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What's Wrong With Education?

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■   LESS whole-class, teacher-directed instruction (lecturing)  
■   LESS student passivity: sitting, listening, receiving, and absorbing  information
■   LESS presentational, one-way transmission of information from teacher to student
■   LESS prizing and rewarding of silence in the classroom
■   LESS classroom time devoted to fill-in-the-blank worksheets, dittos, workbooks, and other “seatwork”
■   LESS student time spent reading textbooks and basal readers
■   LESS rote memorization of facts and details
■   LESS emphasis on the competition and grades in school
■   LESS tracking or leveling students into “ability groups”

■   MORE experiential, inductive, hands-on learning
■   MORE active learning, with all the attendant noise and movement of students doing, talking, and collaborating
■   MORE diverse roles for teachers, including coaching, demonstrating, and modeling
■   MORE emphasis on higher-order thinking
■   MORE reading of real texts: whole books, primary sources, and nonfiction materials

     Many of the above ideas sound pretty good, don't they?  Who doesn't want the teacher interacting and collaborating with students?

     But not all the ideas work for student achievement.  Examine the list in the upper section of LESS:

  • LESS emphasis on grades.  How does that lend itself to achievement, or even improvement?  Without an emphasis on what constitutes success, how can anyone know he has achieved it?​​

What if we simplify grading at the elementary level?  No real points for assignments; assign a rating of quality instead.  Here is how I currently assign grades to my students, based on what I know about grade level proficiency:

A = Excellent - Effort and achievement for the task given are maximized.

B = Good - Effort and achievement reached expectations but more could have been done.

C = Average - The minimum for grade level achievement.  Currently, this is what many students strive for, probably subconsciously.

D = Below grade level expectation -  Students achieving at this level should be examined seriously for motivation and aptitude, and likely reassigned to a different learning group.

F = Failing -  Why have we eschewed the use of this word in recent years?  It's a good word to know.  I've explained it this way to my students:  What if your heart surgeon had not been told in medical school that he was failing?  What if he had been given multiple "chances" to get it right, and even provided multiple opportunities?  Do you want to be one of those failed opportunities?

  • LESS leveling students into ability groups.  This works against differentiation rather than for it.  You can read the opinions of noted educator and consultant Dr. James Delisle here.  You can also read an entire book about why ability grouping is necessary for authentic learning to occur! (Chaos in Our Schools, available now on Amazon.)

       These days, the key phrase is Best Practices.  What does a teacher need to do in her "practice" to elicit the best learning from a student?  Certainly not lecture to the students for hours on end and then give a perfunctory worksheet for them to fill out.    Even when given a paper and pencil activity, students are encouraged to discuss it with their 'learning partners' while completing it.

     Most of the modern replacements to teacher whole-group instruction are probably for the best, if you want students to receive an education that encourages them to become thinkers.

There are, of course, some caveats to this philosophy.  No one in authority wants to acknowledge them, but that doesn't mean they don't exist: 

         1)  class size -- Spend time in your child's classroom.  The ratio of children to adults (usually 30+ to one) makes interactive teaching logistically improbable.

        2) student malaise --  Many young people seem bent on the instant gratification offered by their smart electronic devices.  Their inability to connect what they do NOW with their future happiness and earning potential is mind-blowing.  But listen to any "expert" on education, and you'd think the kids are lining up eagerly for their quality education.  If only!

     Time to wake up from the decades-long Stepford Wives approach to education  that now consumes our public schools, America.  As it stands now, we are just paying lip service to the idea that we are educating our children in a way that will help them achieve success in our 21st century world.  It's time to hold children accountable in the classroom.


And to put a stop to this counterproductive philosophy

that if I only make it 'fun', the children will learn.

No.  Just NO. 

If we make it essential to them,

they will TRY to learn.  

Very few people in authority will address the illogical practices in education today because it is such a lucrative business to tout ideologies and practices, particularly if one can concoct an angle that appears innovative.


The Jargon Of Teaching

Best Practices: teaching that stresses collaborative group work, project or problem-based learning, varied strategies for assessment of student learning, and total student choice.


 Learning Goal   - the big picture idea that students are learning.

        Example: Sentence structure is an important component to effective written communication.

 Learning Target  - the daily lesson.  What students are supposed to get from any one lesson. 

        Example: I can use complex sentences in my writing.

 Success Criteria  - what students must demonstrate to prove their learning.

        Example: Create a paragraph comprised of at least three complex sentence structures.

 If a teacher has not written the above 3 items on a chart or   white board for each lesson, 
 true learning cannot possibly occur. 

  Instructional Videos  For Teachers

Instructional videos

This video shows a teacher explaining how he uses MAP (Measures of Academic Progress), an achievement-monitoring tool provided through NWEA, an online testing service.       

     How feasible is this, though,  with 32 students?  I cannot see how anyone can keep up with what this man is proposing.

This next video is quite entertaining. I have two questions, though:

How does the teacher keep this up for 6 hours?


Is there actual learning (as opposed to a circus act) going on?

Keep in mind, as well, that these kids KNOW they are being filmed.  It is fun to be a star in a movie and to show off what your teacher has taught you about playing the classroom game.​

And in this final video, we see strategies touted by gurus and performed by real teachers.  

The strategies are demonstrated superbly, but you know what else is superb in this video?  The behavior of the students.  This is middle school, and yet not one child is trying to pass a note or eat a snack or derail the teacher's lesson with absurd comments designed only to get a laugh from his peers.

The problem with educational gurus

is that these people don't work in an authentic classroom. They concoct theories and then test them out in controlled laboratory settings, something you get anytime you bring cameras or VIP observers into a classroom.  Let's try hidden cameras once in a while, and I bet you'd see a vastly different result.  It only takes one misbehaving kid to derail the lesson for everyone else.

A Voice of Reason Emerges


     The biggest reason differentiation doesn't work, and never will, is the way students are deployed in most of our nation's classrooms.  Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for all of them.  

     That is a recipe for academic disaster if ever I saw one.  Such an admixture of students with varying abilities in one classroom causes even the most experienced and conscientious teachers to flinch, as they know the task of reaching each child is an impossible one.

     It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.

Dr. James Delisle

in Education Week

Voice of Reason
Cottage Industry

Professional Development: A

A Cottage Industry

       All one must do to get positive attention as a guru of education is announce , "I'm going to clean up our schools and make them effective. See all these letters after my name?  That means I know what I'm doing, so just back off.   (Besides, it's way too complex for your puny brain to understand.)  Just make sure you channel lots of money my way so I can do the job properly."

        Numerous gurus and theories have cropped up as a result of the zeal to come up with an idea that sounds innovative enough to be the next game-changer. 


A necessary offshoot is the use of euphemisms to whitewash the realities behind the often brutal world of  classroom teaching. 

Here are the most common we hear today:

 Professional Development  - holding teachers hostage in meetings where they are routinely lectured about best practices, collaboration, and why class size does not matter.  Hardly anything new is introduced in these sessions;  rather, each meeting is a re-hash that usually involves discussing a topic at table groups, writing ideas on a chart paper, and then sharing out at the end.  The 'best' PD's involve something called an 'exit ticket', whereby teachers respond to something posed by the session instructor and must submit their ticket prior to leaving.  Teachers are encouraged to employ the exit ticket technique in their own classrooms, as well, but judging by how seriously the teachers at my own table have taken this exercise, I'm thinking the kids won't be any more enthused by the activity than we are.

Modifications and Accommodations - things we teachers do to make school easier for some children.  Ostensibly, the rationale is that we need to level the playing field.  The way we do this is by giving shorter assignments, allowing students to dictate their work to an adult 'scribe', eliminating some "non-essential" assignments, and providing teacher-made notes for students.  You can see more about accommodation at Understood.Org.   

      But how does this prepare the kid for life after school?  In what job will accommodations like these actually be provided?  (By the way, accommodations are afforded to not only extreme learning disabilities, but also for those kids whose parents become the squeaky wheel that the principal doesn't want to have to deal with.)

Growth Data  - the practice of using teacher-set learning goals to determine student success and teacher effectiveness.    The teacher records her year-end results on a form and they become an official record, which is then used to enhance her career and provide a record for how well the school, overall, is doing its job.  Growth has supplanted grade-level achievement as the arbiter of student and teacher success.  Obviously, the more growth a teacher can show, the brighter her star will shine.   If this is not motivation for fraud, I don't know what is.

      This process enjoys near-Bibilical status in many school districts as a measure of how well a teacher is doing her job.  What people outside the profession do not know is that nothing in the process is verified by anyone other than the teacher.  If a teacher never gives any assessment and only enters supposed scores into the system, no one will know but her.  How can anyone think this is okay?

       What really needs to be discussed, however, is how necessary this idea of measuring growth is in the first place.   What difference does it make if a child can write a definition and a problem to match it?  Does that mean he truly understands the process of multiplication?  Teachers and administrators are spending HOURS on this fruitless enterprise, and the more your principal doesn't like you, the more time he will make you spend 'perfecting' your goals.  It's ludicrous.

Best Practices  -  teaching styles that encourage more student talk than teacher talk, as well as lots of discussion and collaborative learning.  In addition, if you're not writing class-proposed ideas on a chart, you're not really teaching.  The problem with this is that most classrooms have 30 or more students packed into them.  How does the teacher:student ratio work effectively under these circumstances?  Most of the videos demonstrating best practices happen in a 'classroom' with, at most, 15 very well-behaved "students" in them.  So even the researchers understand, bottom line, that class size really does matter for effective engagement with students.

Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) - the buzzword in education these days, although it's not really new.  Rick DuFour proposed his idea for PLC's a few decades ago.  It has only been in the last few years, though, that PLC's have turned from their original intent (working together as professional educators to help students achieve) to the current monster that involves collaboration among teachers in every aspect of teaching so that nothing is left to the individual teacher's discretion in a classroom setting.  

      In my final year of teaching, our PLC's involved weekly meetings whereby we dissected the district's math curriculum in order to decide which elements of it we would actually teach, which begs the question:  if it's not important, why is it in the curriculum in the first place?  We also spent hours creating common assessments.  WHY are these assessments not already created for teachers if it's so important to have common assessments?  (The answer is that they already are -- in the textbook the district decided we should use.) 

Not once during this year of implementing PLC's in our school setting

did we discuss the issues students are having

and how we might help those students. 

Instead, we spent our time re-inventing the wheel.   


Read on for how this 'collaborative' process works in reality when you have a group of teachers in a room trying to reach consensus on anything.


Collaboration Among Teachers - Supposedly, this means that all the teachers on a team, such as the 6th grade team, work together to plan lessons and create assessments.  This is currently touted as the only productive way to make decisions.  What usually happens is that the person with the loudest voice/most obnoxious demeanor gets his way by wearing the others in the group down.  It's very tempting to 'cave' because no one gets to leave until consensus is reached.  It's easier to just let the blowhards have their way, and then go back to your classroom and do what you intended in the first place.

What's Good for Kids - any time you want to derail the ideas proposed by a colleague, just utter this phrase:  "But is it good for kids?"  This has become the go-to for stalling opposing ideas and for trying to ingratiate oneself with those in power who can enhance your own career.  Another way to derail an idea is to ask if it is "research-based".  This tactic has helped my former principal derail many detractors in faculty meetings, myself included.  One time, when he was talking about how little class size has to do with achievement, I raised my hand to question that, and he said that it is backed with research that class size does not impact how well a teacher delivers instruction.  When I mentioned that working in a classroom involves so much more than how well I can deliver a lesson, such as student behaviors and follow-up assignments that must be graded, he interrupted with, "Now you're talking about work load, which has nothing to do with student achievement."  

      Nothing to do with student achievement?  If I have to spread myself thin among 30 students who all have questions and issues (and assignments to be graded) as opposed to 20 of them, how can that not affect everyone's ability to succeed?  It doesn't make sense.  But John Hattie's research says that class size is way down on the list of items that affect how well students will learn.


Research and Data

  Research and Data  

Research in best practices of instruction, for instance, shows that students learn best when they are pushed beyond their comfort zone.  Fine.  What happens when the student (or, more likely, his parent) pushes back?  What if the kid doesn't want to better himself?  What if his only motivation appears to be not learning or keeping others from learning?  And what happens when the parent complains that school is just too hard for the child?  (Answer: The principal intercedes

just so the parent will go away.)

      Research conducted by those who made the videos on this page must be taken with a grain of salt.  The situations are not authentic, even if the teachers, classrooms, and children are.  Try hidden cameras once in a while and no VIP visitors taking notes, and you just might get realistic results.  Also, look at the numbers of supposed students in these classrooms.  Apparently, even the researchers get that class size does matter.

Data Collection:  There are two types in the world of education.  The first is the type that is touted by gurus like John Hattie, Robert Marzano, and Carol Tomlinson, in which data is collected on how kids learn best and then shared in educational journals and books, as well as videos for regular teachers to watch.  (You can also attend a pricey conference to listen to either the guru, himself, or one of his minions lecture you.)  The trouble with this type of "research" is that these kids are all studied in controlled, laboratory-like settings.  Of course they're going to respond positively to the techniques demonstrated.  Observing these "students" in action is like watching the audience in an infomercial.  It's not real!

Education research involves perfect little student specimens  in perfect laboratory conditions,  working with like-minded "learners" discussing Big Ideas while the camera crew films on.

  Teachers routinely sit in their PD sessions doing one of two things:  

1) nodding reflectively if they are new to the profession or trying to improve their career status,  


2) gazing with cynicism at the facilitator and his visuals,


...because we all know that what the gurus are insisting we do is NOT realistic, typically, among a group of randomly assembled students, with all their attendant issues.  Yet we are all lectured to the effect that if we just adopt "research-based" best practices, our students will magically engage.  Some of them do.  But much of the classroom dynamic is ruined by the 2/3 who don't.

         The second type of data collection is performed by a teacher on her own students in order to convince her evaluator that she is doing a good job of instruction.   What this means is that a teacher will create a spreadsheet to record the supposed scores of her students on a baseline assessment (at the beginning of the year) and a final assessment at the end of the year.  The important part of this data collection is the difference between the baseline and final scores, and the percentage of students showing an improvement, or growth.  You can read more about the fallacy behind growth scores of this type in another column.  Overall, however, this is just more whitewashing, as this data is never verified by anyone other than the teacher who collects it.  The principal never asks to see the assessments and almost never asks even to see the spreadsheet of scores.

Why none of the above matters in any meaningful way....​​

Bottom line

A major part of the teacher evaluation process is how much we can draw our learners into their own learning.  The onus resides solely on the teachers and never on the students.  Students are never held accountable for the decisions they make in their own learning.  If a child is not 'engaged' in what is going on in the classroom, it is the teacher's fault for not making the activities engaging.   But how do you make memorizing math facts 'fun' ? Sometimes, you just gotta do something, even if there's not a lot of enjoyment in it.  How else does one develop a work ethic? 


       In a nutshell, the reason all these ideas are fruitless, in large part, is that those who make policy do not accept the two aspects that affect learning most:


Adult-to-Student ratio


Student behavior


Until we get these two things figured out,

no amount of money or feel-good legislation

is going to fix the problem.

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