Some Thoughts on Secondary Education

Although the Bush administration used to think every child should have a college prep education in high school, it just isn’t so.


The reality is that there is only about one white-collar job for every four blue-collar jobs. What is needed in today’s high schools is a dual path system that provides college prep on the one hand, and vocational training on the other. Students should be tested and counseled before entering high school, and assigned to one path or the other. (France has such a system, and it has proven to be very successful.)

It was a mistake to gradually eliminate even what little vocational training was included in high school curriculums half a century ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, high schools provided some vocational training in the form of “shop” and “home management” classes. Today, almost all vocational training has been eliminated, much to the detriment of society. For those four out of five students who will not be going on to university studies, high school is a dead-end road.

In the Great State of California, spending for education seems to be a pariah. Per capita spending for education is only about $7,673 per capita, whereas the nationwide average is $9,136, and some states spend over twice that. In 2002, many news sources were reporting the huge need California has for teachers, citing that within 10 years, we would need over 100,000 new teachers statewide. What followed? State budget cuts and teacher layoffs. At one time, California had some of the best schools in the nation, but now ranks about 46th out of the 50 states.


There is no doubt that the California school system has many excellent, dedicated teachers, but it is a mistake to assume that every teacher is of that high caliber. There are no reliable statistics available to measure teacher competency, but a casual observation of teachers in the secondary system reveals problems which point to teacher incompetence as a significant factor in the high failure and drop out rates in schools today. Students complain of boring, ineffective teachers who waste a lot of time in the classroom on busy-work; teachers who waste time talking about themselves; teachers who spend little time with the students, giving worksheets and busy-work instead; and teachers who give tests for materials not covered in class.

My personal observation is that most secondary level teachers teach only to Bloom’s second level. Lessons are often inadequately prepared and the students are bored in class. Harry K. Wong, Ph.D., says that if you want to increase student learning and achievement, increase the time the student is working. Furthermore, he says that if the student cannot demonstrate learning or achievement, the student has not failed—teachers have failed the student.

Too many teachers do not put the student to work. A boring lecture followed by an in-class reading assignment or worksheet is often all the teacher has to offer. In West Valley High School, the “block” schedule, in which classes were 1½ hours long, was abandoned for the traditional class length of 53 minutes, plus a 7 minute passing period. Was this because teachers were unable to engage students for that length of time?

A well-organized plan, which includes teacher instruction and guided student work assignments, is essential. The teacher cannot put the students to a task, then go sit at his desk. The teacher must be involved at every moment with the ongoing work. Group work is an important part of student participation because it allows the students to help each other in small social groups in which some peer pressure works to motivate group members. Teachers must outline to the students what is planned for the day, present instruction, do work, recap the lesson, and test only on the material actually studied. Homework should be designed to reinforce the lesson for that day. Why is that such a hard concept for teachers to understand?

Teachers complain that students are using technology to cheat on tests. Really? Where was the teacher while the students were taking the test? Gone, that’s where. While the teacher is gone, the students can pull out their cell phones and exchange answers or look things up. How do you stop this? Take away cell phones before a test? No. You stop this when the teacher is in the classroom walking the aisles between the students, watching what they are doing, and answering questions that come up. That’s where the teacher is supposed to be during a test.

What the California school system needs are not English majors, but teachers of English; not science majors, but teachers of science; not history majors, but teachers of history. The Praxis test for Mathematics will quickly convince anyone that what California wants for a math teacher is someone on a par with Professor Stephen Hawking. What California really needs is someone with a proficiency in teaching, and enough education in math to proficiently teach the secondary grade levels.


There are only two learning styles that are important in education. Howard Garner defined a list of “multiple intelligences,” which at last count totaled nine. Other researchers, picking up on Garner’s idea, have suggested even more. One researcher defined over 150. In reality, there are only two that are of any importance to education, according to the research of Linda Silverman, Ph.D. She classifies learners as “auditory-sequential” and “visual-spatial.” In our society, about two-thirds of the population are auditory-sequential, and the other third are visual-spatial.

For the last couple of centuries, our entire educational system has been geared to auditory-sequential students. Since visual-spatial students make up about a third of the students, teachers would (and still do) blame their failure as a teacher on the visual-spatial students. For example, visual-spatial students cannot rote memorize. Since so many teachers depend on drill and repetition to rote memorize facts (Bloom’s first level), and then test on the terms and facts unrelated to the whole picture, visual-spatial students fail. Teachers often remark that, “Johnny seems bright, but he’s lazy.” The real truth is that Johnny may be another Stephen Hawking, but he will definitely fail that teacher’s class. Remember that Einstein failed his math classes, and his professor even went to the trouble of writing letters to prevent him from getting a job. (Einstein was visual-spatial.)

Thinks primarily in words Thinks primarily in pictures
Is a step-by-step learner Is a whole-part learner
Learns by trial and error Learns concepts all at once
Is an analytical thinker Is a good synthesizer
Attends well to details Sees the big picture; may miss details
Learns phonics easily Learns whole words easily
Can sound out spelling words Must visualize words to spell them
Excels at rote memorization Fails at rote memorization; learns best by seeing relationships
May need some repetition to reinforce learning Learns concepts permanently; is turned off by drill and repetition


It is shameful that too many “honors” classes are no more than regular classes with double the homework. Honors classes should be about enrichment, not extra work. Remember that the students are there because they have already proven themselves to be good students. Poor teachers are wasting all that raw talent because they themselves are mediocre and have no idea what to do with such advanced thinkers. This is possibly the greatest of all the sins of our modern school system.

It is a fact that the best students teach themselves more than they are taught. They learn in spite of the system, not because of the system. The schools are not shy about taking credit for the accomplishments of those students, however.


There is more to learning than just English, math, science, and history. Nevertheless, many other programs have been phased out in today’s schools. Part of the reason is funding; California provides money for building schools, but will not provide the money for top-rated teachers. Another reason is the “No Child Left Behind” act, which is causing a shift from a balanced education to only those subjects on which the school will be tested, i.e., the “big four.”


The permissiveness of the ‘60s and ‘70s combined with the political correctness of the ‘80s and ‘90s has left the schools with students who believe they have the right to do whatever they want in school, and teachers who are almost powerless to counter that attitude. Almost any disciplinary action may be met with an angry backlash from parents. Innocent but failed attempts at classroom management may be met with firing (at least for those with no tenure). Teachers are forced to walk on thin ice, both powerless to act, and yet held responsible for the outcome. It is a lose-lose situation for everyone.


The only way the school system can be improved is by radically changing the way we think about education in the US. High schools must be reorganized into two tracks: college prep and vocational training, with an estimated 4/5ths of the students going into vocational training. Teachers must be trained as teachers first and subject masters second. Teachers must be trained to teach both learning styles, auditory-sequential and visual-spatial. Honor students need to be rewarded with classes that enrich them, not waste their time on additional busy-work. The law needs to be revised to introduce more discipline into the system, and give teachers real power to manage their classrooms, and administrators real power to administer schools and districts effectively. And last, but not least, the Arts have to be taught as part of a well balanced curriculum.

Dr. Michael J. Welch
October 17, 2006