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From the DC Trenches: Worse Than Our Nightmares
A Special U.S. Freedom Foundation Guest Column
Charles R. Lewis, District of Columbia Educator

October 8, 2003

The "right" side of the education issue in America needs a set of insider eyes. This is the first in a series of articles focusing on circumstances that I have uncovered in twenty-plus years as a teacher, department chairman, administrator, and tutor in and around the D.C. Public School system and its suburban counterparts.

In my opinion, these particulars are crucial elements of a meticulously designed effort to maintain and exacerbate the astonishingly low level of academic achievement in our schools (much lower than even some of its sharpest critics imagine - such is the degree of camouflage in place). Indications are that even among those commentators with whom I agree the most there is at best only a vague understanding of the nature of some of these extremely cleverly disguised counterproductive initiatives. And, in the critical battles we face, not to recognize these for what they are is, potentially, to self-disarm, as I will illustrate.

For the most part, "conservative" writers have the correct perspective on education. They see the overall picture quite well, and they often latch on to particularly alarming specific incidents that point to very real trends, and correctly extrapolate from these incidents. The analysis of the best of these writers is generally right on target. I have been especially impressed by the work of the likes of Thomas Sowell, Bruno Manno, and Phyllis Schafley, all of whom have arrived at many of the same conclusions - based on research and observation of the issues at the macro level - that I have reached through direct experience "in the trenches."

The difficulty is that, in terms of what is actually going on in American classrooms on a day-to-day basis, these commentators must rely on reports from the inside. The sad fact is there are very few of "our kind" familiar with what is really going on deep within the system (where most long-term denizens are of the hard left persuasion) and possessing the experience to comprehend the meaning of it all. I will attempt, in this series of columns, to provide that missing link.

Buzz-terms like "classroom management," "facilitator of learning," "activity-based instruction," "authentic assessment," "portfolio grading," "student-centeredness," "cooperative learning," "performance-based assessment," "inclusive classroom," "democratic classroom," "technology-driven instruction," and others should set off alarms in the heads of anyone truly concerned about our current academic condition. Unfortunately, most of these concepts have been so seductively (and deceitfully) marketed and so surreptitiously installed as to have passed under the radar of many with even the best of intentions and the most sensible of overviews.

One of the strategies of the left (and this is, indeed, a left-right issue) that most seems to befuddle conservatives is, rather than to defend the current disastrous system (a creation of the left), to instead offering scathing criticism of that system. Thereby is the initial confidence of many of us seriously interested in ameliorating the disaster gained. We perceive the critics as of a like mind with us on the essential issues. Far from this, these agents offer a program that is nothing but a veiled, more extreme version of what is presently in place - what has caused the harm in the first place.

This approach has four basic steps:

I have seen this device employed consistently enough in enough contexts to see it as a standard designed ploy. Recognition of such stratagems is dependent upon a familiarity with a highly nuanced mode of operation, a familiarity very difficult to attain without repeated exposure to it. Below I give a few examples of how, even within the "school choice" movement or other worthy endeavors, lack of intimate awareness of these tactics leads to big problems:

An organization intent on seeing to it that charter schools be no more than extreme versions of the vapid, touchy-feely play centers that constitute the public school system proper is setting about co-opting that part of the charter movement that may not already be dedicated to such activity, under the guise of "safe and healthy schools." The organization offers the lure of psychological services and large amounts of government grant money, adheres to the four-step deception outlined above, and systematically undermines and eventually uproots any teacher not willing to abandon standards and get with the program.

The "Core Knowledge" program is to my knowledge the only (believe it or not), major curricular initiative of recent years based on the correct notion that there are certain things that our children need to know. In many academic areas this curriculum is pretty close to the mark, indeed far superior to the politically-correct-attitude-oriented competition. But a look at the mathematics curriculum reveals fairly strict adherence to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards that have gutted skills proficiency and made conceptual comprehension impossible over the past few years. A sound, sequential, skills-oriented presentation (number recognition - basic operations - fractions - decimals - per cents - signed quantities - powers - roots) is eschewed. Instead extremely watered-down snippets of advanced topics are presented out-of-sequence in early grades, at points where prerequisite comprehension for these topics in their true forms is totally lacking.

Such approaches have striking results; for instance, none of the bright 4th through 8th graders I have tutored this year in affluent Montgomery County, Maryland has passed the end of course math exam I instituted at World Charter School in the District as a requirement for advancement to the second grade.

My most recent testee was a bright, cooperative 8th grader (with "probability," "statistics," "algebra," and "geometry" sprinkled through his transcripts over the years and absolutely no ability to solve, or even comprehend the simplest meaningful problem in any of these areas). This youngster got zeroes on World's 7th and 6th grade finals and scored in single digits, percentage-wise, on finals for the 5th, 4th, and 3rd grades. He did a little better on the 2nd and 1st grade finals (based mostly on some general-knowledge instruction he said his mother had provided), but failed those as well, because of miserably poor results on timed tests on single digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. His 37 correct single-digit addition problems and 30 such subtraction problems (each in three minutes) contrast with the concurrent scores of 60 and 56 recorded by a 4-year-1-month-year-old with whom I had been working for some time.

The group "Mathematically Correct" has the right idea in terms of eliminating the fuzzy "feel-good" approaches that dominate current math instruction in American and keep our children ignorant. Yet the group is totally sold on the Stanford 9 exam, a diabolically cleverly engineered which institutionalizes the NCTM standards and makes it virtually suicidal for a school to teach math in a logical, sequential manner where things tie together and what is learned can be retained and intuited. (I will present much more on the Stanford 9 in later columns.)

The Center for Education Reform is a well-intentioned, essentially conservative Washington-based group that is generally in the forefront (and on the right side) on such issues as school choice and standards. The Center soon will be holding its anniversary gala, with many highly noted speakers. The Edison-Friendship Charter Schoo will be featured prominently, apparently as an example of the virtues of school choice.

When Edison first opened here in Washington, I was impressed by the advance notices and enrolled my son. Then I read the school's promotional literature and discovered that the school employed a litany of the procedures that I have found most destructive - student directed curricula, cooperative learning, portfolio grading, heavy interdisciplinary emphasis, varying ages and achievement levels in the same classroom - in short, chaos.

I typed a polite letter expressing my concerns and asking for clarification. On two occasions I handed copies of this letter to school officials; I never got a response. Later, when I taught at IDEA Public Charter School, I would occasionally receive transfer students from Edison-Friendship. I was appalled at these students' lack of proficiency and the fact that they had been passed up the academic ladder many grades beyond their actual competence. Edison-Friendship transfers were among the weakest of incoming pupils, and that dubious distinction was indeed and "accomplishment."

Washington's KIPP Charter School (part of a nationwide network loosely affiliated with Secretary Rod Paige) has, of late, received enormously favorable press. I am in fact impressed with the sheer volume of work required of KIPP's pupils (far more than at any other school), and have to think that its over-worked staffers have their hearts in the right place. Yet KIPP's motto ("No shortcuts, no excuses") is belied by its practices.

When I showed KIPP's math chairman the pre-algebra text that I authored (for a two-year course), she commented that its very first section was far too advanced for her "algebra" students. The principal went on to note that the school advocates giving fake "algebra" examples in the early elementary grades, even though she acknowledged that the kids were not ready at those ages for anything even distantly resembling the real thing She offered that such deception gets the children excited about math; I would counter that it is precisely the sort of shortcut that leads to situations like that of the Montgomery County 8th grader described above. The principal then criticized the fail-the-final-fail-the-course policy I enforced at World and IDEA, on the basis that "some kids don't test well." No excuses?

For sure, "some kids don't test well" - kids who have not sufficiently mastered the material do not test well. In my experience, whatever role a chronically elevated level of anxiety may play can be counteracted by increased, effective preparation. On the other hand, the passing of pupils who have not demonstrated mastery is the single most destructive practice endemic within our system, as anyone would suppose, and as any experienced, honest teacher will confirm. I could cite many similar examples.

I hope, via this article sequence, to spark an awareness of the depth of infiltration that has been achieved by those determined to do in what remains of pre-collegiate education in America. By so doing, I hope I can help readers to discriminate among the various "solutions" being proposed, and avoid the pitfalls that tend to trap the uninitiated. The education crisis in America is very serious. Some of my verbiage above may appear hyperbolic. I only wish that were the case.

About the author:
Charles Lewis is a long-time in-the-trenches veteran of the campaign for DC School Choice; former Headmaster of the College Readiness Academy of Washington, DC; Director of Studies at the World Public Charter School, Washington, DC; and Chairman of the Mathematics Department at the Integrated Design Electronics Academy Public Charter School, Washington, DC. He holds a B.A. degree in Philosophy and an M.S degree in Mathematics Education, and has authored numerous curriculum texts for use in home schools and smaller private and religious schools

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