The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    cmaukonen's picture

    Why Public Education Sucks Even More Now

    I remember the first day of Kindergarten. Playing with blocks and interacting, sometimes not so well, with the other kids. First grade, not so much but 3rd though 6th fairly well.  One of my sixth grade teachers would even take us out side in the afternoon some times to play touch football. All that is gone. School has become merely a place of robotic indoctrination as this piece explains.

    Although the excitement of new clothes and school supplies seems to soften the blow, the thought of being confined all day to over-crowded classrooms and hard seats and allowed to speak only after raising one’s hand is not a pretty prospect. Unfortunately, this picture gets uglier every year as demands for more and harder work increase, and the old respites of recess, art, music, and physical education disappear. By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but not children.

    As a teacher educator and educational researcher, I have been visiting classrooms for years, and, for the most part, I don’t like what I see. Many of the once excellent teachers I know have been reduced to automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills, and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curriculum has become something teachers "deliver" like a pizza and students "swallow" whole, whether or not they like mushrooms.

    Kindergartens that used to be places for children to learn social behavior, songs, dances, and poetry; how to build cities with blocks, play store, and express feelings with crayons and paint, are now cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one kindergarten I visited last year, children recited all the words in their little books without ever recognizing that they were part of a story.

    In a first-grade classroom, I watched children march in circles at mid-morning, waving their arms because there was no longer a recess to refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus everyday and to memorize the words "onomatopoeia" and "metaphor."

    In the upper elementary grades I saw both English and math taught by formulas. Students were given a list of the parts of a standard essay, told to use them in order and to begin with a question or a surprising statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful whenever you want to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle).

    Many school districts have also adopted summer homework policies, usually requiring students to read a prescribed list of books. This past summer my grandnephew, who is entering 9th grade, had to write a legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther, although he had not been taught anything about that writing form or that famous man in 8th grade.

    With the new Common Core Standards, created by experts who will never be tested on them, school life will grow even more onerous.

    There were parts of school that I liked. Playing 4 Square during recess in Jr. High. Or up North in Ohio, dancing in the Gym after lunch - generally in the winter. Field trips. Show and tell. But all that is gone or disappearing. And people wonder why those with anything on the ball, any kind of creative spark of imagination think it's a whole lot of donkey dung and want as little to do with it as possible.

    Cross Posted at Once Upon A Paradigm


    This is a really brilliant piece.  I'm biased as my parents were both public school teachers.  One taught elementary school and the other music and band at all levels at multiple schools.  They were creative with their students and with me.  I'm a very happy man now.  And I have so often seen adults my age stop my parents on the street (usually in our home town but often elsewhere, including Washington, D.C.) to thank them.  I still remember my teachers as well.

    I'm not entirely against testing.  At some level it measures something real.  But no test can capture the point of education which is to teach people how to think.  That's the heart of the arts and sciences encompassed by the liberal arts.

    A society of people taught to the test is likely to be a pretty regimented society, one more invested in convention wisdom even than the one we have now.  I'm not saying it will lead to some sort of dystopia (individuals will always rebel, after all, and to great effect) but it will certainly lead to more conformity in general and to support of the system as it is now, and that system is badly flawed.

    This is just sad.

    Fortunately, our grandchildren go to private school, and we are in a position to supplement their education with a variety of activities that teach while they are having fun. I hate to think about them being fed to the wolves in public school.

    There is so much wrong with education in this country, I don't even know where to begin...


    Thanks for the link... I knew it was bad, but not that bad.

    Good public schools are the backbone of a republic... Lord, Lord, nearly everything I hear about the USA nowadays makes me sad, but I think this is the saddest thing I've read or heard yet.

    This means that not only is the present bad, but that the future is going to be worse.

    Ora pro nobis

    The best comics appear to be in their forties,nowadays. At least for old men like me.

    There is this one comedian who shreiks. But he does it on cue and his timing is impeccable.

    He talks about how free kids are--or were. He says:

    Just think, you were able to just run outside, go where ever you wished WITH NO ID. hahaha No money, no wallet, no drivers license.

    I remember getting on my bike and peddling like crazy to meet my friends on their bikes.

    School sucked. But there was a philosophy going on there that we did not know about. And we had recess and by junior high gym class. We had sheet metal shop and drafting. We had biology class and labs on Tuesday and Thursdays to breed fruit flies.

    Anyway, fine take on things.

    If you add the fact that fifteen states or even more use those fascist texts printed in Texas, things really do look bleak.


    What passes for debate about "education reform" these days is pathetic.  It consists primarily of promoting limited or counterproductive market-based (what else in this society would you expect?) policies such as creating even more poorly monitored charter schools, and instituting merit pay for teachers, and blaming the teachers unions for all the problems.  

    Finland, the country du jour in the education policy community now for its excellent results, has a completely unionized teaching force and it's complete non-issue there.  They don't teacher-bash there. They realize that making do-or-die decisions affecting students or teachers or schools on the basis of single types of tests or single measures is an intellectually unsupportable and foolish thing to do.  We base our entire K-12 education accountability system on doing just that. 

    Rather, Finland invests heavily in making teaching a full-fledged, honored profession marked by high expectations and career-long support for teacher professional development and growth opportunities.  

    The education "reform" agenda we are pursuing in this country for the past couple of decades is pretty much the opposite of what the Finns have done.  They understand what we apparently do not, not yet anyway--the limitations of applying market logic and policies to the field of education. 

    We want Finland's results.  And we hope to get them by doing the opposite. Let me know if you are able to figure that out. 

    (Finland has much less poverty and inequality than we do in the US, and so the severe residential segregation in our society that fosters severe segregation of our schools between haves and have nots does not need to be the hippopotamus hiding under the rug that it is here.) 

    Linda Darling Hammond has probably given more thought to what a comprehensive teacher quality development policy agenda tailored to the US situation would look like (set forth in her book The Earth is Not Flat--warning: not exciting or sexy stuff to read.  Just sensible. Very affordable as well, although we would need to stick with it).  The teachers' unions, who respect her, dared to say so publicly when her name was surfaced as a possible Secretary of Education for Obama.  Guess what happened to her and her nomination?  She was viciously slandered and her candidacy destroyed.  After all, the teachers' unions think well of her.  So she must be for regressive anti-kid policies, right? 

    Diane Ravitch's book The Death and Life of the Great American Schools is the best thing out there on what is wrong with the market-based reforms being pushed these days (hint: they don't work).  As one who served as Assistant Secretary in the US Education department under Bush 41 and by her own account was at one time a believer in those reforms, her book makes for all the more powerful reading.

    The person writing the best stuff on the problems--major--with the No Child Left Inside Act, is Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute.  Many here will remember him as the former education columnist for the NY Times. 

    Deborah Meier--if she were a principal in our area I'd send our kids to her school in a heartbeat--and Ravitch share an excellent blog at Education Week, if you would like to read stuff about education written by people who actually know a lot about education and the history of education reform in our country.  Meier's writings over the years reflect an inspired vision of what education could be in our society, one which she has more understanding about how to create on the ground level where it matters for the kids than all of the dominant education policymakers in the country combined. 

    I was telling my wife that it's interesting to me that Ravitch, Meier, Darling Hammond, and Goldstein--among the most prominent dissenters advocating a different direction than the one we've been pursuing for the past couple of decades--all happen to be women. 

    The big touters of the market-based reforms--notably the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Checker Finn at the Fordham Foundation, Rick Hess at American Enterprise Institute, are mostly (with Michelle Rhee, DC Superintendent, an exception) men.  They have had their way dominating the "ed reform" agenda for decades now. 

    The men are in love with the market-based abstractions and policies based on them.  The women understand the ways in which the world of education in practice, on the ground and in the schools where it counts for kids, deviates from that nice, neat abstract reality the market-based "reformers" have constructed for themselves and sell to the public, backed by huge philanthropic funding. 

    Just observing.

    Oops, forgot link to Dana Goldstein's piece in The Nation,"Grading Waiting for Superman", by far the most astute and accurate thing I've seen written in the wake of the release of "Waiting for Superman":,0

    Wow... I can't get over how sad this is. I'm involved in keeping my asbestos pants on in another space here or I'd get involved in this conversation... but truly I read this and weep... I'm younger than Dick Day, but I also had music and art and sports and recess and shop classes.

    How can a country commit suicide like this? What sort of a crappy place is it going to be 20 years from now?

    Oh for the good old days, say, like recent reminders of the Truman years?.

    Myself, I had the boomer public school kindergartner experience described above of playtime and naptime and learning to socialize, which was very nice and has left me with some good memories of graham crackers and milk and some pretty neat toys, including a full size rowboat and a sort of kitchen where girls could play housewife (the latter was admittedly fun to do.)

    After which I was enrolled in parochial school because my parents were under the impression, like many other parents of the time, that a public school education was not the best thing, and that it was worth scrimping and saving to pay that tuition. Nothing new under the sun on that front.

    In that boomer-era parochial school, we were in classes sized 40 and up, and most of the teachers were 20-something nuns still working to get college degrees.

    No art classes (you made your colored salt maps as homework,) very basic science (labs? what is that?) music consisted of the nun teaching you to sing and to use a plastic flute, no physical education (no gym--when their beloved President Kennedy said we should have some, they took us all out to the parking lot to do jumping jacks; and certain good girls also got to play volleyball with the nuns in their court behind the convent but mostly recess was running around the parking lot screaming or jumping rope.) But we had extremely fine reading, math, humanities, social studies, geography, history, and what would now be called "creative writing," (but then was just Sister Eugenia praising your haiku,).and living skills curriculum. (And I forgot handwriting--boy, that was a major part of the curriculum.) And we always had a lot more homework than those "publicans," and a lot of tests.

    When I moved to public education for high school, I quickly learned, by getting to know what kind of basic education others had gotten in the public shools, that my parents had made a fine choice. I was not impressed with the knowledge level or love of learning or even the basic reading level of many of those kids who had had all those fine science labs, art supplies, nice gyms and cafeterias, musical instruments, and mandated class sizes.

    These days, I am pretty susceptible to the argument that children are pushed to do things too soon, and that they do need old boomer style kindergarten, and that reading 'rriting and 'rithmatic should be delayed for most untilt age 5 and 6 as it was then. But from my own experience, I am also pretty sure that kids do not need fancy art classes or band or science labs to get a good education, and I don't think frequent testing in itself is a culprit, perhaps standardization is.

    AA I am glad you did have such a good experience with parochial school. I know of some kids where this was not so. Where it was a real hell hole. Same for public school. The best ones I was in were small schools in small communities. The worst was in the burbs. Go figure.

    Ideally we should have the same quality education for all with small classes geared toward the abilities of the children in them. But alas even private schools at not like this as they have the financial bottom line as well.

    Correction: Linda Darling-Hammond's book, referenced in my comment above, is called The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine the 21st Century.  The title is in part a reference to Tom Friedman's book The World is Flat, which she mentions in passing.

    My grandkids are doing well in school.   They amaize me with all they know and how well they read.   I had the same education as Cmaukonen and the same books.   I don't remember being able to read at the level these kids do and the understanding they have about the world around them.   But education is top priority in my household and I don't expect all the teaching to be done just by the teachers.   Parents have to lay the foundation for a good education. I am sure there are some very good methods of teaching that would make things better for the kids to learn.  We should strive for that.    

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