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How to Improve Public Schools Without Spending More Money

It’s generally agreed that the public schools are sub-par and could be much improved. But how?

Everyone seems to assume we need some big new concept, and who cares what it costs. We hear relentless shilling for Constructivism, 21st Century Skills, and now National Standards. Right on cue, Obama is out of the gate with Race to the Top, which is supposed to make kids College-Ready and Career-Ready. Excuse me. Could we first make them Book-Ready? And perhaps even High-School-Ready?

All of Obama’s plans require billions of tax dollars. Why? Was there ever a correlation between money and quality? Well, perhaps there’s an inverse correlation.

Here’s what our Education Establishment is good at: concocting slick marketing slogans that don’t produce results and then asking for raises all around. Enough.

We don’t need any fancy slogans or ingenious new ways to waste more billions. I would argue that the proposals we hear mentioned again and again are beside the point, irrelevant and unnecessary. All of these bogus ideas are expensive; they are also cumbersome; whereas the correct answer is inexpensive, and as simple as 1 + 2 equals 3.

In fact, the correct answer is 1 + 2 equals 3.

That’s an example of basic or foundational knowledge, the kind of thing that every student needs to learn in the first years of school. Shazam!

As surely as 1 + 2 equals 3, foundational knowledge is what we need to return to, immediately. Observe that no new laws are required. No new books. No new funding. No new training. No new schools or facilities. No new personnel. No new budget items of any kind.

We merely do again what all teachers automatically did for thousands of years. We teach the information that people need.

Sure, the anti-educators in charge of education have trashed this idea with so much venom and for so long, you might mistakenly assume there is even a smidgen of sense in their objections. Not at all. Remember, these people are happiest when allowed to be social engineers. They don’t have much feel for actual education. They wouldn’t understand that foundational knowledge and education are more or less synonymous.

Teaching foundational knowledge is the right thing to do, the easy thing to do, the cheap thing to do. We’ll return to the bright heart of education. Facts! Knowledge! We actually start to teach again. What an idea. This shift is so revolutionary, we might call it 22nd Century Skills.

No, no, we don’t need to teach a lot. Don’t be alarmed. We can teach almost nothing and still turn the country around. How about one fact each day?? Don’t you think those little nervous systems can handle the stress of learning one fact each day? Personally, I believe their nervous systems would welcome the excitement.

What facts, you ask. Here’s some more good news: it hardly matters. Any little bit of information you could reasonably call foundational knowledge, bingo, throw it out there to those fact-starved minds. You know, all that basic stuff that everyone really should learn, like how many quarts are in a gallon or how many days in a year. Ask yourself, is it something that the average adult ought to know? Then let’s teach it.

There are three oceans--Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian. Any first-grader could handle that. The seven continents--everybody should know their names. The biggest river on each continent, how difficult is this? The highest mountain. Easy, right?

The twenty countries you’re most likely to read about in the newspaper. The major capitals. Just keep it coming, one fact each day. All the facts mentioned so far don’t add up to 200, which is roughly the quota for first grade. What a beginning.

Second grade takes children up to 400 facts, third grade to 600 facts, which could reasonably include the multiplication table to 10 times 10. In fourth grade we’re up to 800 facts, which might include the names of the 50 states. Heck, these student are ready to enter college by the standards of our public schools today.

All we hear now is complaints about “high stakes testing” and “teaching to the test” and how everybody is overwhelmed. I think this is dishonest propaganda. Here’s what the real problem is. The kids in fifth and sixth grade don’t know 25 facts, total. So how can anyone teach those kids American History, for example, when they don’t know the names of oceans, mountains, states, rivers, etc.?

Here’s a statement that must have occurred in thousands of history classes: “The Pilgrims left England and sailed westward across the Atlantic to Plymouth Rock.” If you’re educated, you think this is a trivial sentence. But it’s not, not for the kids in our public schools.

Here’s what those kids are puzzling over: What are Pilgrims? What’s England? What’s sailed. What’s westward? What’s Atlantic? What’s Plymouth Rock?

All that basic information might as well be most of us hearing about craters on Jupiter. There’s a perfect void. A teacher of American History hasn’t got a chance. With no foundation to build on, teachers must spend all their time re-explaining the simplest things.

If children learned foundational knowledge in grades k-6, whatever came next would be relatively easy. American History is not that complicated but if the child doesn’t know the name of the ocean next to the east coast, what Columbus did, the names of the 13 original colonies, and what 1776 is, the whole year is an exercise in wasting time.

So much basic information has been stripped out of elementary education. There seems to be a deep hatred of knowledge. Is this whole thing a really bad dream? Imagine that some busybody like me shows up asking that one fact be taught each day. You’d hope that everybody in education exclaims: “Duh!!!”

Nope. This proposal will actually strike our top educators as something they need to ponder deeply. Hmmm.

I predict that our Education Establishment will sit around rubbing their chins and murmuring, “Maybe it’s too difficult."

That’s what we’re up against. Ideally, we fire people aiming so low.

Until the public schools are intelligently run, the answer lies outside their walls. School-proof kids before they go to school. Pre-school kids during each summer. Hand out lists of websites on each subject. Subscribe to history and science magazines. Make a list of the museums, galleries, factories, and historical sites within driving distance--and visit one of them every few months. Basically, everybody needs to be, at least a little, in homeschooling mode. That movement started because the Education Establishment wouldn’t do a good job. That’s where we are today.

(For related articles, see “43: American Basic Curriculum” and "47: Teach One Fact Each Day" on
About Author Bruce Deitrick Price :

Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of <a href="" target="_blank"></a>, a high-level education and intellectual site. One focus is reading; see "42: Reading Resources." Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is "THE EDUCATION ENIGMA--What Happened to American Education."

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Article Added on Thursday, September 29, 2011
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