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Monday, January 10, 2005


Week 3: The Education of J'myle Koretz

“Education would be much more effective if its purpose were to ensure that by the time they leave school every student should know how much they don't know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.”

—Sir William Haley

It seems to me that James got closest to the root of the matter when he reminded us that “the current educational system...Appeared only about a century ago” and asked “What are the goals of education?”

I am always in favor of radical solutions, because “radical” means “to get to the root of the matter” and we should, when addressing an issue, go to the root of the matter and ask ourselves the Fundamental Questions about what a school system or religion or new speed bump on Grover Street is all about. And James has asked a Fundamental Question when he asks, what do we want from our educational system?

Since no one asks that question, it's not often answered. But when you ask the party operatives what the GOP or Democrat stance on education is, you get the sense that both are interested in identical outcomes. On the Republican side, they want every student to be able to pass the same test and memorize the same facts, and generally bring every public school a little bit closer to being what Derek called a “factory for turning out happy little worker bees.” The Democrats often scare me even more, because they don't want kids to be able to regurgitate facts without thinking; they want our children to regurgitate ideas without thinking. While these ideas liberals want to indoctrinate are good ideas—tolerance, diversity and so on—to simply repeat an idea without understanding it is worse than useless.

Even James doesn't quite get there when he tries to answer the Fundamental Question:

Historically speaking, the goals of education in this country are to (1) equip everyone with the skills necessary to appropriate the texts once decipherable only to the literate minority; (2) offer everyone the possibility of social mobility by virtue of their access to education...; (3) teach everyone that the only thing we have in common as Americans is our ability to argue about what it means to be American.

Having thus summed up the traditional answers to the Fundamental Question, James moves on to evaluate how well we're accomplishing those goals without asking if they're good goals, or if they're flawed or simply incomplete. At the end of his post, he even suggests that there is a better answer to the fundamental question, when tell us that the best teachers say “I am here to show these kids how to think, not what to think.”

That touches on what the answer should be. Schools, above all else, should attempt to equip our children with the ability to think critically, with the ability to reason. All else follows. James' goals—literacy, social mobility, civic discourse—can only be achieved in schools whose pupils are able to think critically. Solving every problem on Sidal's laundry list is meaningless if students are still unable to think for themselves. Find students who can do that, and solving those problems becomes much easier, because the students will be right there with you.

Even the most stubborn problems in our schools disappear when the students are able to think critically. A student with the ability to reason can be safely taught evolution and creationism, because that student will figure out which one is science and which one is “science” all on her own. Don't try and teach which side of any controversial issue is “right”—a student who can reason needs only a quick overview and some op-eds from different sides, and he can make up his own mind.

So how exactly do we do this, how to we teach children to reason? Well, we must shift the focus from high school to elementary school. The basic ability to reason must be done in the first few grades at the latest. By seventh grade you need only a few vigilant parents to try and keep Principal “Barbie-Wannabe” on her toes (maybe even get her fired, if you're lucky) and enough cash to keep the student:teacher ratio at no more than 20:1—twenty-five, tops. A bad teacher with twelve students will teacher better than a great teacher with fifty-four. If any of you doubt that for a second, I will give you a tour of my old high school and prove it.

Okay, so, we're thinking about kids still in their formative years. Now what? Consider that TCL reminisces about field trips to museums as kindling his interest in learning. I, too, credit something outside the schools: the weekly story-time at my local library. By taking me every week until I was nine or ten, my mother almost single-handedly gave me my love of reading.

In school, my best teacher was Ms. Sharp, who, as a third-grade teacher, repeatedly ditched the curricula and would take us outside on a warm spring day to mess around in the shrubbery all afternoon. Years later, I found out later that our bureaucratic principal took her aside to complain about that. Ms. Sharp grabbed two of my classmates and proceeded to have them prove that they knew far more than our principal did about worms.

We learned more than just worms. We learned that facts don't just exist in a book, they exist in the real world, all round us. That what we get in our classes can sometimes mean more than just a good grade. In high school, a lot of kids from my elementary school were in the AP and IB classes. You could still tell which ones had Ms. Sharp in third grade, and which ones had someone else.

My point with these examples? Well, everyone is different and will respond to different things. Different “sparks” will light the flame of reason in each child's mind. And this has nothing to with innate intelligence or ability. Putting the advanced kids in their own program (G&T for Sidal was ELP [Extended Learning Program] in my district) doesn't help a lot until kids are ten or eleven. What we need for four and five year olds is something the GOP values: local control.

Local control is looked down on by liberals, and for good reason. Too often it means allowing a small group of local busybodies and Protectors of Decency to hijack control of your children's school. Utah was a lighting rod for such inanity. A teacher was suspended for not allowing a girl to read the Book of Mormon during free reading time. My drama teacher nearly got pay docked simply for attending an independent-from-the-school show put on by some of his students because it had profanity in it. My father's best friend was in a band that wrote a song about another incident—guess why the Protectors of Decency tried to get this teacher fired: “Spanish Fork High School took back Wendy Weaver/Wouldn't she be happier/teaching in Beaver?”

But what local control can and should be is an acknowledgement that before you can have standardized tests and achievement expectations, you must first get those “sparks” I talked about. As many as possible, to help as many students as possible. And because every community is different, they all need as much no-strings money and—more importantly—curricula-free days as possible to take the first graders and Head Start kids out to do the unique things that only a on-the-ground teacher can know about. Kids in semi-rural areas of South Eastern Pennsylvania are close enough to Philly's Regional Rail that a teacher with some cash and time can take them downtown to see skyscrapers for the first time. A teacher at P.S. 608 in Brooklyn can take her class to a community garden no Washington bureaucrat will ever know exists. And, of course, a particularly Sharp teacher needs only the time to take her class outside to play in the dirt.

Damn I picked good people. I'll pick yours apart later when I kick over Dereks anthill :-p
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