Monday, October 15, 2007

Manhattan Project for Education

Why is it that everyone I speak with, conservative, liberal, teacher, cop, serial killer, whatever, agrees that America today is akin to Rome in its last days.

I don’t have all the answers (yet). But I do have some suggestions, although I have never attempted to synthesize them. But, I decided to take some time to fix our problems by suggesting various “Manhattan Projects” we should undertake as a nation. Should I die soon, I want a record of what we need to do to survive available for my legion of followers (legion being a metaphor for none, but you get my drift).

We can’t talk about all the Manhattan Projects we need to undertake, but I’ll start with education, because it is so basic.

Here’s the key. The problem is NOT the schools, at least not entirely. The problem is the culture and our child festishism which has convinced us that the best way to raise a kid is to convince him/her that they are royalty, no matter how they screw up, to shield them from all adversity, and convince them that having parents who can provide them with a cell phone at age 13 and a car at 17, is what matters most.

Children today are raised to feel as if they inherited the world, and theirs is but to play with toys, avoid all forms of competition, bathe in their parents’ smiles, and have everything done from them. This is, falsely, supposed to raise their self esteem. Hah. The truth is the opposite. Kids feel good when they accomplish things. Admittedly, they are not adults, and frankly, they are pretty stupid (oh, what a terrible thing to say), so some of the things they rate themselves and others on, are not really too important, but still, kids who feel good about themselves do it because they have a reason. Those who are buoyed with praise no matter how little they accomplish, will sink under real world pressures.

There seems to be some kind of radical change in the last decade where it has been determined that little children (I’m not talking about little babies, but somewhere between ages 2 or 3 to age 10) can’t cut their own meat, learn to be potty trained, lose a game, play by themselves and often, just behave (meaning “SHUT UP”). And although I am not a believer that tv warps children’s morals, it is a reason that they don’t have time to study more. TV, perhaps now being eclipsed by the computer (games and the internet) has become so important in our lives that our post work or school days has become centered on what’s on and when, and constant reinforcement of its importance.

Parents need to stop complaining about the schools when they are doing nothing to help their children with it. That means reading to and with the kids a lot, and getting tutoring for them in the subjects they are weakest in. Reading is critical, probably the most critical element in revamping our educational system.

Yes, our educational system is for the birds, but that’s because we are too lazy and much too interested in not offending anyone to change it. When enough parents want change, it will change.

The No Child Left Behind Act was always a dumb idea. It is now virtually proven that it hasn’t and will not work for anyone who wants to open their eyes. Competition works on many levels for many things. But education is not about market forces. The law should be scrapped.

But that doesn’t mean merit isn’t important. Tenure should be done away with for anyone who has not achieved it by today. Jobs should be awarded to those who show the best aptitude for connecting with students and conveying information. Nationwide test scores are not the answer. Each school district is ultimately responsible for itself.

Principals should be rotated every few years among senior teachers, and not become fiefdoms. Getting a degree in education is the biggest waste of time since putting magic spells on warriors so that arrows will bounce off of them.

The college major of Education should be done away with. Teaching internships and learning from watching different types of great teachers is much more important than any degree in what is basically a pseudo-science. I would rather have a smart person with a good personality teaching my kids than someone with stellar degrees and no ability to connect with the kids. By connect, I mean help the kids become interested in the subject and respect the teacher; they don’t need to believe they are his or her pal or like a son or daughter. In fact, that is probably a bad idea.

Third, the curriculum needs to be un-emancipated in one sense, yet freed in another. Freedom comes with the decapitation of “teaching for the test” (4th and 8th grade). I have personally never met a teacher who thought this was a good idea (and I ask). Almost everyone I ask thinks it is a waste of time and effort. But Un-emancipation comes with the devolution of the curriculum back to certain basics. Here they are:

First through third grade: Reading/writing, math and logic. The last is basic logical skills that everyone should know, but our system spends no time on at all. College philosophy class should not be the first introduction to systematic logic. Grade school should be. Very basic social studies comes with an advancement in reading, but does not need to be studied alone, except for the study of geography.

Fourth through six grade: Reading/writing, math, some history and science (chemistry and physics). Rudimentary Greek and/or Latin, not for their own sake, but because it will help with English and history and the later study of foreign languages.

Seventh through 10th grade: Reading/writing, math, history, science, either advanced Greek or Latin, or, one or more foreign languages. By 9th and 10th some can try applied sciences like architecture, engineering and automotive. Computers are built into every subject and are not a separate subject in primary or secondary school.

Eleventh and twelfth grade: More reading and writing for those who have not mastered basic English; No more English for those who can do it on their own – what is the point in wasting school time on it? Let them read books on their own; advanced math, history and science for those who have an aptitude for it or want to, and more applied sciences for those interested.

But there are things that must go so there is more time for the important things. First out the door is gym. If we have an obesity problem in this country we should do something about it (me first, of course). But taking up time in school is not one of them.

Music is great, but should be an after school activity for those who really want it. You might argue that everyone should get a chance to learn to play an instrument. Of course they should, but they should have to stay after school to do it or learn it on their own. It’s just not as important as reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. I have an idea. Instead of watching tv every night, or playing Halo III, let the kids take up an instrument then. Here’s another shocker. Louis Armstrong did not learn to play the trumpet in school. I doubt Van Halen learned to play guitar that way either (although, really, I have no idea, and am not going to research it either).

Art. Also gone, although I would accept an art history class in the later grades. Teach your kids to draw and paint at home. Great artists are not borne in grade school classes anymore than great musicians are.

Home economics, human sexuality and the like - gone. No arguments. School plays are great and very worthwhile. People should come to see them on week-end nights as they do now. But, it is not necessary to have kids a captive audience, however much they enjoy it, during the school day. How about, right after school, if you must have them watch it.

Those of you who are saying, but art & music & home economics & all that stuff are important in our culture. That’s true, but the project here is rescuing our decadent, video game playing, Mommy-I-don’t-want-to society from itself. Kids should be doing this at home, or in extra-curricular classes, or private schools like Tutor Time. The internet provides access to anything children want to do or study on their own.

Periods off for pep rallies and plays and boring speeches by the principal. Gone. Do it after school for those who want to come. I’m worried about China burying us, not who is going to win the football game at homecoming.

Because I believe reading and writing is so critical, I would give it extra attention from first grade on. I probably would not complain if, as an experiment, one group of children did nothing but read and write, with some basic math, for the first six years of school. I would do away with requirements for stodgy classics, and let kids read whatever interested them. I am fond of making people cringe by saying, if a young boy wants to read Playboy, let him read it (but make sure he’s not just looking at the pictures). I would much rather have boys talking about a Playboy magazine that they have read than about a classic they haven’t. If a young girl wants to read a fashion magazine, let her (for all you politically correctness Nazi's out there -- she can read Playboy and he can read Teen Fashion, for all I care).

Listen, I am not against any of the things I have gotten rid of above. But we need priorities. And that means do these non-essential things after school. Just like we do with sports now. China is not going to surpass us in so many things this century because they have better marching bands.

Teachers should not be overly aggressive bullies with no recourse for abused students, but no kid should be allowed to dominate a class through misbehavior. I have spoken to any number of teachers who complain how one bad kid can ruin a class, because the administration will not support the teacher against a parent. Remember, the parent is not the customer. Society is the customer. Life should imitate art a little here. I don’t know whether the Joe Clark Story was accurate or not, but it should be a model, particularly in run down, under funded schools. No learning can occur where the kids are more afraid of each other than they are of the teachers.

We should not be worried about leaving the most troubled children behind. We should be worried about leaving the huge middle group of kids behind those of our friends and adversaries around the world. Kids who can’t keep up should have the opportunity for extra tutoring (this is actually usually available now, but rarely taken advantage of by students). Kids who are emotionally or intellectually unable to cope have to be given special care, but the era of placing unruly children or those who need extra help in classrooms with kids more able to cope should end. It was a noble idea. But we know where best intentions often leads us. The teachers I have spoken with tell me it usually doesn’t work. Even if special needs kids might benefit from it, I have no doubt they are often ostracized too.

More important, if the vast number of the kids in the class are held back because the level of teaching is for the lowest common denominator, then, as one of our most esteemed philosophers said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (Mr. Spock in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan).

The same goes for taking kids out of class for special work, like speech, or guidance. Do it after school or before school. One teacher told me one year she had no kids in her class who were not taken out of class at least once a week for some special class. How are they supposed to learn if they were not present?

Not only would I get rid of tenure, and replace it with some merit system, but it would become a profession where the most important thing isn’t how many days off you get and how big is your pension. Hours during the day would be increased to include coaching or tutoring and the school year lengthened with it. Neither teachers nor students should be getting all of both July and August off. One month is enough, probably the warmest one. This means teachers who are hungry, who want to work and who are dedicated, get the jobs. Teachers who are spent, burnt out, dumb or unambitious, lose their jobs. Although time spent teaching will be longer, teachers who want to will have more time to do a better job with our kids, and they will have the authority to make sure it happens.

Perhaps the most important change should be this: Teachers will no longer be substitute parents. Lawsuits because of kids tripping, or falling off the swing, or because they got beaten up by another kid without warning, should be severely reduced. Parents should be parents, and teachers teachers. This is not a secret. Those students who get better support and guidance from their parents will usually do best in school as in sports and life in general. The schools will be in a position to help anyone who wants it, but not to have to waste time with people like me, who didn’t want it. I have more respect for the one teacher who flunked me with a 40, then those who passed me with a 65.

However, I would not be against, and probably for a two track system like Finland has in the last few years of secondary school. One set of students goes to vocational schools and another to college prep. This might seem un-American, but that’s because we are not really used to it. However, it is not really dissimilar to our BOCES at all. Kids who might be horrible at geometry, may find they have a knack for problem solving with automobiles, carpentry, plumbing or visa versa. Neither should be punished, and both encouraged.

One reason for the American Century was the influx of ideas from Europe (the original Manhattan Project was just this; without European scientists working on it, it never would have happened during the war, and maybe not for a decade or so later). Falling behind in education may hurt American feelings, but the reaction should not be to engage in jingoism and nationalism, but to seek out ideas from countries like Finland, the other Scandinavian countries, South Korea, China, etc.

Education isn’t everything, but it’s critical. It will be the basis for our society competing in the future with China and India, which have oodles more folk. I suggest we make these changes now. Start with tenure, the curriculum and the length of the school year. Within ten years, America will be back where it should be, near the top of the developed world in education. Patience, diligence and flexibility are the watchwords.

I am not blind to the fact that most of these ideas would be found unacceptable by most teachers and many parents today. That’s because we are too comfortable as a whole, and do not see the way the wind is blowing. I hope that it is not too late when we do. I’m a lot more concerned about this, than I am about global warming.

I’ll be back again to solve more of our critical problems in the future. Stayed tuned.


  1. Anonymous3:20 PM

    re. lazy kids

    look whos talking person who has time to write child abuse articles...

    lil max(ps. u no who i am)

    like the grammer, blame the schools....

  2. Anonymous12:33 PM

    I agree with 97% of this...perhaps your best (mainstream) blog.
    Send it to an Education trade mag and see if they have the balls to print it.
    I'll quibble with you over the 3% later.

  3. Kids need exposure to art and music, though I agree that art/music history is just as good or better than applied lessons. Eliminating tenure only works if the compensation structure for teachers is also entirely re-worked. Good job on this subject, your work provokes lots of thought on the topic.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .