The Case for Vouchers (Oct. 4, 2000)

School’s open again, this time with higher standards. Yep, we’re going to raise academic requirements despite the non-existence of a constituency to back them up when we do. We pretend a lot. Support for disciplined public schooling has been in decline since the mid-70s when baby-boomer parents and teachers initiated the search for ecstatic education and schools without failure. A quarter century later, bureaucrats and politicians say they’ll turn public schooling around, telling us suckers still in the classroom to strengthen standards while assuring success for all students. Of course we acquiesce in this charade, graduation rates soar, and America yearly becomes less thoughtful.

That America is increasingly unlettered should shock no one, including a corporate elite which smiles or yawns — knowing a thoughtful work force is not where it’s at. On the other hand, media companies with significant exposure selling the printed word should be less upbeat about our entering another Great Awakening, this one favoring image over text, libertarianism over community, and, like the earlier two, faith over reason. Yet publishers continue to cheer each dead end school reform, refusing to see the educationist establishment is our vanguard into the new dark age.

A critique generated inside the belly of the beast might be unnecessary if our school encouraged, even tolerated, serious debate before jumping — lemming like — into each new untested method of massive financial investment. However, as Charles Sykes points out in Dumbing Down Our Kids, “One of the most shocking facts about the field of education is the almost complete absence of criticism from within.” All who challenge the latest unproven concept or investment, he accurately notes, “will find their character, their intelligence, and their morality questioned, while their substantive arguments are dismissed or ignored altogether.”

Dismissed and ignored regularly from within, we ask readers to consider seven entrenched nonsensical barriers to democratic public education and a discerning America.

1. The Cult of the Child. Now influencing much of our culture, in the schools it is the controlling ideology. Cult members stress a “child centered” curriculum designed to boost self esteem and assure fun filled success for all the kids. Schools and parents now cater to their every whim. Any adult refusing to join this loony, groveling bandwagon runs the risk of being called heartless, even abusive. Ironically, after 25 years of self-esteem programming in our schools, not only has literacy radically declined but the egos of our youth are weaker than any in memory. Any wonder? Most have never received an unacceptable mark and rarely had academic effort criticized or heard no from an adult. Having learned little of substance, youth do know the appearance of effort is what counts. They know today’s parents and helping professionals are so eager to please we’re easily scammed.

This Cult guarantees a hiring process in which experience, expertise and eloquence are always secondary to one’s ability to “relate with the kids.”

2. Standards, schmandards. Where is the support for disciplined public schooling? It’s a lie that business leaders are worried about the quality of our schools. As we’ve noted, Wall Street and Chambers of Commerce clearly appreciate an ever less literate, ever more docile working class; it is with this current schooling product that their bottom lines have so improved. Brand loyalty is hardly a hallmark of the educated. Besides, the more schools fail, the more “low level, high interest” handouts and computer gadgetry they buy from you know where.

Obviously, American secondary students have no stake in strict standards since GPA is the only game in town. Parents, as well, are ever ready to pounce viciously on the teacher whose rigorous grading threatens their darling’s graduation, positive self-image, or chance to enter UC as a freshman. So administrators encourage the zealous teacher to modify curriculum, make the class more fun, and, of course, relate better (all while maintaining high standards, of course). What principal or dean wants a crying kid or an irate parent in the office?

We’d expect community colleges and universities to lambaste us for sending them so many semi-literate high school graduates, but they don’t. Enrollment dependent like high schools, colleges simply suck it up and expand their remedial departments serving, often, 40% of entering classes.

3. The Computerized, On-Line Classroom. Educationists continue to spend extravagantly for schools on technology’s cutting edge. However, while corporations, salivating over potentially huge profits, con school officials who want desperately to increase attendance, graduation rates, and their own self-esteem, students realize computers have little to do with education and a hell of a lot to do with entertainment.

Any visit to the high tech classroom will verify that 70% of the clicking is in search of fun graphics. When teachers turn their backs, boys use the expensive technology to play violent games and locate pornography or sports stats, girls to look for chat rooms, email messages and clothing outlets. When forced to use it academically, students download and plagiarize information never to be understood.

Without a stake in vigorous academic instruction, students don’t mind this foolish technological fetish; playing Adobe PhotoDeluxe is a kick. Well aware the computer does nothing to help them write, compute or think rationally, they’ll not complain. On the other hand, what must a kid who chats about sex or plays misogynist games on line during class think about those in charge of the place?

“Want a nation of dolts? Just enter the curriculum on technology,” claims High Tech Heretic Clifford Stoll. Each minute our students spend clicking a mouse, inserting a DVD, downloading or pasting photos is time not spent struggling to grasp an equation, a sentence or logic of an idea. “Yet try to oppose the juggernaut of computer literacy and you’re branded a Luddite, lunatic or reactionary,” Stoll discovers.

School administrators and counselors have told us for years to make our classes more interesting, more fun. Today, that is the promise of technology. But most critical skill building is not fun. “There’s no shortcut to quality education. And the payoff isn’t an adrenaline rush, but a deep satisfaction arriving weeks, months or years later,” notes Stoll, whose subtitle is Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom: “computing’s instant gratification… encourages intellectual passivity (and a distaste for persistence, trial and error, attentiveness and patience).”

Nevertheless, the educationist-tech huckster cabal guarantees we’ll spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars to put all poor and middle class students in front of machines using a grossly commercialized internet and rote, distance learning classes offered by profit-seeking corporations. Costly, yes, but less so than a well-paid, qualified teaching staff, and clearly less troublesome. At least in the short run.

4. The Bizarre Pedagogy of NCTE. No academic discipline has fallen more for the Cult of the Child and untested pedagogical fads than that associated with the National Council of Teachers of English. This is the same group that 25 years ago led the charge to replace phonics instruction with something called whole language, an approach now discredited as it yielded at least one, probably two generations unable to spell or manipulate English well.

That no group in public schooling is less interested in promoting proper English usage and spelling than the NCTE is affirmed by the Council’s own Web page. There the NCTE informs us that America has a tendency to “categorize nonstandard dialects as corrupt, inferior, or distorted forms of standard English, rather than as distinct linguistic systems.” The Council then says we must defend “students’ right to their own language… to the dialect that expresses their unique personal identity” and that it is the responsibility of teachers of English to assist all students in the development of their ability to speak and write better, “whatever their dialects.”

So if the student arrives in our classroom using a dialect devoid of standard English grammar or syntax — a dialect that may be unintelligible in our courts, newspapers, universities, banks and government — we should help him speak or write better in that dialect, the dialect that works well in the ghetto but, if not supplanted by standard English, may very well keep him there? (NCTE’s lack of interest in precise English is demonstrated in every NCTE webpage resolution, where we find the verb fails to agree in number with its subject, e.g., “Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English … support professional development and promote public awareness of the role that viewing and visually representing our world have as forms of literacy.” As we wonder if NCTE’s recurrent grammatical error represents carelessness or arrogant deconstructionism, we can’t help but note the anti-intellectual message of this labored Resolution.)

NCTE opposes individual exams for secondary students in favor of such “authentic” assessments as graphic art work, collaborative group testing, and the “portfolio evening,” during which parents and staff are presented a scrapbook of student essays, all of which have been corrected two or three times by the teacher. While the portfolio presentation assesses no skill it does provide a self-esteem boost for attending parents and a public relations bonanza for schools.

5. The Learning Disabilities Movement. While front line troops in America’s schools regularly encounter super-kinetic, unresponsive, and underachieving students, a growing special interest group sees this not as problematic but as an opportunity. The L.D. movement is, according to Charles Sykes, engaged in a “concerted effort to re-label students who may be experiencing academic or disciplinary problems — but who are otherwise normal — as ‘disabled’.” Our schools, he says, have “discovered the benefits of redefining academic failure as a ‘disorder’.”

Secondary Special Education help is generally unavailable to the dedicated, hard-working student whose innate ability is average or weak. The laws now limit such special help to students whose academic achievement does not match their ability and who are flunking too many classes. Once these students are re-labeled they are guaranteed a brigade of resource teachers, administrators and lawyers to assure successful “modification” of curriculum. This cadre will prevail over any teacher who may audaciously issue a failing grade to the “disabled” student.

6. With Charter Schools, Who Needs Vouchers? Most know we fail to teach the masses to read, write and think sufficiently for active participation in democracy. When 60-70% of each senior class is unable to write seriously or grasp any editorial page, even if they cared to, which they do not, our schools merit attack. However, no Charter school has opened to provide greater intellectual rigor than existing schools. Instead, they’re offering fun, yet meaningful, hands-on learning. A Charter school with classes academically more disciplined and exacting than those of regular schools? Give us a break.

Some State Charters have been approved for economically struggling or failing private schools, others for schools emphasizing the spiritual over the rational. How soon before this dubious program funnels our tax dollars to schools pushing one religious or political perspective?

7. The Bureaucracies. Those of us on the front lines are apprised regularly of distant department of education schemes; now mandates, they unfold from the minds of State bureaucrats and consultants who hated teaching, weren’t good at it, or dodged the classroom altogether. They were, however, sufficiently quick to realize there is an inverse ratio between salary and how close one works daily with students. It’s these jargon besotted, syntactically crippled educationists who send us fad-of-the-year claptrap we suffer each fall with in “in-service” training sessions; this year we encountered Standards for Teachers, a massive list of expectations dripping with trite buzzwords and mistaken theory. Like most crazes in public education, this too shall pass when Sacramento trendsetters, truly suffering Attention Deficit Disorder, insist it be replaced by more innovative mumbo-jumbo.

These educationists have already generated several lost generations. While probably too late for several more, if we care for the potential of social democracy we must demand exhaustive public debate about dubious schooling. In the interim, a three year moratorium on new classroom technology will be beneficial, as will the abolition of State and federal Departments of Education and downsizing County Office bureaucracy without laying off those individuals unless they refuse to return to the classroom or site administration at commensurate pay. If we want the best and the brightest to consider public school teaching, unquestionably salaries must be raised. For elementary school teachers, pay should be raised even higher - this, the only Constitutional way to attract more men to primary education. Then, rejecting ludicrous State mandates, let’s get realistic about what students can learn and realize less may be more if it is learned precisely by all students.

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