Saturday, February 9, 2008

Teaching Our Kids to be Idiots

The Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, is taking her traveling snake-oil show on the road to sell the American public on “No Child Left Behind” if Congress doesn’t act soon to reauthorize this abysmal failure. While the whole idea behind NCLB is laudable – holding failing schools accountable for short-changing our children – the actual result of the policy has made education, if anything, worse.

One of the problems behind NCLB is that states set their own criteria for success. While this is better than arbitrary national standards which are too inflexible to take into account local differences and needs, the state standards are just as inflexible and often absurdly low. For example, the school in which my wife teaches serves an increasing number of Hispanic students, many of whom don’t yet speak or write English. These kids have to take exactly the same tests as the English-speaking kids. I am definitely not in favor of bilingual education, but when a kid comes into the school with no background in English, and two weeks later he or she has to take a standardized test, nobody’s interests are being served. In addition, in the Tuscaloosa (AL) City School system, in an effort to cut costs, special needs kids have been moved into the regular schools. A sixth grader who reads at the first-grade level is not served by taking a standardized test tailored for sixth graders.

In high school, the problem with NCLB is far worse. At this level, students are expected to perform at a certain level on standardized tests in various subjects. These are usually called “Exit Exams.” Students have their entire high school career to pass these tests. According to a report by the Center on Education Policy entitled “Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era,” ( ) over 80% of the schools reporting stated that they had changed the curriculum “to put greater emphasis on tested content.” That is, they are teaching to the test. There is no pedagogical theory to justify this – actually, the opposite is true.

Once they’ve passed a test in a given subject, students are home free. The result of this absurd system is that high school teachers spend four years teaching to the tests. Students are expected to memorize a list of factoids. To ensure that they will pass these tests, their entire day is spent going over and over these factoids. (See Richard Garlikov’s argument at Any activity that does not contribute to this memorization is abandoned. Thus, schools are dropping art, music, and foreign languages at least in part because there are not exit exams in these subjects and because school districts don’t want to spend money on these “unnecessary” courses (for example, see, “A Retreat from Foreign Languages?” by Patrik Jonsson in The Christian Science Monitor, 29 October 2002).

By the time these kids graduate from high school, they know everything on these exit exams. Of course, if they passed the test in 10th grade, they’ve forgotten most of it. However, they do not know how to read or think for themselves. This point was brought staggeringly home to me the other day when nobody in my Western Civ class knew the three inalienable rights contained in the Declaration of Independence – even after I’d spotted them “life.” Upon further questioning, this was not part of their history exit exam in 10th grade.

An entire generation is being ruined by NCLB. Because students are taught simply to pass a multiple choice test, they are not taught to think or to reason. They are simply taught to do what they are supposed to do. This is inherently authoritarian. More to the point, when they come to college, they are singularly unprepared for the rigors of college education. My colleagues at the university where I teach, as well as those I know who teach at other institutions, have noticed a precipitate decline over the last two years in the ability of our students to do college work – these are the first students to graduate after four years in high school under NCLB. They can’t read and they surely can’t think.

There are many groups responsible for this failure. One obvious group is the teachers who go along with this educational charade. But, to be fair, they risk loosing their jobs if they have the temerity to try to enrich their students’ education beyond the simplistic tests used to measure the success or failure of NCLB programs.

Teachers’ unions are more culpable. I’m not anti-union by any stretch of the imagination (as evidenced by the numerous arguments I’ve had with my father on this one), but teachers’ unions have a duty to protect the educational integrity of the classroom, not just make sure teachers get raises (which most of them do deserve). Very simply, teachers’ unions have a moral duty to ensure all of our students are educated, but often fail (see former Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s op-ed piece in Business Week “The Debate Room” on 9 August 2007 where he writes, “But the brutal fact we must recognize is that there is a tremendous difference between the desires of the teachers and the desires of the union. Teachers’ unions have little or zero incentive to change. Their power and desire for control make it unlikely they will back even the most moderate efforts to bring accountability and results to our schools”).

School boards, both state and local, must shoulder a great deal of the blame for the idiocy of NCLB. The state school board mandates the benchmarks for success under NCLB. Often, these are absurdly low (like leaving out the US Declaration of Independence). For another example, according to an article in the Reno Gazette Journal by Ray Hager on September 27, 2002, Nevada high schoolers could pass the reading comprehension portion of their exit exam by reading at the fourth to eighth grade levels.

Then, the school boards bombard the schools with literally tons of paperwork to prove the teachers are doing what some bureaucrat decided they should be doing in the classroom. More time is spent filling out this paperwork than in actually teaching. The benchmarks for success are most often determined by multiple-guess tests. To ensure that the students are prepared to pass the test (not actually knowing anything, just able to pass the test), the local school boards spend thousands of dollars to buy computer programs to teach the teachers how to teach to the test. The perfidy of this situation should make you want to vomit.

Colleges of Education also must accept a significant share of the blame for the complete misery caused by NCLB. These faculty, theoretically, should know and understand the value of education as a means of preparing all students to lead productive and fulfilled lives as good citizens. Instead, all too often, they are more concerned with maintaining the status quo and perpetuating their standing as educational mandarins. My good friend over at has referred to the “Iron Triangle” of Colleges of Education, teachers’ unions, and school boards working together to ensure an unchanging mortal lock on education; broaching no interference from outside sources – like parents.

But it’s parents who must shoulder most of the blame for the failures of education in general and for NCLB in particular. Too many parents look at K-12 education as simply baby sitting (if teachers were paid the same as babysitters, they would make a small fortune). Their total involvement in their children’s education involves asking them if they’ve finished their homework and voting against school taxes that might adequately fund the local schools. By their actions (or inactions), parents tell their children that education is unimportant and what they do in the classroom has no real bearing on their lives. I believe most parents want their children to have a better life than they did, but they refuse to see that education is the key. Apparently, they believe that the teachers have some magic wand to open their kids’ heads and dump in the smartness. It is every parent’s responsibility to be actively involved in their kid’s education. This means reading their homework, going to PTA meetings, and, when necessary, questioning what their kids are taught in school. If their kids are being taught the same material for years, they are the ones who are going to have to stop it. If their kids are not prepared for college, or, more importantly, not prepared for a cultural and political life in the US, they have to take the initiative to stop it. Because the teachers, the unions, the school boards, and the Colleges of Education are not going to alter the situation. There have been many articles written on the importance of parental involvement for improving children’s lives, but one of the best is by Dr. Karin Suesser at

Active involvement by parents in the education of their children is the best solution to the problem of failing education in this country. Another solution is programs of reading and writing across the curriculum. Instead of wasting time teaching students how to simply regurgitate what they were told to say on a multiple-guess test, reading and writing exercises actually teach students the all-important abilities to reason and to think critically and independently. All courses can easily incorporate reading and writing as part of their teaching. A former student of mine uses reading and writing to teach math at the high school level. I’ve had the pleasure to teach two of his students at my university. They were, naturally, two of the brightest and most inquisitive students it’s been my pleasure to teach. See the essay, by Alice S. Horning “Reading Across the Curriculum as the Key to Student Success” Across the Disciplines, 4 (14 May 2007)

Essentially, it comes down to will. Do parents have the will to take an active role in the education of their children? Does the “Iron Triangle” have the will to prepare adequately their pupils to be active citizens?

This last question may be the most important, because, ultimately, poorly educated students become poor citizens. They can’t think for themselves and they lack critical reasoning skills. NCLB teaches them simply to go along, unquestioningly and uncaringly with what they are told. They become drones who can be easily manipulated by political, cultural, and spiritual leaders to believe anything these powers want them to believe. Instead of being ruled by reason and their intellect, they are manipulateable and malleable. They can, and do, support anybody and anything in which they believe rather than know. They are the perfect generation for authoritarian leaders.

We’re idiots if we don’t change this.


Hunter's View said...

Here is a comment for you my child is at school at 7:00 every morning and school is not out until 3:45. On Tuesdays he is their until 5:30 doing task prep for the task test. He is failing two classes, never brings home homework and is at school more than he is at home. I am tired of grounding him for his teachers inability to get him to pass his class. She has eleven student and half are failing her class. My son turned in a paper she lost it, he redid it, she lost it again, adimitted it to the principal, then still gave my son a zero. She has repeatedly told us our son needs add medicine when a doctor has said he hasn't. All this has came about after last year my daughter was in her class and her CLASS average was a 53%. We went to the principal, superintendent,and school board and heard how it was our children who couldn't pass and how we had better get used to our kids being average and that school was going to get harder for them. My daugther scored commended on both tasks tests at the end of the year but couldn't pass the class.

sorry for the miss spelled words but I get mad when people blam the parent, and the parent sometimes have to teach the kids at home.

Spatula said...

My wife and I also have to teach our children at home. All that proves is that you and we are unusual. For every parent that cares like you, I can show you a hundred that don't.

Gigi said...

NCLB, remember, didn't cause our failing schools. A lack of accountability did. When we have both parents working, no one is making sure that kids are working or learning. Parents used to make sure that their children had homework, knew what it was, and made sure the kids worked on it. Today, parents complain more about homework than anything else. Not only do they complain, they don't make sure their kids put any effort into what they turn in. Nor do parents seem to know what their children are learning or not learning in school.

My parents made sure that I was learning until I was old enough to be responsible. Not only that, if my school wasn't sending me home with homework so that I had to practice key concepts until I knew them, my parents would have complained about it - they would never have complained that the school expected me to do math homework. In addition, if I didn't have textbooks at home with reading assignments for the next day, my parents would have complained. Now, most kids aren't even allowed to bring textbooks home (don't ask me why this is the case all of the sudden) and most parents seem not to notice.

If you don't make sure your child is learning something, don't be surprised if the schools take the easy way out and teach nothing. If you had no boss making sure that you did your work and you always got paid whether you did a good bad or indifferent job - what would you do?

Parents have to care and fight for their kids to be educated. If they don't, the kids will fail. It is human nature to do the least for the most - don't let schools get away with it. Find out what your kids are learning, make sure they have homework that practices important skills, make sure they have textbooks and reading assignments and tests on these assignments. If you don't, it won't happen.

Spatula said...

Instead of teaching kids, school administrators only care about test scores. To hell with the kids: