Teaching the Three R’s — or Not

CommonCoreby Anniel   5/19/14
When I hear horror stories about the state of education, or mis-education, in the United States, especially about the math instruction associated with Common Core, I am reminded how long such problems have existed within the system and how consistently dumb the solutions are. I saw weaknesses in schools when my children were young, and the schools now are much worse for my grandchildren. Common Core is just a new name for an old problem.

When our eldest son’s IQ was tested in kindergarten, a school psychologist was called in to discuss the results with us. Everything was understandable until she suddenly frowned and angrily asked, “Why did you force your son into lateral thinking when he’s so young? That ability does not develop naturally until puberty.”

It was difficult to answer since we didn’t know what she was talking about. Lateral Thinking? How could we possibly force him to learn what we didn’t know ourselves? I asked her to explain and the nearest I could understand is that lateral thinking is the ability to see connections between different areas of knowledge. I had thought we were all born with that ability.[pullquote]Yes, Common Core must go, but so must the Department of Education and the strangle-hold Unions have over local school boards. Mark Twain said God created idiots for practice and then created school boards…[/pullquote]

To clarify the matter I asked a teacher friend to explain lateral thinking and to tell me how it affects education. She brought up spelling and said that students can be given vocabulary words for spelling, but until they learn lateral thinking they do not recognize that they can use those spelling words in writing. So, it’s Thanksgiving and the teacher gives out holiday related words such as pilgrim, turkey, pumpkin, feast, etc. A child might get 100% on the spelling test, but when asked to write a paper about Thanksgiving he will still misspell almost all the words. I asked if she ever reminded her students to check their spelling against the list. She looked at me as though I were crazy and said, “It wouldn’t do any good. They don’t think that way yet.” Hmm. Doesn’t that seem like a teaching opportunity lost?

Besides understandable math, here we are with two items, spelling and lateral thinking that are no longer taught in the schools. Schools gave up on spelling and went ga-ga over creative writing,without regard for spelling, for the youngest grades. This is precisely when the children should be learning to spell. When you fail to teach correct spelling, aren’t you really teaching poor or incorrect spelling? About the same time spelling was dropped, legible handwriting practice also became passé, and now teaching cursive has also been abandoned in most schools. Is it possible that the physical act of learning to write with a pencil also teaches children to spell and to think?

Our youngest daughter has always been a phenomenal reader and speller. When she was going on five I suffered from a severe and painful illness. Cate was home alone with me during the day when I was barely functional and I sometimes passed out from exhaustion. One afternoon I woke with my head in Cate’s lap while she wiped my face with a wet washcloth. When she saw I was awake she handed me a paper and said, “I wanted to make you a poem, so I taught myself to write.” There, clumsily written, but all correctly spelled, was her poem:

When you look in your eyes
You can see the sadness.
When April showers come
The willow will weep.

I felt it was a stunning achievement for a little girl.

When she was in 1st and 2nd grades, Cate’s teachers would have her get the 6th grade spelling lists to study each week. I assumed the 3rd grade teacher would continue with the practice. She didn’t, so I finally went in and told her that’s what had been done before. Her answer to me was, “I’ll check and see if that’s true.” What, I’m lying? She never followed through or “checked” anything. We had to leave Our daughter in her class because it was the only one coordinating with a Japanese Language Immersion Program Cate excelled in.

Teachers in later years told me they hated getting students who had been in that 3rd grade teacher’s class because they were so far behind in every subject. We were fortunate Cate was quick enough not to be affected. But what a terribly wasted year that was for most of the other students.

The point is that if you embark on a bad program and add some of the bad teachers to it, you wind up with kids who are actively taught not to spell or write, or even think.

So what about lateral thinking? If you fail to teach it at all, what makes educators think it will appear by magic when the kids are in 6th grade? Maybe some of them will never get it unless they are constantly reminded how all knowledge ties together. If my son was “doing” it at age five without any instruction, how many others would be learning it all along the way if given enough cues? Right now the only hope they have is osmosis. Are we turning out whole generations of people with no logical or critical thinking skills because the educators have steered us wrong yet again?

Yes, Common Core must go, but so must the Department of Education and the strangle-hold Unions have over local school boards. Mark Twain said God created idiots for practice and then created school boards, so they need all possible help in getting the garbage out of education. Get the politics and unions out of the schools and put parents back in charge of their own children.

Personally, I believe we should assume our children are a lot smarter than educators and psychologists give them credit for. Some of them may be smarter than the educators and psychologists themselves. But if we do not begin again to teach our children, where on earth are tomorrow’s leaders, thinkers, scientists, and inventors going to come from? How will they learn to even care about any search for truth, or how to recognize it?

If we fail to teach, aren’t we really teaching to fail? • (1724 views)

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10 Responses to Teaching the Three R’s — or Not

  1. steve lancaster says:


    Every year I see students enter the university with high ACT and SAT scores who cannot communicate, cannot do simple math and have no knowledge of history before they were born and even that is limited to 140 characters and a #. If you want a high school education in our day and age you have to send your kids to a good university for that is how degraded the value of a high school education has become, and by extension the value of college degree. The modern public university exists to provide jobs and resources from public funding for faculty and staff, students are a waste product of this system and only necessary as a transmitter of student loan funding to the university.

    There are only a few colleges and universities who do not take money from the feds and have programs that encourage work to pay tuition and fees. Some are religious institutions and some are secular. The best known is Hillsdale in MI but there are others.

    I agree that common core and the department of education must go; it won’t happen as long as government has a source of almost unlimited funds via the income tax.

    • john hartnett says:

      I agree that common core and the department of education must go; it won’t happen as long as government has a source of almost unlimited funds via the income tax.
      How right you are!

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I don’t recall for sure how we learned when I was young over 50 years ago, but it seems to me that we learned words — how to spell them, how to inflect them, what they meant, and how to use them. Much of this came from actually reading them, of course.

    So Bronwyn is (or has been) in a Japanese-immersion program? Elizabeth is the daughter of a missionary to Japan and considers herself half-Japanese by culture (she used to follow sumo wrestling, for example, which is one reason my body shape doesn’t repel her even though in my case it isn’t muscle). She even used to teach English to Japanese there (in a school in Kokura that had been an army HQ during World War II , and was probably the intended Ground Zero for the second atomic bomb; Kokura was clouded over, so instead they hit secondary target Nagasaki).

    Encountering an officer who didn’t think he was capable of accomplishing some task, Stonewall Jackson (a devout Calvinist and thus a strict commander) suggested that in that case he should resign for someone who could do it. A lot of teachers could learn from that example (though unfortunately most such teachers show little evidence that they’re capable of learning anything except rote repetition of slogans). So could a lot of other people (for example, Eric Shinseki would be a good choice).

  3. Anniel says:

    Thanks Steve. The chances of change do seem dismal. Maybe a new generation of parents will demand more. And hope does spring eternal.
    Timothy, in the 1980’s when Bronwyn was young the Japanese government and people
    had a very large presence in Anchorage, tourists poured in, even in winter (they hoped to see auroras), street signs in some parts of town had Japanese translations on them. I seem to remember that Japan, Inc. was busy buying the US. At any rate arrangements were made to start a K-12 immersion program with native speakers. Some of the kids did OK, but Bronwyn loved it. She went to Japan with her older brother when she was eleven and told me she was going to lie about her age so she could do more things by herself, I just smiled and reminded her she didn’t need to lie because in Japan she really was considered to be twelve. Her brother told me later that if it was cheaper to be a minor she gave her US age. Lots of funny stories there. Have you ever gone to ingrish.com? It makes her laugh so hard. Me, too. She claims not to be “litrate” in Katagana, so she doesn’t think she’s as good as she should be. Elizabeth would love her.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Is Mark Twain correct? Have school boards always been this stupid? And is all of this dumbing-down of education the result of school boards?

    It’s hard not to contribute much of this to Cultural Marxism and feminism where the conceit is that all educational processes that came before were unenlightened and that feelings, not rigorous educational standards, are what matters. So you have this instinct to simply do things differently and weakly.

    I don’t know of a kinder way to put this, but if you think that children can’t engage in “lateral thinking,” then you are an idiot. You are most likely a product of the dumbed-down education system. Central to a general understanding of intelligence (of whatever kind, at whatever stage, in whatever species) is the ability to make connections. That, in effect, is what intelligence is. It’s a neural network. And “networking” is such a buzzword amongst these Common Communist types, I’m surprised they would not be of the opinion that it is common. I would expect them to “celebrate” this at every stage, not put it off as inappropriate.

    It’s difficult to find the words to express what Annie has highlighted in her article. But what we are seeing is no less than child abuse. Why educators believe such utter crap is important to understand. But they clearly do. And we have to do something about it.

    In my opinion, this is more of a sociological and political phenomenon we see playing out. Of course, it could be as simple as Forest Gump said: Stupid is as stupid does.

    I have met teachers who quite literally were as dumb as a post and had no business drawing a paycheck. But so much of the unionized school machine is simply make-work for women and other minorities. These are some of the truths that can’t be spoken, as well as the fact that teaching standards have been vastly lowered. But all that the “reformers” can think to do is to set commons standards for the kids in the form of tests. But that is like trying to close the barn doors after the horses have bolted. The real problem is at an earlier stage.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The notion of miseducation as a form of child abuse reminds me of a late Ayn Rand essay, “The Comprachicos”, which made a similar argument. I don’t recall the details after 40 years, but I believe she compared poor teaching to the sort of minor mutilations (such as Chinese girls having their feet tightly bound to keep them small) that occur in various cultures. One certainly suspects that this may be deliberate; at the very least, those who place theories above results are indifferent to the latter.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I feel very strongly about this subject, and for good reason.

        The public school system got its start under the French Revolution where the idea was to dethrone the Jesuits and the Church and put education into the hands of The Enlightened People whose minds were not corrupted by ancient superstitions. In effect, the modern public education system is based on atheism and Leftism.

        And then everything Dennis Prager says has come true. What did religious schools teach? They taught that God was the Creator of the universe, that man had a moral role to play, and that 2 plus 2 equals four. That is, with the religious aspects clearly out in the open, there was no reason or temptation to corrupt the academic curriculum, which is one reason religious schools today typically offer a much better education.

        From reading Annie’s article it’s again apparent that what we’re dealing with is a bunch of ooga-booga superstitions and pseudo-science that have leaked into the public school system (via the public consciousness as well) because the Left cannot, and will not, admit of its own ideology. So that ideology gets mixed in and corrupts facts and common-sense methods as well.

        Reading articles such as Annie’s makes my head explode because this corruption that is not easily amenable to description. This is more than just a problem with text books, school boards, or even the idea of “lateral thinking.” This is a society-wide bastardizing of the human intellect.

        Another truism of Dennis Prager is apt here: Everything the Left touches it makes worse.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          The use of public education to bring about public conformity remains the norm in France (or at least it was when I was young, according to our French texts, and I’ve never seen any reason since to believe it changed). For that matter, Hugh Thomas points out in The Spanish Civil War that the Spanish liberals not only replaced clerical education with public education, but insisted on putting that in the new constitution. This forced Catholics into active opposition to the Republic. (Some things never seem to change.)

  5. Anniel — Good piece. You are so right that Common Core is just the outgrowth of what has been in our schools for decades. When I first started teaching close to 40 years ago I was astonished at the silliness of the curriculum (I had to teach a class called “Humor in American Lit” and the kids all thought we’d be listening to George Carlin for a quarter.) Common Core has finally provided a name we can call this decline, but it isn’t new.

  6. Anniel says:

    Deanna, thank you. I enjoy your articles and blog so much. I’m kind of a neophyte at trying to write and get out into this new world. Brad and all of you have certainly enlarged my view of the beautiful creation made for us. What a humbling thought.

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