The Salem Witches and American Education

Although every textbook account that mentions the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts enumerates the punishments meted out—none of which involved burning at the stake—many Americans persist in the notion that the Salem witches were executed in that manner. Witness this indignant comment I read in a letter to the editor condemning the US public’s penchant for violent entertainment:

Think about the Salem witch trials where innocent people were burned at the stake before cheering crowds.

No witches were burned at Salem.

Fact: Twenty people were executed on the charge of witchcraft at Salem in 1692, but none by burning.  Nineteen of the accused were hanged. One was pressed to death while being tortured. In addition, about thirteen died in prison.

The persistent belief that witches were burned at Salem is symptomatic of the inefficiency of American education. Piling on annual tests, promoting the lopsided Common Core, and equipping kindergartners with iPads will do little to raise the effectiveness of public education for the bulk of American schoolchildren as long as exit exams are not required at the completion of each level of transition: third grade, eighth grade, and twelfth grade.

Note: By exit exams, I don’t mean the superficial instruments in current use, the ones made up of multiple-choice questions designed to test “skills” at the expense of content.  I mean cumulative exams designed to test the retention of specific learning from all previous grades.

Americans are conditioned to short-term learning. Unfortunately for short-term learners, some of the material taught in grades K-12 needs to be embedded in the individual’s long-term memory as the basis of adult competency in an advanced culture.

The retention of the facts of American history is not the only casualty of the short-term-memory approach to education in US classrooms. A more serious victim of this superficial methodology is the motherboard of all future learning: basic literacy in Standard English.

For several years I have responded to questions about English at Many of the questions asked by adult readers are about usage that should have been mastered by the end of the eighth grade. These are readers who have completed high school or above. That they are still asking is not their fault. It’s the fault of inefficient teaching and testing in the public schools, beginning with kindergarten.

No witches were burned at Salem, and no high school graduate should still be holding a pencil like a ski pole or mixing up lose and loose.