The Other McCain

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Escaping the School Trap

Posted on | April 1, 2023 | 1 Comment

The two-room schoolhouse

Every normal boy hates school, and it is fair to say I was “educated” against my will. Maybe some of my readers are weirdos — nerds and teacher’s pets and other goody-two-shoes types who derived a perverse pleasure from school attendance — but that’s your problem, not mine.

There are few critics of public education who have been at it longer than I have, since I was a first-grader at Annette Winn Elementary School in Lithia Springs, Georgia. As I warn friends, don’t ever get me started on this subject, because I could go on for hours about what’s wrong with America’s education system, namely everything — every damned thing!

The root cause of the evil is what’s called ADA, i.e., the state makes a certain allotment of taxpayer money for every child in public schools, based on Average Daily Attendance. It therefore behooves the administrators of public schools to maximize attendance and to increase the years of schooling. If you are familiar with the history of education, you know that preschool and kindergarten were not part of public schools until quite recently and, if you go further back — prior to the 1930s — high-school attendance was neither mandatory nor commonplace in many parts of America. In rural counties, public education was provided at the two-room country schoolhouse, the curriculum of which extended only up to eighth grade. There was often only one high school in the entire county, a municipal institution in the county seat and, for example, the farm boy in rural Floyd County, Georgia, who wished to attend Rome High School circa 1914, would have to (a) find someone in town to provide him room and board, and (b) pay for his tuition and books, since the school was funded by city taxes, rather than county taxes.

Jethro Bodine and Jed Clampett

Those who’ve watched The Beverly Hillbillies laughed when Jethro would boast of his intellectual prowess: “I’ve got an eighth-grade education!” However humorous we might find it, this was the reality for most people who grew up in rural America, even as late as World War II. Girls and boys growing up on the farm didn’t have access to schooling beyond eighth grade, unless they had some way to get to town. Think of how long a 10- or 15-mile trip would take by horse and buggy on winding dirt country roads, so that even if a farm family were prosperous enough to be able to afford such an expense, difficulties of traveling any great distance were a serious impediment to pursuing education beyond what was available at the nearest two-room country schoolhouse. About 30 years ago, when I lived in Rome, Georgia, it was my good fortune to be assigned to interview several old-timers, including local historian Dr. C.J. Wyatt, about conditions in “the old days” (i.e., between 1900 and World War II).

The way education was organized in those days bore little resemblance to our modern school system. Out in the county, the two-room school might only meet for 100 days a year (rather than the 180-day school calendar than now prevails) and advancement from grade to grade was not based on a child’s age. The school was divided into the primary group, up until fourth-or fifth grade, which met in one room, while the upper group met in the other room, roughly the equivalent of a middle school curriculum. The staff of the school was exactly two — the principal teaching the upper group, and an assistant teaching the lower grades. A particularly precocious child might begin attending school at age five or six, but age seven was more common. And because children’s labor was valuable (even necessary) to farm life, many students attended sporadically, and their schooling often ended at age 12 or 13. To advance in grades, a child had to master whatever was required at each grade — there was no “social promotion” — and it might be that a child of 10 or 12 would still be toiling away on second- or third-grade lessons, while a bright and studious child the same age was already doing seventh- or eight-grade work.

Perhaps you now understand why Jethro Bodine felt he’d made a great academic accomplishment by finishing eighth grade. There were plenty of farm boys who never made it that far, and we may contrast this seemingly primitive educational system with what we have now in America.

Back in the 1990s, not long after Newt Gingrich had become Speaker of the House, I watched him give a speech on C-SPAN where he referred to modern high schools as “subsidized dating” and pointed out that many high schools were graduating kids who couldn’t even read their own diplomas. If this was true in 1995, how much worse is it now?

Before I continue further down this path — as I said, I could go on for hours in detailing what’s wrong with education in America — let me explain that this rant was inspired by a Glenn Reynolds article on Substack, “The Age Barrier, And Its Costs,” addressing the problem of age segregation. For a definition, I’ll cite Wikipedia:

Age segregation is the separation of people based on their age, and may be observed in many aspects of some societies. . . . Age segregation in schools, age grading, or graded education is the separation of students into years of education (grades, forms) by approximately the same age.
In the United States, graded education was introduced during 1848 to 1870. Age segregation in the U.S. was a product of industrialization, Western formal schooling, child labor laws, social services agencies, and the rise of disciplines such as psychology and education. A combination of these caused a shift from family working as a unit to separation of economic activities and childcare emerged.

To say that this was “a product of industrialization” is a way of implying that the division of children into age-graded classrooms was a social trend — something impersonal, a more or less natural byproduct of the processes of history — but this is false. In fact, the U.S. school system began changing in the mid-1800s because certain “reformers” had gone to Germany and came back promoting “modern” ideas based on their enthusiasm for the Prussian state school system. This “reform” movement began with Horace Mann in Massachusetts and gradually spread from there. We are far removed from Boston in the 1840s, of course, but it’s important to recognize that the ideas which shaped our public school system didn’t just happen as part of some historical trend, rather that these ideas were advanced by individual human beings, activists and organizers who had specific goals in mind.

Contrary to what you may think, education “reform” has been actively resisted at every step of the way by intelligent people who saw clear dangers in the changes being promoted by the reformers. The problems of the age-grade system were apparent long ago. Education consultant Karl Bunday cites the work of a 1912 critic quoted in Charles Silberman’s 1970 book Crisis in the Classroom:

“[The age-grade class system] is constructed upon the assumption that a group of minds can be marshalled and controlled in growth in exactly the same manner that a military officer marshalls and directs the bodily movements of a company of soldiers. In solid, unbreakable phalanx the class is supposed to move through all the grades, keeping in locked step. This locked step is set by the ‘average’ pupil — an algebraic myth born of inanimate figures and an addled pedagogy. The class system does injury to the rapid and quick-thinking pupils, because these must shackle their stride to keep pace with the mythical average. But the class system does a greater injury to the large number who make slower progress than the rate of the mythical average pupil . . . They are foredoomed to failure before they begin.”

This “lockstep” nature of a curriculum based upon the average student results in what I’ve called the “Hansel and Gretel” approach to teaching. Those who recall the fairy tale know how Hansel and Gretel left a trail of bread crumbs behind them to help them find their way back home. In a similar manner, the teacher doles out lessons in a time-ordered sequence — the bread-crumb trail of knowledge — with a certain amount of math, grammar, history, etc., to be taught each day, without regard to the abilities or interests of the students. Let us stipulate that this method cannot be separated from the classroom system; we are not passing judgment on whether teachers are “nice” people, or whether they are sincere in their desire to help students learn, when we apply critical scrutiny to the system itself. No matter how intelligent or dedicated the teacher may be, so long as “education” is a matter of group instruction, with children assigned to classrooms by age (rather than by their ability or interest), and the teacher required to bring the children along through a prescribed set of lessons, this “Hansel and Gretel” method must be used, and its effects are predictable, as the critic saw in 1912.

Public education in general violates a basic principle of successful organization, i.e., voluntary association through mutual self-selection. Think about college fraternities. Candidates for membership attend rush parties at the houses that they’re interested in joining. Members of the fraternities meet the prospective candidates, then vote on which ones should receive offers of membership. A student might receive such bids from more than one fraternity, in which case he is free to choose between them. And once an offer of membership is accepted, the pledge must go through a trial period — learning the secret handshake, etc. — before becoming a full-fledged member. Each fraternity has standards of behavior, embodied in a code, and enforced by a membership committee that can expel any member who fails to uphold the code. And if member for any reason becomes dissatisfied with the obligations of fraternity life, he is always free to quit. In a free society, this is how practically all successful enterprises are organized, and a major reason public schools are such a disaster is because they are not based on this principle of mutual self-selection. Public schools are based on government-imposed compulsion, and as such are offensive to the spirit of liberty.

The spirit of liberty at Faber College, 1962

We have heard liberals talk about “structural racism,” the idea that black people suffer disadvantage (and white people benefit from “privilege”) even without anyone in the system having racist intention, simply because of the way the system is set up. We might make a similar critique of our education system — American public schools are defined by structural failure. The problems of the system cannot be fixed by reform; the system itself is the problem. Students are collected into classrooms not on the basis of their interests or abilities, but rather on the basis of age and ZIP code. Every eight-year-old in a certain geographical district must attend third grade at the local elementary school, where they are all instructed in the same curriculum. This one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and it hasn’t been working for a long time, and efforts to reform it by creating limited alternatives within the existing system — “magnet” schools or whatever — must be recognized as efforts to preserve the system, rather than to fundamentally change the system.

And it all goes back to the ADA. Funding schools on the basis of Average Daily Attendance creates perverse incentives which have in several cases led to scandal, as in Baltimore, where “ghost students” were listed as attending schools that they did not in fact attend. “City Schools receives $15,973 per student, every year from taxpayers,” so that a school with 20 fictitious enrollments was swindling taxpayers to the tune of more than $300,000 a year. The level of academic achievement in Baltimore schools is almost non-existent: “Just 7 percent of third through eighth graders testing proficient in math, meaning 93 percent could not do math at grade level.” This evidence of system-wide failure demonstrates the underlying problem, where the people in charge of the school think of it as a jobs program — the goal being to maximize revenue, in order to provide employment for more certified “professional educators” — with little regard to the ostensible objective of educating children.

As long as X-number of children are attending school, the school receives Y-amount of money, and nothing else matters, in terms of the basic functioning of the system where funding is determined by ADA. Basically, children are held hostage for taxpayer ransom: “Give us $15,000 a year per child and nobody gets hurt.” Except, of course, children are getting hurt by this system, but most adults don’t care because they’re telling themselves a narrative based on anecdotal experience: “Well, I attended public school and I turned out OK.” Thanks, Grandpa, we’re glad you enjoyed yourself back in the Good Old Days, but how is this relevant to the disaster in Baltimore? How can your misty-eyed memories justify imprisoning kids in failing schools until they turn 18, in order to provide employment to certified “professional educators”?

Professor Reynolds talks about age segregation as a society-wide phenomenon, but it starts with the way our schools are organized. Any reasonably bright student — say, the top 10% or 15% — could complete a high-school education by age 16, if placed on an accelerated program, but the schools don’t want to lose the revenue! In other words, if the schools allowed bright students to learn at their own pace and complete high school early, the system would lose the additional revenue it would otherwise obtain by keeping the kids until age 18. The age-grade system serves to preserve the “lockstep” fiction of everyone learning the one-size-fits-all curriculum at the same pace, so that the system maintains its iron grip on all children in a geographic district, in order to guarantee funding according to the ADA formula. The addition of kindergarten and pre-K to this system was simply a means of expanding funding by extending the system’s reach, to put 4- and 5-year-olds into its greedy clutches.

Here’s a question: If it is not necessary to keep bright students trapped in public schools until age 18 — if they could complete the required work by age 15 or 16 — what about the lesser minds among them? What about the children of below-average intelligence, who are not destined for collegiate education? Wouldn’t it be better, in terms of social benefit, to direct these kids toward a skill-based training that would prepare them for gainful employment? Shouldn’t they be directed at age 14 or 15 toward apprentice-type situations where they can make minimum wage while doing on-the-job training? And if, at age 16, they’re able to work full-time, shouldn’t the school system say, “Well-done and farewell”?

A willingness to “think outside the box” is necessary when the box in question is a system that has become a crime scene that ought to be surrounded by yellow tape while detectives investigate what went wrong that led to this catastrophic outcome. Beginning with the Prussian-inspired “reforms” of Horace Mann, our education system has followed a trajectory that seemed to be going upward — by the mid-20th century, American schools were producing students who would eventually send men to the moon — until, almost imperceptibly at first, signs of trouble began to appear, like a “check engine” light on the dashboard. Is it a coincidence that the great upheaval of the Civil Rights era began with a Supreme Court decision regarding schools? Is it also a coincidence that the turmoil of the 1960s was typified by protests on university campuses that shut down such elite institutions as Columbia and Yale? And isn’t the greatest threat to free speech now the climate of repression on university campuses? So many of our society’s problems are rooted in our school system. Conservatives should be paying more attention to this, and less attention to the endless political carnival of Washington, D.C.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!




One Response to “Escaping the School Trap”

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