Fisking Matt Damon

Over the past week – since his appearance at last weekend’s Save Our Schools rally – Matt Damon has been lauded as a “clear-headed” defender of public education by the leftwing punditocracy. Well, to satisfy my own curiosity, I decided to take a look at what he actually said — and what I found was a lot of emotion-laden nonsense. What a shocker.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested.

No, Matt. Creativity and love of learning can’t be tested — but those things depend upon skills which can. I have worked with many low-performing students over the years, and what I have found is that an inability to read, write, and cipher at grade level severely limits a child’s enthusiasm for school. Students who are barely literate get locked into this vicious cycle: Since they can’t decode and comprehend what they’re reading, they don’t read. And since they don’t read, they are not exposed to the vocabulary and general knowledge that are prerequisites for good reading comprehension. And since they don’t have those preliminaries, they don’t understand what they’re reading. Etc. Etc. The cognitive science research on this matter has been very clear: Mastery of the basics is what separates the creative and ethusiastic expert from the novice.

My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning.

Oh, really? Everyone knows this?

Whenever someone uses the phrase “drill and kill,” you know you’re dealing with speaker who doesn’t know a damn thing about how learning actually happens. As it turns out, when you emphasize “critical thinking” and other such clap-trap and de-emphasize basic knowledge, you get students who struggle with both. Consider math, for example. If a student cannot add, subtract, multiply, divide or work with fractions using pencil & paper and/or mental arithmetic – or if he or she cannot work out such problems with automaticity – it is an absolute certainty that such a student will struggle with high school subjects such as Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry. I have seen this time and time again at my own workplace, and my personal observations have been confirmed by expert mathematicians.

Matt, you are promulgating a false dichotomy. In the days before faddish “discovery learning” – i.e., in the bad old “drill and kill” days – our education system somehow still managed to turn out people with outstanding intellectual and creative talent. How did the Founding Fathers learn to write and think as they did? Well, for one thing, they copied and memorized the works of earlier writers, assembling a toolkit of words and phrases that they could then incorporate into their own publications. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he borrowed heavily from the treatises of previous political theorists, but (with a little help from his fellow congressmen) he still managed to craft a document that expressed his unique style.

Education, Matt, is a both/and enterprise. Demanding that a student memorize, say, the multiplication tables does not destroy his ability to think critically. As a matter of fact, memorizing the basic facts actually leaves more space in the working memory for complex problem solving. In other words, drilling enables creativity. But the current educational establishment wants to do things completely bass-ackwards. To use a piano metaphor, they want kids to learn how to play a Rachmaninoff before they’ve learned how to automatically coordinate their right and left hands.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based not on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

You know, Matt, I think we all want our children to emerge from school with a life-long love of learning. But many of us who happen to be reform-minded also recognize the reality: that many high school graduates are outrageously deficient when it comes to their basic skills. What do you suggest we do about this? And no — the answer is not to throw more money at the problem. There is no correlation between per-pupil spending and educational quality.

As I have noted time and time again, the current testing regime is definitely flawed; in general, the states set the bar far too low. But I believe we still need tests. They are the most objective means to measure the educational attainment of our students. And yes — we do need to measure outcomes more fundamental than whether our children “love school”. The American taxpayer has a right to demand evidence that the public schools are getting concrete, practical results. Lofty, idealistic – and conveniently untestable – notions that our schools should be wellsprings of “creativity” and “originality” put the cart before the horse and do absolutely nothing to address the legitimate concerns of those American employers who’ve paid for the public schools with their tax dollars and yet have had to spend extra money to retrain their functionally illiterate and innumerate (but oh so confident!) entry-level employees.

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