Monday, September 20, 2010

A Tale of Two Movies About American Education--Which One Can You Trust?

wo years ago producer Robert Compton put out 2 Million Minutes. a documentary about high school students in China, India and the US. The basic idea was that the foreign kids master their subjects, sacrifice to excel, and will out-produce us forever. Meanwhile, the American kids are lazy, never pushed to achieve real mastery, coddled by constant praise and inflated grades, more concerned with sports and dating.

Now along comes another American producer with a movie called A Race to Nowhere (you’ll see a discussion in the item below this one). I went to the website and looked at the trailer. Let me summarize the message from these people: American school kids are worked to death; this effort is mindless and soul-numbing; our culture is obsessed with tests, grades, performance, and standards, but this approach doesn’t work, as our kids end up ignorant and empty.

These visions are contradictory with each other. So we have to ask, what the heck is going on here?? Who is telling the truth??

Let’s note, first, that for the past 10 years the Education Establishment has been squealing steadily about No Child Left Behind. I’ve seen it in my local paper, month after month, year after year. Somebody is always complaining about teaching to the test, drill and kill, rote memorization, and the death of creativity in the schools. The wailing is so relentless, so repetitive, you just know it’s orchestrated. At least, that’s how I feel. (And “Race To Nowhere” seems to be part of that wailing. )

I just don’t trust any of it. Here’s why: ever since 1930 the Education Establishment was trying to purge academic content from the schools. The buzzwords by 1950 were “life-adjustment” and “real needs.” Translation: schools should be dumb and dumber. That’s the DNA in our Education Establishment. They don’t like facts, knowledge, basics, memorization, or mastery.

Here’s the whole nutty thing in one phrase: our educators--I mean the people at Teachers College, etc.--are very enthusiastic about social engineering but, in truth, ANTI-education. They are also deceitful. I suspect they try to manufacture evidence for their position by making schools more chaotic and oppressive than they need to be.

The first trick in the book, from the earliest grades forward, is NOT to teach foundational knowledge. Things that 100 years ago every sixth-grader knew are simply not taught. Ignorance is cumulative and galloping. By the time these kids get to high school, they have no background for learning science, history or anything else. How can you teach American history to children who don’t know the names of oceans, mountains, states and countries?

The second biggest trick in the book is to scorn and discredit memorization. Keep those heads empty. If there is anything in there, make sure it’s multicultural mush.

Finally, you’ve got whole classrooms full of teenagers who hardly know anything. Then you give them these complex, bottomless assignments such as compare Chinese and Roman culture in the year 100 A.D. What? These kids don’t know the name of the longest river in the United States and you want them to do what? Just think how frantic, overworked, stressed out, and hopeless these children will appear. Methinks it’s all theater. (Even if they write such a report, the knowledge learned will be fragmented and incoherent.)

Another favorite gimmick is to start the school day early, say at 7:30, which means that kids are getting out of bed around 6:00. They’re always going to be sleepy and cranky. Then some schools close at 1:30 creating a big problem for parents and under-utilizing the buildings. Again, no logic but plenty of melodrama.

The Education Establishment can say, oh, these poor kids, they work so hard!!! But we know that when these kids get to college, half of them need remedial education.

Final piece of the puzzle: I suspect that the much-hailed “Race To The Top“ is really a gimmick whereby the government throws money at the states until each one gives up any attempt at objective testing or standards. Authentic Assessment is code for not much assessment at all. 2 Million Minutes is the movie to trust.

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