Point of View

The common traits of many US failed school experiments

May 31, 2014 

Common Core is the latest in a string of reform prescriptions by our nations’ educational experts. In light of that, let’s consider the track record of other educational reforms.

In the 1960s, the experts came up with new math – a dramatic new approach to teaching math. Morris Kline published his critical book “Why Johnny Can’t Add: the Failure of the New Math” and noted: It “ignored completely the fact that mathematics is a cumulative development and that it is practically impossible to learn the newer creations if one does not know the older ones.” The results? Failure, with millions of kids with impaired ability to do math.

In the 1990s, they came up with the self-esteem movement based on an essay by psychologist Nathaniel Brandon. Over the next several decades, educators fell in love with the idea that building self-esteem is the key to educational success. The outcome: Kay Hymowitz in a review of all the evaluation studies concludes: “And what do they show? That high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.”

In the 1990s, they also came up with the reading program called whole language, based on theories of psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim and MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. What happened? When California adopted it statewide, reading tests demonstrated an extraordinary across-the-board drop in reading comprehension. Desperate parents subjected to this massive failure flocked to private market alternatives like “Hooked on Phonics” to try and mitigate the damage. Eventually, even the experts admitted that whole language was a complete failure that left tens of thousands of children with significant damage to their ability to read.

All of these failed experiments share some attributes: The reform idea is adopted before any serious research backs up the claims that the reforms will help students. Secondly, all skeptics are derided as backwoods, unsophisticated folks who just don’t understand. And thirdly, the implementation requires massive investment providing huge profits for the education industry: consultants, curriculum developers and textbook companies.

So now they come up with the new prescription of Common Core State Standards, which share the problems of previous reforms: We have no research to substantiate it will help, critics are derided as being simplistic and ignorant and the implementation will cost millions of dollars.

There is one reform that works. It has been shown to help public school students by carefully designed studies, and it doesn’t cost much to adopt. The proven reform is to give parents the power to choose where to get their child’s education – whether from a neighborhood public school, a parochial school or a charter school. Only when parents can choose where to spend their tax dollars – and public schools experience the need to compete to retain their kids’ tax revenue – will public schools improve. This has been well-documented by Caroline Hoxby – MIT trained, ex-Harvard faculty, current Stanford faculty member – whose career has been dedicated to examining the relative performance of public school systems and their alternatives.

In the meantime, if common core is adopted, the only sure beneficiaries will be the educational consultants and text book publishers who will gain billions of dollars coming up with services to implement yet another attempt to solve a legitimate problem: how to save our children from a failed monopoly system. This might seem familiar to members of another group trapped in a monopoly program – our veterans without the power to choose their health care provider.

The wise course for North Carolina is to pass on common core and see whether it helps or hurts kids in other states and in the meantime implement the proven change that comes from giving parents and kids school choice – programs such as Opportunity Scholarships that just received an interim green light from the N.C. Supreme Court.

Paul Slobodian, Ed.D, M.S., of New Bern is a consultant with experience working with public schools, nonprofits and corporate clients.

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