Why Johnny Doesn’t Read: The Crisis of Infinite Reforms

Our schools are in crisis.

I say, our schools are in crisis!

We are twenty something in science and something teenth in math (or vice versa). We aren’t number one and that means (do we even know what that means?) that our educational system is in crisis. How can we compete with other nations if we are not number one? How will we win the future? We must race to the top while leaving no child behind. We must test, test, test in order to teach, teach, teach and by test, test, testing, we will win, win, win.

Sound familiar? Sound correct? Sound vapid?

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

A crisis is defined as:

a : an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome

b : a situation that has reached a critical phase

Is this where we are, in an unstable or crucial time? Is there decisive change impending? Is there a distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome? Are we in a critical phase? What do the numbers twenty something and number one mean? How exactly do you win the future? Where is this behind we can’t leave the children and to what top are we racing? How does testing teach and how do we know we have won anything?

There has been much Sturm und Drang about the state of education in the United States. Books have been written, documentaries have been produced, politicians been elected and rejected, talking heads have bloviated and blame has been established. We have even appointed and anointed our hero saviors who will rescue the children.

But when you start to question exactly what all this verbiage means, you soon find out that no one really knows. What most people do know is that students aren’t testing well. And that’s about it. They don’t know if the tests are reliable or valid. They don’t know what mitigating factors may be affecting the test scores. They just know the kids are not number one and the future of their world depends on the students being number one.

If we can’t define the problem, how do we know how to fix it, what to fix, or if there is a need to fix anything at all?

Our Children Are Dumb.

This seems to be what most people think. Evidenced by standardized testing, we have deduced, induced and reduced the problem to one sentence: Our children are dumb. They don’t know the things they need to know at the ages they need to know them. From the Washington Post:

After a decade of intensive efforts to improve its schools, the United States posted these results in a new global survey of 15-year-old student achievement: average in reading, average in science and slightly below average in math. … The U.S. scores of 500 in reading and 502 in science, on a 1,000-point scale, were about the organization’s average, according to the report. The U.S. math score of 487 was below the average of 496.
(International test score data show U.S. firmly mid-pack)

Average scores will not win the future (I hate to agree with Sarah Palin’s script writers but WTF?) but average scores are normal, they are average. What is wrong with being average? Most jobs in this country only require an average intelligence, an average education, and many actually discourage innovation and invention when coming from the bottom up. Critical thinking can get you fired. So why the panic?

What average test scores are is an affront to the widely held belief in American Exceptionalism (not the textbook definition of American Exceptionalism, but the belief that Americans are god’s chosen people and as such will win any battle, any race, any competition and if this becomes not the case, then it must be due to the work of satanic forces.) This will not do. America must man the battle stations, full steam ahead, call up the reserves, start grabbing all the kitchen sinks you can find and start throwing.

Are you throwing?



Anything changed?


Wasn’t supposed to.

Reformers to the Rescue! (Maybe)

Throughout the history of this nation we have developed and/or implemented hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of school reforms that were all guaranteed to fix whatever it was that was ailing institutional education in the USA at the time.

  • monitorial system.
  • child study
  • transcendental education
  • learning by doing (Dewey)
  • administrative progressivism
  • cultural literacy
  • Outcome-Based Education
  • Standards-based education
  • Charter schools, school choice, or school vouchers

And that’s only a teeny tiny sliver of all the reforms school children have suffered through in this country. Now, the educators who developed these reforms, did so, I’m sure, with loving hands and charitable thoughts. But politicians then use them as anything from a distraction to the Trojan horse.

Lack of phonics was the problem in 1950s, not the complications of segregation and de-segregation. The problem in the 60s could solved by the New Math (that problem growing out of Sputnik and fears of losing the space race) and pay no attention to disparities in education dollars and the allocation of resources.

Today, our bruised vanity requires still more reform. We must be number one and who better to lead us into the victory circle than … business men!


The problem, you see, in public education is the public part. Get the government bureaucrats out of the way and let private enterprise and competition create an educational model that will make our students the envy of the world once again. Arne Duncan and Bill Gates (two men who have never sat behind the big desk with many pencils) are going to make sure your kids are number one. And how are they going to do it? They are going to test your children to within an inch of their lives and fire all the bad teachers and bust the teachers unions. Won’t that be fun? Nothing makes kids happier and more open to learning than testing; nothing makes teachers teach better than the threat of unemployment and financial ruin, and nothing attracts new employees like a lack of job security and no effective forum to express grievances. Oh happy day!

Private charter schools are the wave of the future. School boards answerable to parents (i.e. voters) aren’t working, boards of directors answerable to stockholders are far more profitable, I mean, effective. And with the oncoming growth and success of private charter schools, we can finally put to rest the myth that there exist within society institutions that are better left to the public commons and that private enterprise is not in all occasions the best way to go. Today the schools, tomorrow the world!

Notice within all this reform, and winning, and testing, and firing, no one has yet to show that Johnny knows or will know any more than he did yesterday or does now. See, you can’t test critical thinking on a dot-dot test, creativity and native talent don’t show up readily on a bell curve, and it’s all but impossible to graph originality and imagination. You don’t teach by testing, you teach by teaching. You lecture, you listen, you question, you answer, you experiment, you practice, you question some more, you engage the subject, deconstruct and reconstruct the subject, you discuss and debate, and that is how you learn.

But that takes time, and small class size and teacher support and parents who don’t have to dedicate 12 to 18 hours a day to two and a half jobs just to keep the family finances above water and a society not still debating whether or not proven science is still “just a theory.” You have to teach students how to be students . You have to value teachers and the work they do. You have to take as a societal given that education is worth the time and effort and money and it is not a chore to get through by the age of 22 and be done with it, but a life long journey to be explored and enjoyed.

Here endeth the lesson.


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