November 17, 2019

The Real Problem in American Education

For decades whenever American students have tested poorly in comparison with their peers in other developed countries, public outrage has caused educators to pursue educational reform. When a reform plan is announced, optimism is high, but it usually lasts only until the next international comparison proves equally or more disappointing.

The reason this pathetic cycle has continued is that educational leaders have ignored the possibility that the reform process itself is preventing meaningful change.

Consider this. Every reform comes with its own rules, regulations, requirements, schema, and protocols for administrators to learn and hold teachers accountable for. The burden of implementation often necessitates hiring additional administrators, along with professional test-makers, “facilitators,” and “evaluators” to ensure teachers’ compliance with the program. If difficulties occur, outside companies may also be hired to streamline and expedite the process.

Many of these people, including those in the most influential positions, have never been in charge of a classroom. Some have degrees in educational administration—in other words, their expertise lies in supervising people in matters about which they are largely ignorant.

Administrators who do have teaching experience generally have considerably less of it most of the people they supervise. Even the relative few who have achieved distinction in the classroom have no way of knowing the individual interests, talents, potentialities, and impediments of the particular students in the particular classrooms of the teachers they supervise. Their judgments are therefore likely to be not only unhelpful to teachers but also obstructive of the learning process.

Here are a few examples of the negative impact of modern reforms such as Common Core:

  • The Progress Monitoring Plan (PMP) requires teachers in the early grades to sit down periodically with each child individually. As the child reads a passage aloud, the teacher evaluates his/her pronunciation and notes errors. Next the teacher has the child explain what he/she read. As the child speaks, the teacher tallies the number of words in the explanation and then writes an evaluation of the child’s degree of understanding. In a large class, PMP can pose a daunting task.
  • The teaching process is increasingly scripted by people other than teachers. Teachers are told what materials to use and how to use them, what to explain and how to explain it. Moreover, their classrooms are sometimes required to look the same as all others at that grade level, even to the point of having the same displays and pictures. Moreover, at any hour of the day every teacher at a particular grade level is expected to be at the same point of the same lesson. Little wonder many teachers feel there is no room for them to be creative and innovate.
  • Because all modern lessons are designed by outsiders, teachers are not permitted to use materials they have found to be effective in previous years. (An especially moving short story or essay, for example.) The ability to do so has always been a hallmark of effective teaching and among the best ways of ensuring that learning is exciting and meaningful for students. By outlawing this practice, reformers all but guarantee mediocrity in classroom teaching and dispiritedness among the best and brightest teachers.
  • With each new reform comes the difficulty of training teachers to use it. This necessitates taking teachers away from their planning, teaching, and grading to attend workshops and seminars and meet with program administrations or their functionaries. Often as not, they are then blamed for not accomplishing what the meetings prevented them from accomplishing.
  • The situations described thus far would be difficult (and depressing) enough if all the students spoke English. But many do not. Consider the dilemma of a second grade teacher who has 18 students in her class, half of them from homes in which English is a second language—the first languages ranging from Spanish to Arabic to Serbian. She is expected not only to bring them up to grade level in reading and writing but to bridge their language gap while doing so. (Imagine, too, the difficulty of having a meaningful conference with parents who do not speak English.)

Teachers are understandably frustrated by the bureaucratization of education, and they are not hiding their resentment. For example, a group of Florida teachers have formed a protest group with the motto, “Just let us teach.” Now there’s a reform idea that could really make a difference.

Copyright @ 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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