The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools

The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools

by Martin L. Gross

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Never before have public school students been so poorly educated.  On national exams, almost 40 percent of fourth graders are reading at "below basic" levels, and in international contests in math and science, our seventeen-year-olds score near the bottom.

In a shocking expose of the Educational Establishment, Martin L. Gross describes how the typical

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Never before have public school students been so poorly educated.  On national exams, almost 40 percent of fourth graders are reading at "below basic" levels, and in international contests in math and science, our seventeen-year-olds score near the bottom.

In a shocking expose of the Educational Establishment, Martin L. Gross describes how the typical teacher is academically inferior and trained in dubious "educational psychology" and faddish  "whole language" methods.  Indeed, most teachers and administrators come from the bottom third of their class and are outscored on the SAT tests by their own college-bound students.  The curriculum is so weak that only one in five students ever take trigonometry, physics, or geography in high school.  The usual remedies-from smaller class sizes to federal aid-fail because the Etablishment is intent on maintaining both control and lower academic standards.  Lucid, persuasive, and meticulously researched, The Conspiracy of Ignorance asks- and answers—the questions educators are afraid to ask.  This book is desperately needed if American schoolchildren are to prosper in today's competitive world.

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Editorial Reviews

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Book Review

Few of us were prepared for Martin Gross's The Conspiracy of Ignorance and its revelations of unprepared teachers and squandered academic standards. For instance, how many parents knew that most teachers and administrators come from the bottom-third of their class and are outscored on SAT's by their own college-bound students? In hardcover, this educational indictment drew praise from parents' groups and worried glances from hidebound administrators.

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The Decline of Teaching
and Learning

A large group of eager American 8th graders from two hundred schools coast-to-coast were excited about pitting their math skills against youngsters from several other nations.

The math bee included 24,000 thirteen-year-olds from America, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Spain, Ireland, and four Canadian provinces, all chosen at random and given the same 63-question exam in their native language.

It was a formidable contest, and the American kids felt primed and ready to show off their mathematical stuff. In addition to the math queries, all the students were asked to fill out a yes-no response to the simple statement "I am good at math."

With typical American confidence, even bravado, our kids responded as their teachers would have hoped. Buoyed up by the constant ego building in school, two-thirds of the American kids answered yes. The emphasis on "self-esteem" - which permeates American schoolhouses-was apparently ready to pay off.

Meanwhile, one of their adversaries, the South Korean youngsters, were more guarded about their skills, perhaps to the point where their self-esteem was jeopardized. Only one-fourth of these young math students answered yes to the same query on competence.

Then the test began in earnest. Many of the questions were quite simple, even for 8th graders. One multiple-choice query asked: "Here are the ages of five children: 13, 8, 6, 4, 4. What is the average age of these children?" Even adults, long out of the classroom, would have no trouble with that one. You merely addup the numbers and divide by 5. The answer, an average age of 7, was one of the printed choices.

How did the confident American kids do on that no-brainer, on which we would expect a near-100 percent correct response? The result was ego-piercing. Sixty percent of our youngsters got it wrong.

When the overall test results came in, the Americans were shocked. Their team came in last, while the South Koreans won the contest. The most interesting equation was one of paradox. The math scores were in inverse ratio to the self-esteem responses. The Americans lost in math while they vanquished their opponents in self-confidence. The South Koreans, on the other hand, lost the esteem contest, but won the coveted math prize.

This bears an uncanny relationship to the American Education Establishment, those in charge of teaching our children. They are self-confident, even arrogant, about their modern theories and methods of teaching, which they believe are doing an excellent job. But once again, self-esteem, this time of the teaching vocation, is challenged by the results.

If our children are not doing well - and they are not - are there other examples to demonstrate a shortfall in student performance? There are many, including contests that show us regularly vanquished by youngsters from around the globe.

In February 1998, the U.S. Department of Education issued the discouraging results of American high school seniors in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a worldwide competition among twenty-one nations.

" U.S. twelfth graders performed below the international average and among the lowest of the 21 TIMSS countries on the assessment of mathematical general knowledge," they reported.

This was no exaggeration. The American student scored nineteenth out of the twenty-one nations, doing so poorly in math that they only outperformed teenagers from two underdeveloped countries-Cyprus and South Africa. Dishearteningly, their scores were 20 percent lower than those of students in the Netherlands, a nation that must live on its brainpower - as America might someday be forced to do.

But aside from these defeats in international mental battles, how do our kids do in terms of general knowledge, responses that adults can relate to? After all, we were once in elementary and high school ourselves and took similar courses.

The best estimates of schoolchildren's learning skills come from the "Report Card to the Nation and the States," one of the few successful federal efforts in education. Conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "NAEP" tests in reading, math, science, history, and geography provide biennial scores that give us a rude insight into what's really happening in American schoolrooms.

What do they show? Very simply, the results are discouraging, confirmation of appalling ignorance across the academic spectrum.

From the American history quizzes, it is apparent that youngsters are not properly taught the story of their nation. Two out of three seventeen-year-olds, most ready to go on to college, did not know the meaning of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Less than half the 16,000 high school seniors tested recognized Patrick Henry's defiant challenge, "Give me liberty or give me death."

Even fewer teenagers-punished by a lax, unfocused schoolhouse-knew of the existence of the War of 1812, the Marshall Plan that saved Europe, or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

In science, high schoolers displayed frightening ignorance in a nation whose future, in peace and war, depends heavily on technology. The majority could not figure out that a shadow cast by the rising sun would fall to the west. Only 1 in 8 of the 1 1th graders were judged even "adequate" on a test of Analytic Writing. On a map of the world, most could not find Southeast Asia.

But students are only half the school equation. If they are not smart enough, or nearly as smart as parents believe, at least teachers can hold their own in the world of intelligence and knowledge. Correct?

Hardly. In Massachusetts, in April 1998, the state department of education introduced a new examination for the licensing of would-be teachers, almost all of whom had received a bachelor of education degree shortly before.

The test, as we shall later see, was not designed to challenge the teacher candidates at particularly high levels. But it did expect that they could at least write a lucid sentence. If so, everyone involved was disappointed. Of the 1,800 test-takers, 59 percent - 3 out of every 5 - flunked...

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Meet the Author

Martin L. Gross, has written more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Government Racket: Washington Waste from A to Z, which began the serious debate over capricious and wasteful government, and A Call for Revolution, as well as The End of Sanity, The Medical Racket and The Conspiracy of Ignorance. His 1995 bestseller, The Tax Racket, exposed the excesses of the IRS and asked for its elimination. He has testified before the U. S. Congress five times. Three of his prior nonfiction works, The Brain Watchers, The Doctors, and The Psychological Society, stimulated public debate in the fields of psychological testing, medicine, and psychiatry, resulting in Congressional hearings and reforms. Mr. Gross has been a member of the faculty of The New School for Social Research and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Science at New York University. He lives and works in suburban Connecticut.

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