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Education Is Failing? What Else Is New?

It’s all over the news. Between 57% and 61% of high school graduates have little chance of succeeding in college. That’s according to the organizations that produce the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT).

High school students are fearful. Parents are alarmed. Elected officials are tripping over one another to get to the nearest microphone and promise an investigation of this outrage.

But a more informed reaction is “What else is new? We’ve heard the same report in virtually every decade over the past century, yet little has changed.”

For example, Americans who traveled to Europe before World War I were amazed to learn how proficient Europeans were in their native languages. “What makes European education succeed where ours fails, often dismally?” they wondered.

A Wabash College professor, Rollo Walter Brown, spent a year in France seeking an answer to that question. He then wrote an insightful book, How the French Boy Learns to Write, detailing his findings and offering a plan for transforming American education. (For more on that, see my essay “An Old Lesson Not Yet Grasped” in the archives.)

Brown also offered this admonition: “We have a national habit of taking up a subject or idea, proving its absolute importance, and then immediately forgetting all about it.” He wrote those words in 1912, and we’ve been proving him prophetic ever since.

Sometimes we make the situation worse. I recall a national meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), a subsidiary of the National Council of Teachers of English, in the late 1960s. I was part of a group discussing what should be done with the many applicants who did not meet college entrance standards, the very same problem that is in the news today.

Everyone in the group agreed that students should be given a chance to prove themselves in remedial reading and writing courses offered by the colleges. I argued for two stipulations: that the courses not carry college credit and that they be offered for only a few years. My idea was to be fair to students and at the same time warn high school officials that their continued failure to teach effectively would result in their students being denied admission to college.

Some participants supported those stipulations, but more opposed them. Thus CCCC went on record as supporting remedial courses in college, and most colleges embraced the idea. Before long, the term “remedial” was softened to the more respectable “developmental” and the courses more often than not carried college credit. As a result, high school officials felt no pressure to improve instruction. The situation remains largely unchanged today.

Whenever the problem of educational underachievement is rediscovered, a new plan is devised for solving it. A recent example is “No Child Left Behind.” Although some plans achieve modest success for a time, to date all have essentially failed. Unfortunately, the cause of failure is mistakenly identified as underfunding, and the response is to add billions of dollars in salary raises for teachers and new buildings and equipment.

The real cause of failure, from Professor Brown’s day until the present day, is that American education has been based on the false idea that most students are incapable of excellence in thought and expression and therefore should not be taught to develop their minds but instead simply receive and regurgitate information.

Simply said, American education is focused more on mindSTUFFING than mindBUILDING. This is evident in all aspects of education, including teaching methods, textbooks, and tests.

There is a way to solve the educational underachievement in America and it is relatively inexpensive. It is to teach the four R’s doggedly and passionately in elementary and high school and to demand proficiency in them in college and graduate school. Three of those R’s are as recognizable as they are neglected—Readin’, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. The fourth and most scandalously neglected is Reason.

If educators and elected officials don’t reach this understanding on their own—or parents don’t force them to—we can expect academic underachievement to continue as a national scandal.

Copyright © Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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