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The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools Hardcover – August 25, 1999
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Martin L. Gross has made a career out of books that attack "the establishment," whether it be the medical community (The Doctors) or the general powers that be (The Government Racket). In The Conspiracy of Ignorance, he takes aim at a lumbering, elephant-sized target: public education. Armed with statistics and research papers--the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) being his most prominent sources--Gross rails against the declining performance of U.S. students. While his criticisms--which encompass everything from teachers' unions to "useless" education degrees, PTAs, psychological services in schools, even honor roll bumper stickers--are not new, they make an imposing indictment when presented all together.
Gross poses a number of radical solutions, including the elimination of undergraduate schools of education (replaced by a one-year postgraduate course that prepares scholars to become teachers in their specialty). He believes the entire education system should--and can--be overhauled without spending any more than at present. One of his suggestions to make funds available for reform is to cut support personnel, but he doesn't address how schools would then clean themselves without custodians or how high school crime would be affected by the loss of security guards and police officers. While Gross's tendency to use his own high school experience as a model of excellence grows tiresome, his points are well taken. The Conspiracy of Ignorance will have you either nodding in agreement or aching to wring the author's neck. --Jodi Mailander Farrell
Longtime institutional critic Gross is always fluent, persuasive, and uncranky. He skewers conservative bugbears like taxes and liberal ones like the medical establishment without spouting either party's line. Now, in one of his best books, he takes aim at an institution, the public schools, that is usually a conservative's target. Unlike many conservatives, though, he advocates reform, not replacement. What really needs to be changed, he says, is the education establishment consisting of colleges of education, teachers' unions, school psychologists, and educational administrators. Proceeding from 19 indictments--items such as "teacher training is lax," "the doctor of education degree . . . is inferior . . . and requires little academic knowledge," and "the Establishment dislikes traditional [teaching] methods" --he presents evidence of their accuracy and of who bears responsibility for them. In the manner of 1960s schools critic Paul Goodman, who believed that carpers must also propose improvements, Gross suggests 19 changes that are ambitious (otherwise, why bother? Goodman would have said) and particular; for instance, "close all undergraduate schools of education." The predicaments (e.g., "dumbed-down" curriculum, the therapeutic classroom, unions protecting incompetence) that Gross points out will be familiar to those who keep up with the public schools debate, but his knack for citing the cogent and authoritative statistic, test ranking, or poll finding at the right time makes his distillation of the massive public-school critique the book those in a hurry should read first. Ray Olson
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Although the title (with subtitle) is both shocking and motivating enough, you might really get your hackles up by first reading the "Conclusion" chapter where the author lays out in clear, concise order the problems of, and reforms needed by, our public schools. They stretch all the way through the teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, colleges of education, and even the PTA. Gross is also firm in his ideas on school curriculum, grades/marks, state legislatures, school psychologists, some teacher tenure, teachers' unions, and his favorite pet peeve: the Ed.D (doctorate) degree. It's all here.
Is anyone listening or following Gross's suggestions? It seems not. The U.S. public schools are still sliding toward the abyss of ignorance compared to most other industrialized and developing nations.
And have parents gotten his alarming message? Few, it seems. While 50% of citizens vote for president, 40% for congress, and 20% in state primaries, only 12% vote in school board elections, "which should be the most vibrant aspect of our democracy" (p. 236). Even then, school board members are in the pocket of the Educational Establishment and unqualified in the field of educating, he points out.
Do Gross's recommendations satisfy me in all respects? No. Although I know he is pointing in the right direction, he tends to make part of the road American education needs to travel unrealistically difficult. For example, should we really teach history in the primary grades--which is mostly via rote memorization that he claims will help the students deal with abstraction later? I wonder if he has read Piaget. I am not against rote memorization--how else can one do geometry without absorbing formulas or learn the multiplication facts in order to deal with higher math?--but he places such memorization on too high a plane in some parts of the curriculum. And even for history he wants students to memorize not just events, but dates and places. In other words, he eschews teaching history as themes, patterns/trends, eras (war, depression, totalitarianism, et cetera). Only history teachers would pass his tests; others forget it as soon as they memorize it.
Another slight concern, which he doesn't deal with: Why would a potential primary teacher be denied certification because she or he did not take trigonometry and calculus? His answer would be that the teacher is a teacher because she didn't have the smarts to pass such subjects in high school or college and, therefore, is not a quality teacher of anything. This, I question. But should the high school math teacher who has majored in that higher, more difficult subject be paid more? Maybe so. After all, we do have levels of payment in professions in the real world based on having more-difficult knowledge/skills. On the other hand, can that math-smart teacher handle a class of kindergarteners?
There is another aspect of Gross's book that dismays me. He admits that the SAT is pooh-poohed by many educators who say it measures nothing (p. 208). But because a score on it can be a road block to future academic success, the skills in the test should be mastered. He seems ambivalent as to the value of the test, itself, and continually refers to it in arguing many of his points throughout the book. In addition, we've all known very bright people who can't seem to effectively teach and those of less academic caliber push their students to great heights. Nevertheless, Gross has it right when he says, "Failure or success in middle and high school is crucial... [This success] is not happening in America..." (p. 210).
Although Gross lauds public school teachers and their professors for their altruism, he lambasts them for their lack of intellect and knowledge. This, alone, will rile most educators and their ("industrial") unions. But, he is telling it like it is, he believes, based on historical and current evidence, which he presents.
Yes, at least 1/3 of potential teachers should not be allowed to teach; yes, colleges of education should be discredited; yes, the Ed.D should maybe be eliminated as a worthy and pay-raise qualification for teaching and administration. The Education Establishment has messed up big time during the last 40-plus years and Gross's description of it, and his reforms for it, are drastic. But almost nothing less than a revolution--what he seems to be calling for (pp. 69, 174)--will work.
What will it take to turn the U.S. educational system around? We are the laughing stock of other countries when it comes to student and teacher preparation and our less-rigorous curriculums. You'll have to read the book to understand why he's so upset.
"The teacher has now assumed more the model of the social worker or even amateur psychologist. Not knowledge, but superior human relations, a sense of self-confidence--'self-esteem' again--and a stronger, warmer rapport among teacher, parent and child have become a new criteria" (page 13).
This is an issue worth tackling on many levels. While the classical learning of the 19th-century may be impractical on some levels, the psychological modal offered in today's public school system has gone to the other extreme. There are many factors that go into education; parenting is certainly one of them. Nonetheless, the fact that one can teach at the college level and yet not at the high school level because they don't have "certification" from the Education department (i.e. psychological society) is simply asinine.
The soothsaying influence of psychology, as espoused in Human Growth and Development classes, where mind sciences set the precedent for curriculum, stifle real learning with theories about how people learn (i.e. where rote learning is thrown to the wayside). Why? Because they are deemed to know the mysteries of the mind. What a fraud! This is sad . . . especially when considering how public schools get worse by the year while those with substantial degrees (be it in real disciplines like Biology, English, Math, or History) are more likely to teach in a private school or at the collegiate level.
This was one element of the book that Martin L. Gross should receive a standing ovation for daring to touch upon. Another book that could be read side by side with this one is Gross' The Psychological Society; the research in this book shows how unreliable and unscientific psychology and other branches of the mind sciences really are. In spite of this, mind "sciences" impact (at least North America) every level of society from education to the Halls of Congress. It would be wonderful if more people, like Gross, were willing to ask tough questions while refusing to be obsequious to so-called "experts."