The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Today’s Schools Are Mostly Robot Factories

on June 24, 2017

Today’s post is the revision of a piece I wrote a few years ago that was first published in Education Week.  I decided to repeat it here because what I wrote then is even more true and dangerous now.  I hope readers will appreciate it and continue to fight for the return of schools that serve the needs of students rather than the vanity of politicians.


As a retired teacher, school principal, and educational researcher, I have been visiting a lot of classrooms recently, and, for the most part, I don’t like what I see. Many of the once excellent teachers I knew have been reduced to automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills, and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curricula have become something teachers “deliver” like a pizza and students swallow whole, whether or not they like the ingredients.

Kindergartens that used to be places where children learned social behavior, sang songs, built cities with blocks, played store, and expressed their feelings with crayons and paint, are now cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one kindergarten I visited, children recited all the words in their little primers without recognizing that they were telling a story.

In a first-grade classroom I watched children march around the room at mid-morning because there was no longer a recess to refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus everyday and to memorize such words as “onomatopoeia” and “metaphor” even though they were unlikely to use them until many years later.

In the upper elementary grades I saw both English and math taught by formulae. Students were also given a list of the parts of a standard essay, told to use them in order, and to begin their own essays with a question or a surprising statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful only when you need to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle).

Many school districts have also adopted summer homework policies requiring students to read a prescribed list of books and write reports about them. This past summer my grandnephew, who was entering 9th grade, had to write a legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther King, although he had not been taught anything about that particular writing form or that great man in 8th grade.

It is clear to me that under the rule of the Common Core Standards, created by non teaching “experts”, who will never be tested on them, school life has become more onerous and less appealing for all students.

In many schools algebra has been moved down to the 8th grade, and geometry, always a tenth grade elective in the past, is now required of all ninth graders. Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” which I read as a graduate student, is on the 9th grade recommended reading list. Although, the knowledge, skills, and books in the standards are, on the whole, academically valid, they are now being taught to students two to four years too young to understand or appreciate them.

All this has happened because the politicians who now control America’s schools have adopted the worst aspects of European and Asian education, which were chosen to maintain social class boundaries in those societies.

Out of a misguided belief that students’ test scores represent a country’s greatness and, perhaps, out of wounded pride; our government leaders appear determined to convert our once great public schools into robot factories and to extinguish the creativity and perseverance that have fueled our country’s greatness for more than 200 years.

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