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Break the Ed-School Monopoly By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 08, 2002

The Supreme Court ruling that Cleveland's modest voucher system doesn't violate the Constitution is a welcome and much needed step in reforming the sorry state of American education. But it is only a step, and a small one at that considering the size and power of the forces arrayed against reform.

Despite the aura of civic idealism surrounding our schools, education today is a massive, profitable industry consuming billions of taxpayer dollars. It comprises government bureaucracies such as the federal and state departments of education, textbook and curriculum publishers, teacher and staff unions, technology industries eager to peddle computers and software, and the university departments of education that have grabbed the monopoly on training and certifying teachers.

Yet this industry is an abysmal failure at doing what it's supposed to do, educate our children. We've had decades of commissions and studies documenting the fact that American school children's skills typically rate at the bottom of the list when compared to those of students in other countries. But any college teacher can tell you this is so, for we get the finished products of twelve years of schooling. And I can testify that in twenty-five years of teaching I have seen a steady decline in competency in everything from basic knowledge to writing ability. Without exception, any student I have who graduated high school before around 1975 will be more knowledgeable, a better writer, and have better study habits than the students who have been subjected to the system since that time.

This dysfunctional system, however badly it educates, nonetheless does a great job at serving the needs and wishes of the industry. It is an iron law of any huge bureaucracy, particularly one insulated from accountability to the market, that rather than directing its energy towards the task for which it was created, it instead focuses on perpetuating itself by enhancing and expanding its power and resources. Thus the education industry exists not to "empower" students through knowledge but to empower itself. The results are mediocrity and careerism as competency becomes less valued than the ability to aggrandize the system.

But there is a deeper cause for this failure, one more serious than the tendency of large bureaucracies to degenerate into self-serving mediocrity. The whole educational enterprise is based on a false assumption: that teaching is some sort of science embodying techniques based on universal facts of human nature, techniques that can be taught to novitiates who then are certified by the state, just like doctors and lawyers. So we have university departments of education that supposedly are the repositories of this knowledge and research organized into a curriculum that must be mastered by anybody who wants to teach.

The fact is, though, there simply doesn't exist this sort of abstract, factual knowledge about teaching. Teaching, like child rearing or marriage or any activity between humans, is an art, not a science. The great variety and complexity of individual children in any classroom--differences of family life, intelligence, inclination, motivation, personality, and character--mean that generalizations about how they learn will be too broad and admit too many exceptions to count as "scientific." And those generalizations that are valid will be better learned through experience in a classroom with real live children rather than through the abstract, theoretical lectures of some professor. The only college training required and the only knowledge that needs to be certified are in the subject matter to be taught.

The consequences of this false assumption have been devastating. First is the iron control the ed-schools have over who gets to teach. Backed up by the power of the government, the credential factories have almost unlimited discretion to decide the content of teacher training and to set the standards of competency. No matter how passionate about teaching, no matter how knowledgeable about the subject matter to be taught, no matter how much practical life-experience, a person who does not jump through the curricular hoops of the ed-school will not be allowed into the classroom. The result is that a vast pool of potential good teachers is banished from the classroom because they will not or cannot take the grinding inanity of the typical ed-school curriculum.

This brings us to the second consequence of the ed-school monopoly--the sheer nonsense that forms the bulk of most of the teacher-training curriculum. The vacuum created by the lack of genuine knowledge about teaching has been filled over the years with a series of intellectual fads and fashions, most originating in the great pseudo-sciences of psychology and sociology, and many involving therapeutic issues of "life-style" and ideology that public schools have no business addressing. New math, whole reading, behaviorism, "values clarification," and a host of other innovations have been inflicted on school children with predictable results, the most grievous being the failure of kids to learn basic skills.

The most hardy of all these wacky ideas has been "self-esteem." The idea that children fail because they lack this mysterious psychic substance, and will achieve only when it is bestowed upon them, has probably done more damage than all the other curricular fads combined. It has justified the dumbing down of standards and the injection into the classroom of content focused on expressing feeling rather than demonstrating competency at knowledge and skills. In this happy world, everyone succeeds because no one attempts anything challenging. So we have American students with the highest self-esteem on the planet and some of the worst basic skills.

There have been scattered attempts to break the ed-school stranglehold on teacher training, but most of these have reflected localized teacher shortages. Eventually the credential monopoly has the last word and subjects prospective teachers to the intellectually suspect teacher-training curriculum, each hour of which is one more hour not spent in mastering the subject content. It's amazing that so many people somehow survive this intellectual torture and go on to be the great teachers one can still find in American schools.

Victories such as the voucher decision are important, and must be followed up so that true competition can begin to force schools to change their dysfunctional ways. But true and lasting educational reform will never happen until we break the ed-school monopoly on teacher credentialing and get into the classroom teachers who are masters of their subjects rather than masters of New-Age superstitions.

Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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