Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 2002 / 24 Tishrei, 5763

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

The Royal road to knowledge | Forget the fads, writes Evan Keliher, a veteran teacher, in Newsweek.

When Ptolemy I, the king of Egypt, said he wanted to learn geometry, Euclid explained that he would have to study long hours and memorize the contents of a fat math book. The pharaoh complained that that would be unseemly and demanded a shortcut. Euclid replied, "There is no royal road to geometry."

There wasn't a shortcut to the learning process then and there still isn't. Reform movements like new math and whole language have left millions of damaged kids in their wake. We've wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and forced our teachers to spend countless hours in workshops learning to implement the latest fads. Every minute teachers have spent on misguided educational strategies (like building kids' self-esteem by acting as "facilitators" who oversee group projects) is time they could have been teaching academics.

Keliher experienced team teaching, supervised peer tutoring, block scheduling and decentralization. He saw no change in student performance.


At high-poverty schools with high test scores, teachers teach skills and knowledge in a structured, sequenced way, concludes "They Have Overcome: High-Poverty, High-Performing Schools in California," a new study by the Pacific Research Institute.

The eight schools studied all use a scripted, phonics-based reading program, Open Court. Most use Saxon, Excel and/or Harcourt-Brace math books. All pay close attention to the state's academic standards, and make sure lessons are linked to the standards. Teacher training is focused on subject matter. All use frequent testing to monitor students' progress.

Essentially, these schools forego fads. The teacher is in charge of teaching; students don't "construct" or "discover" knowledge for themselves. Creativity is confined mostly to science, social studies, art and music classes. While critics of structured, scripted lessons says it's just "drill and kill," principals say students now read enthusiastically -- because they can read.


When schools in Illinois (my home state) teach the state standards, their students earn higher test scores, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. But only 43 percent of Illinois schools are moving toward teaching what the state has decided all students should learn.


The Japanese education system, once envied by Americans, is Americanizing, reports Education Week. Saturday school is gone. The national curriculum, which prescribes what should be studied at every grade level, has been cut back, giving local schools more autonomy. Students now spend three hours a week in "integrated" studies, working on projects. Teachers are urged to encourage creativity and to make school fun. In short, they're adopting progressive American ideas that Americans are rejecting.

Some U.S. experts are perplexed about why an academic powerhouse might look to American schools for clues to educational improvement. But Japanese leaders say the United States excels in several areas of education that Japan so far has neglected.

"As far as providing a standard minimum education,...we have a good compulsory education system," says Kakutaro Kitashiro, the president of the Tokyo-based Asia Pacific headquarters of the International Business Machines Corp. "But once we move students into creative [areas] and solving new problems or taking their own initiative, we are recognizing that this is a problem."

The Japanese are worried that children are no longer well-behaved, says this New York Times story on Japan's blackboard jungles. It sounds to me like a cultural and family problem, not a school issue.


Who gave the Gettysburg Address? Who was Paul Revere warning Americans about? Who came first, the Pilgrims or Columbus? Jay Leno asked three teachers some basic history questions, reports Razib of Gene Expression. Let's hope he rejected clips of teachers answering correctly and picked the dummies.

Here's more: These are recent college graduates -- courtesy of Curmudgeonly & Skeptical:

Leno: Who was the first U.S. President?

Graduate: Benjamin Franklin! Am I right?

Leno: What war did George Washington fight in?

Graduate: World War I?

Leno: When did he live?

Graduate: 18 something to 18 something.

Leno:What was the Gettysburg Address?

Graduate: (puzzled look)

Leno: Have you heard of the Gettysburg Address?

Graduate, defensively: Of course, I just don't know the exact address.


American Heritage College Dictionary has come out with 100 words that every high school graduate should know. The list is a random collection of the esoteric ("ziggurat"), the mundane ("gauche") and the scientific ("gamete"), with no indication of why these particular words signify erudition. Surely, it's jejune, vacuous and unctuous to drop multisyllabic words into quotidian discourse when simpler words will convey meaning more clearly.

Meryl Yourish blames New York editors who are out of touch with reality.

Jejune? I've always taken that to be a word affected by those fond of affectations, not a word for common English usage. Moiety? Ah-huh? How many times am I going to use that in conversation? "May I have a moiety of your cake, please?

Over at Amish Tech Support, the tempestuous Laurence Simon narrows the list down to 14 useful words and suggests additional words that should be mastered by everyone.


David Janes says Nova Scotia has pulled ahead in the Most Moronic Province Contest with a plan to award "lite" diplomas to illiterate students. The "lite" diploma will indicate the graduate flunked the 12th grade literacy test.

Well, it's less moronic than giving the same diploma to literate and illiterate students, which happens all too often in the U.S.


In Afghanistan, illiterates say they are "blind." Women who were banned from school during the Taliban era are flocking to adult literacy classes, the New York Times reports.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.

09/24/02: Sierra's Club
09/20/02: Stupidity Watch
09/03/02: First, win the war
08/26/02: Out of their field, out of their minds?
08/20/02: Fun with failure

© 2002, Joanne Jacobs