What's Wrong

    with Education?

  • Micromanaging of teachers

  • Unreasonable expectations for individualizing instruction given our current class sizes

  • Rewarding flamboyancy in the classroom over actual instruction.

  On this page:

         This next video shows a teacher explaining how he uses MAP (Measures of Academic Progress), an achievement-monitoring tool provided through NWEA, an online testing service.    How feasible is this, though, for working with 32 students?  I cannot see how anyone can keep up with what this man is proposing.

  This next video is quite  entertaining.  
 I have two questions, though:

  • How does the teacher keep this up for 6 hours?

  • Is there actual learning (as opposed to a circus act) going on?


Keep in mind, as well, that these kids KNOW they are being filmed.  It is fun to be a star in a movie and to show off what your teacher has taught you about playing the classroom game.

And in this final video, we see strategies touted by gurus and performed by real teachers.  

      The strategies are demonstrated superbly, but you know what else is superb in this video?  The behavior of the students.  This is middle school, and yet not one child is trying to pass a note or eat a snack or derail the teacher's lesson with absurd comments designed only to get a laugh from his peers.

      The problem with educational gurus is that these people don't work in an authentic classroom.   They concoct theories and then test them out in controlled laboratory settings, something you get anytime you bring cameras or VIP observers into a classroom.  Let's try hidden cameras once in a while, and I bet you'd see a vastly different result.  It only takes one misbehaving kid to derail the lesson for everyone else.


The JARGON of Teaching


Best Practices:
Teaching that stresses collaborative group work, project or problem-based learning, varied strategies for assessment of student learning, and total student choice.

* Learning Goal - the big picture idea that students are learning.

        Example: Sentence structure is an important component to effective written communication.

* Learning Target - the daily lesson.  What students are supposed to get from any one lesson. 

        Example: I can use complex sentences in my writing.

* Success Criteria - what students must demonstrate to prove their learning.

        Example: Create a paragraph comprised of at least three complex sentence structures.

If a teacher has not written the above
3 items on a chart or white board for each lesson, then true learning cannot possibly occur.

What the Guru's Say We Should Be Doing...

■   LESS whole-class, teacher-directed instruction


■   LESS student passivity: sitting, listening, receiving, and absorbing  information
LESS presentational, one-way transmission of information from teacher to student
LESS prizing and rewarding of silence in the classroom
LESS classroom time devoted to fill-in-the-blank worksheets, dittos, workbooks, and other “seatwork”
LESS student time spent reading textbooks and basal readers
LESS rote memorization of facts and details
LESS emphasis on the competition and grades in school
LESS tracking or leveling students into “ability groups”

■   MORE experiential, inductive, hands-on learning
MORE active learning, with all the attendant noise and movement of students doing, talking, and collaborating
MORE diverse roles for teachers, including coaching, demonstrating, and modeling
MORE emphasis on higher-order thinking
MORE reading of real texts: whole books, primary sources, and nonfiction materials

     The above ideas sound pretty good, don't they?  What the gurus say we should be doing is not even close to the way you were taught in school, are they?  Not me, either.  


     We were taught lecture-style, from as young as third grade.  Maybe even earlier.  We sat and listened and were expected to remember the gems our teacher was imparting to us when it came time to complete the worksheet.
        Those days are largely gone, if one is following Best Practices.  Even when given a paper and pencil activity, students are encouraged to discuss it with their 'learning partner' while completing it.

     Most of the modern replacements to teacher whole-group instruction are probably for the best, if you want students to receive an education that encourages them to become thinkers.

      There are just two tiny problems keeping this from happening in any meaningful way:

         1)  class size -- Spend time in your child's classroom.  The ratio of children to adults (usually 30+ to one) makes interactive teaching logistically improbable.

        2) student malaise --  Many young people seem bent on the instant gratification offered by their smart electronic devices.  Their inability to connect what they do NOW with their future happiness and earning potential is mind-blowing.  But listen to any "expert" on education, and you'd think the kids are lining up eagerly for their quality education.  If only!

     Time to wake up from the decades-long Stepford Wives approach to education  that now consumes our public schools, America.  As it stands now, we are just paying lip service to the idea that we are educating our children in a way that will help them achieve success in our 21st century world.  It's time to hold children accountable in the classroom.

     And to put a stop to this idiotic philosophy that if I only make it 'fun', the children will learn.

But how does it really work in practice?

    Finally:  A Voice of Reason Among the Educational Researchers...


     The biggest reason differentiation doesn't work, and never will, is the way students are deployed in most of our nation's classrooms.  Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for all of them.  

     That is a recipe for academic disaster if ever I saw one.  Such an admixture of students with varying abilities in one classroom causes even the most experienced and conscientious teachers to flinch, as they know the task of reaching each child is an impossible one.

Dr. James Delisle

in Education Week

Very few people in authority will address the illogical practices in education today because it is such a lucrative business to tout ideologies and practices, particularly if one can concoct an angle that appears innovative.



videos  for  teachers

Let's take a look at some instructional indoctrination videos.  Substitute learning targets for learning intentions in the first video to the right.  Can anyone tell what is actually supposed to happen in a classroom according to this video?


A Cottage industry emerges........     

       All one must do to get positive attention as a guru of education is announce , "I'm going to clean up our schools and make them effective. See all these letters after my name?  That means I know what I'm doing, so you don't need to worry about a thing. (Besides, it's way too complex for your puny brain to understand.)  Just make sure you channel lots of money my way so I can do the job properly."

        Numerous gurus and theories have cropped up as a result of the zeal to come up with an idea that sounds innovative and will also be lucrative. 


     A necessary offshoot is the use of euphemisms to whitewash the realities behind the often brutal world of classroom teaching.  Here are the most common being perpetrated today:

Professional Development - holding teachers hostage in meetings where they are routinely lectured about best practices, collaboration, and why class size does not matter.  Hardly anything new is introduced in these sessions;  rather, each meeting is a re-hash that usually involves discussing a topic at table groups, writing ideas on a chart paper, and then sharing out at the end.  The 'best' PD's involve something called an 'exit ticket', whereby teachers respond to something posed by the session instructor and must submit their ticket prior to leaving.  Teachers are encouraged to employ the exit ticket technique in their own classrooms, as well, but judging by how seriously the teachers at my own table have taken this exercise, I'm thinking the kids won't be any more enthused by the activity than we are.

Accommodations - things we teachers do to make school easier for some children.  Ostensibly, the rationale is that we need to level the playing field.  The way we do this is by giving shorter assignments, allowing students to dictate their work to an adult 'scribe', eliminating some "non-essential" assignments, and providing teacher-made notes for students.  But how does this prepare the kid for life after school?  In what job will accommodations like these actually be provided?  (By the way, accommodations are afforded to not only extreme learning disabilities, but also for those kids whose parents become the squeaky wheel that the principal doesn't want to have to deal with.)

Growth Data - the practice of measuring how much a child has learned in a school year.  Teachers make goals for their students (such as being able to define and demonstrate certain math vocabulary), give a baseline assessment for the goal, measure how much the child improves throughout the year by giving what are called 'progress monitoring' assessments, and then administering a final assessment in April.  The teacher records only her baseline and final assessments into the district's official assessment-collecting website, and the results become an official record, which is then used to enhance (or hurt) the teacher's career and provide a record for how well the school, overall, is doing its job.

      This process is given Biblical-type status in my former district as a measure of how well a teacher is doing the job of instructing students.  What people outside the profession do not know is that nothing in the process is verified by anyone other than the teacher.  If a teacher never gives any assessment and only enters supposed scores into the online system, no one will know but her.  This process, alone, comprises the huge elephant in the living room.  No one will talk about the inherent risks of asking teachers to monitor themselves using their own personal honor system because to do so would potentially remove the whitewashing that everyone is participating in, from superintendents to assistant principals to teachers, themselves.  (Particularly those who want to advance their careers enough to get out of the classroom.)  

       What really needs to be discussed, however, is how necessary this idea of measuring growth is in the first place.  It seems that growth has supplanted achievement as true success in education.  What difference does it make if a 7th grader went from reading at a 4th grade level to reading at a 5th grade level by the end of the year?  Sure, it's good for the kid, but why are we spending millions of dollars to monitor and assess this?


Best Practices -  teaching styles that encourage more student talk than teacher talk, as well as lots of discussion and collaborative learning.  And if you're not writing class-proposed ideas on a chart, you're not really teaching.  The problem with this is that most classrooms have 30 or more students packed into them.  How does the teacher:student ratio work effectively under these circumstances?  Most of the videos demonstrating best practices happen in a classroom with, at most, 15 very well-behaved "students" in them.  So even the researchers understand, bottom line, that class size really does matter for effective learning.

Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) - the buzzword in education these days, although Rick DuFour proposed his idea for them a few decades ago.  It has only been in the last few years, though, that PLC's have turned from their original intent (working together as professional educators to help students achieve) to the current monster that involves collaboration among teachers in every aspect of teaching so that nothing is left to the individual teacher's discretion in a classroom setting.  

      In my final year of teaching, our PLC's involved weekly meetings whereby we dissected the district's math curriculum in order to decide which elements of it we would actually teach, which begs the question:  if it's not important, why is it in the curriculum in the first place?  We also spent hours creating common assessments.  WHY are these assessments not already created for teachers if it's so important to have common assessments?  (The answer is that they already are -- in the textbook the district decided we should use.)  Not once during this year of implementing PLC's in our school setting did we discuss the issues students are having and how we might help those students.  Instead, we spent our time re-inventing the wheel.   Read on for how this 'collaborative' process works in reality when you have a group of teachers in a room trying to reach consensus on anything.


Collaboration among teachers - Supposedly, this means that all the teachers on a team, such as the 6th grade team, work together to plan lessons and create assessments.  This is currently touted as the only productive way to make decisions.  What actually happens is that the person with the loudest voice/most obnoxious demeanor gets his way by wearing the others in the group down.  It's very tempting to 'cave' because no one gets to leave until consensus is reached.  It's easier to just let the blow-hards have their way.

What's good for kids - any time you want to derail the ideas proposed by a colleague, just utter this phrase:  "But is it good for kids?"  This has become the go-to for stalling opposing ideas and for trying to ingratiate oneself with those in power who can enhance your own career.  Another way to derail an idea is to ask if it is "research-based".  This tactic has helped my former principal derail many detractors in faculty meetings, myself included.  One time, when he was talking about how little class size has to do with achievement, I raised my hand to question that, and he said that it is backed with research that class size does not impact how well a teacher delivers instruction.  When I mentioned that working in a classroom involves so much more than how well I can deliver a lesson, such as student behaviors and follow-up assignments that must be graded, he interrupted with, "Now you're talking about work load, which has nothing to do with student achievement."  

      Nothing to do with student achievement?  If I have to spread myself thin among 30 students who all have questions and issues (and assignments to be graded) as opposed to 20 of them, how can that not affect everyone's ability to succeed?  It doesn't make sense.  But John Hattie's research says that class size is way down on the list of items that affect how well students will learn.


Research and Data

       Research in best practices of instruction, for instance, shows that students learn best when they are pushed beyond their comfort zone.  Fine.  What happens when the student (or, more likely, his parent) pushes back?  What if the kid doesn't want to better himself?  What if his only motivation appears to be not learning or keeping others from learning?  And what happens when the parent complains that school is just too hard for the child?  (Answer: The principal intercedes just so the parent will go away.)

      Research conducted by those who made the videos on this page must be taken with a grain of salt.  The situations are not authentic, even if the teachers, classrooms, and children are.  Try hidden cameras once in a while and no VIP visitors taking notes, and you just might get realistic results.  Also, look at the numbers of supposed students in these classrooms.  Apparently, even the researchers get that class size does matter.
Data Collection.  There are two types in the world of education.  The first is the type that is touted by gurus like John Hattie, Robert Marzano, and Carol Tomlinson, in which data is collected on how kids learn best and then shared in educational journals and books, as well as videos for regular teachers to watch.  (You can also attend a pricey conference to listen to either the guru, himself, or one of his minions lecture you.)  The trouble with this type of "research" is that these kids are all studied in controlled, laboratory-like settings.  Of course they're going to respond positively to the techniques demonstrated.  Observing these "students" in action is like watching the audience in an infomercial.  It's not real!


Education research involves perfect little student specimens

in perfect laboratory conditions,

working with like-minded "learners" discussing Big Ideas

while the camera crew films on.

        Teachers routinely sit in their PD sessions doing one of two things:   nodding reflectively if they are new to the profession or trying to improve their career status,  OR gazing with cynicism at the facilitator and his visuals, because we all know that what is perpetrated by the gurus is NOT realistic, typically, among a group of randomly assembled students, with all their attendant issues.  Yet we are all lectured to the effect that if we just adopt "research-based" best practices, our students will magically engage.  Some of them do.  But much of the classroom dynamic is ruined by the 2/3 who don't.

         The second type of data is what is collected by a teacher on her own students in order to convince her evaluator that she is doing a good job of instruction.   What this means is that a teacher will create a spreadsheet to record the supposed scores of her students on a baseline assessment (at the beginning of the year) and a final assessment at the end of the year.  The important part of this data collection is the difference between the baseline and final scores, and the percentage of students showing an improvement, or growth.  You can read more about the fallacy behind growth scores of this type in another column.  Overall, however, this is just more whitewashing, as this data is never verified by anyone other than the teacher who collects it.  The principal never asks to see the assessments and almost never asks even to see the spreadsheet of scores.

Why none of the above matters in any meaningful way....

​      A major part of the teacher evaluation process is how much we can draw our learners into their own learning.  The onus resides solely on the teachers and never on the students.  Students are never held accountable for the decisions they make in their own learning.  If a child is not 'engaged' in what is going on in the classroom, it is the teacher's fault for not making the activities engaging.   But how do you make memorizing math facts 'fun' ?  Sometimes, you just gotta do something, even if there's not a lot of enjoyment in it.  How else does one develop a work ethic? 


       In a nutshell, the reason all these ideas are fruitless, in large part, is that those who actually work in the classroom understand that TWO things affect student learning the most:


Class size


Student behavior

Without these two items under control, the rest is just blowing sunshine up our skirts.  And that's a reason to get our panties in a twist!



T.L. Zempel, teacher and author

copyright 2020 by TL Zempel