Friday, March 5, 2010

On Education

Selected Short Subjects

Picking up somewhere near where we left off, I offer these thoughts for your consideration. If you are unsure where that was, please look here.
- Porcupine


If we are to have any meaningful discussion about public education, there is one question we need to answer first: What is it specifically that we expect our schools to do? Until there is a general agreement on this, any debate will be difficult or even impossible.


Alarmists love to tell us how the United States is "falling behind" other countries, usually in math or science. This makes for good headlines, but is it true? Comparing education among different countries is notoriously difficult. Many times, students are evaluated in "the last year of secondary school." In some countries, this is at age 20 or 21, not 17 or 18 as it is here. These students have had two or three more years of study.

Another very important consideration is who studies what? In many countries, such as India, there is no free public education. Often, education is run on an exam system: continued study in any field is dependent on passage of exams, usually given around grades 7 and 10. What this means is students who study higher math represent the best math students only. We suffer by comparison as we require most students to complete several years of high school math.

Let us also remember that countries such as China groom their mathematicians as carefully as they groom their gymnasts. Think about it.


American public education is somewhat unique in how broad it is. In general, we expect our graduates to complete fairly advanced courses across a wide range of disciplines. Beyond that, given the rise in standardized testing, we expect students to do quite well. In some cases, average test scores are expected to improve annually. This is unrealistic, and sets up even the best schools for eventual failure. All children cannot be above average.

Furthermore, consider this: beyond reading, writing, and basic math, how much of your own education do you, personally, actually use? When was the last time you factored a quadratic equation? Calculated the definite integral of a function? Diagrammed a sentence? Discussed imagery in King Lear? Explained the function of mitochondria? Remembered the Alamo? Declined a Latin noun? I would imagine, for most of us, not recently.

I do not think it is useless to study these things. However, much of our education is a form of enrichment. I would suggest that setting the standard of learning too high is counterproductive. We are not all destined to be expert in every field.


One advantage to an exam-based system is that it allows students to focus on their strengths. I do not see anything wrong with letting a child concentrate his efforts on what he does well.


My father holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics. He taught high school math for thirty years. In the early 90's, he was invited, along with others like him, to prepare math curriculum standards for Massachusetts. The panel worked for two years and submitted their recommendations. Try this multiple-choice question:

How many of these recommendations were implemented?

a) zero
b) none
c) not a one
d) a whole number between -1 and 1

Choose the BEST answer.


For all the talk of "no child left behind" and a "race to the top," high-stakes standardized testing inevitably leads to mediocrity. All teaching begins to focus on helping the average student pass the test. Low-level students are either given remedial help, excused from testing, or prevented from taking the test; for example, if a test is administered in 10th grade, certain low-level students will be retained in the 9th grade. High-level students are ignored. No child left behind ?


A further example: here is a random sentence from my son's 2nd grade-level reader:
When it got dark, Patrick went home.
Here is a random sentence from a book he actually enjoyed:
Almost identical to its slightly older sister ship, the RMS Olympic - the only difference was that the forward A-deck promenades on the Titanic were enclosed to better protect passengers from the weather - the Titanic was truly vast.
All funding for gifted education will be cut in our city this year.

That book on the Titanic came from the library. Library funding has been slashed too. Quick everyone, let's "race to the top."


It is interesting to note that private schools are exempt from and want no part of any kind of mandatory standardized testing. Why do you think this might be?


Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, there is a lot of money to be made in standardized curricula and high-stakes testing. Did you know that the Bush family is very close to the McGraw family, of McGraw-Hill fame? No? Remember Neil Bush, from the Silverado S & L? He has a new career in educational software. Interesting.

It's probably just a coincidence.


Well, it's Obama's turn now. Maybe things will improve? Maybe not. It doesn't look too good at the moment. I'm not holding my breath. By the way, notice the source of that linked article. Now tell me with a straight face that Obama is a socialist.

What's that? I thought so.


If we are to have any meaningful discussion about public education, there is one question we need to answer first: What is it specifically that we expect our schools to do? Until there is a general agreement on this, any debate will be difficult or even impossible. Why not try to answer this question for yourself ? It's harder than it seems.

An aside: You are free to disagree with my opinions. However, I attended public schools almost exclusively. Do I seem uneducated to you? Did the schools fail ?

I hope you have enjoyed these Selected Short Subjects as much as I have. I'm going to take some aspirin now. Maybe a bicarb as well. Give them some thought. Ruminate. And remember: wasn't it the truth I told ye?

Very Truly Yours,




Land of shimp said...

Good morning, Cricket (or Porcupine, as the case may be). Here I am, wading through the morning, my brain still in need of coffee, and you go ahead an introduce a subject in which brevity is nearly impossible. I feel certain this will be lenghty.

This poses some interesting questions, and added some information of which I was unaware. Specifically I did not know that children in other countries were frequently older, had a broader education, or were the cream of the crop in terms of available students.

My parents were both educators at the collegiate level, but both focused on humanities/liberal arts. Quite honestly, I still use a lot of my liberal-arts-based education almost daily, but that's an active choice on my part. The subject material interests me to this day.

In my husband's line of work he uses algebraic equations almost daily. I think that your point applies to many though, I haven't used much math since the last day I had to study it, unless we're going to count the basic math of balancing a checkbook.

Not that long ago, there was a guest on Colbert's show, flogging his most recent book (as most of them are) and the subject was the public school system, and the need for reform. Not because we were flagging behind other countries, but because the public school system was initially modeled on the need to produce factory workers (which is why so much is done at the ring of a bell) and where independent thought, independent participation in the process was not encouraged. He also mentioned ties to the prison system in mapping out the structure of public schools.

So there are two points that I think are interesting. Does the educational system encourage children to learn without questioning, and participating? Clearly that's something that applies more to humanities, but it also applies to science and questioning the information presented.

Most of that is the realm of higher education, but there is an argument to be made that public classrooms tend to turn out young people who have not been encouraged to question, think through, and examine information. Rather they accept as fact what they are taught.

In answer to the "What is it we wish our schools to do?" question, I think most would answer that we want schools to help prepare our children to be part of our society as a whole. To be armed with enough information, and knowledge, that as they leave that system, they can then be ready to explore their own gifts, find their professions, contribute to the greater whole of society.

I clearly ignore most of the rules of structure when it comes to writing, by the way.

Land of shimp said...

I don't think it is the "What?" that is difficult for most people to answer. In the "What?" the answer is a rather simplistic: to be armed with a functional understanding of a wealth of subjects that will enable that individual to then explore their own gifts, in order to contribute to this society.

It's the "How?" that mystifies most, and that would include me. How is this accomplished? Are we approaching this in the correct manner?

Most people are products of the public education system, as I am. As we face challenges as a country, problems that we have, I've noticed that people in general have a rigidity to their approach to this challenge. They accept what they are told, no matter how dubious the source, or outlandish the claim.

Our children learn by rote, not by exploration. I don't know if there is a way to change that approach at the educational level, and I do think that it is important for parents to participate. We can't just ask our children what they have learned, but also what they personally think of that information, and why they believe something came to be.

I thought the author on The Colbert Report was an interesting fellow, and the questions raised were ones that need to be addressed.

In the current, "What do we want our public schools to do?" it isn't just about how those schools are structured, but also, "Are we expecting too much, and what is our role within education?"

You're a product of the school system, so am I. I don't think I'm particularly rigid in my exploration of ideas, and examination of possibilities. That didn't come from the school system entirely, but it was part of what I learned there.

However, I wasn't raised in the typical school structure. I did next to nothing at the ring of a bell. I was placed in a special program when I was six-years-old and remained in it throughout school. I think a lot of people are the products of those "gifted" programs, although they've apparently fallen out of fashion due to budgeting cuts. They featured smaller classrooms, and a higher level of participation by students.

If we want our classrooms to do more, and our teachers to impart more, there will be a cost.

That tends to be the answer to most things funded by our taxes. We want them to do much, with as little funding as possible.

Sorry for the ramble that ventured far and wide, it's just a question that doesn't have a simple answer. "What?" "How?" "Are we willing to place a high enough value on education to properly fund it?" "Can reform of any meaningful kind be accomplished with our current budgets, and if not, from where do we find the money?" "Is our current structure, based partially in control factors so flawed at this point that it impedes us?"

We have to start somewhere in answering these questions, and I'm not sure where to start. I think I'd start with "Are we happy with the results at this point?"

Land of shimp said...

You mentioned that you do not seem uneducated, and that's true. How much of that is due to your own choices, Cricket? I don't strike most people as being dim either, or ignorant, but part of that is I never chose to stop learning. It was a choice I made as an adult.

Then we can go even farther with this, and talk about the current moves towards what is commonly referred to as anti-intellectualism. That currently, it seems, those that appear to be smart, well-informed, articulate, or knowledgeable make others uncomfortable. Stand out in a bad way.

Our entire societal take on knowledge, the role of education, and the worth of learning past formal education is a thing worth examining.

As I said, I sort of grabbed a hold of this and decided to start flinging it far and wide. Now I'm going to bring it back: our approach to knowledge, innate intelligence, and the worth of that in society starts both at home and most pointedly, in public schools.

Are we failing to a certain extent? When it is considered somehow embarrassing to be viewed as highly intelligent? Yes, we've failed somewhere in the basic value we put on learning, knowledge and intelligence.

Oh brother, yeah, brevity wasn't in me this morning :-)

Cricket said...

Dearest Shimp - Oh, my. Your comment is 50% longer than my post.

You're wonderful. Don't ever change.

One point I will address: "You mentioned that you do not seem uneducated, and that's true. How much of that is due to your own choices, Cricket?" Certainly, my choices have had an effect. For some reason, though, questions like this are rarely asked when students fail. The mantra seems to be: if the student has failed, the teacher has failed.

As a society, we seem to be very inconsistent regarding the role of a teacher. We succeed by virtue of our own efforts, but we fail due to poor teaching? Can this be so?

Land of shimp said...

I am a stranger to brevity, Cricket.

In terms of blaming the teacher, I don't do that...but then I have teachers in the family. Currently I think we expect far too much of teachers. They are to keep order, deal with kids who feel ill-done to if removed from texting, or phones. Try to hold the attention of a group of kids who have grown up in an atmosphere where unless you're multi-tasking, clearly you're wasting your time.

There's also our approach to building self-esteem that, while good in theory, doesn't value actual achievement much. Frankly, my son was not a good student for the last two years of high school, but did exceptionally well in first semester of college. His teachers pretty much universally adored him because he's naturally pleasant, and polite. His poor grades were entirely about what he chose not to do.

One of his algebra teachers was sweating bullets over the fact that he failed a semester. I mean, this poor woman was throwing bizarre extra credit project his way that had nothing to do with the course because she just hated the thought of giving him a failing grade. When we had that parent teacher conference, she apologized up one side of the room, and down the other.

I felt terrible for her, told her to fail him, as that was the grade he earned, and that he had to learn that being charming was not going to pave his way in life. That when his butt was parked in a summer school seat for two months, that was about the only thing that would get him to rethink his choices.

Cricket, she'd been teaching for twenty years, and was astounded by what I was saying because she'd never, ever had a parent say, "Listen, this isn't you. It's him. He knows he's nice, and he thinks that will be enough. Fail him, he's earned it." I'm positive I'm not the only parent who had a kid earn a failing grade in twenty years.

That's not about a failure in teaching, that's about a societal approach to how we deal with the concept of failing. My son's GPA for his first semester of college was a 3.75. He hated the hell out of that summer school course and learned something very valuable from the negative consequences of his own actions.

Truthfully, the teacher who decided to cowboy up and stamp a big F on a truly abysmal semester on his part taught his something far more valuable than algebra. I just wish it hadn't been so hard on her. I also wish she hadn't been so terrified of telling me.

I know, I know, another long story, but it illustrates a point I'm trying to make: that teacher was afraid of how I'd react, and how she didn't want to fail a nice kid, because he's just that nice of person. Most of the parents she faced cared more about the appearance of passing, than the actual possession of the knowledge. That's about our society, not about the educational system. It's also about how we are somehow schooled to blame everyone but ourselves when we don't do well.

Don't get me wrong, I love that Flint is a truly nice kid, and that people like him. It's a good skill to have, but it isn't the same thing as an actual achievement. It's also possible to separate the two, "Kid, you're a great person, but at present, you're a lousy student. Enjoy summer school." was a pared down version of what I told him.

But there's something there, isn't there? The world was never going to crumble because he flunked a semester, but nearly everyone outside of this house reacted as if it would.

We really do have to figure out a way that the actual achievement means more than the appearance of it. Not just teachers, our appearance obsessed society.

lime said...

well shimp has some long and meaty remarks so i will keep mine brief. NCLB is an atrocity. the hobbling of gifted students is something i have witnessed personally. No Child Gets Ahead is more like it. We live in an are with a massive annual influx from the NYC/metro NJ area. just trying to keep up with getting those kids up to speed is a big challenge when the state won't even let us build schools at a rate to keep up with exploding class sizes. and then we get penalized as failing to make adequate yearly progress because kids coming to us with inadequate educations are expected to pass these tests after we've had very little time with them. it's absurd for the gifted students, it's absurd for the struggling ones. it's a colossal waste of time for the rest of them.

Pauline said...

Teach children to read, to express themselves succinctly, to think critically and to cipher. Encourage them to be independent. Then introduce them to the wide world of reference information. They should be able to take it from there.