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.
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?
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,