J. Marvin Herndon's American Education's Failure: The Cause and Cure

American education continues to deserve low grades, even as elitist committees propose one new program after another for teachers to implement. But federal and state education committees cannot and will not find the solution to America’s failing education system. Why? Because committees are the problem. 

Since Sputnik’s launch in 1957, committees have increasingly come to dominate American education, telling teachers what to teach and how to teach. School textbooks typically are committee-written and committee-approved. The consequence is a narrowly focused, near-monolithic consensus view of knowledge and education-practice, devoid of challenge, debate, and variety; a one-size-fits-all approach that simply does not fit. Is it any wonder that so many students “tune out” and “turn off” and so many teachers “burn out”?

Increasingly, teachers find themselves at the bottom of an inflexible bureaucratic pyramid with little opportunity or authority to exercise initiative, teaching what they are told by committees in ways they are told to teach. After all, committees, especially blue-ribbon committees, know best, right? Wrong. Witness the recent demise of the Soviet Union, a nation of vast geological and cultural resources, but a nation mal-managed to bankruptcy by committee consensus. Governance by committee leads to failure; Americans should heed history’s lessons.

In the now-defunct Soviet Union, committees ordered farmers what and when they were to plant and how they were to farm. The consequence was long lines at food stores which offered little for consumers to buy. Committees like to tell people what to do and how to do it, but have little appreciation for the personal decisions and individual judgments one must make to be successful. Moreover, committee-control robs the individual of incentive, leading to uninspired performance and absence of initiative. Teaching is like that, too. To be successful, a teacher has to connect individually and personally with students, guiding them into fruitful subject areas which they may find interesting, relevant, and beneficial, and then striking a spark, kindling imaginations, motivating, and jump-starting students’ self-interest.

The solution to America’s failing education system, I submit, is to turn that pyramid upside down, to put classroom teachers back in charge. Here I propose a two step plan to do just that.

First, the Federal Government should begin the systematic dismantling and elimination of programs and grants aimed at “improving” education by directing what should be taught and how teachers should teach.

Second, the Federal Government should establish a permanent and growing Internet-based Teacher Exchange Resource Repository Archive (acronym TERRA). Think of TERRA as being a cyber-space entity to be structured only by teachers for teachers, a place for teacher-to-teacher communications, a place for teachers to post ideas for classroom demonstrations and science experiments, and a place for teachers to share and explore different teaching methods and experiences. Think of TERRA for teachers as being like the Great Library of Alexandria, a massive, permanent repository archive of video lectures, demonstrations, computer-based exercises and more, all readily downloadable, the best of the best available to all teachers, to public, charter, private, parochial, and home-school teachers.

In establishing the independent TERRA Foundation, the Federal Government should encourage teachers to stretch the bounds of education, to open new possibilities. For example, TERRA could include in-depth video lectures and learning activities on pragmatic, employable skills. Welding, for example, can focus not only on technological skills, but can be a portal to learning various subjects, like the elements, how they behave and combine, the nature and flow of heat, the relevant mathematics, with particular emphasis on the business aspects and on the knowledge and training requirements, to list just a few. Teachers throughout the nation know or know of skilled individuals who might like to volunteer to share their knowledge, which teachers could encourage and help to package as video lessons for students.

TERRA need not be limited to video. Teachers could, for example, post textbooks or book-sections which other teachers might combine to make customized e-textbooks, which could be downloaded for reading on digital reading devices. Potential abounds.

TERRA should be underlain by guidelines. Its operation should be restricted to the domain of practicing teachers. All postings should have a section for teacher comments, endorsements, criticisms, and flags for inappropriate material, such as potentially dangerous laboratory experiments. TERRA contributions and exchanges should be signed; screen-names should not be permitted as secrecy inevitably brings out the worst in human behavior. For independence, TERRA should be operated as a permanent U.S. Government foundation, not associated with any other institution whose own interests might come first. Commercial, political, labor-union, and religious activities should be prohibited.

Adoption and implementation of TERRA would stand as the U.S. Government’s commitment to place teachers at the top of the pyramid, to allow, to encourage, and to support teachers in a fundamentally new, major renovation of American education. And, appropriately, participating teachers should be rewarded financially and recognized professionally. TERRA, I submit, will profoundly change and improve American education.

YouTube Video: Put Teachers on Top (click here)