Ask your own children who wrote the Declaration of Independence, what were the Federalist Papers, who was Jim Crow, and you will see that even your own kids may not be learning, or at least not retaining information about their own country, the very things that school was supposed to teach them.
Then try to carry on a conversation, say in Spanish, the "easy language," with a third, or fourth year Spanish student in a typical American high school, perhaps with your own child if he or she fits the description. You will very quickly see that the schools (as in teaching Spanish or American history) are clearly not doing what they say they are doing.
Now what we seem not yet as a nation to have fully recognized, is the fact that in our schools, especially our middle and high schools, very few things are learned in the sense of acquired, or made one's own, — a grounding in American history, or conversational ability in the Spanish language, as in our examples.
Our elementary schools, those schools that have been around since the time of the earliest settlers on the Atlantic seaboard, are probably best at what they do. In part because of their long history. And in great part because what they do is still highly relevant to kids' lives outside of school. At earlier times and probably still today most if not all elementary school kids do learn to read and to count.
The situation in our middle and high school classrooms, however, is something else. Only for the last 60 or 70 years have most of our young people been subjected to schooling during these years. And the jury is still out on how well we have succeeded, even whether it was such a great idea that all kids be in school for some 12 or 13 years. But they are, and we have them.
The success of the elementary years is probably best explained by the fact that the subject matter, mostly the learning to read and to count, is not limited to the classroom. The kids, at least those who do learn, go on with both activities outside of school. And those who don't probably don't learn.
Totally different from the situation of the middle and high schools, where what goes on in class is usually not something the kids take with them and do at home. Rather it's something, in spite of books and notebooks crammed into knapsacks, that the kids at the end of the day mostly leave behind them in school.
Is it any wonder that just months let alone years after these classroom lessons, perhaps even weeks or days, the kids cannot solve an equation like the one they solved in class, can't respond in Spanish to a question put to them in that language, can't tell you much if anything about the US constitution and the separation of powers, can't even accurately place the Civil War on an American history time line.
And the reason is not that the schools have failed, as so many echoing the urgency of those who gave us A Nation at Risk in the 80s would have us believe. The schools haven't failed. The kids, perhaps. But they have failed to learn, not so much because of what went on in school, what the teacher did or didn't do, but because the "languages" spoken in the classroom, the ones they were supposed to learn, be they math, science, history et al, are just not spoken outside of the classroom.
And math, science, history et al are languages, no less than Spanish and Chinese, and need to be spoken, and read, somehow "used," given life, if they are to be learned. For John Dewey was right. We do learn by doing, much more than by listening. Lectures and language tapes are not enough.
Try to learn Spanish or any foreign language when you hear only words in that language from your teacher (or on a tape) while sitting in class along with some 25 others who are as ignorant of the language as you are. What language can possibly be learned in this manner, other than by the rare student with exceptional intelligence, a photographic memory, or both?
Now all this is not to say that middle and high school students are not learning in school. They are learning, and many of them are learning a lot, but little or nothing (in respect to what they might have learned) of the academic subjects that are still at the heart of the typical middle and high school curriculum.
What they are, in fact, learning, and this should come as no surprise to anyone, is what they are doing in school (or out of school) with interest and motivation. You can put a kid in a classroom, of course, but that's it. So far we haven't been able to make him or her learn.
What kids are learning may be music, as in playing a musical instrument in the school band. It may be art as in designing sets or murals. It may be acting as in the school theater group, or it may be bodily strength and coordination, plus cooperation with others, as in participating in one or more team or individual sports activities.
What kids are learning may be any number of other things including shop, automotive mechanics, and other voc ed activities. Schools, in order to stay in business, learned long ago that play, art, music, voc ed and all the rest were no less important, I would say essential, to kids' lives, to their mental and physical health and well-being, than college prep and advanced placement courses. Indeed, if you want to see even greater “failure” than you think you see right now in our public schools limit schooling to college prep. (This being for some what the No Child Left Behind Law is effectively doing to the schools.)
Currently there is, and has been, almost from the time of Horace Mann and the Common School over 150 years ago, a sharp, verbal battle between those who would give the public schools failing marks and those who would defend the schools, claiming that they are doing just fine the way they are.
I would say that this battle need not ever have been. The sides could have come together because they are not so much apart as they are talking about different things — the ones about the low academic achievement of public school students (that which has probably always been low), and the others about the real success that the common school has had in reaching all, or nearly all of our youth.
For the defenders of the public schools correctly say that now no one is left out, and that all are given an opportunity to continue their education through high school, college and beyond, even though only a minority of them will actually do so.
There are many things we could say about our schools that might help to go beyond the school battle I refer to. Most important both groups ought to understand that learning is not what schools are mostly about. For the kids just have little, often no interest, in what the schools are teaching. So why blame the schools. It can hardly be their fault if the kids are not ready to learn.
Although life itself is all about learning, and although kids are learning all the time and everywhere, for the most part they are just not all that interested in what we are teaching, in particular, in math, science, history et al, all those subject matters that we tell them are all important and that they will need, to go on to college, to get a good job, to make a lot of money.
Those who attack the schools say that at one time things were different. At one time in the past, they assure us, kids did learn, — math, history, foreign language and all the rest. But a close look at the past, a close look at student achievement in earlier periods makes it clear that this is not so.
Gerald Bracey and others have shown us that in the past kids, at least the relatively few of them that were in school, did not learn anymore then than their peers are learning now. Kids are kids and the educators who should most of all know this most of all seem to forget it.
In fairness to those who attack the schools they do have a number of reforms in mind. One of their reforms is to make both kids and teachers accountable. First test the teachers, then the kids. Hold the kids to (national) standards. Make them fear for their lives after their schooling if they don't work while in school.
But of course the threats don't work. Because the kids, even if they work more in class, and are given additional class time, still don't take what they are taught in class into their lives, that is, where these things they are taught might be learned. Equations, American history, and the spoken foreign language are still not a part of their lives outside of class.
The kids are into other things. The schools don't take this enough into account and go on confusing schooling, what is going on in their schools, with education, that is not going on. Our schools would be just fine if our goals for the schools were things that schooling could accomplish. But too often our goals are in need of an education for which our kids in middle and high school are not yet ready.
What could the kids be learning in school? Good classroom habits for one, such as listening to the teacher and other students in the classroom, speaking up and thereby contributing to the class discussion, being on time, being equipped with whatever is necessary for the orderly classroom activities, such as pens, notebooks, texts, even laptop computers. But instead of doing this sort of thing where we might be successful we go on pretending to teach (math and history) and the students go on pretending to learn.
There are schools, both public and private, that do stress good classroom behavior and don't worry about whether the students are learning, knowing that the latter will not take place until the students themselves are ready.
Children do, as we've already noted, come to school with their interest and motivation in place. Everyone has seen the great delight that small children take in learning their words and numbers in the elementary classroom. The greatest difference between schooling and learning is the absence (schooling) or the presence (learning) of interest and motivation on the part of the student.
But everyone has also seen kids' interest and motivation fall away by the fourth or fifth grade when their awareness of themselves, and most especially their growing awareness of their relationship to others, become the principal and driving forces in their lives.
For here begins the process when learning turns into schooling and the content of the lesson becomes confined to the classroom, when what is most vivid and most alive for the kids is no longer words and numbers, as it may have been during the first years of school, but the physical, their bodies, and the social, their friends, thereby relegating the subject matter of the classroom to at best a few minutes of homework squeezed somewhere in between friends, family, sports, television, video games, computers and other such modern distractions.