The Decline of Public Education

Blake Van Ningen, left, Ashton Cushing, center, and Zac Sayler work on an assignment Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 at Freeman Element
Blake Van Ningen, left, Ashton Cushing, center, and Zac Sayler work on an assignment Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 at Freeman Elementary in Freeman, S.D. South Dakota this year began implementing the standards, adopted by 45 states, but those guidelines are facing increasing attacks from some lawmakers and others who argue they take away too much local control of schools. (AP photo/Jeremy Waltner)

According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, and reported in The Washington Post, "the nation's high school seniors have shown no improvement in math and reading performance since 2009." For a generation we have been pumping trillions in fresh money into our schools and experimenting with a variety of creative reforms, with little to show for it.

I believe the fundamental error we make is in trying to impose reforms from the top down. The U.S. Department of Education is a great exercise in bureaucratic bloat. It churns out mounds of studies and position papers that serve no viable purpose other than to provide politicians a ready forum to announce their latest initiatives that soon disappear.

The real power over public schools is at the local level with about 15,000 school boards, too many of which are controlled by local activists who want to teach our children the world was made in six days. This belongs in the same category as Islamic students memorizing the Koran. I fully encourage everyone to have a spiritual life, and schools should respect that, but not to the point of that science and religion cannot coexist.

More to the point, "teaching to the test" is a monumental miscalculation reminiscent of the bleeding practiced by doctors in previous centuries. Coercing thousands of students to focus all of their attention on achieving good scores on a few "core" subjects does not make them smarter, even if they do score better on tests. The multiple choice test makes grading easier and faster but does not provide a valid measure of how well students are actually learning.

Learning is a complex process that does not yield easily to arbitrary metrics. There should be no stigma attached to getting answers wrong. Mistakes are a basic part of the learning process. The key question is whether the students are being challenged to use their minds. Are the youngsters actively engaged trying to work their way through problems? Instead of making them memorize facts, we should be teaching them to think. Instead of who, what, where and when questions, we should be asking them how and why questions.

One of the most vital educational hurdles is learning how to write coherently, and no multiple choice exam will cover that. Real learning takes place when students become excited in the quest for knowledge and challenged to understand a complex problem and devise a solution for it, even if they get it wrong. And though core subjects are vital, so are music, art, literature, and other areas wherein students explore and begin to understand the human experience.

Schools such as the Tracy School in California have figured out how students from diverse backgrounds can be enchanted with the magic of learning. What we need are fewer grand strategies and more down to earth practical models to guide improvement of all schools.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.