The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made school boards.....  ...Mark Twain.
Commentary of the Day - Feb. 28, 2000: 30 Years After the First Man Stepped Onto the Moon... Guest Commentary by Gisela Hausmann:
It is the year 2000. In 1969, the United States sent a man to the moon, and the mission was accomplished. Thirty years ago, before that famous first step on the moon, nobody knew if and how it could be achieved. Nevertheless, the best minds of the country came together and worked feverishly to beat the Russians. The country had a leader who told us that this issue was top priority and no means would be spared to accomplish the task.

Are we going to elect a leader for the next millennium who will make education a top priority?

We should not even have to discuss the need for better education because the country that was capable of putting the first man on the moon more than 30 years ago should certainly have been able to create a good school system long ago. So, if we do not get such a leader what can we do to improve our schools and education in general?

One of the most fundamental basics of any school system is the curriculum. Like a tree, it should have a solid trunk, which over time grows stronger until it can support different branches of subjects. This foundation is built in the K-12 grades.

When they were in kindergarten, my children learned about Japan and bears; and, as first graders they learned about Germany, Brazil, and Mexico. That does not make sense. These countries have interesting cultures and important historic roles, and they are important in today’s world economy.  However, in my opinion, these topics are too sophisticated for a five or six-year-old to grasp. Additionally, students cannot relate any of their own knowledge or experiences to these topics. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to teach about the student’s hometown, county, and state?  Many students will have answers to these questions about plants, animals, and geography. Why not talk about cats and dogs instead of bears, since it can be expected that probably half of the students in each class own either a cat or a dog. Moreover, all students probably do know something about these animals. It will be easier for them to understand what kind of animals are mammals, and why birds are not.

More time should be spent to strengthen reading, writing, and arithmetic. In fifth grade most students will remember very little of what they have heard in kindergarten about any exotic subject, but with solid reading skills these students can read almost anything they like, including information about Japan. Last October, a survey from the U.S. Department of Education reported that not even one in four students can write an essay or book report using grade appropriate vocabulary.  If they were required to read more books for book reports these students would learn much information, that would be valuable in their future studies.

Why does the existing curriculum in many schools ask children in kindergarten to be able to count to 100 before they can fluently add and subtract small numbers? I do not believe that it makes sense that a student knows that 67 is a number between 66 and 68 before s/he knows that 7 = 5+ 2 and 7 = 10 – 3.

In short, the curriculum should be changed to where it creates a strong foundation for every subject. Parents and students should be able to relate to it, see the plan and path ahead of them. Students of lower grades should use bound books for their schoolwork and homework instead of worksheets, which may be crumpled and lost. I know this seems like a small, insignificant detail.  However, the truth is that neither student nor teacher nor parent can comprehend the collection of worksheets that accumulates during the course of a year. Progress becomes apparent to teachers, parents and students when the can evaluate the collected work of weeks or months.  Being able to judge the work keeps parents and students more focused, and helps them keep up with the curriculum.

Education is a mission. To ensure commitment it needs a plan that will even be understood by the most distant participant.  In every war an enormous amount of money is spent to clarify the goal and motivate the troops.  However, when it comes to education our political leaders seem to have surrendered this responsibility to computers and Internet connections.  Outstanding education will only become top priority if we present a clear plan to the civilian population of parents in order to motivate them.
Gisela Hausmann is a European educator who now works in the United States.  She writes educational books for children in the primary grades.  You can write to her at

Gisela's comments represent her own opinions; however, the Irascible Professor agrees with her concern over the curriculum that one sometimes finds in the early grades.  For example, the science strand of E.D. Hirsch's well known and well intentioned "core knowledge" curriculum has kindergarten students studying magnetism as an example of forces that can't be seen.  The problem with this is that force in physics is an abstract concept that is more sophisticated than a simple push or pull on an object.  The kindergarten student likely will gain the impression that the magnetic effect is present only when he or she sees an object being attracted to the magnet.  This could lead the student into the common misconception that a force must be present for an object to be in motion.  Most kindergarten teachers would not have a good enough grasp of physics to help the student avoid this trap.

[ home | web rings | links | archives ]

The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.