Improving Education, Part II

In addition to the whole testing mess discussed in the last post, public schools have also fallen prey to a series of educational fads that are detrimental to learning.

The citizens of my county in Virginia, for example, are currently engaged in a titanic struggle with certain members of the public school establishment over the local math curriculum. In its infinite lack of wisdom, the Prince William County public school system has embraced an elementary text entitled Investigations in Number, Data, and Space that takes a constructivist approach to math instruction in the lower grades. What is constructivism, you may ask? To put it simply, the constructivist approach de-emphasizes the role of the teacher in explaining the traditional algorithms and emphasizes group work, multiple “strategies,” and “discovery learning.” Kids in Prince William County, in short, are expected to come up with their own creative solutions to math problems, and teachers are supposed to step back and function as guides, not instructors. The theory behind this curriculum claims that kids will develop better “number sense” if they are allowed to learn math the way they learned language: naturally and according to their individual idiosyncrasies. Drilling and memorization are discouraged.

Many teachers love this curriculum (the reasons why will be discussed in Part III); many parents despise it. As a tutor, I side with the parents. Math is a skill, not a natural facility. Do you realize how long it took for mankind to develop Algebra, Euclidean Geometry, and Calculus? Indeed, even the concept of zero didn’t exist in some ancient human societies. We are born with the basic ability to count, but that’s pretty much it; the rest has to be “artificially” packed into our brains, and the most efficient way to accomplish that is to use the algorithms our forefathers have already developed. These algorithms are elegant, quick, and work in every situation; the same cannot be said of the “strategies” that are taught in constructivist curricula. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched kids at work attempt to use the matrix method to multiply and fail utterly, lost in a sea of confusion. I understand the method perfectly, but I was taught in the usual manner. At good old Lillie B. Haynes, my teachers “drilled-and-killed” with the best of them – and somehow, along the way, I developed excellent “number sense.”

Asking children to rediscover the principles of basic arithmetic holds them back.

By the time kids finish the six year Investigations curriculum, they are two years behind their traditionally-instructed peers. Many school districts nationwide have already acknowledged this fact and have consequently dumped the curriculum entirely. Prince William, on the other hand, is considering adopting constructivist curricula for the upper grades. It’s enough to make you scream.

And, unfortunately, reading instruction in the public schools is only marginally better.

Literacy is also not a natural facility. Even today, there are human societies which function entirely without written language. Sound-to-symbol correspondence has to be explicitly taught if young children are to master the art of decoding written words. Fortunately, the evidence demonstrating the superiority of the phonics-based approach to early reading instruction has become so overwhelming that many public schools now teach phonics.

Deficiencies remain when it comes to teaching higher level reading skills, however, and the reason is simple: schools are trying to teach meta-strategies instead of imparting cultural capital. As a tutor, I’ve discovered over time that teaching reading comprehension without first teaching content is impossible. Students cannot understand a passage on George Washington without first knowing some general facts about the man and his era; they similarly cannot understand certain works of fiction without knowing our folk tales and idioms. Research has shown that knowledge is the scaffold upon which full reading comprehension is built. This is why curricula like E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program are so effective: they directly teach our history, our art, our science, our idioms, and our literary classics to kids who may not be exposed to such things at home.

So what is the solution to all of the problems described above?

Our schools need to stick to what works. The most effective schools ignore what is fashionable and teach facts as well as “critical thinking.” They draw up lists of universal standards and expect every student to meet those standards. And they give their teachers firm guidelines and plenty of professional support.

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