What is wrong with teaching in the US?

In 1991, 30-year veteran and master teacher John Taylor Gatto resigned immediately after being named “Teacher of the Year” in New York. A number of educators and concerned parents took note — especially after the disillusioned teacher’s reasons for resigning appeared in the Wall Street Journal, under the caption, “I Quit, I Think.”

“I can’t teach anymore,” Gatto said. “If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.” When the lecture circuit beckoned, fhe former teacher spent the next decade speaking to concerned parents and educators throughout the U. S. In essence, Gatto said, “The system is hopeless, so you must take charge of your children’s education.”

According to Roger F. Bass, Ph.D., the situation is now worse than it was at the time of Gatto’s resignation. In his book, Amy’s Game, Bass provides documented proof that American education has evolved into a deceptive charade, a kind of “Disneyland with a library.”

Bass cites compelling evidence that our schools are currently dominated by expensive fads ($350 billion) that have replaced traditional instruction with an array of untested theories. As a result, America has the lowest test scores in the world (U.S. high school seniors rank 19th out of 21 nations, just above Cyprus and South Africa). Amy’s Game bristles with studies and data that suggest that many of our school systems are guilty of “educational malpractice.”

Some of the most shallow and ineffectual programs promote inane theories such as: redesigned classrooms (bright colors and unstructured space) will enhance learning; schools should abandon traditional textbooks for books that contain more graphics than text (learn from the pictures) and encourage the use of “new, groundbreaking concepts” like “creative spelling” (just spell it the way it sounds).

Many ideas that were once termed innovative have proved to be counterproductive. Computers, for example, have not revolutionized learning; in fact, studies indicate that they have no measurable effect on learning. (Countries without computers surpass the U. S. in science and math scores.) “Open classrooms” and the recommendation that “students should teach each other” (a concept that began with Summer Hill) have proved to be disastrous experiments.

The author draws a number of vivid analogies, which effectively demonstrate the current state of American education. For example, “The Potomkin Village” recounts the story of a Russian prince who arranged a deceptive tour through his newly conquered lands in order to impress Catherine the Great. The prince actually ordered the construction of colorful facades of entire towns to give the impression that the country was prosperous and wealthy. Bass notes that many of our current school systems are Potomkin Villages, and like Catherine, we have been duped.

Ably assisted by glowing articles in newspapers and magazines, which contain endorsements from educators (who will later be utilized as consultants), most of the current “innovative” fads readily acquire lavish funding from governmental agencies. The programs are invariably implemented with considerable fanfare. Bass notes that most fads have a “built-in obsolescence” component that will require a revised and updated version (usually every seven years). In addition, the program frequently develops its own evaluation process.

What should teachers do who find themselves a part of this charade? Many of them eventually recognize the shams, but they are powerless to resist it. When political pressure and money are factors, the classroom teacher is caught in a web that renders them helpless. Bass notes that teachers are currently abandoning education in record numbers. In fact, the number who quit each year greatly exceeds the number of licensed teachers who are hired to replace them. Those who choose to remain in the field “ ... adapt.” Bass notes that some teachers not only survive but prosper by developing a variation of the currently popular classroom environment that resembles a TV talk show ... a classroom in which the students are “contestants” that discuss non-educational subjects such as pop culture and trivia. The students are happy, content and entertained (but not necessarily educated).

A painful motif that runs through this comprehensive field manual on misguided fads (No Child Left Behind, Reading First, Reading Recovery, Everyday Mathematics, etc.) points out the tragic consequences of these methods on “special education students.” To Bass, those students who are autistic or suffering from other treatable impairments are not only ignored by the current fads, but are irredeemably damaged.

In fact, the title of Bass’ book, Amy’s Game, refers to an autistic child named Amy that the author encountered 30 years ago. She, like thousands of others, could have been educated to become productive citizens. Instead, Amy became a pawn in a cynical “game” that eventually led to her being medicated and institutionalized. The author’s catalogue of abuses against special education students are especially distressing, and include the following: “rocking” autistic children (in a chair), integrating them into general education classes (learning by a kind of osmosis) and transferring them to “alternate programs” so that their poor performance will not affect averages (No Child Left Behind).

Does Bass have an alternative? Yes, and despite the fact that his own research indicates that home teaching is superior to the public school system, he urges his peers to stay in the classroom (where he has been for 30 years himself). His solution is deceptively simple. Jettison the fads, and refuse to implement any “new” program that has not been tested and demonstrated to be effective. In the meanwhile, he asks administrators to give any capable, effective teacher a classroom, a blackboard and a class. Ask only that each day, the teacher should teach a relevant skill in his field — one that the students did not have when the class began. When the students demonstrate that they possess that skill, move on. Do the same thing again the following day.

No pyrotechnics or “groundbreaking” theories but simple (and measurable) results. The solution was there all along.

The Naturalist's Corner

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