The Moscow School District’s recent experiment with competency-based education reminds me of the educational fads practiced on me in the mid-1960s and 70s. Each hindered my education more than the last.
The first education experiment was “whole language“ (sight reading/see-say) in first grade. Brilliant Harvard PhDs decided that phonics was passé and the best way to learn to read English was the same way that the Chinese learn ideograms – by memorizing each symbol, or word. If an English word was unlearned or forgotten, skip it, guess at it, or try to figure it out from context.
I had a terrible time memorizing all the words in our reading books, and the inability to memorize every word in the dictionary plagued me throughout life. It was not until I had to help my own children learn to read using phonics that I learned to read words I had never seen before. Today, each of my children remains a better reader than I.
The next educational fad was “new math.” I came home desperate in fourth grade, unable to comprehend long division. My father, who never attended college but understood arithmetic, attempted to walk me through this new division method from my textbook, finally giving up, exasperated. He told me to ignore the book and taught me how to divide “old school.”
Another pedagogical fad during elementary school was the “open classroom” or “informal education.” The open-classroom movement mirrored the social, political, and cultural changes of the 1960s, tearing down walls wherever found. Classroom dividers were removed so multiple grades and classes were going all at once. The classroom cacophony reflected the whims of culture at that time.
Then there was the learning styles fads: VAK (visual, aural, and kinesthetic), VARK (add read/write), VAPS (add physical and social), and VAKOG (add olfactory and gustatory). Since every student had a different learning style, teachers attempted to tailor lessons to each student and leave no child behind.
And the list of educational fads continued. Meanwhile, learning was the actual victim. In 2019 the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development presented its annual student assessment rankings. Once the world’s best, America’s education system now ranks 37th in mathematics, 18th in science, and 13th in reading.
Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taipei and Japan crush all others educationally not because they outspend the rest of us.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that next to Norway, the US spends more money per student ($12,800 per student per year in 2015) than any other OECD country. Adjusted for inflation, the US spends six times as much per student as in 1950, yet math, reading, and science scores have plummeted.
Progressives claim that all we need to do is throw more money at the problem. However, the OECD notes that “it is not only the amount of resources that matters, but also how effectively these resources are allocated. Evidence consistently points to the fact that spending more does not necessarily lead to better outcomes.”
The educational-industrial complex is no more about educating children than the military-industrial complex is about protecting the nation. America believes in bettering education through administration. In the US between 1950 and 2009: student growth: 96 percent; teacher growth: 252 percent; administrative/staff growth: 702 percent.
The root issue is an ego problem. Those in charge of making these “fad” decisions claim that their shiny, experimental ideas are worthy enough to abandon tried and true educational traditions that have been tested and honed through generations. They use children as educational guinea pigs, just as I was, disregarding the consequences their experiments will have down the road.
Pouring more money into a system that lurches from one fad to the next and that values administrators and staff more than teaching, does not fix the problem but perpetuates it.
Dale Courtney served 20 years in nuclear engineering aboard submarines and 15 years as a graduate school instructor. He now spends his spare time chasing his grandchildren around the Palouse.