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Embracing Old-School Education Is The Key To Acing This School Year

We need a didacticism based on common sense, on remembering what has always worked, not obsessively inventing anew.

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It’s time to go old school in education.

Enough with the endless torrents of education reform and the modern obsession with infusing technology into every facet of the learning experience. Enough dumbing down of the curriculum, tolerating egregious student behavior, and politicizing the curriculum of the classroom. Enough self-censorship of America’s teachers and administrators who know deep down (but are often afraid to say out loud) their students are graduating with a depleted battery of skills and knowledge that would have been unrecognizable and unacceptable a generation ago. 

Going “old school” is much more than a cranky trope or cantankerous canard extolling the “good old days” when kids worked hard and had respect for their elders. Going old school means recognizing that the solution to many of our problems does not require more money, more innovation, or elite schools of education promoting vogue (and usually leftist) notions of instruction and curriculum. It’s time to bring back pencils and paper, teachers who lecture rather than largely facilitate class projects and online activities, discipline policies that actually discipline, and, most of all, adults who are ready to be in charge of the children they are educating.    

While the headlines about education these days are often centered around the razzmatazz of critical race theory and the 1619 Project, the controversies of transgender bathrooms and sports, and the conferences of Moms for Liberty, they pale in comparison to the real crises in American education. These topics certainly make for flashy television spots and viral op-eds, but the hardship for most teachers is rooted in a more banal reality: We ask little of our students and in return get even less from them. Many are borderline illiterate, can’t pull themselves away from their devices, and their attendance is spotty at best.

A Terrible Reckoning

Three years after locking down our schools, we are now reckoning with one immutable and terrible truth: Our students are now fundamentally different, many of them broken in ways we are only beginning to understand. Half of our students now utter sentiments like, “I do not enjoy my life,” or, “My life is not useful.” Every week a new headline seems to blast the unique misery of our young people. A recent Harvard study confirmed that today’s students are the most miserable generation in every category of well-being, even physical and mental health.

If outsiders to the world of education doubt that modern students are often denizens of dysfunction, consider the topics of the various trainings I, and the teachers in my district, am required to complete this summer before this school year begins: grooming, bullying, cyberbullying, discrimination awareness, human trafficking, students experiencing homelessness, and youth suicide, among others. Just a few decades ago, when I began my teaching career, trainings were oriented around prosaic topics like, “How to be a better teacher.” How things have changed.       

While the emotional turmoil of our children began well before Covid-19, the academic catastrophe is just now coming to light. The avalanche of bad news about American education in a post-pandemic world is like a raging spigot refusing to be turned off. In American schools that stayed closed longer than other developed countries, the damage was colossal, wiping out all the progress that had been made since 1980 and causing the largest declines ever recorded in certain subjects and grade levels such as math for fourth and eighth graders. Knowledge of American civics and history continues to fall, with only 13 percent of the nation’s test-takers scoring proficient on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam.  

The most under-reported crisis in America these days is our literacy crisis, with 60 percent of third graders already reading below grade level. And here is another dirty little secret we don’t discuss: Once students are behind in reading, they tend to stay behind to the titanic detriment of their future professional and educational aspirations. Eighth-grade reading levels are now lower than they have been in a quarter of a century. 

Our educational system has responded to these dreary realities by insisting schools offer more funding, more services, more leniency cloaked as “grace,” and always — always — more technology, as if the latest gadget or gizmo is the great panacea we have all been waiting for.

Going Back to Basics

While schools should certainly offer “wrap-around” services to support our most disadvantaged students, the solution to almost all of these problems is to look backward, to go old school. Schools should remember a time when they were more than counseling centers and places where breakfast and lunch are provided, a time when teaching was more academic than therapeutic, a time when highly objectionable student behavior (like cursing at a teacher) had serious consequences for student and parent alike, and a time when high expectations were considered a blessing, not a clandestine form of bourgeoise oppression.

In what areas of modern education would an old-school approach be preferable? A few.

Our obsession with technology and digitalizing as many elements of education as possible hasn’t improved educational quality. Maybe adding more hours of screen time per day for children who are already monomaniacally obsessed with their devices isn’t the answer. In fact, it is probably making the crises of absenteeism and mental health even worse. Meredith Coffey of the Fordham Institute has persuasively argued that students have “received the message that school was school, whether in-person or not, and they were getting ‘the work’ done, whether they were raising their hands in the physical classroom or clicking through checklists on learning management systems.”

Replacing phonics hasn’t worked, either. Instead of employing the traditional method of mastering vowels, sounding out words, and broadening a student’s knowledge base to bolster reading comprehension, a trendy “balanced literacy” approach that has been embraced for many years uses tools such as looking at pictures and guessing words. Moreover, this approach, whose goal is to foster a love of reading, often puts the children in charge of which books to read instead of relying on the expertise of their teachers. What could possibly go wrong?

So-called equity policies, like the one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which aim to neuter advanced classes and stymie the efforts of students attempting to go the extra mile, are a glittering spectacle of unabashed stupidity. Their aims are neither education nor excellence. Not to be outdone, in my home state of California, a new math framework aims at “meaning-making” and “cultural relevance” instead of, I don’t know, learning how to do math well enough to get the correct answer. Such policies are triumphs of utter mediocrity in the making.         

Restorative practices, which aim to reduce suspensions and expulsions, have been instrumental in collapsing teacher morale. Behavior in our schools has noticeably worsened since the pandemic. The teacher exodus in our country is actually not about pay and pension, but about the terrible working conditions of our schools punctuated by the horrendous student behavior that is now overlooked as a matter of policy.    

We need to do more than “get back to the basics.” We need a didacticism based on common sense, on remembering what has always worked, not obsessively inventing anew. We need to get back to adults being in charge of our schools. We need to remember the timeless truths of teaching and learning that we apparently have forgotten.

Most of all, we must acknowledge that compassion is not, and never will be, tantamount to laxity.  


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