Guest Blogger Fred Strine: 1984 Now

by Guest Blogger
December 21st, 2008

by Fred Strine

Imagine the widespread panic if doctors nationwide abandoned genuine medical expertise labeling it old-fashioned, out of touch, and insufficient for treating patients. Suppose medical schools focused on patient psychology and beside manner instead of anatomy, diagnosis and prescription therapy. What if your family M.D. suddenly morphed into a wellness facilitator (W.F.) encouraging you to “discover” your own path to better health?  Would you passively accept the change? Would you buy such blithe explanations as, “ We treat the patient, not the disease,” or “Our holistic approach to medicine more thoroughly meets the needs of 21st century patients”?

Before you dismiss the above as demented lunacy, please recognize this is no updated 1984 scenario. In reality we’re not talking about the medical profession of the future. We are talking about the education profession in America NOW. The parallels are frightening but all too true.

Most teachers certified in the last decade or so are teaching subjects they never majored in. Your children are in their classes. Parents expect subject mastery and expertise from today’s educators, but both are sadly missing. It’s outright deception on a massive scale.  Education professors and their required courses brainwash future teachers into believing anyone schooled in child psychology and progressive education doctrine can facilitate learning anything in any discipline.  This notion is recycled rubbish, fermented and fomented in the compost heap of American ed. philosophy. It’s been with us since before the turn of the 20th century, but it’s news to American parents.

The teaching profession in 2009 is populated with young teachers too inexperienced to know anything different, established teachers too in debt to risk job security, and endangered traditional teachers too rare and too ostracized to be taken seriously. Administrators and union officials entrenched in John Dewey progressive dogma salivate over anticipated government grants using your tax money. Meanwhile parents and traditionalists within the system are ignored and castigated.

Ideologues thoroughly proficient in “edu-speak” euphemisms run American public schools today. They’re public relations experts keeping parents happy but out of touch. I’d call their obfuscation a national swindle. “Child-centered” certainly passes a hoodwinked public’s apple-pie test. “Outcome-based” assures everyone of attainable goals. “Pathways” pacify parents concerned about directionless kids. “Constructivist” no doubt betokens a solid “back to basics” foundation.

But wait. These sound-good sound bites represent updates of a progressive ed. philosophy in high fashion way back in the late 1800s. Thoroughly discredited ever since, progressive ed. has reinvented itself every generation with new “edu-speak” jargon.  Just ask any veteran teacher old enough to have survived the cycles.

These specious catch phrases reflect the views of well-intentioned but wrong-headed utopians who invariably thought socialism would save the world. Their adherents still reside in ivory-tower academia, bad mouthing America and willfully ignoring the horrific lessons of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Cuba. Worst of all, these education Ph.D.’s are teaching our teachers and have been since the ‘60s.

The shocking truth is today’s public schools don’t even attempt to provide a solid academic foundation for ALL students. It’s what parents expect and what parents thought they were getting. Only students who opt for college prep courses get a shot at solid academics, and practically speaking even these classes have been systematically dumbed down during the 37 years since I began teaching.

Schools don’t promote independent thinking anymore. Even math problem solving routinely becomes a group project. Ninth graders, supposedly algebra ready, still cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide on paper. At 58, I managed simple math in my head before my students figured out which calculator keys to push. They thought I was a math whiz. The difference is 45 years ago I learned my times tables. Memorizing anything nowadays “ist verboten!” in progressive ed. America—has been for decades.

Today’s facilitators (edu-speak for teacher) think their job is merely helping kids learn on their own during group “discovery” sessions. In English, my chosen field, I was the only teacher in my department who failed to embrace the facilitator approach. Today’s facilitators have no clue about the expertise a traditional English teacher was expected to display “back in the day.”  (Aside: Good thing my current M.D. memorized the location of my appendix. Glad he didn’t have to operate by the “discovery” method.)

Of my 28 colleagues in the English dept. only one other geezer and I know what a direct object is. My grammar diagnostic test routinely given to 7th graders in the 70s proved way too tough for my current high school TEACHER colleagues. Our Language Arts department has no Standard English textbooks. The facilitators wouldn’t use them anyway. “Besides, nobody cares about stuff like subject-verb agreement anymore,” I’ve been told. Meanwhile glaring errors such as, “Her and me feel the same,” pass muster with both students AND their facilitators.

With group work practically universal, cheating is rampant and registers little social stigma among students. Street-wise “players” within groups dump responsibility on the smart ones, hoping to slide by with the least effort possible. No longer does a high school diploma guarantee even basic subject expertise. Students are, however, well rehearsed in co-operative activities with their peers, and they do feel good about themselves.

If schools and young teachers committed to groupthink activities were truly honest, they’d start granting one group diploma on graduation day. That practice would certainly shorten ceremonies, but would Emily Spitzer, Group Diploma Recipient #247 who plans to become a neuro-surgeon, qualify for a 21st century med. school? Hope she finds some smart lab partners!

Wise up, America. By default public education has declared the earth flat again and fallen off the edge. Somebody please re-discover Pythagoras, and let’s get back to a truly well-rounded, grounded education for all.

Fred Strine recently retired after teaching for 36 years in the Seattle area.


  1. I’m pretty sympathetic to “traditional” educators, but I found this guest post little more than a rant, full of cartoon-ish thumbnails and very few actual facts.

    Do more teachers teach outside the subject they majored in than in the past? Are fewer students actually algebra-ready in high school? If so, then some factual references would be helpful.

    I thought sloppy thinking was supposed to be the preserve of the progressives.

    Comment by Rachel — December 21, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  2. I’ll let Fred answer for himself, but I will say this: spend 36 years (!) in the classroom and you’ve earned yourself a good ‘ole rant. Plus, my momma always insisted I should listen with respect to my elders. School me, Fred.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 21, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

  3. To Rachael,
    For facts, try Project Follow Through (1967-1995), the most expensive, thorough education study ever undertaken. Because results didn’t support progressive methods, nobody has ever heard of it. Google it and read. You’ll be amazed. Since my traditional methods were much closer to the recommended direct instruction than today’s favored group techniques, I was ostracized. I don’t research education, nor do I have a PhD. I have, however spent an entire career successfully teaching real teenagers who learned more from my old-fashioned ways than my progressive inspired colleagues with “facts” on their sides. And so, I rant.

    Education researchers Wisler, Burns, & Iwamoto wrote the following summarizing important aspects of Project Follow Through:

    “With a few exceptions, the models assessed in the national FT [FOLLOW THROUGH] evaluation did not overcome the educational disadvantages poor children have. The most notable exception was the Direct Instruction model sponsored by the University of Oregon. Another lesson of FT is that educational innovations do not always work better than what they replace. Many might say that we do not need an experiment to prove that, but it needs to be mentioned because education has just come through a period in which the not-always-stated assumption was that any change was for the better. The result was a climate in which those responsible for the changes did not worry too much about the consequences. The FT evaluation and other recent evaluations should temper our expectations. (p. 179-181,Wisler, Burns, & Iwamoto, 1978).

    ?The most expensive educational experiment in the world showed that change alone will not improve education. Yet change for the sake of change is the major theme of the current educational reform effort. Improving education requires more thought than simply making changes.

    Perhaps the ultimate irony of the FT evaluation is that the critics advocated extreme caution in adopting any practice as policy in education; they judged the extensive evaluation of the FT Project inadequate. Yet 10 short years later [2005], the models that achieved the worst results, even negative results, are the ones that are, in fact, becoming legislated policy in many states, under new names.”

    Again to Rachael: Just how are my personal observations with real students “cartoons”? If your classroom experiences contradict mine, please feel free to share them with us in an essay of your own.

    Comment by Fred Strine — December 21, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  4. Hello.
    This is my first post on the Core Knowledge Blog.
    I have been teaching for 10 years now. I teach in “alternative education” for 7th-12th grade. You know that kid in your class who is a constant disruption, is way below grade level, has no parental/family support at home? When that student disappears (gets expelled or called before a truancy judge) guess where they go? To me!

    Although I don’t have the years of experience in the classroom as the guest author, I completely agree with his assessment. Because I have mixed grades and abilities in my classroom on a daily basis, it would be easy for me to do group work. But I insist on direct instruction on a daily basis. It is very hard work, but that is where I see the most gains in learning (both academic and behaviorally).
    Our current public education system is failing many kids. I have one student who is now in the 12th grade. In his earlier years with us, we coddled him, amending his schedule,modifying his school work (although he is not special ed)to get him to “buy into” school and do the work. Now he is almost 18 years old and has 75 of the 200 credits necessary to earn a diploma. He has not changed his work habits at all. I am ashamed to admit he is NOT an isolated case. There are many more students who had their opportunity to a solid academic education sacrificed on the altar of self esteem and educational fads.
    Research has a proper place in the discussion, but let’s not forget good old-fashioned common sense. Just because it has been around for a long time doesn’t mean it is ineffective. New isn’t always improved.
    I hope my ramblings are understandable.

    Comment by Tamara — December 21, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

  5. Again to Rachael: Just how are my personal observations with real students “cartoons”? If your classroom experiences contradict mine, please feel free to share them with us in an essay of your own.

    My classroom experience (which, I admit is much more limited than Fred Strine’s) suggests that there are very few simple answers.

    But though I see less focus on building up a structure of basic factual knowledge than I’d like, I also don’t see “group work” taking over the way this post suggests. From the corner of the education word I’ve seen, students doing nothing but group work, not caring about subject-verb agreement, and being taught by teachers with little academic training except what they got from education professors who are enamored of Cuba and the Soviet Union is a cartoon.

    On one very specific issue, California, at least, makes it very difficult for secondary teachers to teach outside of the field they majored in in college. It isn’t even simple for a someone who majors in physics to teach math. So the picture of teachers with no subject matter training just doesn’t fit with the reality I see.

    More generally, the problem I had with the post was that what I learned was how Fred Strine felt about the issue. And certainly 36 years of teaching experience gives anyone a right to tell people how he feels, and to be taken seriously. But I also know progressive educators with 36 years experience (Deborah Meier, for example) who could tell me, with equal passion, about the great strides their pupils made in truly progressive environments.

    So at the end of a day of blog reading, it helps to have something more concrete than a variety of strong opinions to take away with me. Thanks for providing the references to Project Follow Through — it actually wasn’t obvious from the original post that direct instruction was central to what you were advocating.

    Comment by Rachel — December 22, 2008 @ 12:48 am

  6. So what’s going on in the teaching of English? I’ve never given much thought to it, as I teach math, but I’ve never doubted that English is important. It is true, is it not, that most kids get some instruction in their native language in every year of schooling in grades 1 through 12? With all that time available, surely grammar fits in there somewhere. I can well imagine lots of students sit through years of instruction and still can’t identify a direct object, but the idea that they are not exposed to grammar is surprising and disturbing. I can well imagine that English teachers have disagreements about how to teach grammar, and how to teach literature, and how to teach composition. But does anyone in the field actually advocate the elimination of grammar?

    Can we hear from some other English teachers?

    Comment by Brian Rude — December 22, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  7. Ed Trust issued a report on out-of-field teaching titled “Core Problems” in November 2008. It is worth a thorough reading. This “rant” could have been a thesis with footnotes, but this is a blog. Nevertheless, these are complaints I have read about in plenty of theses with plenty of footnotes. There is reason to be optimistic, however. The What Works Clearinghouse received a good grade from the National Board for Education Sciences, bringing their standards for what constitutes good research closer to gold. Progressive philosophy too often flies in the face of facts – and right into a wall of data and statistics. The world really is round, planets do orbit the sun, and the success of Direct Instruction does meet strict scrutiny. Chin up, then.

    Comment by TM Willemse — December 22, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  8. Fred,

    I think you miss the glorious side of it. The point of making teachers into facilitators is to allow them to fill out paperwork during class time. While the students work in groups, teachers can write up conferencing notes, running records, anecdotals, incident reports, student goals, individual assessments, graphic organizers, authentic comments, reading behavior checklists, and all those other necessary things. If teachers were teaching the subject during class time, they wouldn’t be able to do all that. Nor would they be able to do it during prep time; they’d be busy preparing substantial lessons.

    We may not have poetry or grammar. But oh, do we ever have data!

    Diana Senechal

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 22, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

  9. We all have our own boat to row; and some of us are aware that we have passengers (students) to deliver. Remember that oars and paddles both exist because of the differences among boats … or should that be “between boats” since I only mentioned two devices?

    My point is that teaching a language and its usage is a moving target. No, after 38 years in the classroom, I can’t stand to hear the way our young English teachers speak and write. I can’t comment on their teaching methods or effectiveness. But even I didn’t learn the language the way it was used by my grand-parents or our nation’s founders. Dictionaries grow and words take on new meanings. That’s the nature of a language.

    My career was in science. My job was to teach the methods of discovering how nature works. Some facts were presented. There isn’t time to invent the wheel for every topic. However, the theme is that nature doesn’t change, so we’re not chasing a moving target in physics. Certainly our understanding has changed over the years, but that’s not the same as our agreeing to change the rules of acceptance.

    I’m personally glad that doctors tend to be more scientific than grammatically correct. Ninety-nine percent of the doctors have been “taught” that peptic ulcers are pH oriented and can be treated with a bland diet and by avoiding acidic food. Fortunately, we now know otherwise due to one investigative mind.

    Rachel, with five degrees in physics and biology, I can’t teach math either since I started with the Calculus and never had a college level algebra class. At the same time, my math department had to hire a university consultant to help pick a new Calculus text.

    Comment by Gene — December 22, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

  10. I can appreciate Fred’s frustrations. As a veteran English teacher myself, I have been been worried for some time over the number of new English faculty at the secondary level who have limited understanding of basic grammar themselves and no preparation in how to teach it (a separate and important skill). “Teaching grammar through writing” has been a mantra among English professionals for some time; however, it is usually quoted and applied out of context. To teach students the rules of grammar as they grapple to express their own ideas in writing is a powerful concept, but it requires a high level of grammar proficiency and close attention by the teacher. Teachers who come to the classroom via traditional teacher education programs get very little of this training; those who come through alternative routes get none. We have to take teacher preparation more seriously to correct problems such as this.

    Comment by Renee — December 23, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  11. What a refreshing post! As a parent, I lamented the lack of basic mathematical education and English skills present in the curriculum of both of my public school children. I was appalled that they were not taught the foundational skills necessary to carry them through their education. Locally, it’s a well known fact that kids working the snack stand at baseball games do not know how to give proper change. Group projects have taken over basic Math skills. The students in my son’s class spent 15 minutes drawing out arrays to solve one simple multiplication problem. It was also my experience that letters sent home to parents from teachers were riddled with improper grammar and simple spelling errors. This was horrifying! My 3rd grader was puzzled and asked me why his teacher couldn’t spell such simple words. I spoke with teachers, administrators and superintendents in charge of curriculum, but my concerns fell on deaf ears. (I am in an “Excellent” school district according to test scores!) When I started to teach my children at home with the K12 curriculum in the third and fourth grades, they had never been taught what a subject or predicate was, much less the parts of speech. Spelling words were simply a page in a packet to be learned at home during the week.

    I understand Gene’s point that “teaching a language and its usage is a moving target”. However, it seems that instead of improving techniques or intelligently discerning which aspects of English instruction need to be updated or adapted, the trend is to abandon all basic instruction of the English language for newer (unproven) techniques.

    These are not cartoons. These are children who were short-changed out of the basics of their education, have now grown up, and are now educating other children. I wholeheartedly agree with Renee that “teacher preparation” must be taken more seriously.

    Thanks to Mr. Strine for an excellent post and call to indeed “Wise up, America.”

    Comment by Ellen — December 24, 2008 @ 2:28 am

  12. Another sad effect of the “teacher-facilitator” craze is that teachers who do know and love their subject quickly learn that they are not supposed to teach it.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 24, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  13. Grammar instruction is generally horrifying. The kids are “exposed” to basic grammar instruction, but it doesn’t stick because it is presented “in context” instead of as part of an organized system. You can’t teach a kid to set off an appositive phrase with commas if he can’t identify an appositive, a phrase, or the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive.

    The issue isn’t that English teachers are not English majors. Everyone in my department has an English degree — most of them at the Masters level. When was the last time a university required mastery of grammar and usage as part of the degree requirements for English?

    Used wisely, there’s nothing wrong with a LITTLE group work with very specific learning outcome objectives. The perpetual problem is the “if a little is good, all is better!” mentality of education. Carefully designed group work balanced with direct instruction is a highly effective mix in my classroom.

    FWIW, I’m not a geezer. I was a little surprised not long ago when a colleague with nearly 40 years under her belt asked me to help identify a part of a sentence — it was an object complement — easy stuff. So it isn’t just an issue among us whippersnappa’s.

    Comment by Lightly Seasoned — December 28, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  14. Hello Fred:

    I’m afraid you picked a rather poor example in your opening. According to statistics compiled nation wide approximately 80,000 Americans per year die as a direct result of MISPRESCRIBED medications by Physicians. Simply do the math and you will soon see that by logical extension that American Physicians constitute the greatest unindicted mass murderers in history. In short, I think the medical profession as a whole is rather unsavory and not a particularly good model to use.

    The whole grammar and syntax thing has been parlayed into a system that unduly complicates what we tend to do quite naturally, namely, speak correctly. This defect has bled over into the instructional models for teaching foreign languages. I speak Farsi and Chinese (Mandarin dialect). How did I learn these languages? The same way a little Child, by interacting and conversing with accomplished speakers.

    Your “direct instruction” approach harkens back to The Dark Ages when books were scarce and literate people even more so. The didactic model is inefficient, counter productive, and leads to memorize then regurgitate which is not “learning” so much as a memory trick. The current iteration of The Socratic Method is infinitely superior to the teacher lectures while students sit quietly and take notes. There is more than ample evidence of my assertion by way of formal studies.

    BTW, as a passing note, I found more than a couple typos in your post and some rather awkward language use as well.

    Comment by Frank — December 30, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

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