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Old theories hurt education

Published: Wednesday, April 12, 2017 10:32 a.m. CDT

Two prior education theories share responsibility for the downfall of education in this country, and the struggle to get back on track. 

The U.S. started moving away from the system of concepts around 1900 with the adoption of the theory of behaviorism, focused on changing behaviors. The decade from 1900 to 1910 saw the highest rate of immigration to the U.S. not seen again for almost 80 years (because it was cut off to all but northern and western Europeans in 1924, until 1965). The theory of eugenics was falsely believed to be a science at the time, hence the focus on adjusting behavior (due to the unwarranted fears of degrading the country).

Around 1950, the next big change not only changed teaching but also curriculum. Cognitive psychology rose with the introduction of computers, leading to the perception of brains as devices that absorbed information and repeated it back — thus the move to memorization. Students who struggled to learn in this environment found themselves falsely labeled according to the false behaviorist theory applied to their demographic group. Rather than re-examine the curriculum content of memorization, false sub-theories of what was “wrong” with various demographic groups began pervading teacher training programs. The regular dumbing down of assessment tests should have been a clue something was wrong with the curriculum and teaching theories, but it was easier to avoid accountability by falsely blaming students — and then their parents (both victims of this dysfunctional system).

In 2002, NCLB said standards had to be raised back up and all students had to be tested, in the hope educators would begin seeing the error of their theories. That worked in some states but not in Iowa. In 2015, ESSA said the discrimination had to end against the various demographic groups in order to focus on a change in education theory and, thus, teacher training. The National Council of Teacher Quality assessments of state teacher training programs put Iowa in the bottom 20 percent, and its latest report in December 2016 showed little change to the elementary programs (with their stronger tendency to focus on memorization rather than effectively teaching concepts).

Iowa law requiring online education to use Iowa licensed teachers works against improvement. Claims by legislators that online students show lower proficiencies misses the point that Iowa schools do also. Allowing online to use teachers trained in states out-performing Iowa on NAEP would force improvement.

Sue Atkinson


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