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Eight Warning Signs of a Bad School
How do parents find a good school? Not only are public schools crippled by dozens of bad ideas, schools seem intentionally designed so parents can’t figure out what’s really going on in the classrooms. It is probably more practical to stay alert to danger signs that can be observed from a distance. Here is a checklist of the top eight signals that you don’t want your child to attend this school:
1) READING: The most important skill is reading. If you hear of Whole Words, Sight Words, Dolch Words, Fry Words, or Balanced Literacy, run the other way. English is in alphabetic/phonetic language and should be taught phonetically. Children should immediately learn the alphabet and that letters represent sounds. (There seem to be five or 10 good phonics programs available. I’m not convinced that the little differences matter. What kills us is that big difference: teaching basic alphabet information or NOT teaching it. Everything synthetic phonics curriculum, mixed with poetry , song, and a light touch, seems to do the trick. Proponents of phonics report that virtually all of their students learn to read by the age of 7. Proponents of Whole Word say children should memorize a few hundred words each year, in which case they’ll be effectively illiterate until high school.)
2) MATHEMATICS: The second most important thing is arithmetic. If you hear about Reform Math, run the other way. (Reform Math is an umbrella term for at least 10 different programs, with names like Everyday Math, Connected Math, MathLand, TERC, CPM, etc.) These programs tend to push advanced concepts to kids who don’t even know how to add 10 and 16. These programs like to use obscure methods and algorithms so that kids end up confused and scattered. The appropriate objective is for children to acquire mastery of basic arithmetic, for example, easily adding and subtracting one and two digit numbers. Then they move on to multiplying and dividing one- and two-digit numbers. There should be no use of calculators, no “spiraling” from one subject to another, no mention of college-level concepts.
3) KNOWLEDGE: The second most important thing is that children are systematically expected to acquire knowledge. It was ordinary; but for 75 years our educators have waged war on content, facts and memorization. “They may be looking for it” is a huge danger signal. To study history, for example, children must first learn the names of oceans, continents, rivers, mountains and countries. Basic geography should be a staple throughout the early years; there should be maps in every classroom, both of the United States and of the world. In general, in all subjects, children must first learn the simplest information, the essentials, the basic knowledge, all in order to study the subject at a higher level. If kids aren’t learning the names of the oceans in first grade, they aren’t in a school but in a daycare.
4) SCIENCE: Children should learn the basics of science and scientific thinking right from the start. For example, children can look at common objects and tell if they are animals, plants or minerals. Children should be able to talk about water changing from solid to liquid to vapor. Older children should be able to discuss the different kinds of problems that doctors, chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, etc. deal with. Studying simple maps, diagrams, charts, illustrations and plans is a good sign. (In other words, I can’t imagine a bad school would think of teaching kids to understand simple diagrams in first grade.)
5) CONSTRUCTIVISM: One of the great fads raging in some public schools is called constructivism. (It can appear in the teaching of any subject.) Gifts are expressions such as “building new knowledge”, “guiding alongside them”, “prior knowledge”, “learning strategies”, etc. . unlike direct teaching, where expert teachers teach what they know better than anyone in the room. “A sage on stage” is exactly what children need. Constructivism devalues the skills and preparation that good teachers bring to the classroom; and helps cover up the poor training of bad teachers. Constructivism ensures that teaching will progress slowly and be fragmented.
6) THE FAD CRAWLING: Other popular modes to avoid include: Self-esteem (where children are constantly praised and given good grades even if they do a bad job); Cooperative learning (where children are constantly forced to work in groups so that they never learn to think for themselves); Critical Thinking (where children are encouraged to engage in in-depth discussions about topics they know little about); Creativity Curriculum (where playing with the arts takes precedence over learning knowledge); and Fuzzy Anything (where kids are allowed to guess, cook up weird spellings and grammar without correction, get it wrong but be graded as if correct). All of these are warning signs.
7) OBJECTIVES: Perhaps the most distinctive feature of good schools is that they talk about what will be taught and what will be accomplished. There are goals and expectations. It feels like the school has a map and has walked the route many times before. Bad schools are distinguished by an endless litany of excuses and alibis. You get the feeling that these schools don’t have clear goals and don’t really expect to go very far. In bad schools, much of what happens is actually a kind of simulation in which children are busy pretending to do work that does not pay much. Perhaps the most disgusting part of this whole charade is that some of these schools claim that they are considerate of children, that they don’t want to push them too far and that they don’t want to expose the inadequacies of the poor and minority children. All of this, it seems to me, is just drivel, not to mention racism. Children need to be challenged and pushed, not to the point of giving up, but to the point of thinking, “Wow, watch me go.”
8) SECURITY: A signal that overlaps all others could be called basic order and security. Schools should be safe places that are both law-abiding and predictable. The fact is that children need to be able to relax in order to learn. A scary school ceases to be a school. The principal (comparable to the mayor and sheriff of a small town) is a crucial figure in this paradigm: he sets the tone. Principals explain goals and policies to students and parents; principals motivate and support teachers. (This might be called the main principle.)
Summary: The Tao of Education is very simple. Learning the basics and academics is the goal and the path to that goal. Facts and knowledge are the cornerstone of the classroom. Teaching should be as creative as possible; schools should be fun and students should smile a lot. But the whole process has to go somewhere, has to move forward. At the end of each day, students know more than the day before. The problem with American education is that elite educators have moved away from knowledge-based education (a/k/a cognitive learning) towards feeling-based education (a/k/a affective learning) .
Many psychotherapeutic biases were mixed with a disregard for facts and a disregard for basic knowledge, including even literacy. The result, as one might expect, would be a mediocre and very stupid school, such as one would find in any American city. The solution is to ignore the bad ideas that caused problems, turn away from awkward clichés, and seriously try to do students a favor by giving them the best possible preparation for the rest of their lives.
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