Defective Educational Philosophy Is Real Culprit in K-12 Education Failures

Published July 1, 2005

Review of Doomed to Fail: The Built-in Defects of American Education
by Paul A. Zoch
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004, 237 pages, ISBN 1-56663-567-5, $26.95

Paul A. Zoch’s book, Doomed to Fail, clearly, concisely, and convincingly lays out the reasons why K-12 education in the United States produces high school seniors who score well below their peers in other countries. Yet those who pick up this book expecting a denunciation of public schools and public education will be disappointed, because the defects he describes are defects of educational philosophy, not structure. His focus is on teachers, and his targets are the beliefs that shape teaching styles and student attitudes.

As a high school teacher with 16 years’ experience, Zoch is familiar with student attitudes and initiatives to improve public schools, such as increased spending, organizational changes, better curricula, and the quest for better teachers.

Educational Philosophy Damaging

Zoch, however, argues none of these reforms will improve student performance because none requires any change in student effort. The problem, he says, lies in an educational philosophy that assumes students will remain passive and disengaged from the learning process until the teacher sparks each student’s interest in discovering more about the topic at hand. One student failing Zoch’s class complained, “Maybe if you’d sing and dance, we’d learn this stuff.”

“Students must understand that going to school is their job, something most do not now realize,” Zoch writes. “Many students, thinking it is the teacher’s job to do what will ‘make’ them smart, feel little need to take their classes seriously.”

At the same time, Zoch says, teachers who currently demand more effort from students are “not infrequently” seen in “an antagonistic light,” by students, parents, and administrators alike.

Today’s “American educational philosophy … expects teachers to provide stimuli that will overpower the students’ sense of boredom or so inspire the students to learn that they will be swept up in a torrent of educational ecstasy and learn naturally without having to experience stress or discomfort,” Zoch writes. He contrasts this approach with Japan’s, where students do not expect learning to be “fun” or “exciting” but instead anticipate it will be difficult and involve some suffering.

Opposed to Achievement

How did American educational philosophy come to be so opposed to academic achievement? That is the heart of Zoch’s book, in which he describes the transition from education requiring disciplined effort to what is known today as “Progressive Education.” The Progressive philosophy has three belief strands, Zoch notes:

  • Behaviorism. The teacher, expertly trained in pedagogical science, elicits appropriate responses from helpless, passive students.
  • Compulsion-free learning. Students learn only what they feel they need to; compelling them to do more may inflict grave psychological damage.
  • “Fun.” Since learning must be fun, academic subjects are given short shrift because mastering them requires disciplined effort.

The Progressive educational philosophy is also profoundly hostile to fundamental American values. For example, in William H. Kilpatrick’s 1933 book, The Educational Frontier, Progressive advocates laid out their ideas for creating a collectivist society by reconstructing the public school curriculum to show the evils of a system based on individualism.

“The outworn and irrelevant ideas of competitive private individualism, of laissez faire, of isolated competitive nationalism are all strenuously inculcated [in our present schools],” write John Dewey and John L. Childs in Kilpatrick’s book. “We are demanding the abolition of all such indoctrination, on the grounds that it is injurious equally to the health and growth of genuine individuality and to that of a collective public order.”

Student Responsibility Essential

Until this philosophy is repudiated and students are required to assume individual responsibility for their achievement, reforms will fail, Zoch concludes. He proposes the following:

  • a challenging, rigorous national curriculum detailing the facts and concepts students must know in every subject at every level;
  • fact-based, end-of-course tests in each subject that students must pass to gain credit for the course; and
  • recognition and adoption by public schools of the effective practices of successful schools and the self-reliant attitudes of successful students.

While Zoch suggests public schools should be like “other areas of American life” and adopt the effective practices of successful schools, he offers no incentives to spur changes in the system, and it’s not clear why his reform proposals would not also be “doomed to fail.” A market-based public education system, in which schools compete for funds and students, would provide those missing incentives for change.

George Clowes ([email protected]) is associate editor of School Reform News.