"The Problem with Public Education Today"
by Rod Jenkins
25 December 2001, Clearwater, Florida
The Idea and the Hope: Public education has been a vital and perhaps even principle ingredient in the development and prosperity of the United States through the past two centuries. The existence of a free education through high school graduation for every child in the US along with the existence of low cost State and local government supported community colleges and universities, many on lands granted by the US government, has made it possible for any child regardless of background to achieve a life of economic and social success in this country. The success stories are legend. In addition, most teachers entered the educational field with the strong desire to help children have a better future. And they have, in many ways, served as mainstays in our community while turbulent forces have swirled around us. So, our public and private school teachers are to be respected and admired.
New Unproven Teaching Methods: But, by the middle of the 20th century, the previously highly successful approach to the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic -- by teaching additional skills and principles at each successive grade level combined with intensive practice in the application of those skills and principles -- began to change. Educational psychology (a completely new field) burst on the scene and with it numerous theories about how to improve teaching methods and how to engage in behavior modification for the classroom. Studies of animal learning behavior (rats, pigeons, etc.) gave "scientific" legitimacy to new teaching theories and were used as the basis for many changes in how we educated our human children. For example, instead of having children read the great children's classics such as Treasure Island or The Jungle Book, new books written by educational psychologists containing only a specific set words to be taught for each particular grade were written and purchased in large quantities by our public school systems (a healthy financial bonus for those educational psychologists). The teaching of phonetics so that children could sound out words on a written page and compare them to their fast developing and much larger speaking vocabularies was dropped. This new teaching "theory" was eventually (after three decades!) found to be a dismal failure for the simple reason that 1) it stunted the development of children's normal reading vocabulary which fell far behind the growth in the child's speaking vocabulary and left the child unable to read and understand even newspapers, magazines, or letters written by their more literate parents, and 2) because the books so written were dull and uninspiring compared to the classics that earlier generations grew up reading. As a result , many of these children never discovered the pleasure of reading a great story or book (much less the ability to do so) and forever shied away from jobs that required excellent reading comprehension. Many other teaching "theories" were introduced over the subsequent years by educational psychologists such as the "new math" and that schools should be primarily a fun place to be with more emphasis on happiness than on learning. And, by the mid-60's, along with a steady decline in the quality of public education, courses in "educational psychology" and its various "learning" theories became an integral and primary part of the curriculum in teachers colleges across the U.S. The graduates of these colleges of course also began to influence the conduct of education in religious and other private schools.
Modern Psychiatry Offers Its Solutions: By the late-70's, the teaching and theories of modern psychiatry began to strongly influence our public schools. Namely, children should never be disciplined by their teachers and sent home to their parents to correct disruptive behavior problems. Rather, psychiatrists argued successfully (to their educational psychologist brethren) that such disruptive children had obvious learning disorders and needed drugs such as Ritalin to correct their behavior. Old fashioned ideas such as teaching the difference between right and wrong or insisting upon personal discipline were ridiculed as moralistic and nonscientific. Rather, children were not responsible for their disruptive behavior since they were simply victims of biochemical imbalances in their brains which could easily be corrected by psychoactive drugs. (This particular postulate was simultaneously extremely profitable for psychiatrists and drug companies alike, whose corporate enterprises grew in leaps and bounds during the second half of the 20th century.)
A Change in Emphasis: So, the emphasis on a straightforward effective education in the skills and knowledge that a child would need to be economically and socially successful, or to become an effective future leader of this country, fell by the wayside. And, eventually, through the basic failure of public schools to educate, whole generations of undereducated, functionally illiterate, citizens were produced. This brought further deterioration to the society, and, for most intercity areas, schools became primarily "holding cells" during working hours for a population of hopeless, visionless, resentful, and often hostile children and young adults.
The Stranglehold on Public Education: Our public schools are a far cry from what they could be in terms of producers of well educated citizens, ready to lead this country into greater prosperity with full responsibility for the environment in which we live. Today's public education reminds me most of the unreliable and substandard appliances produced by communist states for their citizens. The only reason that the US has, for example, high quality washers and dryers, is that the manufacturers who produced low quality products went out of business as word-of-mouth spread about the higher quality appliances produced by such legends as Magtag. Magtag prospered simply due to the production of a higher quality product combined with the wisdom to fully capitalize on that reliability in their advertising. In a nutshell, we have higher quality appliances and consumer goods in general because of competition. And there is presently no effective competition within or with public schools because the service is free and is heavily controlled by both State and Federal government. Beware those who continue to insist that the teachers of private schools must have "credentials" from teacher colleges with appropriate indoctrination in the thoroughly failed theories of educational psychology and psychiatry.
A Workable Solution: Only the loosening of the stranglehold of the Federal Department of Education and the implementation of voucher systems at the State level whereby parents can choose which school will best educate their children, whether that be private or public, can finally introduce true competition in our educational system and eventually allow the most workable systems of education to win out. With word-of-mouth, it will eventually become apparent which schools and which educational systems work and which don't. Parents will choose schools with the best records for graduating the largest percentage of children who go on to college and who in turn go on to become highly successful citizens and leaders. There should be no other requirement for schools accepting vouchers than that they submit their students to rigorous tests in basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic at the end of each school year, with the results published broadly. Only by the excellence of their products (well taught and skilled students) will we know with certainty which are truly the best schools and the best systems of education.