- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

Woody Zimmerman correctly suggested in the March 27 Forum page, “High school repair,” that Bill Gates and the governors are not attacking the schools’ real problem when they concentrate on improving high schools.

However, Mr. Zimmerman’s proposal we concentrate instead on improving the lower grades is not much better. The problem with both the Gates and Zimmerman proposals are they seem to contemplate working within the current education system, which, I am convinced, is a failure and unfixable.

I can conceive of nothing either Mr. Gates or Mr. Zimmerman might propose that would have any measurable effect on the academic performance of the children. The two gentlemen are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Have we not seen countless previous efforts over the last two decades by well-meaning, intelligent educators to improve education come to nothing? With so little benefit from so much effort, isn’t it time we stop tinkering with the current education system and start looking for more basic solutions? When you find yourself in a hole, first stop digging.

To me, the problem and the solution are self-evident. Our schools began going down hill in the 1960s when we started to carry out widely John Dewey’s “modern” education philosophy. The way to way to turn around our failing system, therefore, is to throw out Dewey’s ideas and return to the earlier approach.

In essence, Dewey and his disciples preached we should stop trying to teach children “facts” and instead teach them to “think.” They believed children did not need to memorize facts they could always look up. They believed children should be taught ways to analyze and solve problems. They also believed “doing” would teach children better than studying.

Since the concept seemed to make sense and promised to be much more fun for both teachers and students, it caught on with innovative educators. Over time, Dewey’s became the orthodox approach. But experience has proved it a terribly inefficient, ineffective and expensive way to learn.

If you doubt that, look at achievement test scores or watch Jay Leno go “Jay walking.” Despite huge expenditures and massive efforts, our schools are turning out semi-educated citizens.

And it has also yet to be proven the modern approach achieves its stated goal of producing citizens who “think” better than did citizens educated the earlier way. As far as I can tell, the people who created and built this country and helped win two world wars and who were educated under the old system were just as good thinkers as those educated by the modern system.

I got my first inkling something was wrong with the modern approach when my daughter spent about 10 days preparing a report on Australia for her fifth-grade social-studies class. She did quite a bit of research on the subject and got a good grade. However, I knew she could have learned everything she discovered on her own, and much more, by reading an encyclopedia article on Australia. And she could have done it in an hour, leaving her many hours to learn other things. The modern approach, I decided, is very inefficient. And it is at odds with the admonition not to “reinvent the wheel.”

So, what was the old system we have mostly thrown out? Actually, it was very simple. It was based on textbooks.

Each year, students were given a set of textbooks. And day by day, week by week, teachers went through the books answering questions, giving homework assignments, and testing the students periodically to see if they were learning what was in the books. Everyone — parents, students, teachers, principals, administrators — knew what was to be taught. It was in the books. At the end of the year, it was easy to determine if a teacher had succeeded: Her students either did or did not know what was in their books. It may not have been intellectually stimulating for the teachers, but it worked. And it did not require that teachers be unusually gifted or dedicated to succeed: They just needed to be ordinarily intelligent and diligent. Further, the old system still works in dozens of countries around the world whose children regularly outclass ours in standard tests. And those countries spend far less than we do on education.

I know most modern educators will dismiss out of hand returning to the old approach. But should we listen to the professional educators? They have been trying 40 years to produce well-educated citizens using the concepts of Dewey and his disciples, and they have failed miserably.

Isn’t it time we citizens and taxpayers recognize education is too important to be left to the professionals and take control ourselves?


Laurel, Md.

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