declined in thirty-one states. The eighth graders scored a point lower on average in math compared with 2017. In math, the fourth graders improved by one point, going on average from 240 to 241 out of a possible 500. Other tests, including international ones, show the same abysmal results.
This educational rot has been going on for a long time. As far back as 1983, a commission appointed by the Reagan Administration titled its education report: “A Nation at Risk.” It concluded ominously:
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”
We still allow it—and it has gotten worse.
The good news is that American literacy was superb in the past. For example, the essays of The Federalist express sophisticated political principles and were largely published as newspaper editorials for Everyman to read. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold 120,000 copies to a free population of roughly 2.4 million (akin to selling approximately 10,000,000 copies today.) The McGuffey Readers sold 120,000,000 copies between 1836 and 1920; they contained selections from Hawthorne and Shakespeare in texts for the 4th and 5th graders; the word “benighted” was used in the 3rd-grade reader; and so forth.
“An interlocking directorate” that controls the schools
What caused the drastic decline? The schools of education, the state Departments of Education, and the federal Department of Education form what historian Arthur Bestor called “an interlocking directorate” that controls the schools.
The directorate has, for a century going back to John Dewey and Progressive educators, warred against phonics, which teaches children to sound out a word’s letters, as the method to teach reading. They prefer “look-say” or other variations on the whole word method, which teaches kids to look at the shape of a word and the context in which it is used, and then guess at the word. Phonics is a vastly superior method to teach reading. Rudolf Flesch, in his 1955 classic, Why Johnny Can’t Read, pointed out that the abandonment of phonics for whole word is the main reason for literacy problems in America.
Generally, Dewey and his contemporary heirs’ war against academics. Since the kids struggle to read, the literature program in our schools has been dumbed down. A century ago, history was replaced by Social Studies and is taught only sparingly. Most states require only two years of math for high school graduation. Regarding science, most high school students take biology, perhaps half study chemistry, and a mere twenty percent take all three major science classes, including physics.
American kids perform dismally on academic tests because the schools do not teach academic subjects as fully as in the past.
The interlocking directorate wants the kids to gain practical knowledge and vocational skills. They teach hygiene, sex ed, driver’s ed, and wood shop. These are all valuable skills but should be left to parents, after-school hours, vocational schools, and employers providing on-the-job training. Worse, today the schools ram leftist propaganda down the kids’ throats—critical race theory, choosing one’s gender, and man-made climate change. My book, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read or Write or Understand Math—and What We Can Do About It, will be published on August 23rd, 2022. It details in full how, why, and by whom the US school system was eviscerated. Above all, it shows what we can do to greatly improve this situation.
Parents can improve their children’s education
Parents are properly fed up and criticizing their school boards. There is good news: Parents can improve their children’s education. They can homeschool their kids; they can join or form homeschool co-ops, via which they team up with other homeschool parents; they can hire expert tutors to teach either in-person or remote—M.A. and Ph.D. students, for example, often need money and can be hired inexpensively; parents can “afterschool” their children, improving their reading, writing, and math skills; or they can partner with one of the many disgruntled teachers who opt out of the educational system and form small community schools with a handful of students—popularly known today as “micro-schools.” Why Johnny Still Can’t Read or Write or Understand Math provides plenty of helpful advice for parents looking to enhance their children’s education.
The interlocking directorate forms what Humanities professor, E.D. Hirsch called, “an impregnable fortress.” It cannot be improved or changed. But parents have the power to circumvent it. All they have to do is seize control of their children’s education.