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 intentionally designed so that parents cannot understand what’s really going on inside the classrooms. Probably it’s more practical to stay alert for the danger signs that can be observed from a distance. Here’s a checklist of the top eight signals that you don’t want your child in 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 in alphabetic/phonetic language, and should be taught phonetically. Children must immediately learn the alphabet, and that letters stand for sounds. (There seem to be five or 10 good phonics programs available. I’m not convinced the small differences matter. What’s been killing us is this one big difference: teaching basic alphabetic information or NOT teaching it. Any synthetic phonics program, mixed with poetry, song, and a light touch, seems to do the trick. Advocates of phonics report that virtually all their students learn to read by age 7. Advocates of Whole Word say children should memorize a few hundred words each year, in which case they’ll be effectively illiterate through high school.)

2) MATH: 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 such as Everyday Math, Connected Math, MathLand, TERC, CPM, etc.) These programs tend to push advanced concepts at children who don’t even know how to add 10 and 16. These programs like to use obscure methods and algorithms so that children end up confused and scattered. The proper goal is that children gain mastery of basic arithmetic, for example, easily adding and subtracting one- and two-digit numbers. Then they move on to multiplying and dividing one- and two-digit numbers. There should be no use of calculators, no “spiraling” about from topic to topic, no mention of college-level concepts.

3) KNOWLEDGE: The next most important thing is that children are routinely expected to acquire knowledge. This used to be ordinary; but for 75 years our educators have waged war against content, facts, and memorization. “They can look it up” is a huge danger signal. To study history, for example, requires that children first learn the names of oceans, continents, rivers, mountains, and countries. Basic geography should be a staple throughout the first few years; there should be maps in every classroom, both of the US and the world. In general, in all subjects, children should first be taught the very simplest information, the essentials, the foundational knowledge, all in preparation for studying the subject at a higher level. If children do not learn the names of the oceans in the first grade, they are not at a school but a babysitting service.

4) SCIENCE: Children should be taught, from the start, the rudiments of science and scientific thinking. For example, children can look at  common objects and say whether they are animal, vegetable or mineral. Children should be able to talk about water changing from solid to liquid to steam. Older children should be able to discuss the different kinds of problems dealt with by doctors, chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, etc. Studying simple maps, diagrams, charts, illustrations and blueprints is a good sign. (Put it another way, I can’t imagine that a bad school would think of teaching children to understand simple diagrams in first grade.)

5) CONSTRUCTIVISM: One of the big fads raging in some public schools is called constructivism. (It can turn up in the teaching of any subject.) The giveaways are phrases such as “construct new knowledge,” “guide at their side,” “prior knowledge,” “learning strategies,” etc. All of these stand in direct contrast to direct instruction, whereby expert teachers teach what they know better than anyone else in the room.  “A sage on a stage” is exactly what children need. Constructivism devalues the skill and preparation that good teachers bring to the schoolroom; and helps to conceal the poor training of bad teachers. Constructivism guarantees that instruction will move slowly and be fragmented.

6) FADS RUN RAMPANT: Other popular fads to be avoided include: Self Esteem (where children are constantly praised and awarded good grades even if doing a bad job); Cooperative Learning (where children are constantly forced to work in groups so they never learn to think for themselves); Critical Thinking (where children are encouraged to engage in deep discussions of subjects they know little about); Creativity Curriculum (where playing with the arts is given prominence over learning knowledge); and Fuzzy Anything (where children are allowed to guess, to concoct odd spellings and odd grammar without correction, to be wrong but still be graded as if correct). All of these are warning signs.

7) GOALS: Perhaps the most distinctive trait of good schools is that they talk about what will be taught and what will be accomplished. 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 distinguished by an endless litany of excuses and alibis. There is a sense that these schools don’t have clear goals, and they don’t really expect to advance very far. In bad schools, a lot of what happens is actually a sort of make-believe whereby children are kept busy doing pretend-work that doesn’t add up to very much. Perhaps the most disgusting part of the whole charade is that some of these schools will pretend that they are being considerate of the children, that they don’t want to push them too far, and they don’t want to expose the inadequacies of poor and minority children. All of this, it seems to me, is the merest drivel, not to mention racist. 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 go.”

8) SAFETY: A signal that cuts across all the others might be called basic orderliness and security. Schools should be safe places, both law-abiding and predictable. The point is that children should be able to relax so they can learn. A scary school ceases to be a school. The Principal (comparable to a small town’s Mayor and Sheriff) is a crucial figure in this paradigm: he or she sets the tone. Principals explain goals and policies to students and parents; principals motivate and support teachers. (This might be called the Principal Principle.)

Summary: The Tao of Education is very simple. Learning basics and academics is the goal, and the path to that goal. Facts and knowledge are the lifeblood of the classroom. Teaching should be as creative as possible; schools should be fun and student should smile a lot. But the whole process has to go somewhere, has to advance. At the end of each day, students know more than they did the day before. The problem with American education is that elite educators shifted away from knowledge-based education (a/k/a cognitive learning) toward feeling-based education (a/k/a affective learning).

A lot of psychotherapeutic prejudices were mixed in with a contempt for facts and a disregard of foundational knowledge, including even literacy. The result, as one would expect, would be a very dumbed-down, mediocre school, such you might find in any American city. The solution is to ignore the bad ideas that caused the trouble, turn away from the touchy-feely cliches, and seriously try to render service to students by giving them the best possible preparation for the rest of their lives.

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