Why Johnny Can't

If you're reading this, you probably have some concern about the continuing decline in the academic performance of children. By comparison with students of fifty years ago, today's children can't read, can't write, can't spell, and can't do simple arithmetic. They don't know simple facts about geography, history, or science. And if we compare to the children of the early 1900s, it's even worse.

If you ask a teacher, or a school administrator, why their students compare so poorly to their grandparents, you'll get any number of opinions. There's not enough money for supplies. There's not enough money to hold the best teachers. The low-performing students are staying in school, and dragging down the average, rather than dropping out.

I think there's a deeper reason. Roughly speaking, the period from 1900 to 1950 is when teaching (in the U.S., at least) became "professionalized".

Prior to this time, anyone who'd completed high school could become a grammar-school teacher. As I understand it, curricula were "shrink-wrapped"; anyone who could read could follow the instructions for assigning readings, grading homework, administering tests, etc. To us, who grew up with the idea that teachers had to be trained in pedagogy, such a system seems ridiculous. Perhaps it was, but it had one singular advantage over our current practices...it worked.

But, you ask, how can requiring teachers to be professionally trained make schools less effective? Well, you see, it's this way...

The human race's one advantage in the competition for survival is our ability to pass on knowledge to future generations; as a race, we've been refining our knowledge about how to teach the young for hundreds of thousands of years. By now, we should be pretty good at it...and we are. Look at almost any parent interacting with his child; if teaching the young isn't instinctive with us, it's the next thing to it. We're natural teachers! We don't need training.

Now, how do we train teachers? We send them to college, where they're instructed by people who hold doctorates in education. How do those people get their doctorates? The standard for a doctoral degree (in almost any field) is to make an original contribution to the art. That is, a doctoral candidate has to propose a change.

Not only that, but to get his doctorate, a candidate almost always adopts the theories of his own professors as a foundation for his own "research".

I've suggested that teaching is a mature field; that no changes in methodology are needed. So, virtually all Professors of Education are teaching prospective schoolteachers methodologies that have, in some degree, been degraded by changes that are not only unnecessary, but counterproductive.

Those students, of course, want to pass their classes; they tend to adopt their professors theories. After they graduate, they attempt to implement those theories in the classroom...to their students' detriment.

How do we fix this? I have four suggestions:

I'm not adamant about any of these suggestions, but I am firmly convinced that something has to be done to fix the public schools...before it's too late.

Mark Hagerman