Education for the 21st Century

The world is changing rapidly, but our educational system has not kept pace.  Oh, it’s become politically correct.  And it now teaches kids how to use condoms and such.  But I don’t get the feeling that there has been a lot of overarching analysis as to how kids should be educated in the modern world.  Let me ask a few of questions to get things started.

First, what role should the classics play in education today?  Are the writings of dead white men, written hundreds of years ago relevant to the modern world?  Certainly, classic political and mathematical texts will always be relevant.  But what about works of fiction?  The works of Shakespeare, for example, are lovely but they are so old, and their humor so based in his own time, that they need translation to even be understandable.  Should the precious (and, it seems, ever-shrinking) class time be spent on such works.

Second, what role should standardized test play in education?  In thinking about this, I’m reminded of Churchill’s comment that democracy is the worst form of government ever except for all the others.  Standardized tests give a very limited view of what a student actually knows.  Yet, for many purposes, they are better that any other alternative I can think of.   I’m especially fond of the term “teach to the test.”  If what is on the test is what we want our kids to know, what better way to encourage teachers to actually impart that knowledge to the kids than to require them to teach what will be on the test?  Sure, teaching to the test is only effective if the test actually contains what we want our kids to learn, but can’t we define that body of knowledge well enough to give the tests value?

Third, in an earlier thread, someone commented on how teachers still have problems even though class sizes have shrunk.  I must defend the teachers on this one.  In many schools, the students are much more diverse than they were in my day. Many of them don’t speak English as their first language.  A growing number have behavioral problems.  And the most fundamental disciplinary tools have been taken away from the teachers.  My teachers could handle a large number of students because (a) we all spoke English as a first language, (b) most of us came from families that valued education, and (c) if we did get up out of line, the teacher would put us back in line again with a paddling that would get today’s teachers fired, and (d) when we got home, most of us would have gotten paddled again if our teachers reported our problems to our parent.  Even the best teachers have a much tougher job today than my teachers did.

What do you folks think of all of this?  What ideas do you have for K-12 education in the 21st century?

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  • Caedmon

    OK, I’m British, English in fact so I’m biased, but I don’t think its time to bury Shakespeare.  It may just be a British experience, but I’ve sat in theatres and heard audiences roar with laughter at Falstaff and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (not on the same night obviously because they are in two different plays).   I do sometimes wonder if the classroom is good for Shakespeare. Are plays best taught in half hour instalments once a week? Would anybody want to see Die Hard if they had begun by studying the script in classroom conditions?   The academic approach often creates the impression that Shakespeare’s work requires more interpretation than it does, and leaves people with the idea that they are missing something when they see a Shakespeare play. So perhaps it’s time to take Shakespeare out of the hands of the English teacher and hand him over to the Drama teacher. You learn more about Shakespeare from acting in one play than you do in reading five.   

  • Caped Crusader

    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub


    To be, or not to be: that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

  • Old Buckeye

    The classics ARE the classics because they speak to the underlying humanness in all of us. They teach us the virtues and ethics of life, rather than the facts and stats. It’s not so much about “learning” the classics as it is to be “exposed to” the classics. Caedmon makes a good point–if Shakespeare was “taught” as a drama class, it’d have more impact. I think ANY subject is made clearer by putting it into context, giving it a real-world application. As to your second question, DQ, I think teaching to the test is one of the least effective methods for true learning. It might be ok for rote subjects like math, where there *is* only one answer, but for learning analytical skills, looking at big-picture solutions to problems, figuring out how to function in the world, it’s worthless. Furthermore, the public school model we use was meant to turn out citizen-cogs-in-the-wheel. Its intention was not to allow for insight, curiosity, or the search for truth, but to learn what the state wanted inculcated into the brains of its future verkers.

  • expat

    I am planning to get ED Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy, which deals with this topic. From mentions I’ve seen elsewhere, he thinks we need a common educational background in order to communicate with one another.  Think of all the terms and quotes you couldn’t use if the person you are talking to has no idea what they mean.
    I am involved now with the very bright son of Chinese immigrants, who unfortunately could not fill in his gaps in our cultural info. At 14, he has no idea why Winston Churchill is important. He is bored by history because he can’t connect all the dots of info that surround him. He will be returning to the US this month, and I am going to send him some books to help him fill in gaps in his knowledge. I have lent him books and DVDs, which he has read and viewed, but he always has questions about things he should probably know. We take for granted how much we need to know in order to understand what someone is saying.

  • bap

       In Peter Robinson’s recent interview with President GWBush (Uncommon Knowledge), Bush made the point that without a nationally normed test, we have absolutely no means of comparing various school districts at various points in a student’s career.  As a homeschool mom, I am intimately aware that tests are an incomplete picture of a student’s knowledge, but the man still has a point. There must be some means of assessing effectiveness, apples to apples. 
       My husband and I recently watched a documentary (Waiting for Superman) by the director of An Inconvenient Truth.  Given his background, we were both shocked at how honest the man was in its assessment of our educational system.  He included a graph of spending (skyrocketing) vs. test scores (flat) and was unflinching in his indictment of the teachers’ unions as a complete roadblock to adopting proven ways to create a better educational system.  It was both infuriating and thoroughly heartbreaking.
        I believe that Mitch Daniels’ approach (vouchers and charter schools) is our best hope.  I doubt we’ll be able to overturn the power of the unions directly, but we might be able to starve them of students and funding by offering parents the choice of non-union forms of education.  Fortunately, technology is daily increasing our educational alternatives. 

  • heather

    End compulsory education.
    Won’t solve all problems, but it will certainly help.  Discipline problems are worse than many realize, because administrators/teachers don’t want to admit it, as you are a “bad” teacher if you cannot manage your classroom.

    There will be some short term negative consequences for society, but in the long run it would be worth it.  Also, it won’t cost anything to implement.

  • Don Quixote

    Very interesting comments, so far.

    Old Buckeye, so what is your alternative that would “allow for insight, curiosity, or the search for truth”?  I’d love to think that we could nurture a search for truth on all of our students, but I think that’s unrealistic.  So many children come from families (often broken) that do not value education.  So many are uninterested themselves.  The schools would practically have to provide one-for-one tutors to allow for the kind of education you are advocating. Right now, the best “search for truth” we can hope for in most cases is a search of the Internet with an understanding of the proper tools to separate the wheat from the chaff.   

    expat, you make an excellent point, and it illustrates the need for the teaching of a body of facts that can be tested by standardized tests.

    bap, I agree completely, but implementation of vouchers and charter schools will make standardized testing all the more important.  Once education moves out of the hands of a centralized authority it becomes difficult, and even more critical, to determine whether a central fund of knowledge is being taught.

    heather, what an intriguing idea!  What would happen to all of the children that never received even a K-8 education?  We have a more or less permanent underclass as it is.  Wouldn’t your suggestiong make this situation even worse?            

  • JKB

    It will take a long time to kill the cattle system of grade advancement but I see the future in something like the Khan Academy of online lessons.  Then the class time and teachers are used as a kind of lab to provide quick individualized help.  And also, intra-student help.  There have been projects from way back that have shown that kids will question and learn from each other while they are hesitant to ask the teacher or blindly ask in front of te whole class.  This would, in math especially, eliminate the “keep up or get left behind” mentality of the current system.  A mentality that also hinders the student when they are in the groove and can race ahead but are now discouraged by the classroom instruction.  

    This has been shown in data collected by school systems using the Khan Academy 

    We have the technology, the content is being created, the trials are underway.   Soon, your kid might go to their school district but they my learn from a kid in Calcutta and then one from China while helping on in the Congo.   

  • JKB

    Don Quixote,

    We have to be careful in viewing how children are after being damaged by classroom instruction with how they would be if we didn’t condition them that way in the first place.  Many a first grader has started off on a run only to have their desire to learn conditioned out of them by the hand-feeding of the current classroom system.  A system where getting ahead is discouraged if not punished, where boredom in the norm and where you are left behind if you don’t get it in a certain allotted time.  

    It is a long known and commented on problem.  Seems by 3rd grade a kid can have a real bad case of “school helplessness” 

    In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar “school helplessness”; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks.  

    How many kids have you met that consider themselves “off the clock” after school hours or are uninterested in learning any “school” subject outside of the teacher’s requirement?  

    As for  the kid from the family or culture that doesn’t encourage education, in a system of independent study he/she can learn on their own avoiding public rebuke and find compatriots online to escape the neighborhood culture.  This should lessen the bad influence of the education phobic parents, siblings and neighbors. 

  • David Foster

    I suspect that *class size* is, up to some reasonable limit, less important than *school size*. A school with 3000 students is likely to be a chaotic, anonymous, and anomic (in the Durkheimian sense) place.

    What possible reason is there for having a school whose student body contains more people than a whole shift at an auto assembly plant?

  • Old Buckeye

    I’m not against standardized tests entirely; I think they do serve a purpose, such as gauging where to start with instruction. DQ, we homeschooled our son, so the one-on-one tutoring is an ideal solution I highly recommend! In a more practical vein, I think the apprenticeship model has a lot of merit. Follow and hone an interest that becomes a career path.  I would even go so far as to suggest that if a person wanted to be a professional athlete, that they could follow that apprenticeship program. That would remove the focus on sports rather than academics that is prevalent in some schools today. JKB points out that many eager learners have that spark wiped out thanks to the current model. I don’t think children of 5, 6, 7 years old should be in a desk doing rote work for hours a day. The early years should be the time for building up a love of learning, encouraging curiosity. I know this sounds all pie-in-the-sky and unrealistic, but that’s only because the present system is structured so that there’d never be a way to bring it back to these basics. As for the truth part, DQ, that also is wishful thinking. Maybe what I was getting at was learning through the scientific method: observe, test, measure, postulate rather than believing what’s being dished out in the classroom and the textbooks, recite, be graded.

  • Rich0116

    Disclaimer – I’m a Latin teacher so my position on the worthiness of the “classics” should be obvious to all.  Heh.
    That said, I think the value of the classics is going to increase, not diminish, in the 21st Century for a number of reasons, but IMHO the lynchpin is this: the advent of effective online instruction is going to reveal, more clearly than ever, the extent of the rot in our education system today, public and private.  Today we do not teach students to read, write, or reckon effectively, at least on a mass scale.  Maybe we never really did, but I think most people today would agree that we used to do it better.  Making effective instruction at a basic level widely available and unyoking that from schools where teachers hardly know English or math themselves has the potential to revitalize our schooling at the most fundamental level, which is where the rot starts and where angels fear to tread.

  • bap

        I’m actually less concerned about testing/effectiveness issue if parents regain control over their kids’ educations, for a couple reasons.  First, if they pay attention, any parents knows how strong the human drive to learn is–I watched how much my kids learned from birth to five/six years without making them sit down and do “school”–all I did was talk to them, read to them, read in front of them, take them places, surround them with interesting books/videos, and answer their questions with multiple trips to the library and computer.  It was this realization that gave me the confidence to homeschool.  We are driven to learn whatever is needed to master our environment, and that drive does not go away when a child turns six (unless he learns to hate learning). 
        Second, there are always a reprehensible few in any group, but the number of parents who will not do everything within their power to improve their children’s future is, I believe, very small indeed.  If we can drag control for our kids’ education back within the reach of parents and combine that with a multiplicity of educational options, the market will do the rest (including finding innovative ways to measure effectiveness). 
        That said, I do see a valid public interest in creating functioning citizens, but I would argue that that is not nearly as complex as it sounds: 1) teach the three Rs (master these and you can teach yourself), history, economics and civics, and 2) make sure students leave school in love with learning and equipped to find their own answers. 
        Do that and if they come across a Shakespeare quote that makes them feel ignorant, they’ll go find it. 

  • Charles Martel

    When I can find a living, non-white, female author who writes a tenth as well or insightfully as a dead white man like Plato or Shakespeare, I’ll accept the argument that DWMs have nothing to teach us.

  • heather

      What would happen to all of the children that never received even a K-8 education?  We have a more or less permanent underclass as it is.  Wouldn’t your suggestiong make this situation even worse?            

    Yes, it would, for at least a few years.   But our current “underclass” is already not benefiting much from sitting in school – AND, many are dragging down everyone else.  Currently we drag kids in kicking and screaming.  Did you know that schools actually have attendance audits?

    I don’t think it would take too long for people to start placing value on a good education again.  There could also be more vo-tech type schools, and options for adults who need a second chance.
     But I know it won’t happen.  

  • jj

    Don, your #7: once education moves out of the hands of a centralized authority it becomes difficult, and even more critical, to determine whether a central fund of knowledge is being taught.

    Huh.  It seems to me that history has proven rather the opposite to be the case.  We were a pretty damned well educated society until we began to experiment with centralizing education through the middle of the 20th century, and once Carter really centralized it by inventing the federal Department of Education the decline became genuinely precipitous, and morphed right into the ongoing disaster with which we are confronted.  

    And here’s where the role of the classics come in.  Math is math, it isn’t subject to interpretation – so every one-room schoolhoue in the country taught the same stuff.  Reading is reading: there are a couple of ways to teach it, but the end result is someone either knows how to read, or they don’t.  Same for writing: there are a couple of ways to learn to write, but when done you either do know how or you don’t.  Everyday life in the classroom will establish this, nationwide standard tests not necessary.

    So there’s the basics, and there’s no need for anything “centralized” about them. 

    And that naturally brings us to the “central fund” of knowledge.  Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, Hopkins, Sherman, Rutledge – you recognize the list – et al, all went to different universities, but they all got there by different roads – but very similar roads, too.   They had the same fund of knowledge, shared the same background of learning, and had the same approach to critical thinking.  Yet the foundation for this was laid in a multitude of little one-room schoolhouses in different corners of the country that not only weren’t centralized, but never heard of each other, were in areas with different customs, and had very little in common.  But, as it turns out, there was a lot in common.

    They had what they were taught in common.  (I mean, plainly, once they got beyond the basics of the reading, writing, and math stuff – though that was certainly in common, too.)  What were they taught?  Ah, well; there’s the role for your classics, isn’t it?  Reading Plato taught them to think, and taught them reasoned dispute – and they all, no matter where they were, in what schoolhouse in what corner of the country, read Plato.  They looked into the human condition with the help of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Chaucer.  They read the Romans and Greeks, and learned how to assemble a public discourse from Cicero and Demosthenes.  Of course they read the bible, deeply and thoroughly.  (They read it as literature, not necessarily as a religious tome.  Naturally that would be illegal today.)  The history came from Josephus, Herodotus, Thucydides.

    The despised classics, in other words, assured the commonality of thought, argument, disputation, approach, and reasoning.  Rutledge in South Carolina; Adams in Massachusetts; Jefferson in Virginia; Sherman in Connecticut – their backgrounds and customs were very different, but they all had exactly the same teaching.  They didn’t need a centralized authority to see to it.  Indeed, it’s only been since we empowered centralized authority that the whole thing’s gone into the toilet.  I think the thesis is exactly backwards.  For the basics, get there by your own road (as long as 2+2 still equals 4, that is).  Then work through the classics to learn to reason, and apply whatever thought you have.  Learn to think.  Central authority isn’t necessary to any of this.   


  • Oldflyer

    Excellent commentary JJ.
    Teaching the test has become a national industry.  Hate to reveal this to folks who still fly commercial (I hope I have taken my last flight), but teaching the test is exactly what happens throughout the FAA  managed culture.  That is the problem with standardized testing.  But, what is the alternative, if there is a body of knowledge that is deemed necessary?  In the case of the public school system, how else to hold the educators accountable?  Everyone who attends college knows that, given that individual Professors are left to their own evaluation schemes, the standards of teaching are grossly uneven at best.  Well,here is a novel thought.  A system of rigorous monitoring of classrooms through spot checks.  Expensive and time consuming.  Probably won’t happen.


    All valid questions, none of which would need to be asked if parents (they come in pairs or they used to) were involved, gave a damn or hadn’t turned the job of parenting over to the school system and teachers, who cannot possibly parent, teach and be a part-time warden. There’s a 168 hours in a week and thirty hours +/- are spent in school.
    -40 (school hours/travel)
    -70 (seven nights of 10-hr. sleep rest)
    58 hours of what? It’s the “what” that makes the difference. When they sort out the difference between “what” and “huh” things may improve.

  • Marica

    I think jj’s on the money. I have a number of quite old text books (many from late 1800s). It’s amazing to see the totality of what was being taught. Here’s just one example. These are three questions from the end of a chapter.

    George Washington was born in A.D. 1732, and lived 67 years. In what year did he die?
    Alfred the Great died in A.D. 901; thence, to the signing of the Magna Carta was 314 years; thence to the American Revolution, 560 years. In what year did the American Revolution begin?
    The area of the United States up to 1897 was 3681661 square miles. Since then there have been added the territory of Hawaii containing 6449 square miles; Porto Rico, 3531 square miles; Philippine Islands, 114410 square miles; Guam, 150 square miles; Tutuila, 77 square miles; and Wake Island, I square mile. What is the present area of the United States?
    (Ray’s Modern Practical Arithmetic, 1877) 

    See what I mean? Teaching history and geography in arithmetic class! If they still do that, I shudder to think of the questions.

    Here’s another from Harbrace Handbook of English, much newer than above (1941). In the chapter, “The Paragraph” we have example of paragraphs developed in various was. Here’s one from ‘Paragraphs developed by definition.”

    “Well, what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game. In other words, education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections to move in harmony with those laws. For me, education is neither more nor less than this. Anything which professes to call itself education must be tied by this standard, and if it fails to stand the test, I will not call it education, whatever be the force of authority of of numbers upon the other side. [4 sentences. 119 words]

    –Thomas Henry Huxley

    Note that this assumes the teacher and student know who TH Huxley was– which takes us to biology in an English book.  

  • Marica

    Sorry about the loss of formatting above. 

  • Charles Martel

    Why not create several competing core curricula that schools, from grammar through college, can openly adopt and teach? Then let the marketplace decide which graduates of which curriculum they want to hire:
    Classic Curriculum for All Comers: Great Books-based courses of study. Rigorous emphasis on mastery of the 3 R’s by 4th grade. Essay-based tests where possible; daily writing assignments based on courses in logic and rhetoric; courses in music history and art. Classes also include basic manners (table, conversation, comportment). America presented as mankind’s greatest political experiment—study the Federalist Papers, U.S. Constitution, etc.; learning the fallacies of and inevitable descent into moral chaos occasioned by socialism, communism, and Islam; fluency in at least one foreign language. Vigorous competitive and intramural sports programs. 
    Trade/Technical Curriculum for All Comers: Mastery of the 3 R’s throughout. Non-English speakers placed in immersion courses, given help to catch up to grade level once they master English. Curriculum combines study of basic history, art, music, science, and literature with hands-on technical and vocational courses. Active apprenticeships from age 14 on. Mandatory logic and rhetoric courses; insistence on ability to communicate clearly in speech and writing. Practical courses in personal finances, etiquette. Vigorous competitive and intramural sports programs. 
    Progressive (White) Curriculum: Self-directed student learning; teachers as kindly suggestion offerers; reading proficiency hoped for by 8th grade, “relevant,” student-created reading lists; mathematics and science as social constructs; collaborative group projects; pass/no pass grading; writing in the form of portfolios showing (unedited and uncorrected) self-expression; courses in values and sex hygiene (how to don a condom, how to insert Tab A into whatever available orifice, hookup etiquette, how to procure birth control and/or an abortion); repeated gestures of appreciation for the cultural contributions made by people who use their genitals in non-heterosexual ways; all religions are the same, all cultures are equal, and there is no such thing as Truth. Non-competitive physical education—dodge ball, wrestling, rugby, football, and clear athletic superiority forbidden.
    Negro, Mexican, and Other Designated Minority Curriculum: Perpetual victimhood forms students’ existential core; disdain for standard English; “fun” academic assignments; denigration of girls and women as sexual objects; adulation for Planned Parenthood and the dole; prickly willingness to see racial or ethnic insult anywhere at any time; reflexive defense of affirmative action; core curriculum centered on ethnic history and grievances (including made-up history of pre-Greek scientific geniuses and flying machines); suppression of Aztec history of cannibalism; mathematics and science as oppressive white-created social constructs. (If Mexican, keep immersed in Spanish-only classes for years on end to avoid contamination by Anglo society.) For gifted (black) athletes, direct access to major university recruiters offering Communications scholarships.

  • Old Buckeye

    Charles Martel, you have made a key point: let the marketplace decide. Get the unions out of the way, let people choose their schools, and it’d be a whole different ballgame.

  • shirleyelizabeth

    I have a younger brother that displays many of the failings of our current system of education. He’s on the tail end of a family of medical doctors, PhDs, dentists, lawyers, engineers, and accountants, and, in general, achievers. My dad, the smartest and most highly educated of us all, though he did not have the opportunity of a formal education beyond High School, instilled the importance of education in each of us. This younger brother, though, should never have been put into the public schooling system.
    He could not write. He could not analyze a piece of literature. He could not get through his math classes. For a long while we all thought him very lazy. He would not do work. It was simply because he just couldn’t do it, and instead of feeling the failure of it, he wouldn’t try. Over the years he did develop an extreme laziness. At school he was dumb. Through all of the special summer courses my mother would try he was dumb. But despite repeated failing grades, even in the remedial classes, the school system kept pushing him on to the next grade.
    My brother produces writing that is like playing a game of MadGab, where you have to read it aloud a few times to grasp what word it is, but he has a High School diploma. Instead of realizing this place was not for him, the teachers and administration just passed him up and on out.
    The saddest thing about this brother’s education is that he has a genius mechanical mind. As a child he would build carnival-style rides in our backyard for us to try to kill ourselves on. He could build a vacuum, and I think he even tried at a TV once. This boy should have been in a trade school or been apprenticed from the start. I think, what a failure on my parents’ part, but this push for alternative education really seems to be something gaining momentum in the last few years. And the rest of us children learned and succeeded despite our public education (the most of the lessons I remember happened at home), so I don’t think they would have known to do anything different.
    So my brother today: Instead of earning a professional’s wage, instead of having learned the maths as applied to the mechanics he knows, he works long, minimum wage hours at a grocery store and gas station to provide for his wife and baby (at least he got it in the right order) while living in our parents’ home.

  • Don Quixote

    Thanks for your comments, jj.  In an odd way, you make my point.  So long as all of the decentralized schools are teaching the same thing, no centralized testing, standadized or otherwise, is needed.  All students will come together with a common body of knowledge.

    Today, however, education is still decentralized, and the various schools are no longer teaching the same body of knowledge.  The student in a suburban public school is receiving a very different education from the student in an inner city school, who is receiving a very different education from the student in a high-priced private school. 

    As shirleyelizabeth’s sad story illustrates, often children are receiving little or no education at all; they are merely being passed from one grade to the next without learning. 

    It is the very decentralized nature of education, along with the sharply diverging nature and quality of the school experience for our children, that makes some kind of centralized monitoring (testing, spot testing as Oldflyer suggests, or whatever) critical.

    CM, I like your idea, as I like most marketplace ideas, but note how it will not result in the common body of shared knowledge and manner of thinking that jj points out existed when everyone received essentially the same education.  The likely result is the further isolation and alienation of the various subcultures within our badly fragmented society.

    Marica, you should shudder.  When she gets back, you should ask Bookworm to describe the politically correct education her kids are receiving in one of the best public schools in Marin, CA.              

  • 11B40

    Greetings: I’m a dance with the gal what brung ya kind of guy.
    I grew up in the Bronx of the ’50s and ’60s. My first 8 years (skipped kindergarten and I don’t think “pre-school” had yet been invented as either an entitlement or a requirement) were spent in our parish’s walk-to grammar school which was supported by the Archdiocese and our fellow parishioners. My class was the first to graduate from a brand new school building in a neighborhood that was destined, over the next decade, to find itself sliding into ghetto status. Back then, there was no tuition charged; the school was supported primarily by what the locals put into the collection baskets at Sunday Mass. The new school building, itself, had been funded by special financial pledges that began a couple of years prior to the actual construction, thus avoiding a heavy debt burden.
    In the eighth grade, we took a standardized (oh, the horror) high school entrance exam on which one designated which Catholic high schools one was interested in attending. Some high schools were affiliated with specific parishes, (usually the wealthier ones) others were run by the Archdiocese or specific orders of priests or nuns. Some high schools had stronger academic reputations than others, but all were thought to be a better alternative than the public schools, if for no other reason, the surety that the student would be disciplined as necessary. My high school tuition was $15 per month at a time when our 3-bedroom apartment’s monthly rent was $50, so it was made clear to me that this was a significant familial investment in my future betterment.
    (Speaking of the necessity of educational and behavioral discipline, allow me this side note. My father worked in New York City’s construction industry as a truck driver. In the latter years of my grammar school adventures, his company was involved in the building of the Bronx High School of Science, a new high school with a Sputnick-era emphasis on math and science. He was much impressed by the number and sophistication of the school’s science laboratories and argued somewhat strenuously in our family discussions for me to take advantage of that opportunity. My mother, alternatively, much believed in effective discipline which, even way back then, was known not to be much available in the public school realm. In one of the few instances in my early life wherein I felt I had to abandon my father, I went for the Catholic school option… primarily for its basketball team.)
    My high school’s principal was a firm believer proven educational techniques. Our freshman class was segregated (Did I just say “segregated” ???) into three sections by academic ability. All in the “A” section were expected to get into college, some in the “B” section, but all, even the notorious “C” section (who truly knew how to enjoy their notoriety) were expected to graduate, if only by any means necessary.
    In pursuit of those goals, one Saturday each fall, the student body reported to school to take the Iowa Test of Educational Development, another oppressive standardized test. In sophomore year, we also took the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, followed, the next year by the actual Scholastic Aptitude Test as part of the college admission process. In our school’s effort to continue its oppressive ways, in our senior year, we took the New York State Board of Regents’ standardized tests in various subjects in order to get a “Regents’ Diploma” which was considered superior to either a high school’s own diploma or the dreaded “general diploma” the academic equivalent of our military’s “general discharge”.
    My high school studies contained 0% academic fat. There were fours years each of Catholic religion, English, Mathematics, science, history. To help us understand that not everyone everywhere spoke Bronx, we had two delightful years of Caesar’s Latin and three of a foreign language (Francais, pour le “A” and Espanol para el rest). I was allowed to pick only two courses in my four years, one on Shakespeare’s plays (from which I’m almost recovered) and the other on electronics (such as they were in those days).
    Such was a Catholic education in the joy of my youth. I continue to be very much disillusioned by our polity’s ability to ignore this educational history and its effectiveness while pursuing all sorts of academic distractions of little real value. The “back to the basics” concept seems to have been permanently expunged from our collective educational intellect which has been overwhelmed by the lure of the new and unproven. From “whole word” reading, to “fuzzy math”, to too much technology (calculators, computers), to too much socio-political indoctrination, the leaders of our public educational systems seem to have a proven ability to prefer the latest educational cul-de-sac to the proven.

  • Don Quixote

    11B40, thank you so much for sharing your delightful story with us.  Obviously, your education produced a person with a fine wit and strong writing ability.  I’d venture that much of what you studied was tested in the standardized tests you describe.  If your teachers weren’t “teaching to the test” they might as well have been.  The tests served a purpose even then and proper tests are even more important today.

  • expat

    My parochial school experience was much like yours, although it was definitely small town. In our senior year, the nuns decided that we didn’t need a full hour for lunch, so they chopped off a half hour and gave us a course in Aristotelian logic. I can’t quite imagine that happening in a public school today.

  • lee

    Growing up, I had crappy teachers and great teachers and mediocre teachers and good teachers. The good-to-great ones were very-to-extremely passionate about their subject (my best teacher in high school was an English teacher who LOVED “Moby Dick”) as well as loving TEACHING, and understanding kids. These are things that cannot be taught in Ed School, yet I think this is why so much time in Ed School is WASTED on theory and practice. Upper level (from fifth on up to senior) teachers should major in the subject they teach; licensing should be based on just a small handful of educationclasses (there is SOME small value to theory and practice. Theoretically.) Kindergarten through third grad, maybe fourth is a little more about teaching fundamentals, and more about what education schools should look at.
     I said “theoretically” above because one of the BIG problems with Ed Schools is the multi-culti drivel they promulagte, and the leftist values tonwhich they ascribe. Ugh. That is one of the single biggest problems with education today, is that teachers come out of ed. schools.

  • lee

    To clarify–I think Ed Schools waste so much time on theory and practice in an effort to teach ed students passion about the subject, understanding kids, and how to love teaching. But NONE of that can be taught.

    (I knew someone who went into teaching, they said, because they loved kids. But the kids I knew were terrified of her, and hated working with her. And no, nothing untoward was going on, believe me.)

    Also, as someone who studied the Bible (in Hebrew) In colege, I give a big vote for KEEP THE CLASSICS! They teach a lot about language, exoression, the world, thought, etc. Got way more out of Moby Dick in high schools than I did out of the politcally correct additions to the reading lists. And Julius Caesar still sticks with me this day. (We got some help with reading Shakespeare by listening to some recordings and watching some exceprts from some films. My sisternwas old enough that all the girls her age swooned over Leonard Whiting in the Zefferelli R&J.)

  • Charles Martel

    There are immense hurdles to re-establishing a common culture or curriculum—so immense that I can’t see how we get there without major dislocations in our society:
    —You can test all you want for levels of knowledge and comprehension, but what happens when the tests are designed by bureaucrats and the test takers lack most ability to think critically? In the terrible closed loop that our educational establishment has created, low performance on the test simply means frantically prepping to take the test again, this time in hopes of a higher score. A higher score signifying what? Our universities are graduating dunces who have performed splendidly on standardized tests for years. Anybody here want to hire one of these scholars to run a complex business operation?
    —You have to decide what a common culture is. Our country is so fragmented right now that that task is impossible. Leftists and “progressives” despise traditional American culture, and working class whites and ghetto blacks have descended or are careening their way into a moral cesspool of bastardy, casual criminality, idleness, and promiscuity. Who’s going to bell that cat? The teachers’ unions, the academy, Democratic Party house slaves like Jackson, Sharpton, and the NAACP, and the party itself will never acquiesce to educating or enlightening the dependent class they have created. They absolutely will not let their charges anywhere near curricula that teach virtue or self-reliance.
    DQ uses the expression [common] “manner of thinking.” The problem is that such a thing cannot be imposed from above. The federal government’s thorough f**k over of education in this country is proof of that. I’m all for finding a mechanism that can produce that common manner of thinking, but I seriously doubt that government above the county level will have anything useful to contribute to that cause. As for the further isolation and alienation of subcultures within our society, the law of karma is a bitch. I’m not interested in saving gangbangers or welfare moms from themselves. They’ve made their choices. Let’s focus on some way to save those kids they don’t abort.

  • Don Quixote

    CM, your last sentence focused the issue.  You are not going to “save those kids they don’t abort”
     by putting them in you “Negro, Mexican, and Other Designated Minority Curriculum” which is where they would probably end up under your plan. 


     —You can test all you want for levels of knowledge and comprehension, but what happens when the tests are designed by bureaucrats and the test takers lack most ability to think critically?

    This is what happens, litigation, do-overs, lowering the bar and more headlines (not to be confused with actually making headway).  
    Justice Department sues Jacksonville over discrimination in …
    NY Judge Finds Discrimination in Firefighter Tests
    New Haven, Ct. Firefighters Claim Reverse Discrimination ..
    Chicago to pay $45 million for discrimination in firefighter .

  • Michael Adams

    I generally startle “Liberal” people when I explain to them that Conservatives study and teach history because the  wisdom we seek is not that “Man is born to suffering as the sparks fly upward” type of resignation, nor the”Everyone is all the same” meme of the left, and we definitely do not teach Systematized Legendary Grievance 101.  Rather, we study the past to learn from humanity’s mistakes, and, perhaps, to build a better future.
    Here’s a pretty good example to try, just for a start.  Alexander Hamilton persuaded Washington and the Congress that the country needed to adopt a protective tariff, to foster the nation’s “infant industries.” That sounds good, no? The problem was, the tariff increased the price of manufactured goods, relative to agricultural products, especially disastrous for regions producing labor-intensive crops, i.e. most of the South. So, just as slavery was dying out in the newly independent country, it revived in the South, which overnight became cash-poor, and had to revert to a pre-cash kind of economy. When slavery was eventually abolished, it was replaced by another cashless arrangement, share cropping.
    As bad as all that worked out, there was a development, little noticed or understood, that had much further-reaching effects. In a farming family, a man could break even, or perhaps a little better, about one year in three.  Overall, they did not do too badly.  However, in a bad crop or bad price year, it was the family who had a wife or daughter with a teaching job who kept their land, or even bought more. So, the boys learned to farm.  The girls went to teachers’ college. It took only a generation for the idea to develop that “learning is for girls.”  The natural rowdiness of boys, exacerbated by the feminization of learning, set boys up for scholastic failure.  My great grandfathers were merchants, so my grandparents lived in town, and I am still called “‘fesser” in our home town, because of my maternal grand dad, who taught math to half the town for a generation. In my school, the country boys sat in the back of the class, and muttered gloomily, while we town boys and girls, blissfully unaware of the sexual connotations, were waving our hands with the answers, and doing all that nerdy stuff. Black kids in cities today still carry those rural values in their heads, and guess what?  They don’t think learning is cool. The PSA’s made by those well-meaning Libs have absolutely  no effect, because the producers have no understanding of the origins of the problem. 
    It gets worse, but I have used enough of your time and the space here.More, eventually.

  • Charles Martel

    DQ, I offered the dead-end minority curriculum as a satirical example of the second-tier educational curriculum that the left has already consigned those kids to. (In a real marketplace, very few parents or kids would choose such a school.)
    The question here is what can we do about it? Short of doing what Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley once proposed in the 1980s—taking kids away from toxic parents and putting them in orphanages dedicated to serious schooling—what suggestions do you have for restoring American education?

  • Danny Lemieux

    What a great commentary thread! I’ve been on vacation in a remote part of the country, so I am a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to this discussion. 

    DQ, I would suggest that you have already put your finger on the problem: what we have today is not education, but indoctrination. This is a shift that started taking place in the late 19th Century under the pernicious influences of John Dewey and the progressives. It was they that decided that the objective of schooling was to mold a perfect “ubermensch” citizen that conformed to the (progressive) goals of the society at large. It’s no wonder that kids rebel. 

    I am with all the commentators who have suggested that education needs to be decentralized and brought back to the family and community level. New technology, such as Khan’s excellent university concept, will help do the rest.  I’ve noticed among friends who homeschool their children that they already inhabit a virtual community of like-minded parents and that the home-schooled kids that I have met tend to be scary-smart and exceptionally well-rounded and well-educated.

    Hammer, you have really been on a coffee-spitting roll on this thread. I’m thinking of framing your posts to hang in my study as a pick-me-up for dull, dreary days. 

  • Don Quixote

    CM, I know you were being satirical, but you weren’t far off of the mark of what happens anyway.  Consider the slums that are the women’s and minority studies programs at the college level.  Who is to say our K-12 education isn’t headed in the same direction?

    MA, use up our time and space any time.  Your comment was well worth the read.  BTW, a lot of the Hispanic immigrants have the same rural attitude toward education that you discuss in your comment. 

  • bap

    Parents are voting with their feet: 

    The rise of charter schools has accelerated some enrollment declines. The number of students fell about 5 percent in traditional public school districts between 2005 and 2010; by comparison, the number of students in all-charter districts soared by close to 60 percent, according to the Department of Education data. Thousands of students have moved into charter schools in districts with both traditional public and charter schools.

    Unions fight it tooth and nail:

    Last week … the local affiliate of the National Education Association, had its lawyers send this intimidating notice to a school participating in the newly expanded voucher program.  The message: participating in this program could get you sued.

  • David Foster

    I just posted a relevant essay: Skills, Schools, Technology, and Politicians

  • Ymarsakar

    No matter how many bright ideas people get about reforming the education system, it will all be knocked down once the Left takes notice. Thus without destroying the Left, the goal of education reform will Never happen in the US.