Suburban Schools Offer No Sanctuary from Dumbing-Down Regime

Published February 1, 2003

Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence
by J. Martin Rochester
Encounter Books, November 2002, 328 pages cloth

There have been many rich and important books on curriculum and pedagogy targeted to leaders and policymakers, notably Diane Ravitch’s Left Back and E. D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need.

For parents and for John Q. Public serving on a school board, books such as Elaine McEwan’s Angry Parents, Failing Schools or Charles Sykes’ Dumbing Down Our Kids do a first-class job documenting the damage being done in today’s classrooms.

Even with the ready availability of such powerful books, it’s been all too easy for readers to convince themselves the educational problems their authors describe affect only schools in the inner cities, not private schools or public schools in the suburbs. In a new book, J. Martin Rochester shatters that illusion.

We’re talking about your school, too, says Rochester, and no amount of tinkering with the details of an individual school is going to resolve the core problem, which is the education establishment’s ongoing attack on educational excellence. That is the resounding message of Rochester’s breakthrough book: Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence. The education battleground has been brought to the doorstep of suburban America.

A Concerned Parent Speaks Out

Rochester is a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of several books on international politics. He sees the end-products of K-12 schooling in his classes and has participated in programs for teachers in training.

But it was as a concerned parent that Rochester became increasingly involved in public education as his children progressed through their K-12 schooling. He moved among suburbs in search of academic excellence, yet wound up attending hundreds of school meetings trying to keep education fads out of his children’s schools.

The genius of Class Warfare is that Rochester centers on the dysfunctional and mindless maxims that are at the heart of education today. The reader cannot assume his or her own school is unaffected, or that apparent problems are merely aberrations that can be solved by a quick fix after a discussion among reasonable adults.

“What is beyond question,” writes Rochester, “is that, under the dumbing-down regime, most students are sinking.”

Right from an early chapter on “What’s Nutty About Contemporary K-12 Education,” Rochester highlights the diminished focus on academics and the collapse of standards. Abetted by computers–used for accessing rather than acquiring knowledge–and radical egalitarianism, the result is the “self-indulgent, nonjudgmental classroom, where rigor and merit are now considered four-letter words, for fear of stifling personal creativity or favoring one student over another.”

Rochester is particularly appalled by how the drive for “fairness” has cut the level of challenge for America’s most able students.

“What’s wrong with giving advanced work to students with the capacity and willingness to tackle it?” he asks.

Equity, not Academics

The emphasis on equity over academics invades even prestigious public schools like the well-funded New Trier High School in suburban Chicago. Rochester quotes parents from the district, one of whom moved elsewhere to “find refuge from the equity disease.” The other, who stayed, said “it took twenty people spending 100 percent of their time to prevent the end of ability-grouping, but the administration was still chipping away at it.”

A chapter is devoted to the religious-like fervor for “Multiple Intelligences,” which, reports Rochester, has led to a “good deal of nonsense and a good number of abuses to be practiced in the classroom.” From there, Rochester takes us the short step to the “therapeutic” suburban and middle-class classroom, awash with self-esteem, multiculturalism, time-consuming character education, and cooperative group projects, driven by administrators and “hired gun” consultants who thrive on anecdotes rather than research.

Mixed group projects come under severe criticism from Rochester for cheating both the achievers–who learn little themselves but become, in effect, unpaid teachers–and slower learners, who are deprived of the benefit of having an adult expert as a leader.

“[S]chools have taken the ‘it takes a village’ slogan to such excess that they risk producing a growing number of village idiots,” he comments.

While educators claim business is demanding an emphasis on teamwork, Rochester finds the business community unimpressed by such efforts. For example, he cites a report from executives of 250 leading corporations who concluded school programs were “diluted, distracted, and diffused from the basic mission of education.”

Betrayed and Bewildered

After revealing the faulty mindset of the education theorists, Rochester cuts to the core issue: the deleterious effect their “pack pedagogy” has had on the quality of instruction in math, reading, language, grammar, social studies, and other content subjects. Children are betrayed by the resulting fuzzy math, whole language, crippled standards, and assessments made so vague as to be meaningless. Parents are bewildered.

Concerned parents who join curriculum “committees” are shepherded into the pack mentality of the education theorists. When they meet with educators to develop recommendations, they are rarely presented with all sides of an issue and are seldom informed of all relevant research. Parents who remain critical “end up being demonized as ‘right-wingers’ or troublemakers,” notes Rochester.

Every superintendent Rochester encountered assured him that his or her district had not followed the “pack pedagogy,” but Rochester shows the pack viewpoint prevails from one suburb to the next. The result is the “warfare” of the book’s title, with parents fighting back against the deterioration of academics, with skirmishes over reading or math, charter schools, and campaigns for tougher standards.

The heart of the conflict is over what happens in classrooms. Education theory calls on teachers to be “coaches” rather than the experts and instruction leaders known to earlier generations. Teachers are instilled with the anti-intellectual bias that pervades the schools of education where they learn their trade.

Lectures are frowned upon, notes Rochester, as conferring an unmerited higher status on teachers vis-a-vis their students. But that’s the point, he notes; the purpose of lectures is to convey the teacher’s superior knowledge.

“If you have nothing worth saying, then you should probably not be lecturing; in fact, you probably should not be paid to be at the front of the classroom or anywhere else in the room,” Rochester argues.

The anti-intellectual bias that overwhelms education schools, Rochester says, is leading to a “Socratic method without Socrates.” When parents object to the lack of content in their children’s classes, they “are blasted for appearing disrespectful toward such dedicated professionals.” Yet when assistant superintendents treat the same teachers as empty-headed children, telling them they “are behind the times and must change [toward progressive methods] for their own good, this is called ‘professional development.'”

When Rochester takes a closer look at the schools of education, where teachers learn their profession, he finds the mother lode of bad ideas in education. Their “institutional vapidity” and “focus on process rather than content” left him wondering, “Where’s the beef?” Indeed, Rochester suggests one reason education schools tend to attract lower-achieving students is the mindless coursework education majors must endure.

“To make the teaching profession respectable [and] to improve [K-12] education, get rid of the education major,” suggested one college president.

Class Warfare may be the best source yet for a thoughtful parent or school board member who wants to understand the causes and vast extent of today’s crisis in education.

Kevin Killion ([email protected]) is a director of the Illinois Loop, an education reform group in Illinois. Its Web site is

For more information …

J. Martin Rochester’s Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence is available for $18.87 at Point your Web browser to