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Eight Warning Signs of a Bad School
How do parents find a good school? Not only are public schools crippled by dozens of bad ideas, but the schools seem to be deliberately designed so that parents can’t understand what’s really going on in the classrooms. It is probably more practical to be on the lookout for danger signs that can be seen from a distance. Here’s a checklist of the eight most common signs that you don’t want your child at this school:
1) READING: The most important skill is reading. If you hear any mention of Whole Words, Sight Words, Dolch Words, Fry Words, or Balanced Literacy, run the other way. English is an alphabetic/phonetic language and should be taught phonetically. Children must immediately learn the alphabet and that letters represent sounds. (There seem to be five or 10 good phonics programs available. I’m not convinced that the little differences matter. What’s killing us is this one big difference: teach basic alphabet information or NOT teach it. Any synthetic phonics program mixed with poetry , a song, and a light touch seem to do the trick. Phonics advocates report that virtually all of their students learn to read by age 7. Whole Word proponents say that children should memorize several hundred words each year, in which case Na I will be effectively illiterate by high school.)
2) MATHEMATICS: The next most important thing is arithmetic. If you hear any mention of Reform Math, run the other way. (Reform Math is an umbrella term for at least 10 different programs with names like Everyday Math, Connected Math, MathLand, TERC, CPM, etc.) These programs tend to push advanced concepts on kids who can’t even add 10 and 16. These programs like to use obscure methods and algorithms, leaving children confused and distracted. The right goal is for children to master basic arithmetic, such as easy addition and subtraction of one- and two-digit numbers. They then move on to multiplying and dividing one- and two-digit numbers. There should be no calculators, no “spiraling” from topic to topic, no mention of college level concepts.
3) KNOWLEDGE: The next most important thing is that children are normally expected to acquire knowledge. That used to be common; but for 75 years, our educators have waged a war against content, facts, and memorization. “They can look it up” is a huge red flag. For example, studying history requires children to first learn the names of oceans, continents, rivers, mountains and countries. Basic geography should be the foundation during the first few years; every classroom should have maps, of the US and the world. In general, in all subjects, children should first learn the simplest information, the essential, the basic knowledge, all in preparation for studying the subject at a higher level. If children don’t learn the names of the oceans in first grade, they’re not in school, they’re on lifeguard duty.
4) SCIENCE: Children should learn the basics of science and scientific thinking from the beginning. For example, children can look at common objects and say whether they are animal, plant or mineral. Children should be able to talk about how water changes from a solid to a liquid and to steam. Older children should be able to discuss the different types of problems dealt with by doctors, chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, etc. Studying simple maps, diagrams, tables, illustrations and plans is a good sign. (To put it another way, I can’t imagine a bad school thinking of teaching first graders to understand simple diagrams.)
5) CONSTRUCTIVISM: One of the great fads raging in some public schools is called constructivism. (It can appear in the teaching of any subject.) Gifts are phrases like “create new knowledge”, “guide by their side”, “prior knowledge”, “learning strategies”, etc. as opposed to direct teaching, where experienced teachers teach that, what they know better than anyone else in the room. “The Sage on the Stage” is just what the kids need. Constructivism devalues the skill and preparation that good teachers bring to the classroom; and helps cover up bad training by bad teachers. Constructivism guarantees that learning will move slowly and be fragmented.
6) FADS RUN RAMPANT: Other popular fads to avoid include: Self-esteem (where children are constantly praised and awarded good grades even when they do poor work); Cooperative learning (where children are constantly forced to work in groups, so they never learn to think for themselves); critical thinking (where children are led to engage in deep discussions about subjects they know little about); A creativity curriculum (where playing with art is prioritized over learning with knowledge); and Fuzzy Anything (where children can guess, come up with odd spellings and odd grammar without correction, be wrong but still be judged correct). These are all warning signs.
7) OBJECTIVES: Perhaps the most distinctive feature of good schools is that they talk about what will be learned and what will be achieved. There are goals and expectations. There is a sense that the school has a map and has traveled the road many times before. Bad schools are characterized by an endless litany of excuses and alibis. There is a sense that these schools do not have clear goals and do not really expect to progress very far. In bad schools, a lot of what goes on is actually a kind of pretense, with kids busy doing pretend jobs that don’t quite add up. Perhaps the most disgusting part of the whole charade is that some of these schools will pretend that they are considerate of children, that they don’t want to push them too hard, and that they don’t want to expose the shortcomings of the poor. and minority children. All this, it seems to me, is just nonsense, not to mention racism. Children need to be challenged and pushed, not to the point where they give up, but to the point where they think, “Wow, look at me.”
8) SECURITY: The signal that runs through all the others could be called basic order and safety. Schools should be safe places, law abiding and predictable. It’s about letting kids relax so they can learn. A haunted school ceases to be a school. The principal (comparable to the mayor and sheriff of a small town) is a key figure in this paradigm: he sets the tone. Principals explain goals and policies to students and parents; principals motivate and support teachers. (This could be called the guiding principle.)
Summary: The Tao of education is very simple. The goal and the path to that goal is to learn the basics and academic studies. Facts and knowledge are the lifeblood of the classroom. Teaching should be as creative as possible; schools should be fun and students should smile a lot. But the whole process has to go somewhere, it has to progress. At the end of each day, students know more than the day before. The problem with American education is that elite educators have shifted from knowledge-based education (a/k/a cognitive learning) to feeling-based education (a/k/a affective learning).
Many psychotherapeutic prejudices were mixed with contempt for facts and disregard for basic knowledge, including literacy. The result, as one might expect, would be a very dull, average school like you might find in any American city. The solution is to ignore the bad ideas that caused the trouble, to turn away from sensitive clichés, and to seriously try to do students a service by giving them the best possible preparation for the rest of their lives.
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