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Crisis In Education? Don’t Blame The Teachers; They Obey The Law: Or Else

Alex Terego | Author



Good intentions, poor leadership, and unforeseen consequences have brought us over the past few decades to this Crisis In Education. 

1965.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed as a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. And it has been the most far-reaching federal legislation affecting education ever passed by the US Congress. Its intention was to close the skill gap in reading, writing, and mathematics between children from low-income households and children from the middle-class who attend suburban school systems. It was under this legislation that standardized testing and punitive measures for non-compliance were first introduced.

1969. Herbert Kohl writes “The Open Classroom” promoting the idea of holistic student-centered education. This provokes a backlash from the conservative back-to-the-basics schools movement.

1970. Jean Piaget publishes his Learning Cycle Model advocating discovery-based learning. He is largely ignored.

1980. President Reagan promises to eliminate the Department of Education as part of the Conservative Movement.

Check out Terego’s Previous Op-Ed

1983. Reagan’s advisors publish “A Nation at Risk,” a report on the state of education. It begins, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and people….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” One of the major recommendations was more standardized testing of students.

1993. J and M Brook’s book “In Search of Understanding,” promoting the construction of knowledge by active student participation rather than passive reception of knowledge is published. It sells well. The message is largely ignored by educators.

1993. That same year the Massachusetts Education Reform Act introduces a common curriculum and statewide testing. It is based on the theory of Outcome-Based Education. Other states rapidly follow suit. Many countries and the European Union have since dropped the idea.

2000. The USA ranks 15th in the world in combined reading and literacy according to the PISA scores.

2001. President George Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is a re-authorization of the 1968 ESEA law and mandates stringent high-stakes testing of students, and holds schools accountable for student achievement. There are penalties for schools that do not achieve yearly progress towards the detailed standards laid down in Washington D.C. by civil servants at the US Department of Education.

2009. The Common Core State Standards Initiative coordinated by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of State School Officers is enacted with the expectation that most states will adopt them. This initiative is very similar to the NCLB act in terms of testing and penalties.

2011–2012. The Obama Earth map sculpted into apple administration introduces the Race to the Top and begins allowing “flexibility” in the application of Common Core requirements. Almost all the states and the District of Columbia now have waivers making it even more difficult for teachers and districts to know what to apply.

2013. The PISA rankings place the USA 24th in Reading, 36th in Math and 28th in Science. PISA ranks the educational attainment of 70 countries

2014. Diana Ravitch, an eminent scholar of education, launches a blistering attack on the Common Core. She outlines how “American public education and its teachers are under attack….Never have public schools been as subject to upheaval, assault, and chaos as they are today with a punitive regime of standardized testing in the schools….The curriculum was narrowed; the only subjects that mattered were reading and mathematics. What was not tested—the arts, history, civics, literature, geography, science, physical education—didn’t count. It became an article of faith in Washington and state capitols that if students had low scores, it must be the fault of bad teachers.

Poverty, we heard, again and again, was just an excuse for bad teachers, who should be fired without delay or due process….A burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations, charter chains, and technology companies has emerged that view public education as an emerging market. Hedge funds, entrepreneurs, and real estate investment corporations invest enthusiastically, encouraged by federal tax credits, lavish fees, and the prospect of huge profits from taxpayer dollars. No other nation tests every student every year as we do. Our students are the most over-tested in the world. No other nation—at least no high-performing nation—judges the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students.

Most researchers agree that this methodology is fundamentally flawed, that it is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable, that the highest ratings will go to teachers with the most affluent students and the lowest ratings will go to teachers of English learners, teachers of students with disabilities, and teachers in high-poverty schools. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become obsessed with standardized testing, and have turned over to the testing corporations the responsibility for rating, ranking, and labeling our students, our teachers, and our schools.”

2015. President Obama joins the “Too Much Testing Movement.” He proclaims that testing has taken the joy out of teaching and learning. He asks that no more than 2% of the class time be spent on testing.

2015. President Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act into law. It modifies but does not eliminate standardized test and has bi-partisan support.

2015. The overall PISA score of the USA is 28th.


Sadly in the USA that first important step has not yet been taken. As a nation, we have not yet acknowledged that at least since 1968, our educational system has been not only in decline but out-of-step with the needs of the radically different modern economy; nor have we seen any popular demand for change.

In the polarized world of American public policy, it would be intellectually dishonest to hold out hope for radical changes in the US education system despite the overwhelming evidence that without reform we are facing a National Security issue of our making.

Just because reform makes intellectual or logical sense does not mean it will happen: there are too many entrenched interests at the top of the educational hierarchy that would be hurt by reform. Add to that the fact that the pace of decline in our educational system is not precipitous, and you can see why in the current presidential race the topic is not even on the agenda.

We do not yet feel sufficiently threatened by our elected and appointed representatives’ inept handling of the education of our youth to take to the streets.


This is my argument and suggestion. One of the symptoms of this educational malaise is our student’s attitude to their own education. Half feel hopeless about their future. And only half of students are psychologically engaged with their learning. Teachers are equally dispirited by what they see as their lack of autonomy. An astonishing 70% of teachers are either ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ with their job. 

With this in mind let me suggest that we should at least begin to address in the classroom setting the underlying issues manifested in these feelings of hopelessness and a lack of engagement.

There can be only one cause why half our children and seventy percent of the adults in our classrooms feel disengaged. They obviously DO NOT BUY-IN to what they are doing, or why they are doing it.

Why is this? Because we give one reason why every student in the USA should learn, and we give that same reason to explain to teachers why they should teach. And that single overarching reason is this: The curriculum is a congressional mandate, authorized by the president, of the latest iteration of the 1968 ESEA Act, the 2001 NCLB Act, the 2009 Common Core Act, the 2011 Race to the Top Act and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, and we are watching! So, take the tests!

The most diverse nation ever is homogenizing its students instead of leveraging their diversity.

The fact is that there are fifty million students in the USA and that means there are 50,000,000 private reasons why each one learns – not one! And each teacher has their private reason to teach also – not one!

Instead of ‘Mass Homogenization’ we need to begin a process of ‘Mass Customization.’

It begins by getting students to Buy-In to their own education by discovering for themselves why learning is important.

How? The secret has been around and little used for two thousand plus years it’s called Socratic Inquiry. And it’s all about making your mind up about something subjective like truth or beauty or ‘why I think I need an education.’ By contrast, the current Common Core focuses exclusively on objective facts.

So, before opening their textbooks on American history or Algebra and launching into a mostly one-way dialog with the sage on the stage doing most of the talking, and the audience being passive, why not arrange the students into a Socratic Circle first and task them with answering a simple question – Why is American History Important? Implicit in this exercise is the answer to the real question – Why is American History important to me? It also works for why Thinking, Algebra, Physics, Biology, the Arts or Reading is important to an individual.

With the teacher, acting as a guide on the side, the students appoint a leader and then ask and answer as many questions as possible beginning with the words who, what, why, where, when and how. Once the answers are asked and answered, they collate the most popular answers, and all them agree – by vote – on a collective answer.   

Now the student(s) have bought-in to why American History, Thinking, Geography or Algebra – or anything else is important – in their lives. This individual ‘buy-in’ and the skills learned while doing the exercise is precisely what is missing in our schools. And it is exactly what businesses desperately need. They want people who can think critically in a group on a problem – almost always a subjective problem with no right or wrong answer – and clearly articulate an optimal solution. If employers only needed factual answers they would turn to software: and increasingly they are. Wetware has a different purpose – to grapple with problems to which there is no objective, provable answer – just a well thought-out point of view or opinion or thesis.

I have developed such a method: The Terego Method™. It is available at no cost for schools. Click to see this narrated video.

It is an investment of seven minutes of your time to discover how you can teach students to think for themselves, and in teams, and therefore BUY-IN.

Alex Terego. After 40 successful years in the hi-tech business, during which he participated in all phases of computing, beginning with IBM and culminating in selling his voice mail company, Alex became an early thought-leader in 21st Century skills development. He developed his Terego Method™ when teaching Critical Thinking at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Eller Graduate School of Business at the University of Arizona.

Follow me on Twitter @alex_terego

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