NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Fads Of Public School Failure

June 25, 2001

Public education has long been plagued with fads that have failed to improve educational performance, says educational psychologist J.E. Stone in a new Independent Institute working paper.

Consider just a few of the now-discredited ideas that held the educational establishment enthralled for a few years:

  • California's failed "whole language" reading program cost the state billions to help undo its damage to public school students.
  • The worthless "open education" fad in the 1960s -- which sought "openness" by doing away with walls between classrooms -- imposed huge construction costs on cash-strapped school districts that came to understand the noise-reduction benefits of walls.
  • The "fuzzy math" fad failed so badly that 200 distinguished mathematicians and scientists signed a letter denouncing it.

Perhaps the biggest fad operating in the public schools today -- that makes educators prone to adopt other educational fads -- is called "learner-centered" education or "discovery learning," which attempts to teach students how to think but without systematically teaching a body of knowledge.

While a few gifted students may learn adequately without systematic teaching, writes Stone, "most other students -- especially those who may be poorly prepared, poorly behaved, inattentive, weakly motivated, or otherwise not well prepared for school, i.e., the other 90 percent -- are not well served by this type of teaching."

Then why do public schools keep chasing after these fixes? Because the public school system is strongly influenced by schools of education that are out of touch with the public's desire for strong academic achievement, Stone concludes.

Source: J.E. Stone, "Teacher Training and Texas Educational Reform: A Study in Contradiction," Working Paper No. 35, May 2001, Independent Institute, 100 Swan Way, Oakland, Calif. 94621, (510) 632-1366.


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