It's About Mental Health, Stupid

Much of Education Reform Is 'Psycho-Behavioral Calisthenics'

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Oh, great! Another school year; America's still near the bottom of the global heap, according to the Educational Testing Service, in math, science, and reading comprehension; but The Washington Post runs an article glamorizing the fact that academics are out, and more touchy-feely, privacy-invading mush is in ["Phonics Is Out, Fairy Tales Are In,'' The Washington Post, Sept. 8, 1993]. Just what we need!

According to the article, 1st graders in a Washington suburb will learn to spell by looking at familiar shopping labels--Nordstrom's, Cheerios, etc. They will learn to read, Lord knows how, since teachers will "eschew most phonics ... and plunge into the world of 'children's literature'--fairy tales, fables, and classic stories ... [and] read stories such as The Little Red Hen to one another.'' The youngsters will "keep a written journal ... and be 'assessed,' not graded, on the basis of portfolios of their writing.''

"Children [beginning at 1st grade] have to be given autonomy; they have to be given ownership of their learning,'' chirped the Dranesville, Md., teacher quoted.

As a former teacher, let me tell you exactly what the kids are going to get out of this:

The children will learn to spell "gleam'' g-l-e-e-m, just like the toothpaste--if they have a good visual memory. If they don't, they'll migrate to the back of the room and decline to participate. By failing to learn phonics--which most teachers today have no idea how to teach--these students will be denied the tools for deciphering the "code,'' the rules of English spelling, which covers more than 85 percent of the words in our language.

The child may be able to make out the traffic signs as he whizzes along the freeway (and possibly pass a driving test), but he will not be able to do anything more advanced than follow a dumbed-down set of directions or write an incoherent paragraph about the importance of safe driving. If he's bright enough, this look-say, or "whole language,'' approach to reading may make him literate, in that he will recognize enough words to get by, but reading, per se, will be of little practical use to him, and all his school subjects eventually will be affected. Unless the pupil has excellent visual memory, he will never read effortlessly and fluently, which is a prerequisite for lifelong learning, reading for pleasure, and decisionmaking in a democratic republic.

The child won't know he lives in a democratic republic, but that's another issue.

His journal and diary writing will be examined not so much for academic knowledge, but for psychological "defects'' and home-family problems. His teachers will be asked to look for signs of emotional disturbance, and the school psychologist and/or counselor will take it from there.

The term "assessed,'' as opposed to graded, is the only thing the article in the Post got right. It's part and parcel of the "whole child'' theory of education. What a youngster believes and feels and thinks is assessed for "appropriateness''; what he knows will become increasingly insignificant.

So when the Educational Testing Service says test scores are going up, down, or sideways, you had better ask what kinds of questions they're talking about. If they specify math and science, so be it. But assessment questions are not the same as academic questions. Here's a sample from Pennsylvania's Educational Quality Assessment, put out by the E.T.S. in 1984:

  • "I feel I don't have much chance to control things that happen to me.'' Check: [a] Very true of me, [b] Mostly true of me, [c] Mostly untrue of me, [d] Very untrue of me.
  • You are asked to sit at a table with retarded students. In this situation, I would feel: [a] Very comfortable, [b] Comfortable, [c] Slightly uncomfortable, [d] Very uncomfortable.
  • A person in a crowd is standing on a street corner. They are protesting about something. Some people pick up rocks and start throwing them at windows. I would also throw rocks when I knew: [a] There was no chance of getting caught, [b] I agreed with what they were protesting about, or [c] My closest friend decided to throw rocks.
  • There is a secret club at school called the Midnight Artists. They go out late at night and paint funny sayings and pictures on buildings. A student is asked to join the club. In this situation, I would join the club when I knew: [a] My best friend asked me to join, [b] The most popular students were in the club, [c] My parents would ground me if they found out I joined.

The only "appropriate'' answers for these types of questions on the E.Q.A. test appear to be those indicative of a conformist mentality, either to please the group or to avoid punishment. Most states use similar tests, put out by E.T.S. and other testing contractors, such as Psychological Corporation. Most tests are "slugged,'' so as to be identifiable down to the individual child and classroom. The results (even the responses themselves) are entered into cross-referenceable databanks at first the state, then federal, levels. The "portfolios'' the Post article mentions are more than likely electronic portfolios, not the old manila folders.

If a majority of students in a school district give "inappropriate'' responses to the same questions, "remedial'' minicourses, called "strands,'' are brought into the various hard-subject areas to improve scores. In other words, personal opinions are being assessed for "correct'' responses in a pluralistic society that supposedly treasures the concept of individual differences.

What happens to a youngster's self-esteem as a result of all this foolishness? Look at two random sentences taken from typical academic textbooks:

1. Thomas Jefferson was the first President to be inaugurated in Washington.

2. As the Spirit of St. Louis touched down on the turf, the crowds surged toward it.

Using the currently voguish "whole language'' (the old "look-say'') approach, based on sight memory and context clues, the minimally competent students turned out in these classes will, by 7th grade, read the lines above as follows:

1. Thomas Jefferson was the first President to be assassinated in Washington.

2. As the Spirit of St. Louis rolled along the surf, the cowards surged toward it.

Naturally, the student will do poorly on academic tests. Because of the nature of his errors, the rest of the selections will make no sense to him. Why was Thomas Jefferson assassinated? the student will wonder. The rest of the paragraph seems to indicate the man lived on a good while! And did the Spirit of St. Louis have water-landing gear? Why did cowards go up to it instead of away from it? And so on.

Passed on from grade to grade, this student eventually will throw up his hands in exasperation because nothing in any of his classes makes sense.

What kind of self-esteem do you think he will have?

How long are parents going to put up with this nonsense? American taxpayers--not to mention schoolchildren--have endured one fiasco after another for 30 years in the name of psycho-behavioral calisthenics passed off as "education reform.''

The American public has been amazingly patient through all this. It gave up a method of reading instruction that had 70 years of experimental research behind it and which was successful in producing a literate population (remember those soldiers' letters in Ken Burns's award-winning Civil War documentary?). We exchanged that method for one having only a smattering of subjective, anecdotal research.

We relinquished proven techniques for teaching mathematics, nearly all instruction in geography, penmanship, essay writing, English grammar, and chronological history. Parents acquiesced on the issues of school dances for preteens, lax dress codes, graphic sex education as a separate course (that is, separate from biology and physiology), and cheerfully exchanged civics for insipid pap called "social studies.''

Moreover, America gave up the three R's and got back the three I's: ignorance, illiteracy, and illegitimacy.

Parents of the postwar years wanted a "kinder and gentler nation,'' just like former President Bush. They had just been through the horrors of World War II, and they were in no mood for a repeat performance. Americans were vulnerable, therefore, to the arguments of behavioral psychologists, which came at them, first through articles and books touting appealing but unworkable philosophies of child management that eschewed adult guidance and leadership. These messages were later repeated through colleges of education in the form of courses in "educational psychology.''

Suddenly grades were "dehumanizing.'' Lecturing was passÀe. Tests were traumatizing. Drills, practice, and rote learning were judged "dull.'' Homework undermined family life. (That's a howl, now, isn't it?) Workbooks were "too expensive'' and "impersonal.'' Criticism "frustrated pupils,'' and red markings on students' papers were "insulting.'' Geography, penmanship, study hall, and physiology were out; plush sports facilities, educational games, and sex clinics were in.

Establishment educators in expensive think tanks questioned whether the ability to spell correctly was worth the price of a traumatized adult. Learning was always supposed to be easy and fun. It occurred through some mystical process of intellectual osmosis; if you were in the same room together it somehow seeped in through your brain cells.

The rationale, of course, was that nobody should have his personality "warped'' by failure. Do you want your child to be a Hitler or a Mussolini? psychologists challenged. Nobody did.

Graduate and in-service education classes I took in the 1970's admonished us teachers to forgo standards of excellence in favor of "giving everybody a taste of success.'' But the upshot was that public schools and even some private ones coasted downhill on the sled of mediocrity, sapping the incentive of students and teachers as they went. Instead of encouraging pupils to try harder so they could keep getting this wonderful "positive feedback,'' the instant-success syndrome had a demoralizing effect and led to apathy. Many students began choosing as much idleness as possible as a way of life. We teachers, frustrated and emotionally drained from spending our days as babysitters and entertainers, reacted predictably. Some, like me, changed professions; others lashed out at parents and administrators. This spurred union membership. From teachers' unions like the National Education Association emanated a never-ending stream of rabble-rousing leaflets in teachers' mailboxes (I remember them well), which in the end further alienated parents from their schools.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Gradually, social adjustment and behavioral goals took the place of academics.

The bottom line is that today, education is not about literacy. It is not about proficiency at anything. It is not about basics, or core curriculum, or skills, or jobs.

It's about mental health, stupid!

Vol. 13, Issue 07, Pages 40, 43

Published in Print: October 20, 1993, as It's About Mental Health, Stupid
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