The mediocrity of K-12 education in the United States originates in departments, colleges and schools of education wherein professors do not believe that systematically acquired knowledge of the liberal arts is important. They believe, instead, in so-called “constructivist” approaches that begin with the knowledge base and life experiences of the student as a foundation for seeking information that is relevant to each particular young person.
This so-called “progressive” approach to education is implemented on the assumption that the systematic accumulation of knowledge in math, natural science, social science, history, literature and the fine arts is not important. Only topics that passionately drive a given student are important, and a teacher serves as “facilitator” in accumulating this particularistic information. As to the accumulated knowledge from our human inheritance, one can always “look it up.”
This view of education and the teacher is deeply flawed. Imagine going to a cardiologist with complaints about chest pains and being told that the doctor would have to take a moment to look up what is known about arterial blockage, because this was not covered in medical school. Imagine describing to an attorney how police officers broke into one’s home without a search warrant and being told by this lawyer that this sounds like an interesting predicament that he or she would have to research, because such issues were not part of the law school curriculum.
Taught by such professors promulgating the “constructivist” and “progressive” approach to knowledge and pedagogy, our K-5 teachers, especially, enter our classrooms woefully underprepared. Those who teach grades 6-12 are a bit better trained, because most get bachelor’s degrees in legitimate disciplines (e. g., physics, math, history, economics, English literature, fine arts). But low licensure requirements mean that those who enter our middle schools and high schools are not always truly masters of their fields. Graduate programs for teachers, in the meantime, provide programs for easily attained master’s degrees that are financial spigots for universities.
Teachers unions act in ways to protect such unprepared teachers. Most central school district and school building administrators are too busy protecting their sinecures of substantial remuneration to contest teacher union power, and thus the status quo prevails.
Our children walk across stages to receive diplomas in name only. Most could not tell you the difference between debt and deficit; the Roman and Byzantine Empires; Newtonian and Einstein’s physics; ego and superego; or the literary styles of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. And they could not tell you the essential differences in the approaches to the African-American dilemma in the early 20th century as espoused by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey.
Constructivist ideology and systemic flaws operate in highly similar ways from state to state, so that teacher-preparation programs and institutions of K-12 education maintain the status quo of mediocrity in Minnesota and throughout the nation. But we cannot afford to wait for the needed overhaul of teacher-preparation programs on college campuses; nor can we depend on action at the state level to produce the needed institutional change.
The needed overhaul of K-12 education will ride the waves of energy emitted by local school district activists who take seriously the great accumulated wealth of knowledge that defines the human experience, working to retrain teachers and revamp curriculum to ensure that children of all ethnic backgrounds and economic circumstances receive this knowledge as their rightful inheritance.
Gary Marvin Davison is the author of eight books; he was writer and researcher for “The State of African Americans in Minnesota” (Minneapolis Urban League, 2004 and 2008 editions). For 10 years, he has served as teacher and administrator for the New Salem Educational Initiative.