TT #17 – The Method that Dares Not Speak Its Name

There is one once-common teaching method so reviled that its name is never spoken, except in derision.  Even its best practitioners have learned to call it something else.  Once, this method was so common that teachers were often evaluated purely on their ability to do it well.  Today, it is an indicator of gross incompetence – even if the teacher involve can prove through test scores and student interviews that it works.  By this time, many readers will have figured out what Traditionalist Teacher is talking about.  It is the dreaded, soul deadening – dare I even write it? – LECTURE.  (Cue ominous organ music at this point.)

Whew!  Now that it has been said, there is a certain lightness of being.  Perhaps it is it akin to that of an initiate who attends an AA meeting and says for the first time, “Hi, I am Bill and I am an alcoholic.”  It is time to admit, boldly and before the entire world, that Traditionalist Teacher is a lecturer!

At this point, Traditionalist Teacher would like to refer the reader to the Wikipedia entry for “Traditional education” which as of this writing begins:

Traditional education, is also known as back-to-basics, conventional education or customary education, refers to long-established customs found in schools that society traditionally used. Some forms of education reform promote the adoption of progressive education practices, a more holistic approach which focuses on individual students’ needs and self-expression. In the eyes of reformers, traditional teacher-centered methods focused on rote learning and memorization must be abandoned in favor of student-centered and task-based approaches to learning. However, many parents and conservative citizens are concerned with the maintenance of objective educational standards based on testing, which favors a more traditional approach.

Notice that the unnamed contributor can only get out the first sentence before he/she rushes back into the cocoon of the “progressives”.  One can read through the entire entry – go ahead, Traditionalist Teacher will still be here when you get back – and never see the term lecture.  You will also find that traditional education is held up as a straw man in whose directions the arrows of the enlightened are to be pointed.  Nobody likes it, except (gasp) “many parents and conservative citizens”.  One can almost imagine the “God and guns” crowd that President Obama warned us about walking into the school office in their camo gear and demanding traditional education for Billy Bob, Junior between chaws of smokeless tobacco.  What do those dolts know about education?

Ask most people in the education establishment what traditional education is and you will almost always get the reply, “lecture and rote memorization”.  You might also hear something about “teacher-centered education” – usually said with a bit of a shudder.

Traditionalist Teacher referred to the phrases “teacher centered” and “student centered” in TT#13, so readers to whom those phrases are unfamiliar may want to look there for clarification.  Suffice it to say that TT believes that the phrase “teacher centered” is one of those tags deliberately designed to make something look worse than it is.

What are the “progressives” so afraid of?  Basically two things – student disengagement and teacher leadership.

On the first point, Traditionalist Teacher has some sympathy.  Most of us of a certain age have seen the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  If you haven’t, a young Matthew Broderick plays Ferris, a young man who is considerably more intelligent than anyone who works at his high school.  Ferris fools his too-busy parents into thinking that he is sick and then has the time of his life while his parents work and the assistant principal tries to catch him.  For a few moments early in the film, viewers catch a glimpse of the class that Ferris should be in.  The teacher, played by Ben Stein, is “lecturing”.  Actually, what he is doing is talking to himself and answering his own Aquestions while being totally oblivious to the students in his class.

Although it cannot be proven, Traditionalist Teacher is convinced that Ben Stein is the vision in the minds of “progressives” when they think of lecturing.

So, then, why do lectures still happen in this enlightened age?A  For one simple reason – a lecture is the most efficient way for someone who has information to transmit it to a group of people who do not.

Basically, the lecture format assumes that the lecturer has information that the listener needs or wants.  The lecturer speaks and the listener listens.  Knowing their limitations, the wise listeners will take notes for future reference.  All too often, however, the listeners “tune out”, and – for those students – the lecture time is wasted.

That, then, brings us to the second problem that “progressives” have with lecturing.  This is one for which Traditionalist Teacher has no patience – that there is something inherently wrong with the assumption that the teacher has the information and the student needs the information.  This assumption irks “progressives” in a number of ways.

First, it offends the “progressives” sense of egalitarianism.  This will be discussed in a future entry.

Second the learners being lectured to are not active.  If you have been hanging around education schools very long, you have heard or seen the following in some form:

                                We remember –

                                                10% of what we read

                                                20% of what we hear

                                                30% of what we see

                                                50% of what we see and hear

                                                70% of what we discuss with others

                                                80% of what we personally experience

                                                95% of what we teach others

                                                                                                                – Edgar Dale[1]


Traditionalist Teacher has no idea just exactly who Edgar Dale is, and would appreciate a response from any reader who does.  It is the sort of thing that is seared into the mind of young teachers and teachers-to-be.  Since there is no way that actual research could come up with numbers whose patterns are so clear, Edgar could be a greeting card writer for all we know.  Nonetheless, his influence on American education is profound.  On the basis of such evidence, teachers are instructed to avoid lessons that feature reading and lecture and to embrace discussion, experience, and students teaching each other.


This is the sort of thinking that comes out of dorm room bull sessions and the first year of teaching.  Most of us have been enthused by the informal gathering of people discussing some topic that is of immense interest to all the members of the group, including ourselves.  These often liberally lubricated discussions make the participants feel that they have come to new branches of wisdom and unheard-of solutions to the problems that have bedeviled human societies since the beginning of time.  However, they are usually gatherings of the self-important who have little information and nothing better to do.  At best, they might cement information that has already been learned, but they certainly don’t teach anybody anything.

And then – what of the dorm room resident who doesn’t know anything about the subject under discussion?  He/she either keeps quiet and enjoys somebody else’s beer or gets up and leaves to look for more agreeable entertainments.

It is virtually impossible to create a situation in which the students experience the material being studied.  Traditionalist Teacher knows of one teacher who attempted to simulate World War I trench warfare by arranging the desks in two rows and having two groups of students throw paper wads at each other.  Another taught “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by having the students charge down the football field.

As Traditionalist Teacher’s daughter would condescendingly say, “Seriously?”

It is true that, for most of us, we did learn a lot about our subjects the first year that we taught them.  That, however has no relationship to an artificial situation in which the students are “teaching” each other.

Let us reflect upon the student presentation.  If the reader has never seen one, the students stand in front of the class and spout a series of facts that they do not understand – presumably learning those facts in the process.  Of course, the other students are more “tuned out” than were the environs of Ben Stein’s above mentioned class.  Can anyone tell me how the uniformed ideas of the student presenter make up a better learning experience than does the knowledge of the teacher?

If any reader actually knows Edgar Dale, do him a favor and advise him to go back to his old job in Hallmark’s Sympathy Card Division.

Certainly, there are good lecturers, great lecturers, and mediocre lecturers.  The great lecturer can be informative and inspiring.  Many of our greatest authors roam the country doing “book talks”, which are basically just lectures about their own work.  Traditionalist Teacher would like to register a vote for the belief that even a mediocre lecturer would do a better job of teaching than a bunch of confused kids.

And, if you want to tell me that the research says that I am wrong, see TT #10.

Even though this has already gone on far too long, Traditionalist Teacher would like to make one last point.

If one does an Internet search for the phrase “College and Career Readiness”, the result will be many entries.  That phrase has become one of the mantras in American public education.  According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “We need to raise our standards so that all students are graduating prepared to succeed in college and the workplace.”[2]  Massive efforts are being made to achieve this goal.

Memo to Secretary Duncan – there is one skill that is being omitted, and it may be the most important skill of all.

You see, Mr. Secretary, the horror of the lecture disappears as soon as one transitions from secondary to collegiate education.  In the nation’s colleges, except in the schools of education, the lecture still holds sway.  Go into any large college today, and you will find large rooms full of undergraduates sitting in rows, all facing the front of the room.  At the front of the room is a single man or woman, and he/she is the only one in the room talking.  Some of the students are taking notes, trying to capture the flow of words for future study.

Why are the wiser of those students feverishly writing in their notebooks?  It is happening because at some time in the near future, they will have to take an exam that will test their understanding of the words that the professor is saying.  The ability to capture the professor’s train of thought and fact in as few words as possible is a skill, an extremely valuable skill.  In college, it is often the difference between success and failure.  It does not matter if the presentation of ideas is scintillating or deadly dull.  The professor determines what material is important, and it is the student’s task to demonstrate the capability to learn it.  Nor does the value of that skill end with college.  The ability to capture and relay complicated ideas in simple language is prized in every aspect of life that is not purely manual.

Yet, students arrive in college without this basic skill.  Their high school experience is so full of “student centered” lessons that they have never developed the ability to sit still through a lecture – much less to recognize and take note of the important material within that lecture.

The lecture has been the standard form of transmitting information from one generation to another for millennia.  Students have been complaining about it almost as long.  We, unfortunately, are simply the first generation silly enough to take their complaints seriously.



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TT #16 – A Little Wisdom from the Past

A rather remarkable document fell in Traditionalist Teacher’s path today. Its source was unexpected.  Its wisdom is profound.

The source is Calvin Coolidge. For most, Coolidge is a nearly forgotten man.  Marvelous books about him have been written fairly recently by Robert Sobel (2000) and Amity Shlaes (2013).  However, the average American has long since forgotten about him.  Back when the memorization of lists was thought to be important, he was stuck between Harding and Hoover.

It is not Traditionalist Teacher’s goal to lift up Coolidge’s memory – although that would be a worthy goal. It is to use this document as a statement of what the goals of American education once were, and a lamentation of the fact that those goals are so seldom expressed today.

The document is the transcript of a speech that Coolidge gave to the National Education Association on July 4, 1924.[1]  He took the occasion to tie the goals of education to the hopes of the nation.

Traditionalist Teacher will start with Coolidge’s conclusion:

A new importance is attaching to the cause of education. A new realization of its urgent necessity is taking hold of the Nation. A new comprehension that the problem is only beginning to be solved is upon the people. A new determination to meet the requirements of the situation is everywhere apparent. The economic and moral waste of ignorance will little longer be tolerated. This awakening is one of the most significant developments of the times. It indicates that our national spirit is reasserting itself. It is a most reassuring evidence that the country is recovering from the natural exhaustion of the war [World War I], and that it is rising to a new life and starting on a new course. It is intent, as never before, upon listening to the word of the teacher, whether it comes from the platform, the school house, or the pulpit. The power of evil is being broken. The power of the truth is reasserting itself. The Declaration of Independence is continuing to justify itself.

There is an elegant and faintly old fashioned ring to this passage, and TT is drawn especially to the sentence, “The economic and moral waste of ignorance will little longer be tolerated.”

Would that it were so. Ninety years after Coolidge spoke, we not only tolerate ignorance, we celebrate it.  College students talk of getting “stupid drunk” during spring break.  A business calling itself will sell you (among other more vulgar things) a sort of air pump that enables one to shoot marshmallows.  People’s misfortunes ‘go viral’ in social media.  The self-destructive behaviors of the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus have made them famous, and even respected in the eyes of many of our students.  TV and movies celebrate a sort of strange mix of sensuality, stupidity, and arrogance.

However mistaken the end of that sentence may be, the first part is absolutely true. Ignorance is a moral and economic waste, and society says it is our job to do something about it

Like a badly written movie, now that we have the end, let’s flashback to the beginning. Basically, Coolidge’s argument is simple.  Education exists for two reasons – to help the individual and to help the nation.

In an attempt to let the late president speak for himself as much as possible, Traditionalist Teacher will present a kind of abstract of the speech, preserving the words and making only those changes that will be necessary for one quotation to flow into the next as seamlessly as possible. Of course, TT hopes that the reader will be inclined to read the whole speech in his/her own good time.  For the sake of clarity, the president’s words will be italicized and TT’s changes will be in regular type.

[T]he fundamental conception of American institutions is regard for the individual…. We recognize the dignity and worth of the individual, because of his possession of those qualities which are revealed to us by religion. … America has been the working out of the modern effort to provide a system of government and society which would give to the individual that freedom which his nature requires.

[T]he greatest obstacle to freedom is ignorance. …[I]f the people were going to maintain themselves and administer their own political and social affairs, it was necessary as a purely practical matter that they should have a sufficiently trained and enlightened intelligence to accomplish that end.

In addition to this, the very conception of the value and responsibility of the individual, which made him worthy to be entrusted with this high estate, required that he should be furnished the opportunity to develop the spiritual nature with which he was endowed, through adequate education.

Clearly, in Coolidge’s mind, freedom for the individual is sacred in its origins. Equally clearly, it cannot be maintained without education.

As important as education is to the individual, Coolidge held that it was at least as important to the nation.

It is necessary also that education should be the handmaid of citizenship….

The body politic has little chance of choosing patriotic officials who can administer its financial affairs with wisdom and safety, unless there is a general diffusion of knowledge and information on elementary economic subjects sufficient to create and adequately to support public opinion. …

Another element must be secured in the training of citizenship, or all else will be in vain. All of our learning and science, our culture and our arts, will be of little avail, unless they are supported by high character, unless there be honor, truth, and justice. Unless our material resources are supported by moral and spiritual resources, there is no foundation for progress. A trained intelligence can do much, but there is no substitute for morality, character, and religious convictions. Unless these abide, American citizen ship will be found unequal to its task. (Emphasis added)

President Coolidge went on to discuss the role of the teacher.

But the main factor of every school is the teacher. Teaching is one of the noblest of professions. It requires an adequate preparation and training, patience, devotion, and a deep sense of responsibility. Those who mold the human mind have wrought not for time, but for eternity. The obligation which we all owe to those devoted men and women who have given of their lives to the education of the youth of our country that they might have freedom through coming into a knowledge of the truth is one which can never be discharged. They are entitled not only to adequate rewards for their service, but to the veneration and honor of a grateful people.

Unlike the rhetoric of many modern politicians, this was not just hot air pumped out to get votes (although it should, perhaps, be noted that 1924 was an election year). By reading his Autobiography, one finds out about the way that he rode miles on horseback during the Vermont winter to get a better education than that which was available in Plymouth Notch, the village of his birth.  He also knew a bit about teachers.  When he met his future wife, Grace Goodhue, she was teaching in a school for the deaf – the same school to which much of his estate eventually passed.

Traditionalist Teacher has to think that modern schools would be much better off if those who would like to be known as ‘the education president’ had half as much wisdom as the wise man from Plymouth Notch.


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TT #15 – Truth

As the title, implies, Traditionalist Teacher is going to be rather more philosophical than usual. This bit of philosophy is especially relevant to teachers, because the philosophical question represented by the word “truth” lies at the core of much that is wrong with modern American education.

Basically, the question that this entry centers around is, “What is truth?”

Before you think that Traditionalist Teacher is going off on a philosophical tangent, give yourself a moment to think about the question – because there are a lot of ways to look at truth. To keep things relatively simple, TT will deal here with the two most popular conceptions of truth – universal and relative.

Universal truth says that anything that was ever true is still true today and will always be true.

Some people say that universal truth denies the idea of progress. “If things change,” they may say, “how can there be universal truth?”  That question is based on an inaccurate notion of what it means for something to always be true.

To use a simple example, people in 1500 would have said “There is no such thing as a machine that can move itself.” Those of us born since 1900 know that there are a number a machines – cars, airplanes, locomotives – that do move themselves.  The believer in universal truth would respond that it was true that there were no machines that could move themselves in 1500; and that will ALWAYS be true.  That did not change because people eventually figured out how to build machines that were able to move themselves.

Universal truth is an obstacle to those who want to use the schools to remake society, because it recognizes that a just and effective plan for change must recognize that there is an authority beyond that of the self-styled modern intellectual. It is an affront to the pseudo-dominance of modern and popular lies.

One does not need to be religious to believe in universal truth. We are applying it when we understand that we are going to get soaked if we stand out in a driving rain without an umbrella.  It is just true.  No amount of argument will change it.

Relative truth says that truth is an individual concept.

“Truth changes,” says the relativist, “because people change as they relate to their changing world.” Since our reactions differ, the relativist might posit, truth will be different for different people.  Some relativists view the differences as so great that they will argue that truth, itself, does not exist.

It is not the role of this blog to definitively answer such questions. By this time, Traditionalist Teacher assumes, the reader will have figured out if he/she is believes in universal truth, relative truth, or is somewhere in the middle.

Traditionalist Teacher’s goal is to apply these concepts to the current state of American education.

Since much in American educational theory and practice is based on the teachings of John Dewey, it makes sense to figure out how he saw truth.

Dewey’s rowed his oar in the relativist pool. Dewey was a specific kind of relativist called a pragmatist. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.”[1]

Basically, pragmatism boils down to this – if it works, it’s true. If it used to work, it was true then.  If it doesn’t work anymore, it isn’t true anymore.  If it works for me and doesn’t for you, then it is true for me but not true for you.

Understanding pragmatism gives one an insight into the doctrines of “progressive” education. Most of us would use the words fact and truth as largely the same thing.  Dewey’s philosophy of education sees the process of discovery as more important than the retention of fact.  That makes perfect sense, if you don’t believe that there is any such thing as universal truth.  Fact becomes fungible, something to be examined and manipulated so that the student discovers “their” truth.  The process of thinking through a problem becomes more important than figuring out the right answer.  If that sounds like some of the things that you have heard from your own teachers, your colleagues and/or your administrators, that is not an accident.  It is the result of buying into a philosophy that leads one to those conclusions.

So, even though many teachers might have trouble explaining pragmatism, they are, effectively, pragmatists. This is even true of teachers who live their own personal lives as people who believe in absolute truth, like those who are devoutly religious or deeply embrace some other system of morality.

In the last fifty years, we have seen an assault on facts. Memorization is seen as a useless accumulation of material that the student does not understand.  Bloom’s taxonomy[2] holds that recall of facts and basic concepts is the lowest form of thinking.  Teachers who concentrate on transmitting factual information are criticized because their classroom atmosphere does not promote “critical thinking”.  Administrators evaluating those teachers are fond of saying things like, “they [the students] can always took that up.”  The teaching of mathematics has long since abandoned the idea that its most important function is getting the right answer.  In fact, the whole idea that there is a “right” answer is often held up to derision.

Traditionalist Teacher would like to posit that, if you believe in the importance of universal truth, pragmatism is the enemy. If truth is abandoned, our students become fodder for any politician who appeals to their emotions.  One cannot recognize lies if one does not possess the truth.



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TT #14 – Groupthink

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon. It is dangerous to the health of any organization.  Couple it with an established ideology, and the result can be truly disastrous.  The field of education is filled with examples of “reforms” created and implemented by conference rooms full of groupthinkers.

If you have been in education for any considerable period of time, you could rattle off a list – assertive discipline, school-based management, values clarification, block scheduling, multiple intelligences, project based assessment, the open school, building self-esteem, inquiry-based instruction, best practices, critical thinking, outcome based education, authentic assessment – all of these and others have been proposed and implemented in the forty-five years since Traditionalist Teacher first entered high school as a student. All were going to radically remake American education.  All promised to be the key to greater student achievement.

All have failed. Most have disappeared.  Some, in retrospect, seem absolutely silly.

Traditionalist Teacher will refrain, for the time being, from discussing the so-called merits of any of these ideas, but an internet search will acquaint the uninitiated with the basic ideas behind each of them. It will also yield another interesting fact – that each of these still has adherents.  Those true believers lie in wait to spring them upon us again, under a different name.

No, the purpose of this effort is not to expose the deficiencies of any of these clunkers – but to examine how they came, each in its turn, to plague the lives of thousands of teachers.

Traditionalist Teacher is increasingly convinced that the reason can be summed up in the inelegant term, groupthink. The following hypothetical situation will show how it works.

Picture yourself to be the superintendent of a middle-to-large school system. You are concerned about the state of education in your district.  You also remember that picture of Michelle Rhee (former superintendent of the Washington, DC schools) on the cover of Time and occasionally think, “Why not me?”

You go to a convention of some organization like ASCD (The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).  In addition to enjoying the ability to get away for a few days in pleasant surroundings (the October 2015 meeting is in San Diego, the April 2016 one is in Atlanta), you attend several sessions conducted by the current educational gurus in search of the next big thing.  In the evening, you discuss the various approaches with your peers in the hotel bar.  One particular presentation stands out in your mind.  You search out the presenter and ask him/her a few questions.  You buy a copy of his/her book.  You see the light.  You begin to make plans.

Upon your return, you summon a meeting of your cabinet. You provide each of the members with a handout prepared by the guru and a copy of the book you bought at ASCD.  You explain why you think this approach will work.  You encourage them to watch the guru’s Internet videos.  All of the members of your cabinet agree with you.

This is where the element of groupthink rears its ugly head. All of the members of the cabinet depend on you for advancement.  A word from you can promote them into the next higher level when a vacancy occurs.  A few of your words can create a new position for your favorites.  Contrariwise, you can “reorganize” the administration in such a way as to send some of the Central Office staff back to the principal’s or assistant principal’s offices.  You can even send some of them back (insert loud gasp here) to the classroom.  The Central Office administrators know that their careers will not be helped by pooh-poohing your pet idea.

You put together a task force to implement the next big thing. They spend the next six months investigating.  They visit other schools where the next big thing is already being implemented.  They meet with the guru.  The more studious among them actually read the book.  They work out a plan to be implemented next year.  You are delighted.  You set up a meeting for the task force to meet with the principals and the guru.  The guru makes a version of the same presentation that got you interested at ASCD.  All of them (surprise!) think it is a wonderful idea.  Over the summer, the principals figure out how to introduce the next big thing to their faculties when the new school year starts.

It is now August. The teachers return to school.  Maybe a few have heard something about the next big thing.  Perhaps the principal called in the School Improvement Team (or whatever it’s called in your district) and explained the idea to them, and given them a copy of the book.  Most of the teachers, however, spent the summer doing summer stuff (lazy louts that they are).  You are eager to make a name for yourself by successfully implementing the next big thing, which you are sure will work – after all you had a team of people investigate where it is working on other schools.  You and the guru make a DVD where you explain the idea to the teachers.  After the video the principal and the team give more information, and answer questions.

It is at those meetings that the next big thing meets its first roadblock. Amazingly, many of the teachers actually don’t like it.  A few malcontents among them speak out against the plan.  Many of them are grumbling among themselves about how it won’t work.  A few of them actually criticize you, talking about the number of years that have passed since you were a classroom teacher.

Recognizing that the outlook of the resisters is too limited to see the wisdom of the idea, you forge ahead. You tell the principals how important this idea is to the future of education in your district, and that resistance will not be tolerated.  Then, hiding the stick behind your back, you offer the carrot of staff development.  The day that the teachers get to finalize grades at the end of the first quarter becomes a district meeting day.  You hold a mass meeting that day in the largest venue that your district has to offer.  Copies of the book are given to each teacher.  The members of the various school improvement committees sit behind you on the stage.  The best marching band in the system plays as the teachers file in.  You take another crack at explaining the next big thing.

Still there is resistance. You instruct the principals to put together an implementation plan for your personal approval.  The teacher evaluation form is tweaked in such a way to require key elements of the next big thing.  The resistance doesn’t end.

Then, that resistance becomes public. Somebody finds an article in which some pundit has criticized the next big thing.  School systems that adopted similar plans begin to quietly abandon them.  Local media, which supported the plan at the beginning, begin to question your judgement.  The resistant teachers – curse them all – take to social media to share their perceptions that the plan is unworkable.  Unfortunately, there are a lot more teachers and their friends than there are employees in the Central Office, and the general public begins to object to parts of the plan.

Without actually saying so, you accept the idea that the next big thing will not happen. Who is to blame?  You did your job.  Central Office staff worked hard to make it work.  The principals tried.  It must be those lazy teachers who didn’t have the vision to see that their students needed the next big thing.  Politically, the plan has become untenable, but don’t worry – there will be another ASCD meeting in April.

And next time, you will make very sure that those “teachers” don’t get in the way.

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TT #13 – Student Centered Instruction and Technology

It is not often that Traditionalist Teacher gets frightened, but it happened this summer. No, TT was not taking a break on the beach, reading a thriller. Nor did the hair-raising experience take place in a movie theater with 3-D glasses and surround sound to build the tension. The vehicle that made TT’s flesh crawl was an article on the Education Week website.

For those who are not familiar with it, Education Week is – as the name implies – a weekly newspaper aimed at professional educators. Notice that Traditionalist Teacher said “educators” not “teachers”. In thirty-plus years in the trenches, TT has never seen a copy of Education Week in a teachers’ classroom. Nor is it to be found in the teachers’ lounge or in many secondary school libraries. It is not referred to when teachers talk about teaching.

With a basic annual subscription rate of $89.94 for print + digital and $74.94 for all digital, probably the only person who gets Education Week in your school is the principal. Your superintendent and his/her staff get it. So too does, TT imagines, every school of education in the country. Consultants write articles for it and use it to obtain bookings for conventions and professional development days.

Basically, if you are involved in education but do not have the responsibility to actually teach, you probably read Education Week.

At any rate, Traditionalist Teacher’s main goal is not to revile this journal, but to use it as an illustration of the set of ideas that may well be going through the heads of the administrators to whom you and I answer. It was a glimpse of that world that frightened TT so badly.

The specific article carried an unthreatening title, “Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach”. [1]

The first paragraph was innocuous enough, simply relating the statistic that public schools provide roughly one computer for every five students. It goes on to point out that many students also use their own devices in class.

Fair enough. Traditionalist Teacher is no technophobe. TT remembers the days when an illustration needed to be drawn on the blackboard, reproduced onto an overhead transparency, or passed from hand to hand during class. Presentation software like PowerPoint has markedly improved instruction in TT’s classroom. Computerized grade books are easier for the teacher and offer more immediate and complete information to students and parents. It is much easier to produce or revise classroom materials through the use of a word processor than it was in the days of typewriter and mimeograph.

The first real punch comes in the second and third paragraphs:

But a mountain of evidence indicates that teachers have been painfully slow to transform the ways they teach, despite that massive influx of new technology into their classrooms. The student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction envisioned by ed-tech proponents remains the exception to the rule.

“The introduction of computers into schools was supposed to improve academic achievement and alter how teachers taught,” said Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban. “Neither has occurred.”

There was a phrase to threaten any traditionalist teacher to the core, “student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction”. Those who have read this blog before will have perhaps picked up the idea that TT is no fan of the phrase “student-centered instruction”. (Those who are new to this page might want to take a look at previous postings, especially numbers four and five.)

In Traditionalist Teacher’s never-to-be-humble opinion, the term student-centered is designed to prejudice the hearer/reader into a particular point of view. If you ask the average parent or community member if instruction should be student- or teacher-centered, most (and probably all) of them will say student-centered. What they are thinking is that the instruction should be designed to meet the needs of the student, not the teacher. If that were the definition, TT would agree.

However, that is not what the educationists mean when they use that term. If I may further quote from the same article:

In the digital age, the ISTE [International Society for Technology in Education] standards say, teachers should be expected, among other strategies, to “engage students in exploring real-world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources.” They should also “develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress.”

If you please, re-read the last part of that quotation, starting with the word “enable” and let it sink in, because that is what the educationists mean when they say “student-centered instruction”.

This view fits beautifully into the Dewey-ite philosophy that truth is subjective, and that each student discovers his or her truth for him/herself. It envisions a world in which students are knowledge sponges in a quest for enlightenment, and that teachers have all-too-often acted to thwart students’ learning by imposing time-tables and standards upon them. When they speak the phrase “teacher-centered” they are envisioning soul-destroying cells of rigid dogmatism in which the teacher drones on, not knowing or caring if the students are learning.

If that accurately described traditionalist classrooms, then we should all resign.

That is not Traditionalist Teacher’s classroom. TT uses questioning well, and searches for ways to tie the historical subject matter to students’ daily lives. TT’s students are respected, pick their own seats, and are given almost unlimited time to turn in late work with little or no penalty. TT’s students are as engaged as students in other classes in the school. Many of TT’s students express the idea that they enjoy the class – and not just to TT’s face, but to administrators as well.

However, none of that makes any difference if Traditionalist Teacher is being observed and spends a half-hour in direct instruction – which is what TT’s district calls lecture, a teaching technique so reviled that it dare not speak its name.

Like most teachers in the US today, Traditionalist Teacher works in a school system that gives lip service to this concept, especially when evaluating teachers – but actually fails to follow it when it comes to administrative decision making. TT has yet to see a school system in which students actually set “their own education goals” or “manage their own learning”. For many, perhaps most, of TT’s students, their education goal is to grab a diploma and get out of the school, and their idea of managing their own learning is to do as little of it as possible. Yes, it’s cynical, and I wish it weren’t true, but it is. (And to any “progressives” who may be reading, it is true in your classroom, too. Go ahead, test it – if you dare – and ask you students if they would rather be in your classroom or at the beach.) Additionally, TT is also skeptical about the ability of students who have assessed “their own progress” to pass the standardized exams imposed upon us by the apostles of the Common Core.

But Traditionalist Teacher digresses. This blog is not about any one classroom, but about a set of practices.

What, the reader might ask, does the article say about traditional teachers and their use of technology? Again, to quote:

Indeed, a host of national and regional surveys suggest that teachers are far more likely to use technology to make their own jobs easier and to supplement traditional instructional strategies than to put students in control of their own learning.

GUILTY! What a selfish bunch we are! We are trying to be more efficient and we are actually using technology to augment strategies that have worked for us in the past instead of embracing the Brave New World of educational technology.

Traditionalist Teacher intends to go on doing exactly that – believing that an accurate presentation of fact is superior to a student’s uninformed (or semi-informed) opinion.

To ask another rhetorical question, what does the Brave New World of student-centered education look like? The article takes us there, as well:

That pretty much describes Robyn L. Howton’s Advanced Placement English class at the 1,100-student Mount Pleasant High School, a neighborhood comprehensive high school with just-above-average state test scores, located on the outskirts of Wilmington.

On a warm May morning, 26 Mount Pleasant 11th graders were scattered around Ms. Howton’s room, sitting in groups of three or four. They were midway through a project-based unit on social-justice movements. Their goal: Produce independent research papers on topics of their choice, then collaboratively develop a multimedia presentation of their findings with classmates researching the same issue.

And what project within this educational nirvana is spotlighted? Are we looking at concepts of social-justice as reflected in classic literature – like, maybe, the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice? Perhaps we are looking at a classic theme in a more modern source, like the triumph of hope over adversity in Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. No, this coterie of students is feeding its sense of being oppressed through the study of, “injustices in the U.S. criminal-justice system”, chosen by one of the group’s members because, “my own family has problems with the law, so I understand part of it.”

Why ever would we want to bring up such commonplace commentators on the human condition as Shakespeare and King when we have in our midst an authority equal to that of a junior in an AP class in a suburban high school?

Why, indeed.


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TT #12 – Asking the Right Questions

In many ways our schools are a reflection of our society. This is, perhaps, inevitable. A society creates schools in order give the young skills which are prized by that society.

This posting will describe an attitude in society, tie it to conditions in the classroom, and then discuss the reason that this phenomenon is so harmful to our students.

In 1931, an astute analyst of the emerging American society, Fulton J. Sheen, wrote a short book called Old Errors and New Labels.[1] In it, Sheen decried modern society’s tendency to, “blame the abstract when the concrete is really at fault.” A symptom of this malady is a discussion of, “the problem of crime rather than the criminal; of the problem of poverty rather than the poor.”

In early 21st century America, this mode of thinking has taken hold to such an extent that it is thought to be positively inhuman to blame the criminal for his or her crime or to posit that some of the reasons that one is poor might arise out of decisions made by that individual. Blaming society feels more compassionate – and will certainly be more acceptable to most of one’s friends and acquaintances.

Interestingly, Sheen decided to use what he thought to be an absurd example to illustrate this problem. The quotation is a little long, and Traditionalist Teacher hopes that the reader will excuse this –

“Just suppose this logic were applied in the classroom. Boys and girls find it difficult to spell “knapsack” and “pneumonia,” because the spelling of these words is not in the line of least phonetic resistance. Others, too, find it very hard to learn the multiplication table. … Now here is a real “crisis” in spelling and mathematics, a kind of intellectual anarchy akin to the moral anarchy described by our intelligentsia. How do we meet the “crisis”? One way to meet it is the way to meet the crisis, that is, by criticism; the other way to meet it is to write a new speller and a new mathematics entitled “A Preface to Spelling” or “Crisis in Mathematics.”

What Sheen could not have predicted is that his absurd example would come so close to being true. We have been noodling around with mathematics instruction for a half-century to avoid the work of telling a child to memorize the multiplication table. There are those who advocate the position that it is wrong to correct a child’s spelling – implying that it will curb their developing love of writing.[2]

This is a logical outgrowth of John Dewey’s overall philosophy, sometimes called Pragmatism, which holds that knowledge arises through, “an active adaptation of the human organism to its environment.”[3] In other words, knowledge is discovered by the student instead of being imparted by the teacher. Another key tenet of Pragmatism is that there is no universal truth – that truth changes according to changing circumstances. One of the key themes of this blog is the fact that Traditionalist Teacher decries the effect of the Deweyite philosophy on American Education, and this is one of its most corrosive effects.   Not informing the student that his/her spelling is an incorrect and inherently unethical act that dooms that child to repeat the error, making it for more difficult to learn the correct spelling in the future.

This is one of, but by no means the only, educational problem that this philosophy creates. A far more significant error is that blaming the abstract rather than the concrete keeps us from asking the questions that would yield helpful answers for the dilemmas we face in our classrooms.

Simply put, we should not be asking, “What is wrong with our schools?” when the real question is “Why isn’t Jimmy learning?” The first question leads one to massive amounts of wasted effort, as we have seen with repeated waves of unsuccessful “educational reforms” over the last century. The second question leads one to analyze Jimmy’s specific issues and attempt to create and implement a focused solution that is appropriate for Jimmy.

At this point, Traditionalist Teacher can hear throngs of “progressive” educators chanting, “We are answering BOTH questions.” They probably believe that they are. Unfortunately, they are deluding themselves.

First, their “reform” proposals will do nothing to help Jimmy because he will be long gone by the time that those proposals are implemented, if they ever are.

Second, Jimmy is an individual. His issues at school may or may not be shared by his classmates or by students nationwide. A national solution to “the crisis in education” will probably miss Jimmy’s particular set of problems.

Third, Jimmy’s lack of learning may not arise from the educational system. They could be medical. They could have their foundation in an uncertain home life. They may reflect an anti-education bias on the part of Jimmy’s parents. They may find their basis in the fact that Jimmy stays awake until 3:00 a.m. playing electronic games. No educational reform can fix a problem that is not caused by the educational system.

Fourth, Jimmy’s teacher may well be so overwhelmed by the demands that he/she rise to the school district’s latest reform plan that he/she simply does not have the time or energy to deal with Jimmy’s individual problem.

At the end of the day, Jimmy still is not learning.

The simple fact is that you cannot get an effective answer until you ask the right question.

[1] Sheen, Fulton J, Old Errors and New Labels (1931). This book was originally published Century Co. A modern reprint is available through Alba House ( The references in this posting all come from Chapter 4 – “Ethics for the Unethical”.

[2] If the reader is in doubt as to the accuracy of this statement, Traditionalist Teacher would refer him/her to, where the writer posits that parents should not, “correct your child’s spelling. Children should feel like successful, independent writers. If children feel like they can’t write without perfect spelling, they will not think of themselves as writers. Children also may develop a tendency to rely on grown-ups to tell them if their spelling is “right.””


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TT #11 – Punishment

It is possible that the most pernicious effect of “progressive” education is in the area of punishment.

The whole concept of punishment has virtually disappeared from the modern classroom. The word itself certainly has. In the time-honored process through which simple terms are done away with and replaced by less judgmental – and less descriptive – terms, punishment has been replaced with the phrase “Classroom Management.”

The difference is more important than it at first appears to be. The term punishment assumes that the students knowingly did something wrong and is being held responsible for it. Classroom management implies that any misconduct is the responsibility of the teacher’s failure to properly “manage” the students.

Traditionalist Teacher hopes that the readers will forgive a personal story that will illustrate this point.

Once upon a time, a shade over three decades ago, Traditionalist Teacher was a newly minted classroom warrior who still believed in the basic ideas of Deweyism. TT’s first assignment consisted of was five classes of seventh-grade Civics students.

At that point, the flavor of the month was ‘mainstreaming’. One of not-yet-Traditionalist-Teacher’s classes contained four gifted students whose intelligence was off the charts. It also contained three Special Education students for whom this was their first experience being mainstreamed. One of these students had so little impulse control that screeching out lines from popular songs was a regular occurrence.

There was simply no classroom activity that would take the gifted students more than five minutes to complete that the mainstreamed students could do in a month. Attempts to give the gifted students an assignment that the rest of class did not have to do were met with cries of “UNFAIR!” More difficult assignments stunned the mainstreamed students, who quickly gave up and proceeded to misbehave.

A parent of one of the gifted students was understandably concerned. When she approached Embryo Teacher, the responses to her questions were not impressive – because ET had no clue about what to do. A couple days later, her son was admonished to pay attention and said, “My mom says you can’t punish me because you can’t run your class.”

That is a dangerous attitude.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 3.5 million elementary and secondary teachers in the United States (2013).[1] It is ridiculous to believe that they are all superstars, able to engage every one of their 50.1 million students (2015)[2] in an atmosphere of continual mental stimulation.

Each school needs to have a discipline system that will work for both superstars and for marginal teachers. For a school to abandon the discipline needs of a marginal teacher because “he/she can’t run their class” is to abandon the students in that class. Even if the teacher is a newbie whose contract won’t be renewed, helping him/her to get through and teach something is far preferable to that teacher simply abandoning the class and having to get a series of subs to finish out the year.

So, what are the components of a workable discipline system? Traditionalist Teacher sees four primary components –

  1. The system must be simple enough for the students to understand how it works.
  2. The system must be consistent.
  3. The consequences must be immediate.
  4. The objectionable behavior must cease as a result of the discipline.

What happens in most schools? A student misbehaves, and is warned by the teacher. Repeated misbehavior results in repeated warnings. Another repetition results in a detention being assigned at some future date. Further repetition results in a referral to an administrator. Sometime later that week – a day or two rates as a miracle of rapidity – the administrator sees the student, who manages to come up with an explanation that enables the administrator to pretend that he/she has done something about the situation. The teacher gets his/her copy of the referral back with the notation, “Counseled student”.

This “system” fails on all four counts.   The teacher is powerless. The administrator is ineffective. The misbehaving student is empowered.

Who wins? The student.

Who loses? The obvious loser in this situation is the teacher. However, there are other losers as well – the other students in the classroom who witness this charade, and whose education is negatively impacted.

Who can do something about it? The teacher clearly has few tools to deal with serial misbehavior. The administrator’s hands are tied by the number of misbehaving students – a number that grows as students come to see misbehavior as having no negative consequences.   The parents don’t even know what is going on.

What can be done about it? Traditionalist Teacher believes that it is time to give teachers some of the tools that were abandoned (or even forbidden) since the late 1960s. Some of these are –

  • Writing lines – simply copying a sentence like “I will raise my hand before I talk in class,” repetitively
  • Copying passages from a textbook or dictionary
  • Standing in the corner
  • Being forced to wear a sign describing the misbehavior for the rest of the day, including lunch and gym class
  • Posting grades on the bulletin board
  • Sitting in the hall until an administrator comes to get you
  • Missing lunch
  • Paddling

Traditionalist Teacher can hear the shrieks of horror from the progressives. “What will the child learn from those punishments?” It is simple, the child will learn not to misbehave.

No matter what your theories say, that is a very important lesson





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TT #10 – Educational Research

The school system in which Traditionalist Teacher toils prides itself on being “data driven”. It is a malady shared with many other school systems – public, parochial, and private.

For those readers who are fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the phrase, being data driven purports to mean that the school adopts the utilitarian premise that it will promote whatever research shows will best facilitate the education of its students.   Methods and practices will be studied and those that work best will become the standard for all instruction in that district.

On the surface, this appears to be eminently reasonable, even scientific. A sentence that begins, “The data says that…,” sounds reassuring to parents, and is an effective club with which teachers can be bludgeoned.

Those who have read the previous postings to this site will know that Traditionalist Teacher strongly objects to the idea that there is any single set of practices that will be best in every classroom – but that is not the subject of this posting.

Our purpose is to examine the accuracy of the claim to be data driven, and then to critique the ways in which the data are being collected.

Are those schools that claim to be data driven being accurate? Traditionalist Teacher believes that the answer to that question depends on the nature of the problem at hand, but that the answer is usually negative.

Largely this happens because political considerations will usually overrule educational objectives. Certain decisions are simply off the table because they would be so unpopular that they would never be taken, even if a mountain of data existed to support them.

Let’s take for example the data that supports the idea that many students would learn better if school started later in the day. There is an abundance of evidence to support this idea, both theoretical and anecdotal. Any teacher who has tried to teach a complex lesson early Monday morning would find the idea easy to believe. However, changing the schedule would be massively unpopular with some key constituencies. In Traditionalist Teacher’s school, the day begins at 7:25 a.m. and ends at 2:00 p.m. Let’s say that the school determined that the students would best learn if the school day started at 10:00 a.m., for which there is ample support in the available data. That would mean that the school day would end at 4:35.

Who would dislike such a decision? Start with teachers themselves, many of whom like the fact that their workday ends in the mid-afternoon. Then come the supporters of the athletic program. On this schedule, practice could well last until 7:00 p.m., and coaches would have to work until 8:00 on a daily basis. How about those who employ high school students? The employees would be unable to begin their duties until 5:30 at the earliest. Parents who use their high-school age children to babysit their younger siblings until the parents arrive home from work would be inconvenienced. Then there would be issues with parents who have to leave for work three hours before their high school age children have to get up for school – and an absentee rate that would likely increase. School busses would be running – and slowing traffic – at the same time that many are returning home from work. And on it goes.

Politically, such a decision would be untenable, no matter what the data says.

When political factors are not present, the decision that is made often supports the needs or prejudices of upper administration. Usually, they will be able to cite data to back up that decision – but the method of doing educational research often means that you can find some research that will back up almost any decision.

That brings us to the primary focus of this posting.

The method of doing scientific research is well known – you probably learned it as the “Scientific Method”. One starts with a question, develops a hypothesis to answer the question, gathers data, applies the available data to the hypothesis, and then determines whether or not the hypothesis has been proven. If it is, the hypothesis can be accepted as plausible. To be accepted as factual, the experiment needs to be replicable by another scientist who independently achieves the same result.

When one is dealing with matters that touch on the human mind, the necessary criteria for proof expand in two ways:

  • Double-blind testing – In this process neither the person conducting the study nor the subjects of the study know what the study is trying to prove. This is crucial. Basic to many, perhaps most, of us is the desire to please. The graduate assistant wants to please the professor by proving the professor’s pet hypothesis. The subjects develop a rapport with the person conducting the study and come to want that person to be successful.   The double blind procedure prevents error by making sure that the subjects are unable to figure out what is being studied.
  • The use of control groups – In this way the change being studied in used on one group and not on another. Both groups are studied. The change can only be said to be effective if the group that has been subjected to the change reacts in a certain way, and the other group does not. If neither group reacts in the desired way, the change is obviously ineffective. If both groups demonstrate the desired behavior, that behavior had to be caused by some other condition.

Even with these safeguards, psychological studies are often not replicable. Opening the recesses of the human mind is a very difficult process, and highly likely to fail.

There is one other problem with this process as viewed through the eyes of the educational reformer. Double-blind testing with a control group is both time consuming and expensive – very, very expensive. Educational reform needs to happen NOW, and in a way that is as cost effective as possible. So there comes a new process. In the world of education, everything must be called by an attractive title. This one is called “Action Research”.

Supposedly, by applying the method of Action Research, every educator can analyze and create a solution to the problems facing American education. If the researcher records the research and results in the appropriate way, the research can be published. Once it is published, other studies can cite it and it becomes a part of the educational literature.

There is one major problem with this method.

Action Research isn’t scientific research, despite the efforts of its proponents to present it as such. Its conclusions are neither valid, verifiable, nor reproducible.

Action Research simply reinforces the prejudices of the person doing the “research”. If I believe it is going to work, I will put the energy behind it to make sure that it works. If it still doesn’t work, I can manipulate the situation until it works. If it still doesn’t work, I can just fake the data.

Let us say that Traditionalist Teacher wanted to prove once and for all that traditional methods are superior to progressive ones. Miraculously, administrative permission is obtained.  A series of changes would be implemented in the TT classroom, including:

  • The class period is reduced to be 45 minutes long.
  • Lecture becomes the primary mode of instruction. Notes are collected and graded to insure that students are paying attention.
  • Tests are based upon the material contained in the lectures.  Grades are posted in the classroom with students listed by name.
  • All students must comply with a strict dress code.
  • Violations of class and school rules will be punished by repetitive writing of a statement based on the specific infraction – for example, writing “I will not talk during a lesson until I have been called upon.” 500 times. Failure to comply will result in corporal punishment and/or work duties, followed by the demand that the original punishment be completed.
  • Plagiarism will result in severe sanctions, including – but not limited to – grade reduction, a requirement that all class work be conducted under TT’s direct supervision after school, public humiliation, and – as a last resort – expulsion.
  • Specific key ideas will be memorized.

Such a series of changes would give Traditionalist Teacher a substantial ego boost. TT would work very hard to insure the success of this methodology. Feeling good about the job, with a renewed work ethic, and a new source of mental energy, TT would be able to insure that the students learned.

At the end of the year, Traditionalist Teacher would be able to write a book in which the level of success would be stated and amplified – and contrary evidence deleted.   This would enable TT to enter the world of the educational consultant – where the real money is. I would be able to head out to the educational conventions and trumpet my success. Perhaps I could even get a chance to be on C-Span 2’s Book TV.

Some administrators might listen. Some other traditionalist teachers would come out of the woodwork and demand to be allowed to implement traditional methods in their classrooms. Those teachers would likely enjoy success. However, the fact would remain that a teacher’s personal commitment to these methods would be an important component of any success.

At the same time, many teachers would remain loyal to the progressive methods in which they have been trained, especially if they believe that they have enjoyed success with them. To these professionals, the methods I describe would be anathema. Attempts to force those teachers to adopt this plan would be met with resistance. That resistance would prevent any success. Math, science, art, and music teachers would complain that the methods that work well in a history class would not be sufficiently flexible for their subjects. Those teachers would implement traditional methods grudgingly, if at all. If they read my book (and that is a VERY big if), they would not find it convincing, because it would be all about how I did it in MY classroom.

My “Action Research” would be no more convincing to them than that done by progressives would be to me.

Because it is not really research. It proves nothing.

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TT #9 – “College-Centric” Schools

For purposes of this posting, Traditionalist Teacher is going to coin a term that is not found in the dictionary – college-centric. This term refers to the fact that seemingly every high school in the country sees its primary job as being a conduit to college and the careers for which only college can prepare one.

At this point, Traditionalist Teacher is going to make a disclosure that is hardly earth-shaking. TT has a college education, in fact holds three college degrees. Like everyone else in the school (with the possible exceptions of clerical personnel and custodians), TT is the product of a college education. Herein lies part of the problem. Every teacher used high school as a prelude to college themselves. Therefore, many of us assume that college is the primary reason to get a high school education. For many students, that is accurate. For many (and in some schools, most) students, it is not. Teachers do not serve the latter group of students well by acting as though every student is college bound.

Currently (July 2015), the college-centric nature of high schools can be best seen through an acronym – STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Around the country, principals and administrators are actively encouraging students to take classes that would lead them to careers in those four areas. This is justified by its adherents as the best way to prosper in the current job market.

So far, so good. There is nothing wrong with a calm assessment of a student’s abilities and then using that information to steer the student in a direction that will enable the student to prosper. The problem with the STEM approach is with the assumption that this is the best path for every student. Therefore, many schools require four years of math and science for graduation.

However, many students are repelled by the idea of taking four years of math and science. Many students (and their parents) see no purpose in taking four years of math and science. Often, those students may be right.

Much of the trend toward college-centric schools began when schools abandoned a process sometimes known as “tracking”.   While vestiges of tracking endure, only those who have been in the profession as long as Traditionalist Teacher will have had much experience with the whole program. For younger teachers, it was a part of your parents’ and even grandparents’ experience. Those students most likely to go on to college were placed in the “College Prep” track (although it could have been known by another title in different schools), those most likely to pursue a manual trade were in the “Industrial” track. If your counselor determined that your skills were primarily clerical, you were put in the “Commercial” program. Those who had limited ability in any of those areas wore the “General Ed” label.

Once the student’s track was determined, most classes would be taken with other students in that track. The expectations of those classes were in line with each track’s goals. For example, College Prep students were encouraged to take calc and trig, Industrial students would go through Algebra I and Geometry, Commercial students would be more focused on arithmetic through fractions and decimals, and General students would try to become adept with the four basic functions.   This process was echoed in the other disciplines. Even the electives would be oriented to the probable future needs of those students.

To be sure, there was much room for abuse – both by intention and omission. All too often, tracking was used to reinforce class, gender, and racial patterns. The children of “white collar” parents were assumed to be College Prep material. Offspring of factory workers were placed in the Industrial track. The Commercial track was almost exclusively female.   Tracking was sometimes used as a way to continue segregation in newly “desegregated” schools.   Even with the best of intentions, errors were common. The tracking decision was usually made in the seventh or ninth grades – and could be almost impossible to change later. Stories abound of factory worker’s sons and daughters who discovered an interest in English Literature or Zoology in their sophomore year, but were discouraged from “moving up”.   As free expression became a watchword of the 1960s, tracking became a bad word and was largely abandoned.

The effect is often that the whole school became College Prep.

As tracking was discarded, little notice was taken of those whose interests were well served by it. Students who wanted to become electricians, bricklayers, and roofers learned valuable skills and acquired a solid work ethic. Many acquired skills that made them valuable employees right out of high school. For those who were not academically inclined, they gave high school a purpose. As they continued in school, their reading, math, and scientific abilities expanded because they still had to complete the required courses. Traditionalist Teacher recalls an uncle who finished high school because a three-hour auto shop class was offered only to seniors. If he had had only English Lit and American Government to look forward to, it is doubtful that he would have spent one day in school beyond his sixteenth birthday. The idea of being able to work on cars three hours a day got him through his junior and senior years – as well as giving him a set of highly marketable skills.

In many schools today, students like that have little, if any, place to go. They see the highlight of their academic careers as lunchtime. Some rapidly discover the boundaries of whatever discipline code is in place and test its limits. Others quietly mark time until some combination of the law and their parents will let them leave school. They come to despise the very idea of school and education. Whether the resistance is active or passive, the result is the same – no learning takes place.

The simple fact is that high school students have to buy into the goals of the school before there will be any education. That means much more than repeating shibboleths like, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” at faculty meetings. It means that the schools have to accept the idea that a college education is not in every student’s future – because many students (and their parents) don’t want it to be.

Once again, that pesky “freedom thing” rears its beautiful head.   The students will ultimately decide what they want their lives to be – regardless of what their schools say about it.

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TT #8 – Five Reasons that Conservatives Get it Wrong on Education

Without any question, education is the most thoroughly socialist aspect of American life, and has been for at least the half-century that Traditionalist Teacher has been involved – as student and teacher – in it. It is a virtual monopoly run by the state. Money disappears into it without any real sense of accountability. Its prevailing orthodoxy is collective, rather than individual.

Traditionalist teacher reads many online newsletters and blogs about education, many written by conservatives. This is an often disappointing process, because often analysts who are often correct (in TT’s opinion) on other issues are often so badly wrong on education.

Traditionalist teacher sees five basic errors coming out of right-wing commentators on American education.

  • They believe that testing will inspire teachers to work harder, and students to learn more
  • Compassionate conservatism requires conservatives to embrace big government principles to try to solve the problems of the schools.
  • They see teachers and teachers’ unions as identical in outlook.
  • They believe that the battle over schools is primarily about content.
  • They believe that a school can be run like a business.

It is unlikely that any single person embraces all of these positions, and Traditionalist Teacher intends no offense toward those who do hold one or more of them. As a traditionalist, TT has a strong bond of sympathy with conservatives. They see a badly broken system and are struggling to find a way that it can be fixed.

Traditionalist Teacher intends to examine all of those positions, and point out the errors within them.


Testing will inspire teachers to work harder and students to learn more.

It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which standardized testing has taken over the classroom. Anya Kamenetz of NPR, certainly no traditionalist, says that her research indicates that students in large urban school districts will take an average of 113 standardized tests over their academic careers.[1] If this number seems unreasonable, consider that many school districts have included standardized testing for many subjects, so that the data between schools can be examined. In the district in which Traditional Teacher works, students will take at least thirty district-wide standardized tests in the three required high school Social Studies classes alone.

Those tests drive instruction, and the jury is still out as to it is being driven in the correct direction. As any teacher knows, writing test questions is extremely difficult, especially if the format of the test is multiple choice. For those who have never done it, the difficulty is not in figuring out what questions are to be asked or what the correct answer is. The difficulty is in designing the three incorrect answers. It requires devising three answers that are not right, but conceivably could be right. That becomes even more difficult if the question requires some sort of thought process through which the student is to deduce the correct answer. That is the reason that so many of these tests ask about names and dates. It is much easier to ask a question about when and where the Pilgrims landed than it is to ask why they were there.

If the teacher writes the question, it is much more likely to reflect the way the material was presented in that classroom and the ability of that group of students. If the question is written by someone who has never seen the students taking the test, the issue is multiplied. To make sure that the student can possibly get the question right, the teacher is forced to alter the instruction to fit the test question.

If the question is about an important point and is phrased in such a way that the students understand it, that might be worth doing. If the question is poorly written and/or spotlights a trivial point, it forces the teacher to cover that material in a way that is less effective than what he/she would normally do – just so that the students will pass the test.

Even worse, a national or regional test might be poorly written, and the students, teachers, and local administrators would never know it. In the name of ‘test security’ students are not allowed to discuss the questions with anyone. The teachers who proctor the test are specifically prohibited from looking at the questions. The test might be well written or poorly written, and nobody but the company that wrote the test would ever know.

This situation does not inspire anyone to work hard. It creates frustration and a sense of resignation that neither student not teacher can do anything to effectively prepare.


Compassionate conservatism requires conservatives to embrace big government principles to try to solve the problems of the schools.

The younger President Bush wanted to be known as the education president. To accomplish this goal, he combined his efforts with those of Senator Ted Kennedy to produce ‘No Child Left Behind.’ I have no doubt that he had a genuine interest in making our schools better. However, I also believe that the education issue gave the Bush people an opportunity to counter the argument that conservatives just run around saying “NO” to everything.

The argument is a simple one. Conservatives spend much of their time pointing out the flaws in progressive utopias. While necessary, that puts conservatives in a position not unlike the teacher that gives a student a C on a paper that he/she “worked really hard on” because it contained a raft of grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. All of the experts on education (good ‘progressives’ all) agree. Therefore, this issue gave President Bush somewhere that he believed he could safely reach across the aisle and not look like the Grinch who Stole Christmas.

The result was, at best, disappointing. When No Child Left Behind drew the fire of the teachers’ unions, Senator Kennedy took a giant step backward and left President Bush alone to face the bullets. No Child Left Behind became yet another liberal symbol of the way that conservatism did not work. Of course, it wasn’t conservative – but the pundits never let semantics get in the way of a full rant.

As we prepare for the 2016 presidential election, at least two Republican aspirants to the nomination – Jeb Bush and John Kasich – have embraced Common Core. As stated in another post, Traditional Teacher profoundly believes that Common Core has no chance of working. If one of these gentlemen were to be elected, the likely result will be that history will repeat itself and that the failure of Common Core will be blamed on a ‘conservative’ president.

If Traditionalist Teacher may briefly digress at this point, has anyone else noticed that one still sees ‘No Child Left Behind’ cited as a bogeyman in the educational press, and yet President Obama’s equally unsuccessful ‘Race to the Top’ is seldom mentioned? Curious, no?


They see teachers and teachers’ unions as identical in outlook.

This is the most important, but by no means the only, misconception that many conservatives have about classroom teachers. The logic behind this idea is simple – teachers’ unions are set up to help teachers; teachers’ unions are gaining power; therefore, teachers are the beneficiaries of the power of teachers’ unions.

There are several problems with this bit of reasoning, First, while teachers’ unions were set up to improve the pay and working conditions of teachers, in the modern world, they frequently operate on the assumption that electing liberal Democrats helps teachers. The fallacy of this can be seen in examining the plight of teachers in big cities.

Teachers’ unions have been successfully implemented job security and pay based upon seniority. On that basis, many complain – with some justice – that these achievements insure employment for negligent teachers.

Unfortunately, those same commentators seldom if ever look at the conditions faced by competent teachers in those districts.

All too often, the seniority system traps teachers in positions in which their satisfaction gradually decreases until they reach a point in which they think that the school is literally squeezing the life and joy out of them. Leaving is often not an economic option because other school systems’ contracts force them to hire employees with experience at a higher rate based on their experience in other systems. Few schools will pay the extra money to hire teachers with more than ten years experience when they can hire those who have fewer than five years in the field.

The unions’ bitter fight to prevent school competition also limits the potential of good teachers. Schools in a competitive system would not only have to attract students, but good teachers as well. A teacher with a good reputation could bargain with several possible employers – who would then be able to use that teacher’s reputation to attract new students. A traditional teacher could find a school with a traditional philosophy. A progressive teacher could do the same thing. The school that shows better results would attract more students, and the teachers would both benefit from and enhance that reputation.

The teachers’ unions also use their members’ money to advocate social positions with which many of their employees do not agree. The national teachers’ unions – the NEA and the AFT – are both very liberal politically and are reliable segments of the Democrat’s coalition. This gives the union’s leaders a degree of access to leaders when Democrats are in power. They become apoplectic when Republicans win, proclaiming dire warnings about the abandonment of “the children.”

Teachers, on the other hand, are on the front lines of what Lyndon Johnson called the “War on Poverty”. Many teachers enlisted because they wanted to play a part in helping children break cycles of ignorance and poverty. They have also seen its limitations. They see the effects of one-parent homes. They weep for students who wreck their lives through drug abuse. They decry the loss of motivation and the rise of a sense of entitlement. They understand that the students’ lack of respect and poor work ethic will handicap those students when they need to compete for wages.

Many teachers have come to question the big government approach that has helped to create this situation. At the same time, neither party offers any relief. The liberals and moderates offer “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core” while the conservatives talk about stripping away their pay and job security.


They believe that the battle over schools is primarily about content.

All too often, conservative commentators let themselves get too worked up over the content of instruction. They see a bastion of liberal teachers and college professors who are trying to brainwash American youth into accepting a statist system and abandoning traditional social values.[2] They remember the off-the-wall social theories of one of their own teachers. They may have watched Bill O’Reilly expose Professor Ward Churchill. They may hear of teachers assigning Howard Zinn’s radical interpretation of U.S. History as required reading.

The current controversy over the new framework for teaching Advanced Placement U.S. History may be illustrative.[3] Full disclosure – Traditionalist Teacher occasionally works as a reader for the AP US History Exam.

The Advanced Placement program was created in the 1950s as a way for exceptional high school students to gain college credit. The U.S. History Exam made its debut in 1956. It was a basic (albeit difficult) test in which half of the score was based on multiple choice questions and the other half was based on written essays. The content of the test started with European exploration of the Americas and continued to a moving point usually 10-15 years before the date of the test – for example, the 1956 exam went up through World War II.

By 2005, this framework was in trouble. The simple fact was that the nature of the exam made it significantly more difficult as the years went by. The 2005 student needed to cover 50 years more material than did his/her 1956 counterpart. Yet the school year was still the same 180 days that it had been in the 1950s. Obviously, if there was no change, that situation was only going to get worse.

The College Board, which writes and administers the exam, decided that the time was ripe to revise not just the exam, but the whole method of teaching Advanced Placement U.S. History. In keeping with current trends, the goal became to focus on the skills of historical inquiry rather than simple (?) mastery of content.

A new framework was introduced, laboriously revised, and became effective during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Many conservatives read the new framework with alarm. Typical of their concern was the fact that only six U.S. presidents are specifically mentioned. How, they asked, can a student of U.S. History be considered “advanced” if he/she only knows about six presidents? Still worse, the context in which those six were mentioned appeared to imply a specific political point of view – for instance, the mention of Ronald Reagan’s “bellicose rhetoric”. [4]

Clearly, it appeared that the same liberals who were behind Common Core were trying to force the best students into their own interpretation of American History.

While sympathetic to their point of view, Traditionalist Teacher has two words of comfort for those who feel this angst.

First, all too often the students aren’t listening anyway. This may be the only time that an ineffective educational system yields a real benefit. Students tune out a teacher who goes off on a tangent and gets worked up about ideas that the students do not understand and about which they do not care. Most students aren’t reading the radical textbook – because they seldom read anything. Many intelligent students have long since mastered the practice to retaining the material long enough to take the test and then discarding it. Yes, some students may be impressed with the radicals, but Traditionalist Teacher suspects that most of them were inclined in that direction already.

Second, the liberal monolith that these commentators fear is not as solid as it might appear. Many teachers are themselves conservative, and many of those who are politically liberal embrace traditional codes of personal behavior. For many years Traditionalist Teacher taught the first year of a two course sequence. Inevitably, in that class traditional ideas prevailed. The second year of that sequence was taught by a teacher who was far more liberal. The outcome was that those students heard from both sides of the social divide, and were in a position to decide for themselves. Traditionalist Teacher knows at least one conservative history teachers who assigns Mr. Zinn’s book (referred to above) because the teacher’s ethical system holds that the students should be exposed to a viewpoint that would not be otherwise represented in that classroom.

Traditionalist Teacher believes that the efforts of those commentators would be far better spent examining the methodology that makes schools ineffective. Only effective schools can convey any content, be it reactionary, radical, or some place in between.


They believe that a school can be run like a business.

Like most enduring falsehoods, this one has a germ of truth at its center. There are many aspects of schools that would benefit if the people making the decisions had a better background in the methods of business. In many communities the school system is the largest landholder and the local high school its largest building. Usually that land and building is run by someone whose highest degree is a Master’s of Science in Educational Administration. A holder of such a degree, Traditionalist Teacher has never received the slightest training in building operation or maintenance.  There is little doubt that multiple millions could be saved over time if those buildings were properly managed.

Likewise, certified school administrators oversee the labor of many who are not teachers. Clerical personnel, custodians, and school security officers all answer to the principal. While that principal probably has some training in evaluation and supervision of educational personnel, he/she has little (and probably no) direct experience in those fields or even as much as a one-day seminar about situations unique to them.

However the core mission of education, the teaching of the young, is not one that can be improved by the application of modern Business principles. Teaching is an art, not a science.   Business methods can tell you nothing about the production of literature or the quality of a song. Those in the world of fine art would gasp if someone tried to evaluate a painting by the amount of time that it took to produce, the number of pounds of paint on the canvas, the efficiency of the brushstrokes, or the application of some scientific measure of the brightness of the pigment.

There are several basic problems with the application of business measures to teaching.

First, the basic elements in any teaching situation, the student and the teacher are too variable to be measured in any standardized way.

At its essence, teaching is an essentially simple process, the material is introduced and explained, some form of practice is assigned, the material is reviewed and reinforced, and then the student’s mastery of the material is evaluated.   Even though the process may be simple, it is seldom easy. The methods involved in doing any of the steps in this process are capable of nearly infinite variation. The selection of method is best done by the individual teacher in reference to his/her own strengths and those of the students being taught. To argue that there is any method that is inherently superior makes no more sense than arguing the basic value of oil paints over watercolors or pen and ink.

In another context, the specific subject area implies a certain variety of teaching methods.   “Chalk and talk” methods common in the teaching of language and history would be absurd in an art or shop class. Mathematics often involves the teaching of a relatively small number of processes, and then the application of those processes multiple times with slightly different sets of numbers. Science implies a certain level of experimentation.

Then, the varieties of students are simply staggering. Students came from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. A student who has travelled widely may well sit next to others who have spent their entire lives within a hundred mile radius of their birthplace. Students with wealthy parents rub elbows with those who suffer severe economic disadvantages.   Some are raised in highly regulated households while others live in near anarchy. Some students are rural, others are urban. Some are highly motivated; others can barely summon the energy to cross the street. Drug use is no respecter of societies divisions. Fourth grade students born in September may greatly outpace those born the following July. The same student who works well in the morning may be almost asleep after lunch. Even within the same family, the variations of intellectual ability and motivation are often significant.

Given this variation, anyone who says that their favored framework or set of standards is best for all teachers and all students should be laughed out of the room.

Second, there is no way to predict a clear relationship between inputs and outcomes. If one is assembling automobile engines or light bulbs, there is an exact and predictable relationship between the size and quality of the materials used and the power of the engine or the brightness of the light. No such relationship exists in a classroom for at least two reasons. No one, even the teachers or students themselves, can predict the quality of either teaching or learning. Every teacher and every student has great days, good days, and terrible days. Sometimes, students want the comfort of familiarity and other times they want the stimulation of variety. There will be some of each in any classroom. Many students want both at different times. Sometimes the same student may want both at the same time.


So how can a conservative avoid these errors? Traditionalist Teacher would like to respectfully offer the following suggestions:

  1. Don’t assume that your schooling is typical – the fact that you went to high school ten (fifteen? thirty?) years ago does not make you an expert on education.
  2. Realize that there are no experts on education – no one has their fingers on all of the varieties within the educational system.
  3. Be true to your principles – big government works no better in education than it does in any other aspect of life.
  4. Understand that the vast majority of classroom teachers are there because they passionately want their students to learn – and that we don’t like the bad apples any more than you do.
  5. Challenge your ‘progressive’ friends to do the same.



[2] Examples can be found in the writings of Lynn Cheney and Phyllis Schlafly. Traditionalist Teacher does not mean to question the competence or thoughtfulness of these and other commentators, only the emphasis on content as opposed to methodology.

[3] This scenario is intended to be a capsule description of a process that took place across a decade, and is intended to illustrate a larger educational trend. Traditionalist Teacher does not pretend that it is an exhaustive or complete description of the College Board’s work or the efficacy of the Advanced Placement program.

[4] The complete framework can be read and downloaded at

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