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Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire


Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire

February 22, 2007
EducationPre K-12

Eskimos do not have more words for snow than English. James Cagney never said "You dirty rat" in any of his films. Abraham Lincoln had a reedy voice, not the elegant baritone of Sam Waterston.

Those misconceptions are hard to shake because they sit so comfortably in the mind. There is another one more disturbing: the bien-pensant American's assumption that the reason inner city schools are such disasters is because the feds starve them of money, instead shunting cash to schools in leafy suburbs.

Jonathan Kozol's book "Savage Inequalities" set into the Zeitgeist an image of poor kids sharing textbooks in schools "with peeling paint." The paint, which one hears cited again and again, seems to have made an especially deep impression on readers. The lesson is that lack of funds is the reason no learning goes on in these schools.

Interesting, though, how little interest people, who impose Kozol's theory on students nationwide, have in observing cases in which Mr. Kozol's advice is actually taken. Such cases teach a new lesson.

Take New Jersey in 1998. Since then, no funding discrepancy has been allowed between gritty urban schools and ones in cushy suburbs. And the result has been essentially nothing. The urban schools were hopelessly unable to comply, for example, with the No Child Left Behind requirements after 2000. Money didn't make the teachers and administrators any better at their jobs.

Part of this was because so many of them have been taught to resist doing their jobs effectively. It is no big secret that we have known how to teach poor children to read from book-shy homes for 40 years. Back in the 1960s, the federally funded education program, Project Follow Through, showed that the best strategy for reading was rigorous, phonics-based instruction termed Direct Instruction.

And since then it has been shown in one city after another that even when paint is peeling and there are not enough computers, this kind of instruction teaches kids to read. Period. Yet despite those findings, such programs have fought for space with people insisting that more "holistic" whole-language methods that teach word by word are somehow better - a story sadly playing out with Reading First, a national initiative to help young children to read, here in New York.

Whence the curious notion that anything could be better than a technique that works? There is also a larger problem that has more to do with inner city schools' failures than funding - schools devoted to inculcating leftist dogma rather than imparting skills.

An especially cherished text is Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," a peculiar piece of Marxist rhetoric, complete with a call to render teachers learners and students teachers. Its oblique relationship to teaching recalls how, for medievals, learning to recite in Latin and Greek and engaging in disputes about religion was what constituted a proper education. Freire's work will look just as contingent and peculiar to people in 100 years.

And never mind the legions of people who have learned how to teach poor kids on small budgets. Author of "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire," Rafe Esquith, who is making miracles in Central Los Angeles, offers solid teaching advice. Instead, though, all but a trickle of students and prospective teachers will be assigned to read the 8th millionth printing of "Savage Inequalities" and not Mr. Esquith's book.

The claim of Mr. Kozol's book has such a hold because it plays into a cherished ideological frame of reference - people below are neglected by cigar-chomping powermongers on high. There is now such an accumulation of evidence that funding is not the central problem in inner city schools that keeping the Kozolian schema at the head of the table defies data and logic.

Pre-Copernican astronomers back in the Middle Ages thought the earth was at the center of the universe. As historian Daniel Boorstin chronicled, "The scheme's simplicity, symmetry, and common sense made it seem to confirm to countless axioms of philosophy, theology, and religion." But it was wrong. It was clear from the way far too many stars' movements made no sense if we assumed that the earth was at the middle of things - but astronomers swept those discrepancies under the rug and called those stars "deferents" and "eccentrics."

Apparently we are to consider the Rafe Esquiths and those working wonders with Direct Instruction as "deferents" and "eccentrics." But the attractions of holding on to the us-vs.-them paradigm on education - such as the sense of higher awareness and compassionate morality it lends - are not worth the distraction and damage it causes any more than old framing assumptions like building more roads relieves traffic.

If the New Jersey experiment is treated as a mere "eccentric," it means other school districts will repeat the mistake. If Mr. Kozol is elevated in perpetuo, earnest young people seeking careers in education will continue to take in the news, sit at colloquia, and ply their trade imprinted with the idea that the problem with American education is something as simple as state house politicians holding out on the poor.

And meanwhile Mr. Esquith's book will go out of print in a year or three while across America people listen to the audiobook of "Savage Inequalities" in the car.