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Teach something

Culture | Bush reforms threaten "constructivist" theories

Issue: "Reining in the UN," Feb. 17, 2001

The assaults on the president's educational reform policies are zeroing in on vouchers for private schools. But the teacher unions are really worried about the president's plan to tie federal funding to objective measurements of student learning. If this plan is not derailed-or co-opted-teachers will have to change their whole curriculum. Reversing the decades-long trend in education, they might have to teach actual content.

Contemporary educational theory, as taught in the nation's teacher-training programs and as enshrined in state Departments of Public Instruction and local school curriculum, holds that education is all about teaching processes, not knowledge. The so-called "constructivist" educational theory shifts the focus of education from the objective realm to the subjective realm. Students are taught to create their own meanings-making up their own ways of spelling, developing their own opinions, choosing their own values. Students are to spend lots of time in groups sharing their feelings and doing "fun activities."

That young people are practically clueless when it comes to history, civics, culture, and the arts has become a running Jay Leno joke, but their lack of interest in science and math has made America's technical sector dependent on foreign workers from countries with better schools.

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When studies show American high-schoolers as trailing much of the world in math, pundits blame television, parents, and the culture. They apparently do not realize that university schools of education tell teachers not to make children memorize things, like the multiplication table, or even to do computation-the adding, subtracting, multiplying, and long division that has always been at the heart of arithmetic. Now we have calculators. Nobody totes up numbers on paper anymore, teachers learn, so there is no need to teach it. Instead, math instruction consists increasingly of games, puzzles, and exercises in using a calculator.

Inner-city schools, understandably desperate to raise the performance and real-life skills of poor minority students, in particular have seized upon the calculator-based curriculum. And yet, a recent study has shown that students who depend on calculators score even worse on math tests than they did before, even when they are allowed to use calculators while taking the test!

Forcing schools to measure what their students know-and having severe consequences ranging from loss of funds to giving parents vouchers to send their kids to a school that believes in objective truth-would force educators to abandon their decades-long and mostly fruitless experimentation with constructivism. Instead, they would have to find ways to teach objective and demanding academic content.

Reformers, though, should not underestimate the ability of the educational establishment, which is entrenched and ingenious, to co-opt and nullify their programs.

Educators are responding to the crisis in math education by blaming "traditional" math education and calling for even more constructivism! They act as if they are the outsiders, crusading against a hidebound traditionalist establishment. Actually, in education as in the media and other culture-making institutions, the liberals are the establishment, having been in complete control of teacher training, licensing requirements, curriculum development, textbook writing, and what goes on in actual classrooms for decades.

Reformers need to realize that alternative schools will not work unless they have an alternative curriculum. Charter schools often define their differences by being even more experimental and constructivist than the regular public schools. The president's home state of Texas has imposed a moratorium on new charter schools after only 59 percent of their students passed basic skill exams, as compared to 78 percent of those in regular schools.

Christian schools are sometimes little better, imagining that they can graft some religious training onto a secularist, postmodernist curriculum. Constructivist, content-free educational theory has even infiltrated the education programs of conservative churches, as Cathy Mickels and Audrey McKeever have shown in Spiritual Junk Food: The Dumbing Down of Christian Youth.

This may be why, as a recent George Barna poll has shown, teenagers increasingly believe in the Bible, but are increasingly oblivious as to what is in it. Three out of five teenagers believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but six out of 10 believe that salvation is earned by good works, two-thirds believe that Satan is just a symbol, and 53 percent believe that Jesus committed sins while He was on earth.

Educational reform-whether in public schools, private schools, Christian schools, or Sunday schools-will go nowhere, unless students are made not just to learn, but to learn something.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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