Lurching from fad to fad: The problematic history of education reform in America

Education in the United States has lurched from fad to fad for the better part of a century, finding ever-ingenious ways to underperform preceding generations.  

The causes are myriad, but the…

Education in the United States has lurched from fad to fad for the better part of a century, finding ever-ingenious ways to underperform preceding generations.  

The causes are myriad, but the mechanisms of failure can be identified, and must be discredited to ensure they never rise again to drag yet more generations of children into an abyss of ignorance. 

Take the “whole language” movement of the 1980s for example. Phonics was abandoned in favor of learning through “whole word” associations. The movement began in the early 1920s and remained on the outside of mainstream education until the anything-goes generation that came of age in the late 1960s ushered it into America’s schools amid great fanfare.  

Reading proficiency plummeted as a result. Thankfully, phonics has made a resurgence, although it still faces an uphill slog in captivating the minds of educators steeped in more “wholistic” approaches. 

Mistakes were made in earlier decades, as well.  

Those of us old enough to remember black-and-white television may also recall the idea of “tracking,” where schools attempted to differentiate students with aptitudes for higher education from their more intellectually pedestrian peers, who were encouraged to follow the vocational/trade school “track” and not waste their time attempting to earn a university degree. 

Tracking was an outgrowth of the IQ testing movement, which falsely led teachers into thinking they could figure out children’s lot in life based on their IQ score. Formulaic assumptions regarding aptitude have never proved useful in any large-scale endeavor, as these formulae are incapable of accounting for drive and ambition – or lack thereof. 

Tracking went the way of another ill-fated fad, phrenology, the pseudoscience that claimed to predict mental traits by measuring bumps on the skull. Its demise was due in part to its association with eugenics, yet another pernicious idea that held our schools in thrall for more than a generation. 

Following the ideas of the genetic reductionists of the eugenics movement, progressivist educators of the early 20th century believed the relatively new social sciences would usher in a functional shorthand for the hard work of ascertaining a child’s potential. What could not be determined by feeling a child’s head for tell-tale bumps and ridges could be discovered by aptitude testing. 

The combination of untested and unproven theories of social efficiency and the claimed hard science of IQ testing led many schools to limit the availability of certain classes to entire segments of students, believing them incapable of understanding the subject matter. 

It’s this expectation of intellectual insufficiency that has led directly to the current culture of low expectations plaguing American schools today. 

Because ranking students based on IQ scores would be considered exclusionary today, expectations have been lowered across the board to achieve a false sense of equality, and to relieve teachers and administrators of a readily evident measure of their own ineffectiveness. 

Teachers’ colleges were quick to seize upon the new thinking in the last few decades of the 20th century and began de-emphasizing the importance of core competencies, such as math, literature, and the hard sciences, in favor of adopting a climate where the educator “facilitates learning,” rather than teaching knowledge. Some teachers now insist on the title “facilitator,” believing “teacher” to be outdated. 

This model of education shifted the focus from content-centered, to child-centered, where the imparting of knowledge became secondary to finding out what a child was interested in doing and letting him or her lead. 

The age-old idea of teacher-led instruction was largely abandoned, and the debate rages still today: to what extent should teachers actually teach children? 

Schools of education have inculcated would-be teachers with the idea that they should not instruct children, but stand on the side and help them learn, flying in the face of centuries of experience and success. 

Western classical education once featured a comprehensive study of literature, the combined wisdom of our ancestors. This has now been replaced with language arts, an amorphous umbrella term that treats all information as equal in value, compromising the lessons of our collective historical experience. 

History has been replaced by social studies, frequently taught by those who have never studied history, ensuring successive generations will commit the same errors as their precedents out of simple ignorance.  

It is this miasma of relativism from which we draw the young graduates entrusted with the minds of our children. Lacking direct knowledge themselves, they entertain each new fad as a breakthrough in education, the silver bullet for which we’ve all been waiting. 

The launching of teachers’ colleges at the turn of the 20th century sought to reorder education, to create a more practical approach based on the new social sciences, particularly psychology, which, in their hubris, educators believed to be capable of deconstructing the foibles of the human animal.  

This intellectual reductionism allows well-meaning educators to believe they can remake man as he should be – rather than understand him as he is – and teach him to do better. While generations of misguided educators pass through our schools, trying to correct the shortcomings of fallen mankind, our children suffer the many consequences of a poor education.  

Patiently waiting for our educational system to emerge from the incessant blur of lurching fads is a fool’s errand. 

Until the basics of instruction are reintroduced into the system, we’ll continue to see our schools captured and recaptured by error, ignorance and agenda, and in some cases, such as Critical Race Theory and Social Emotional Learning, a toxic combination of all three. 

The problem isn’t the student. It’s not even the teacher. It’s the mindless acceptance of the-next-new-thing as inherently better than those stale, old ways that produced the greatest minds of Western civilization.