What has happened to traditional education? Where are the classical schools our grandparents, or more likely our great-grandparents, attended? The schools where the true test of knowledge was found in the classroom conversation, not on a series of information-driven tests? The bar was high and the content was rich. The right things, at the right time, in the right order. Many men and women were formed under these roofs into wise, virtuous, well-informed and conscientious citizens. We have misplaced the tools and misguided our teachers. We are paying the price in America. The days of an academically rigorous K-12 education that prepares a student for professional success, civic duty and personal happiness have been lost.
Or have they? What options are there for parents? Beginning in kindergarten, John Paul II Academy students are led through a chronological sequence of our world history, which systematically builds upon itself. Starting the puzzle with the frame, the pieces are slowly put in place. The influences of great leaders, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, writers, artists and musicians of each time period are introduced. The incredible stories of how “the greats” of our world have influenced us visits our classrooms daily. Exploring role models of moral virtue to emulate leads to goodness and virtue. Understanding the failings of the fallen throughout history leads to enlightenment and self-reflection.
Students learn to read and write through traditional instruction in phonics, grammar and composition, supplemented with Latin root words. Timeless stories unfold, from "Aesop’s Fables" and Greek mythology to "Jekyll & Hyde" and Homer. Students read the true classics where the art of language is found and the beauty of words discovered. These engaging works of literature lead to the questions that ring true generation after generation. Studying the best of which has been thought and said in the early years leads to bringing out the greatest potential in each child.
All math instruction occurs at the same time each day. Students are able to participate a grade level above or below their own, based on placement tests. This allows those who need extra help in mastery the ability to work at their own pace, while allowing others who excel the opportunity to move forward and be challenged. The study of mathematics should engage all the senses, with the direct manipulation of simple objects that illustrate counting, representation, similarity and difference, etc. A love of mathematics naturally leads to the development of analytical and critical reasoning, along with creativity. This love instills a sense of wonder and awe in our world and the beautiful order in it.
Over the last few generations, our educational system has distanced itself from its classical roots and the academic model our founding fathers benefitted from, foregoing the principle that all learning is built upon previous learning. As stated by Plato, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” Building the foundation is what elementary school is for. Unlike our adults, young children have the capacity to memorize information and develop skills quickly. God has provided children with an arsenal: reason, imagination, language and memory. Education is meant to feed, direct and strengthen these gifts. The end? Informed, moral, thinking citizens, fitted to preserving intellectual freedom. Classical education is one of the great legacies of Western Civilization, however, for the better part of the last century and into the 21st century, students in this country have been denied their educational inheritance. I for one feel cheated. So many good teachers with so many good intentions, working in a severely flawed system.
A history lesson: Half of the 20th century was spent trying to “reform” the American public education system. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik highlighted the need to attend to our schools and return to rich content. We chose, however, to lean in the direction of social reformation, rather than academic. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a study titled "A Nation at Risk," warning us of the threat we were facing due to our weak education system: “A rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” A turning point came with the end of the Cold War, providing opportunities for more countries to now participate in the global marketplace. Asian countries moved forward and America continued to fall behind. The answer was declared nationally unified and high academic standards. President George H.W. Bush hosted an education summit for the nation’s governors. Clinton set academic goals with Goals 2000. Would the creation of state standards based on a national template bring standards representing the basic knowledge and skills students needed to know for particular subjects? No. Instead, money was used to push unproven and sometimes radical ideas within the academic fields, leaving a flawed and unfair system in play and prompting most states to create their own standards. President George W. Bush brought No Child Left Behind, and the newly coined phrase “teaching to the test” came with it. Obama contributed with Race to the Top, plugging in money intended to improve standards and assessments. In 2011, the decision was made to adopt Common Core, dramatically and substantially affecting American education.
Common Core: Having a common set of academically rigorous standards for a mobile country would allow policymakers to have a unified and coherent plan for improving our system. The problem?
• Cost: Common Core has been expensive to implement and maintain. States looked ahead short-term and took the money, failing to see they were signing on to something far more expensive in the end.
• Quality: High standards have become the mediocre middle, with more exceptional or advantaged students having to afford college courses in high school in order to be challenged.
• Privacy: Our children are being tracked on a database beginning in preschool and continuing into their entry to the workforce, linking student assessment results to private personal information available to the federal government.
• Constitutionality: The federal government’s role in education continues to increase. The 10th Amendment states the power to oversee education belongs to the states. Common Core is not a federal template with the goal of unified standards. It is an overreach and violation of federal education law and the U.S. Constitution.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia signed on, not because the Common Core standards were better than their own, but because they wanted the federal cash. State support has weakened. The delaying and defunding of Common Core has begun.
Classical education: At the time of America’s founding, classical education thrived. Now it is the surest road to reform. Its proven methods provide the right things, at the right developmental times, in the right order so that knowledge builds on knowledge. Children have the capacity to know, think, feel and act. Education has the capacity to breed cultural literacy and discerning, responsible adults.
• It values knowledge for its own sake: Cultural literacy allows us to use our reservoir of common facts, ideas and references in any given situation. We want to know what things are and how they operate. We want to know who we are, where we come from and what is expected of us. We seek truth. Armed with memory, reason, imagination, a sense of beauty and an aptitude for language, and provided with explicit instruction, children will flourish.
• It upholds truth and logic: We live by communicating. High standards of grammar, precision in word choice and a love of the beauty of language set the stage to seek the truth. Logic stems from strong mathematics and sciences. A classical education provides the very best of the tried and proven.
• It demands moral virtue: Education demands the teaching of moral virtue. Citizens are the principle and permanent rulers of our society. Their moral self-government is necessary for a true democracy.
• It prepares human beings to assume their places as responsible citizens in the political order: We need to understand, defend, and preserve the constitutional republic we inherited and its founding principles. America’s founders knew that our democracy depended on the wisdom and virtue of the people.