Education Reform: Italian Group Shows Americans How It’s Done

RottenAppleby Bruce Price1/16/16
Here are two harsh realities about American education.  K-12 schools are mired in mediocrity.  Second, the Education Establishment and the high-level people who should be improving the schools seem indifferent to academic improvement.

My sense is that the only people crusading for genuine reform are traditional intellectuals.  Alas, these are outsiders with little power.  Meanwhile, Bill Gates, the federal government, and scores of “progressive” front groups pump billions into backing bad ideas. The media and cultural institutions that should be involved in education look the other way.  The fix is in – that’s the irresistible impression.

So it’s very inspiring to see a group of upscale Italians try a different approach to this long-festering problem.

The group is named Thinking Ahead (the actual name is Pensare Oltre).  The  members are from many  prestigious fields: business,  academia,  entertainment, the arts, psychiatry, sports, medicine.  We might call them literati and glitterati.  They agree that education is sick, and smart changes are urgently needed.

The starting point was their anguish at finding that children in public schools are beset by many psychological problems that were not historically associated with elementary school.  In fact, Italian children were replicating all the bad experiences that the United States has gone through for the last 70 years.  Children weren’t learning to read or do arithmetic.  They exhibit weird (and often illusionary) psychological problems – in particular, ADHD, learning disabilities, and dyslexia.

Italians had the sense that psychiatry was meddling in and indeed perverting education.  Behaviors that had always been considered normal for children were suddenly given technical names and complicated remediations, including drugs.

Leave the children alone.  Let them be kids.  Stop putting labels on everything.  These are the rallying cries of Pensare Oltre.  Their slogan is “Be treasured, not treated.”

The good news is that toxic problems in Italian schools have awakened many of the country’s best people.  They want to know how they got into this mess.  They want to rethink education, improve methods, and stop the labeling of children.

A few months ago, Pensare Oltre had a conference, attended by 100 people in Milan, to address the difficulties in education.  The name of the conference was “The School Rethought—Let the Value of Knowledge Flourish Again.”

The distinguished participants included Senator Josefa Idem (Education Commission of the Senate); Enza Blundo (vice president, Bicameral Commission on Childhood); Valentina Aprea (education councilor of the Lombardy Region); Luisa Piarulli (president of ANPE, National Association of Italian Educationalists); and Professor Ivano Spano (professor of sociology, University of Padua).  Most of them presented a paper.

The good news for the future is that Pensare Oltre plans to prepare and test more effective teaching methods, with a big emphasis on phonics and traditional ways of teaching mathematics.  There is a growing consensus in Italy that education went in the wrong direction.  Now it must be straightened out, and these people hope to do this vital work.

Here we have a wonderful sign of hope in education.  These Italians are thinking big and using their prestige in the battle.  We desperately need a group like this in the United States.

Why do our VIPs refuse to help?  Can you name a Hollywood star who is loudly critical of public schools?  Can you name someone on Wall Street or in business who came out immediately against Common Core?  Where are all the political and religious leaders in this country, the foundations, the academics and artists who can explain to the public why K-12 is such a wreck?  In this country, everything is backwards.  Billionaire bigshot Bill Gates and American  aristocrat Jeb Bush defend Common Core when they should be leading the fight against it.

It’s instructive to note that Americans are typically told that Italian is a perfectly phonetic language; if only English were like Italian, we are told, there wouldn’t be any need for  eliminating phonics and using sight-words.  But guess what?  The Italian education system introduced sight-words widely into Italian public schools.  Italian kids were being tormented and diminished in precisely the same way that Americans kids were being tormented.  You’re not surprised to find these pathologies in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and other English-speaking countries.  But it’s quite startling to hear Italy and sight-words mentioned in the same sentence.  The implications are that the Italian school system allowed itself to be compromised by the faux wisdom of such “literacy experts” as Frank Smith and Ken Goodman.

A further implication is that there does seem to be a global effort to dumb down schools.  The oligarchs are all too eager to use inferior theories and methods.  What a mother lode they have!  They can employ all the quackery first introduced and refined in the United States, the paradigm being sight-words to teach reading.

In education, we have had, to paraphrase Auden, “a low dishonest century.”  Everyone who steps into this tar pit gets dirty.  Most obviously, the children are damaged and discouraged.  Parents are overcharged and pushed around.  But even the people inside the system, from teachers all the way up to the highest administrators, are corrupted by far-left ideology, and the dishonesty required to keep this evil machine running.

(Personal connection: I heard about Pensare Oltre because they went on the internet looking for someone who could explain why sight-words would be introduced.  I’ve been in contact for several years.  One of the papers presented at the conference was a compilation of passages from three of my American Thinker articles: “Education as a Cause of Mental Health Issues,” “Why we have more than 40 million functional illiterates,” and “Whatever Happened to Phonics?“)


Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org. For info on his four new novels, see his literary site Lit4u.com. • (789 views)

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16 Responses to Education Reform: Italian Group Shows Americans How It’s Done

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I don’t know about Italy, of course, but in America there are several key problems. One, quite simply, is unionization. As teachers’ unions took over public education, this led inevitably to a decline in quality because their concern was for their political influence and the money that generates it. Students don’t pay union dues, and thus are of no importance to the unions. And since most people have no alternative to public miseducation, they unons don’t face the spur of competition to force them to do a good job despite their lack of personal interest.

    Another problem, as noted, is that many among the elites don’t seem to favor the “great unwashed” receiving a good education. In the Jim Crow South, blacks were given a second-rate (or worse) education so that they would be less of a threat to the power structure, either economically or (especially) politically (such as by knowing what their legal rights were). The same imperative exists today, especially but not exclusively among liberals and thus Democrats.

    Another problem is faddishness. Common core sounds like a good idea to those who favor (or at least don’t object to) centralizing public education. The problem is that the standards and curricula were set up by intellectuals, who receive far more respect than most of them deserve. Replacing phonics with look-say was another example. I read a couple of decades ago that most students can learn with either method; the problem is that the number who can’t is far larger with look-say than with phonics. But no one with any influence on public education seems to care about that problem. Similarly, we have fancy, complex notions such as “new math” and the recent math approaches in Common Core that are supposed to educate students in mathematical theories but end up leaving them unable to do simple arithmetic.

    The modern emphasis on testing is again a good idea (there needs to be some way of showing whether or not students are really learning), but poorly executed. When the teachers are also in charge of the testing, this can lead to massive scandals involving cheating. Even without that, they “teach to the test”. The basic problem is that our government officials have no interest in actually solving such problems as they are uncovered. If they were, they could no doubt use the methods of the Italian group even if they can’t find an actual such organization to encourage them.

    • David Ray says:

      Dinesh D’Souza spoke of some intellectual fools nearly coming to blows over whether Columbus “discovered” America or “encountered” it.

      (One more reason our schools are a joke.)

  2. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    While the ultimate problems with the schools are intellectual, what has permitted them to go on failing for year after year without consequences is the fact that they are, quite simply, run by the government. Now, this was never a good idea, but it was less of a problem in the early days of this country when there were one-room school houses overseen by a School Board who were themselves parents, or at least parents first and politicians second. Parents had effective if indirect control of the schools and insisted they teach – moreover, they would never have allowed the anti-American tripe that passes for subject matter these days.

    As the Frankfurt School rose it became apparent to American communists that they needed to control education – and this they eventually did. This is one reason why government control of schools is bad – sooner or later, someone who wants power is going to figure out that government control of schools makes government indoctrination possible, with the eventual goal of turning out good little Party members. The hard truth is that we can’t fix American education without largely privatizing it, and that’s going to be tough to do. As a short-term band-aid, I would suggest that Conservatives need to become more active and run for boards of all kinds – school, library, parks, whatever – to help break the Left’s stranglehold. Conservative school boards could, at least, refuse to hire radical faculty and force curriculum changes such as the end of Women’s and Ethnic Studies, etc.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      It’s not so much government control but centralized control, but in the long run the first leads to the second. And even local school boards are generally run by candidates supported by the teachers’ unions. Getting rid of those would be a good start in saving education.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Well said, Nik. And let me scratch my misogynist itch (as the Left would call it). No doubt, as you say, there wasn’t that much of a problem with government schools back in the Little House on the Prairie days.

      But now we have unions. And now the women (and I assume it was mainly women) who had the time to oversee the schools are all working in the workplace. So now not only is oversight a problem, but why would you want to find fault with an industry that provides free day care?

      As long as the schools put up pretty kid-drawn pictures in the hallways of the schools, have lots of rainbow cut-outs pasted over doorways, and have nice-looking modern buildings, what parent is going to question the veneer of this marketing scheme?

      And following my nephews’ basketball careers, I can tell you that when you walk into a typical elementary school, there is wall-to-wall marketing in the form of all those happy, colorful drawings that kids have drawn posted on the wall. They show rainbows, and puppy dogs, and nothing but happy talk. Can any of them do math? Can they read? Can they spell? Who cares? It all looks as if the kids are in kind, caring hands. But the reality is that this is all “nice” but not particularly good.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        They show rainbows, and puppy dogs, and nothing but happy talk. Can any of them do math? Can they read? Can they spell? Who cares? It all looks as if the kids are in kind, caring hands. But the reality is that this is all “nice” but not particularly good.

        Killjoy! Don’t you want the kiddies to express themselves? Who needs to learn math?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          From what I’ve read, Mr. Kung, one of the newfangled basic tenets of modern government schools is that pedagogy is out. The idea is now that children are naturally wise and talented and that too much top-down teaching would “stifle” them. So the technique is to “evoke” a child’s nature ability to learn, etc.

          And I think that is complete and utter baloney. A child, left to his own devices, will play Nintendo. And although people do have built-in natural abilities, they have to be trained. They have to be trained by people who know. They have to be trained by people who also know that the children do not know.

          Seriously, Mr. Kung, I almost laugh at the propaganda display of children’s drawings lining the halls of the elementary school hallways. For that is what it most certainly is. The walls are typically covered with them. And the walls that the public sees most (such as the walk to the gym where the basketball games are played) are the ones most heavily covered.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            And although people do have built-in natural abilities, they have to be trained. They have to be trained by people who know. They have to be trained by people who also know that the children do not know.

            I couldn’t agree more. Theodore Dalrymple wrote something to the effect that it is an incredible was of time and energy for a child to have to rediscover every bit of knowledge for himself.

            As to genius, it is rare enough that we cannot form an education around finding those rare children who are not only self-starting, but brilliant.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Whether this is a pleasing shirking of adult responsibilities under the guise of “liberating childhood creativity” or something else, I’m constantly (or at least semi-frequently) reminded of my own lack of knowledge in so many areas. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience, and many times, of trying to figure something out for ourselves (as a way of being expedient and as a matter of pride) and we hit the wall knowing that just one bit or two bits of information — information that we did not have and could not divine — was all we needed to complete the task. But rack our brains as we might, the answer was not forthcoming on our own.

              Now, take this situation as adults and multiply it by 100 in regards to children. And tell me why and how it isn’t child abuse to have this farcical notion of “unleashing the natural abilities of children” by such buzzwords as “self-guided” and whatnot? Obviously my beef is not with you, Mr. Kung, for I do not expect you to defend this farce. But, good god, what a farce.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                You cannot underestimate the fact that for many people, especially single mothers, school is a state-run baby-sitting service.

                Education is secondary. Just speak to some teachers about the way so many parents react to calls asking for them to come in and discuss their child’s discipline.

                The reply, “he’s at school so he’s your problem” is common.

                There is also the other common reaction that “little Johnny is perfect and if you don’t back off we will sue you.”

                Truly, our schools are a reflection of ourselves, or at least a large percentage of us.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                This is a point that was made in Mugger Blood. The dispirited teacher told Remo that she had started out giving honest grades, only to face angry parents — without support for the school administration. So she finally gave up and went along with the corrupt lack of standards.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                The corrupt lack of standards as regards the awarding of grades, has become a major problem in this country. No employer really knows the quality of a job applicant’s education because the marks mean next to nothing.

                A great disservice is being done to our students. Too many have no idea how well or poorly they are doing.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Walter Williams pointed this out a couple of decades ago regarding a black Philadelphia student who planned to go to college on a sports scholarship. He had good grades, but then his SATs came in, and he wasn’t good enough for admission to college. He wanted to sue the SAT, but Williams made a good argument that he should instead have sued the school that misinformed him that he was being educated when in fact he wasn’t.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      As the Frankfurt School rose it became apparent to American communists that they needed to control education

      What was it St. Ignatius Loyola said? “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.”

      To use the modern vernacular “we are so screwed.”

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Fortunately, that doesn’t always work. Some people, despite everything, learn to think for themselves. I believe Voltaire had a good Catholic education (it was probably hard to get anything else in France in that era, unless maybe your parents could afford tutors), and we know how that worked out.

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