What’s Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them

Book review

By Peter Jon Mitchell | September 25, 2010

“Nothing.” It’s the answer parents frequently hear when they ask, “What did you learn in school today?” Educators Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton and John Long have an idea of what your kids might be learning and they discuss their concerns in their new book, What’s Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.1 They maintain that some practices within public education leave students woefully unprepared for post-secondary education and productive citizenship.

While there are many hot topics addressed in this book, the most important contribution for parents is the perspective on the debate over the fundamental purpose of education.

The authors argue the dominant view in public education, especially in academia, “encourages teachers to engage in social reform by being unapologetic advocates for the idea that teachers must help free students from the oppression of a narrow, inadequate perspective on the world.” The authors call this “romantic progressivism” and suggest it makes teachers akin to social revolutionaries using the classroom as the primary tool for social change. In this view, students are encouraged to develop their own meaning from the material, leaving little emphasis on facts.

In contrast, the authors adhere to the opposite position that places value on teaching content. They promote “greater emphasis on ensuring students are knowledgeable and skillful in specific content areas and are educated to be successful in a complex modern society.” This position endorses proven traditional practices and encourages open discussion on educational matters.

The authors contend that under the romantic progressive view, some schools have emphasized building self-esteem while promoting failing students and de-emphasizing grades. Consequently, the authors call for a return to a common sense approach to education that employs direct instruction and well-designed testing to assist students in achieving mastery over important skills and knowledge.

This insightful book for parents and educators is divided into three sections. Part one addresses fundamental issues in education such as the benefits of school discipline and appropriately designed tests, including the standardized variety. Part two examines practical classroom issues such as teaching style, learning theory and the role of homework. Part three discusses two issues the authors refer to as distractions: the role of teachers’ unions in student well-being, and the use of “edu-babble” – the jargon of educational philosophy that is vague and often confusing for parents.

Each chapter of the book addresses a single issue and provides a case study, evidence and arguments, and finally practical steps parents and educators can take to address the concern.

When it comes to fixing schools, the authors believe the remedy will flow primarily through parents, teachers and the citizenry. The authors argue that educational reform will be achieved through accountability and appropriate incentives, not more funding and further regulation.

Not every sympathetic reader will support all the recommendations, but the authors have given readers a compelling diagnosis of what ails public education, as well as practical starting points for engagement.

  • 1. Zwaagstra, M.C., Clifton, R.A., and Long, J.C. What’s Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

Peter Jon Mitchell is a senior researcher at Cardus. Originally published on September 20, 2010.

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