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Saturday, January 15, 2005

 

Responce to Week 3 posts - The CO

First TCL

Perhaps if we spend more money on things like education and tools for education (libraries, museums, art, music and culture), we might get more kids interested in learning on their own. Back in Illinois, my school took us on field trips to Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It got me interested in learning about things outside of school, and instead of sitting in class, staring at the chalkboard for 6 hours a day, we got to watch SCUBA divers feed sharks, and look at rocks that fell from space! I became extremely interested in geology for a number of years, all because of trips to museums. In turn, I went to the library to learn more about xeolinths, lava flows and geologic faults, which nurtured an interest about natural disasters and the earth in general, which is a hobby that I still pursue to this day.


I do agree that more hands on and participatory education is needed in the form of field trips, unfortunately with this you are again running into a nasty area. America, as I touched on is as much or more a fear ruled society as it is reason ruled one. The odds of a terrorist attack, or even ‘ordinary’ accidents are miniscule, yet many if not most schools have either severely curtailed or eliminated such trip since 9/11.

Now James

Our CO and the Cunning Linguist try very hard to escape the gravitational pull of this huge planet, this personal experience, but in the end they, too, crash and burn.


I beg to differ. My driving has got to be the closest thing to wingless flight one can accomplish, and I’ve not had an accident in oh, hours.

That is the genius of public education in America. We did have something in common back then, and we still do, no matter what academic track we were on, no matter what occupational destination we shared. Not because we came from the same class or race or gender, but because we were taught—not necessarily by our teachers--to negotiate our differences by reference to the inheritances we call American history and literature. (For some of us, yes, by reference to Mathematics, as well, a universal language, to be sure, but the fissures and consequences were narrower in that domain.)


While there is something to be said for shared experience in school, and I do believe to some experience it is needed, it is not the be all end all of education, not even close. Teaching children the mislabeled “three r’s” is the responsibility of the education system. Teaching children to be sociable like providing religious and or personal philosophical guidance is, and should remain the job of the parents.


The CO and Sidial agree on the need for what we used to call tracking. "Separate out the kids according to ability, intelligence, and zeal for learning," as the latter puts it. I wonder. My most boring moments in high shool came in my "honors" classes, and my most electrifying moments came after I was kicked out of them, after my junior year.


Doesn’t this go back to the personal responsibility that you were preaching about a few paragraphs ago? I reveled in my advanced classes. I could read on a high school level by fourth grade, and a college level by sixth. If you failed to learn in the more challenging classes it presents one of three major problems and their associated subsets:
1) The ‘advanced’ classes were nothing of the sort and only dubbed that way to stroke the ego’s of parents and some students.
2) You did not appreciate the challenge of the advanced classes and were content getting “easy A’s” in the mainstream classes.
3) You were on the borderline between ‘average’ and ‘advanced’

Of these problems number three is by far the murkiest, if that is for the sake of discussion the best answer it immediately raises several questions: “Could you have done better if you stuck to books and not sports?”, “Should students be enrolled in ‘advanced’ classes on a course by course level and not on an all or nothing basis?”, “Were you really motivated to be there, and did you understand enough of what being a part of those classes could mean to your future?” the list goes on and on, and varies quite widely from student to student. I for example excelled at English, history, and science but struggled with math classes, my brother was just the opposite, he did wonderful in math and hated English and history. There are differences including how people learn: visual, auditory and the other variations, that effect the outcome of how much people learn more than simple “IQ” explains.

Tom's responce to TCL

The only way to fix this problem is to create a societal situation where the consequences of having more children than you can support (from both the male and female prespective, of course) are unacceptable. How do we do that, you ask? We first warn everyone that we're about to take some drastic action. Then we give them a chance to shape up with continued warnings. Then, we follow through with our drastic action, namely we stop supporting them beyond what we are already giving away.


This one you are going to need to explain carefully. What kind of consequences? Not helping the kids? And if so isn’t that punishing the children at best, and potentially negligent homicide at worst? Taking the kids away? Sure, our foster care system is a lot better than the lack of safety net in a lot of countries but its already overburdened. Further we need to stop the revolving door that some judges and policy makers have put into place where the birth family is by default the best place for the all parties concerned. Not to be too crass, but I don’t give a $@#% about the parents, grandparents or the ninety-some cousins. They can all fall off the end of the planet. Putting a child back with a child molester is inexcusable, putting them back with people who have failed to complete alcohol and drug counseling likewise.

Derek (not quite in order)

The Democrats--well, they're lost. The Republican drift to the left has pushed Democrats somewhere to the far side of George McGovern.


Oh Boy is that one for another day...

I am no expert on education. I do, however, have a little insight into human nature. Those in power tend to consolidate power. Controlling the system of education is a goal of every despotic regime; if you lead them while they're young, they'll willingly follow you as adults.


I’m not a huge fan of government sponsored education, however, it does have a much better chance of getting people all on the same playing field than each city block having its own privately run school. Also, if for no other reason than making sure people are being educated there needs to be someone saying ‘the standard is here’. I happen to think that for a lot of things the standard is set to low in the public system.

Some of the friends I admire most teach in public schools, and our daughter has attended the local schools since kindergarten. I assure you, though, that we've been very aware of what's been taught, especially in the early grades. My wife used to volunteer at the school during the day and was on a first-name basis with the principals of the elementary and middle school.


It is good to see their are parents who pay attention. I work with a youth group where half the parents drop their children off and disappear, i think most of the parents have only met myself or the club leader once and yet they leave their kids there for 3-4 hours.

J'Myle

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.


Again this goes back to ours being a society of fear. No it is not to the extent of North Korea, China, or a few other hellholes, but one where fear is the preferred motivator. There are a lot of parents who want their parents to learn what to think, not how. I personally have several very, very good idea’s where this comes from, but I’ll leave that for later. Where it comes from is important, getting rid of it, is more important.

...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.


I think, that if public school alternatives got enough (non financial) support that this could go a long way towards shrinking class sizes.



And that folks is all i have time for right now, more later.

Friday, January 14, 2005

 

Tom Responds To TLC

TLC, you asked how I think the breakdown of the family can be fixed. The short answer (without getting to far afield of the education question) is exactly what I suggested would fix education: Personal responsibility. For too long we have subsidized behaviors that are contributing to the problem. Although Welfare reform is now in place, it used to be that we had a bit of Communism (or at the very least, Socialism) running amok. The deal was: Have more babies, you get more money. Humm...I wonder that's going to work out...

The only way to fix this problem is to create a societal situation where the consequences of having more children than you can support (from both the male and female prespective, of course) are unacceptable. How do we do that, you ask? We first warn everyone that we're about to take some drastic action. Then we give them a chance to shape up with continued warnings. Then, we follow through with our drastic action, namely we stop supporting them beyond what we are already giving away.

[Warning-Preemptive Strike Imminent] Before anyone levels the nasty charge of racism at yours truly, this sort of thing applies to everyone. I have no problem with short-term safety nets (we don't want children starving in the streets); they are at least less noxious, harmful (and, might I add slightly 'less unconstitutional' (if such a thing exists)) than what we had been doing in the past.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

 

TCL replies to BS members (Part 1).

To James:

I begin in this confessional mode because I notice that all of us fall back on our personal experience in explicating the issue of education in our time—me included, mind you. Our CO and the Cunning Linguist try very hard to escape the gravitational pull of this huge planet, this personal experience, but in the end they, too, crash and burn.

Why? Why does the most serious empiricist among us, TCL, finally fall back on this kind of analysis, this form of first-person narrative? “Back in Illinois,” he says, in wrapping up, bearing witness, speaking the truth.


Having never been called an "empiricist" before, I don't know whether to take that as a compliment, or an insult. I've been called "dangerously liberal", "stubborn", "heretical" and "ignorant", so I'm not overly offended (gotta love that thick skin), but I do think that it's a tad strange that you would think that about me, especially if you're just going by the few posts that I have contributed to this site. Either way, I don't think that it is a very apt description of myself.

Although I do believe that personal experience trumps hearsay and conjecture, I don't base my opinions and beliefs solely on events that have happened in my presence. If that were true, I would be one of those nutjobs who thinks that the moon landing was faked (I've never been to the moon, how can I be sure?!?), or that all New Yorkers are assholes (never been to The Big Apple, but I read about it on the internets, so it must be true!) That type of thinking leads to a very close-minded mentality, and that's one of the things that I try hardest NOT to have. I just find that anecdotes are a good way to cut through all the jargon and technobabble that is sometimes used to smartify (yes, I know that's not a real word) posts.

Like you said, school is something that we all have in common, so sometimes using past experience and anecdotal tales, however pretentious they may be, is a better way to get others to understand and visualize the point that is being made. I used my grade-school experiences back in Illinois as an example of secondary education in order to show that there is more to this issue than simple statistics and raw data collected from various organizations. So, no offense taken, but next time it's a caning! WHACK!! =)

That being said, I strongly agree with this statement:

"Events from the past are significant for us Americans not because they happened in the past, but because we can, and do, and must, continue to argue about their significance in the present."

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Perhaps I just took your quote out of context, but the quote above is the first thing that popped into my mind when I read your post. I feel that this applies to many, many issues that are relevant in modern day life. The most notable example being the Bill of Rights. Free Speech, The Right to Bear Arms (or Arm Bears, watch out, Yogi!), etc. The war in Iraq. Ohio 2004 vs. Florida 2000. Even things such as tsunami warning systems. I don't want to get sidetracked into ranting about something off topic, but I just wanted to let you know that your statement rang true (for me, at least).

Of course, I could be missing the point entirely...


Tom:


Great post, I find your thoughts and ideas intriguing, and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

"With respect to social matters, the most pressing is the structure of the family. Without painting with too broad a brush, the family structure in the inner city (primarily black families) is in an abysmal state relative to other racial/social groups with nearly 70% of children being born out of wedlock. Until that changes it’s going to be very difficult to effect positive changes in any aspect of life, including education."

That is something I noticed as well, when doing my weekly "stat hunt." Any ideas on how this can be changed? As I mentioned in my post, there is a surprisingly small amount of the budget going to black colleges, but that is a moot point. What good is funding historically black colleges if a large amount of black children aren't even graduating from high school? I'd be quite interested to hear any ideas you may have regarding this topic.

"Whom do we care about more; the good kids being deprived of learning time or bad kids causing the deprivation?"

Good point. One of the reasons that I am glad I left high school after 3 years is because it opened a door for someone who wanted to learn. My slacking off in class was (I realize in hindsight) depriving others of their opportunity to receive a proper education. The teachers weren't just wasting their time trying to teach me, they were wasting the time of other students who wanted that education, who had plans to attend college immediately after high school and who deserved the attention of a teacher much more than I did. As crass as it may sound, I feel that we need to focus more on the children who truly desire to be educated, instead of the ones who use school as a social event to hang out with friends, or go only because they have no choice. If I may make an analogy:

Chinese food is great when you get it from a restaurant that serves nothing but chinese food. But a place that serves both chinese and mexican food is more likely to have food that isn't as great. A restaurant that serves chinese, mexican and indian food will usually be even worse. You sacrifice quality for quantity. It's sort of like that with education. If you try to introduce too many factors into the system (for instance, teaching 35 kids, 10 of which are so bright that they become easily bored, 15 average students who have no problems in class, and 10 not-so-bright students who end up holding back the rest of the class, due to excessive amounts of classtime being spent trying to get them up to speed with everyone else) the overall quality will decline. Would you rather have a smaller group of students who are smart, and a few that aren't so bright, or an entire class of students whose educational level is sub-par?

Something to mull over... or not. *shrug*


J'myle:


"Schools, above all else, should attempt to equip our children with the ability to think critically, with the ability to reason. All else follows."

*golf clap*

Exactly. What good is knowing when the Bill of Rights was written, when you can't even name specific rights, or interpret what they mean? Other examples:

Drug education: Sure, I know that drugs are bad, but WHY?
Sex education: The mantra sexisbadsexisbadsexisbad is oft repeated. But WHY is sex bad?
History: I know of the American Civil War, but other than memorizing dates, battles and names, why not tell me how I am still affected by it today?

Applied knowledge is the key.

"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."

Again, I agree. Sorry, James, here's another personal experience that I need to share:

From third to fifth grade, I was part of a program called AGATE (Aurora Gifted And Talented Education). Once a week, 30 kids from my school got bussed to an elementary school just down the street, and we would spend the day doing puzzles, brain teasers, anagrams, free-thinking exercises and discuss/debate certain subjects. Because of this, I am a sucker for wordplay, debate and self-education. I actually find it fun to spend an hour or two each night browsing through Wikipedia, going to debate sites and playing Devil's Advocate just to get an idea of what other people think, and even (as nerdish as it sounds) reading the dictionary.

I don't think that this program would have had the same effect on me if I had been enrolled 3 or 4 years later. A young mind is pliable, we should try to take advantage of it while we have the chance.


That's all I have for now. Sidial, Derek and Casual, I'll get to you in good time, as well as post up my Week 4 article.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

 

Local Control

In theory, public schools are controlled at the local level. Yes, the bulk of their funds come from local property taxes. But don't assume that this means the federal government is not asserting control through the Department of Education and the NEA. Comes word today that the president plans to broaden the scope of "No Child Left Behind". Every nickel from the feds comes with a high-tensile string attached.

Are there options? Sure, but as was noted elsewhere, most Americans either can't afford private school tuitions or don't feel up to the challenge of home schooling. My point, which I didn't make sufficiently clear in my initial post, was that parents with children in public school must stay involved in their childrens' education--something most teachers welcome.

We're blessed to live in an area where about 95% of the parents show up for conferences with their kids' teachers. We're happy with the education our daughter is getting. But don't think for a minute we wouldn't have pulled her out of the government school in a heartbeat if we felt otherwise.

That's not paranoia. That's taking responsibility for my child instead of leaving her education to the government.

 

Response To James

Here’s my response to James (related posts by me, James 1 and 2).

I realize very well that “the” government does not directly run public schools. I also realize, however, that government money (by which I mean my money and your money) always comes with strings attached. On top of that, the government’s unwillingness to face down “the” Teachers’ Union has lead to a noncompetitive situation. Why? Well, as you say the Teachers’ Union is a private institution. The problem is that it is a private institution that has a goal that is not the education of children. Rather, their goal is the continued and ever-improving employment of teachers. I have no problem with the concept of a Teachers’ Union. There are lots of unions in the country and they all have various benefits and drawbacks. This one has a particular advantage in that they have gained so much power by lobbying “the” government, who controls the $$, that they are causing harm. If the Teachers’ Union were dealing with a private business then the situation would be no different than that of other unions.

I’ve got no problem paying for my (future) children’s’ education. I’m not asking “the” government to give me a thing. I’m only asking that I not have money taken from me (under threat of jail) to subsidize the education of other parent’s children if I’m going to opt out of the system.

 

Markets and Politics

Herewith a kinder, gentler response to our fellow contributor Tom than I was able to muster without the editorial supervision of our CO. My thanks to the latter for reminding me that civility is crucial this experiment. Following this response, I try to address the issues raised by other contributors.

Tom first. He seems to share with Derek the idea that “the” government controls education, and should be removed from this office. “We need to get the government out of the business of educating our children,” says Tom. Derek is more oblique: “The phrase ‘government school’ has ominous overtones. . .” I agree with Derek, notwithstanding the fact that I teach at a state university. But is there such a thing as a government school? Is “the” government in the business of educating our children?

In a word, no. Local governments fund and supervise elementary/ secondary school districts, in cooperation and consultation with private institutions such as teacher’s unions, PTAs, etc. State governments fund and supervise higher education in and through state university systems, in cooperation with private institutions such as faculty councils, teachers’ unions, and alumni organizations. Since 1862, with the creation of the land-grant colleges and the public universities (such as those in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois), the federal government has sponsored the expansion of higher education, and, through grants and other devices in the 20th century, it has created demand for education at lower levels. What else is new?

Yes, No Child Left Behind is a new phase in the relation of states and school districts. But let’s stop acting, and declaiming, as if “the” government runs this show. It doesn’t. Like most institutions in the USA, education is a weird hybrid of public and private enterprise--it's a collaboration of public and private, not one or the other. That's its signature advantage over other systems elsewhere. The neither/nor makes local control of school districts more than an ideal, but it also allows for federal funding of education.

Tom concludes by saying, “What it all comes down to is individualism and capitalism.” Let me quote what precedes this pronouncement because I'm not sure I get it. For now I think he's saying that if we get government out of education, it is "simply easier to identify the problem," but that problem, by his own specification, is that government is in the business of educating our children. And his solution, as far as I can tell, is to abolish (public) education. But read with me.

Here we go. "[T]he argument in favor of government-run schools is that everybody gets an education. But let me ask you which is worse, geting absolutely no education and knowing that you got absolutely no education or getting essentially no education . . . while being convinced that you got an education? I think the former is far better for a simple reason. It is simply easier to identify the problem."

Some excruciatingly obvious questions. It's bad that everybody gets an education under public auspices? It's even worse that this education is labelled as such? Is there neither "competition" nor "individual accountablity" in American education? Is there no market--no capitalism--at work in the ecumenical educational system Americans inhabit?

Tom, the market is working just fine in education. There are THOUSANDS of PRIVATE SCHOOLS in the good old USA--prep schools, parochial schools, yeshivas. They compete with public schools for the tuitions and attentions of parents everywhere, although more so in the Northeast because the tradition of private education was established early there, by the early 18th century, and was not challenged by the public universities of the Midwest until very late in the 19th century. What are you complaining about?

You, Tom, are “free to choose,” as the earnest knucklehead Milton Friedman said. You are free to send your kid to a very expensive private school. Why don’t you just do it and stop blaming “the” government for screwing up education in the USA?

Here's my guess. Like most reactionary critics of public education--there are lots of them in Kansas and Texas--you can’t afford the private school freight, so you want the federal government to subsidize your abstention from the public schools by means of vouchers and other bizarre devices.

If "what it all comes down to is individualism and capitalism," then you should accept the choices a “free market” makes available to you. Instead of telling us that "the" government is the problem with education, you should go get yourself a job that pays you enough to send your kids to a private school. You should work hard, acquire some character (as well as the requisite income), lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.

I imagine you’ve heard or delivered this sermon before. Probably directed at somebody else, though.

Let me now turn to TCL, Derek, Sidial, J'myle. Derek first, because the relation between the government and the teachers' unions is not anywhere near as cozy as you're supposing. I have some experience with this here at Rutgers, and my relatives back in the land of Shedd Aquarium do, too. Believe me, it ain't cozy--it's as combative and consequential as the labor struggles of the 1930s and 40s (suggesting that the public sector is the current scene of class struggle, labor unrest, union organizing, etc.) The "political class" of which you speak is not a species I know, but if I did I would surmise that it is not an ally of the NEA.

Sidial and J'myle agree that class size is the key to good teaching and a good education, and boy, do I concur. They also agree, if implicitly, that some public agency has to manipulate or administer markets if we want to reduce class size and increase the supply of teachers. Structural changes are essential--changes that the market can't make on its own, David Brooks notwithstanding.

The CO and Sidial agree on the need for what we used to call tracking. "Separate out the kids according to ability, intelligence, and zeal for learning," as the latter puts it. I wonder. My most boring moments in high shool came in my "honors" classes, and my most electrifying moments came after I was kicked out of them, after my junior year. Teaching to a diverse audience trains you to reach, to look for metaphors, methods, ideas, images, that cross any one category or constituency. That's what good thinking and great writing does, too. Why should we want to talk to ourselves? But then here we are doing just that.

Ah, the Linguist. You begin by saying "American education is riddled with problems," and end by saying "Public education is in need of a major overhaul." Can we turn these statements into questions? I agree that we don't spend enough on education. But I do wonder whether those math scores, or the lack of names and dates in the heads of sophomores, mean as much as we think. "A man knowes no more of righteousness than he hath power to act," said Gerrard Winstanley in 1650, and I tend to agree with him. You want people to know where Costa Rica is, or know when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued? Explain to them why it matters right now. I don't mean "relevance," as that word got corrupted back then, in the cruel 1960s and 70s.

Here's another way of turning the declarative into the interrogative. I take it for granted that you're right about the ratio between spending for the V-22 Osprey and the NEH, etc. But what if we treat the post-Vietnam military as a huge educational enterprise, through which mostly working class and black kids are given skills and monies that make them citizens in the most visible and powerful sense?

Questions for now.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

 

Education Still the Issue

Full disclosure. Education ‘R’ Us. I teach American History at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Normally I’d withhold such information from this cyberspace, but what would be the point? You all could figure it out in about five minutes by clicking on the “Team Sites” our CO has assembled.

I begin in this confessional mode because I notice that all of us fall back on our personal experience in explicating the issue of education in our time—me included, mind you. Our CO and the Cunning Linguist try very hard to escape the gravitational pull of this huge planet, this personal experience, but in the end they, too, crash and burn.

Why? Why does the most serious empiricist among us, TCL, finally fall back on this kind of analysis, this form of first-person narrative? “Back in Illinois,” he says, in wrapping up, bearing witness, speaking the truth. Even the pleasingly paranoid Derek invokes the local school system, where his wife volunteers, as he intones about government control of young minds. J’myle as well: Ms. Sharp and her worms are convincing. Why? No offense, Sidial, you are a fast and ferocious fact hound, but you, too, begin and end with educational autobiography. Why?

We’re not writing fiction here. So why did we all choose the pretentious preterite of the short-story writer, saying, “Once upon a time, if you let me explain it right, my life made sense of yours”? Notice that none of us bothered to set up or sustain the story with the kind of detail and texture which we would expect from a nominally competent story-teller. We just plunged in, knowing that you knew what we’re talking about.

Again, why? Because we correctly assume that everyone will recognize themselves in the stories we tell about grade school and high school, that weird, prolonged, excruciating moment when we were all thrown together as if we had something in common.

That is the genius of public education in America. We did have something in common back then, and we still do, no matter what academic track we were on, no matter what occupational destination we shared. Not because we came from the same class or race or gender, but because we were taught—not necessarily by our teachers--to negotiate our differences by reference to the inheritances we call American history and literature. (For some of us, yes, by reference to Mathematics, as well, a universal language, to be sure, but the fissures and consequences were narrower in that domain.)

This is not some rant about what is missing from the curriculum. There has never been any lasting agreement about the content of American history and literature. In fact, it has always been the unending argument about what belongs in this sprawling table of contents that has provided the common ground Americans can take for granted, for now. Events from the past are significant for us Americans not because they happened in the past, but because we can, and do, and must, continue to argue about their significance in the present.

Public education has long been the key site of the argument. Learning the terms of debate, deciding how to join the argument—this is what education as such, private or public, is all about. Like it or not, we’re all involved, because there we are, all of us, arguing about what it is, what it means, and where our hopes for it might reside. The antecedent?

Don’t ask. Until tomorrow. When I get responsive to all by close reading of each.

But for tonight, here’s a little authenticating autobiography of an educator. I did fine in high school, being a semi-competent jock with secret dreams of becoming a writer, and then failed to figure out college—got expelled after three years, then worked construction (fell off a building, broke my elbow is all), at a gas station (reading Soul on Ice between customers), in a hospital as a janitor, landed at a place that was still being radicalized, found mentors, went to graduate school, finished those degrees. And so here I am, blogging between preparation of syllabi. What we call lesson plans in those other venues.

How did this happen to me? A persuasive answer is to be found in the democratization of higher education in the USA after 1945. But more anon, er, tomorrow.

 

Week 3: School Reform

The question: What in school changes need to me made to our educational system?

The answer is simple. We need to get the government out of the business of educating our children. I could go on and on berating the government for its terrible handling of education, but the problems are obvious. There are certainly those who would try to make the argument that without government-run schools poor children will not get an education. The answer to that contention is two-part.

First, we already know that children in poor sections of town get, on average, an inferior education to those in more affluent neighborhoods. This is a function both of local resources and social matters. Whether schools are run by the government or private organizations, local resources will be what they are. Currently, tax dollars do come from outside of a local school district to help out, but they are either insufficient or being squandered. More on that later. With respect to social matters, the most pressing is the structure of the family. Without painting with too broad a brush, the family structure in the inner city (primarily black families) is in an abysmal state relative to other racial/social groups with nearly 70% of children being born out of wedlock. Until that changes it’s going to be very difficult to effect positive changes in any aspect of life, including education.

That being said, there are steps that we can take to improve the educational situation…which brings me to the second part of my answer. As I mentioned above, the argument in favor of government-run schools is that everyone gets an education. But let me ask you which is worse, getting absolutely no education and knowing that you got absolutely no education or getting essentially no education (i.e., you can’t read after graduating from high school) while being convinced that you got an education? I think that former is far better for a simple reason. It is simply easier to identify the problem. If everyone could see that inner city children were not being provided any education at all, then we could perhaps doing something about it. On the other hand, the current situation of sub-sub-sub-par education is that we can say, at least they’re getting an education, which is a lie, but one that is all too easy to swallow. The only way to fix the situation is to rock the boat. We must remove government from the classroom. While it is tempting to suggest all sorts of reforms we must remember who got us here in the first place and realize that huge bureaucracies are nearly impossible to change in significant ways.

Aside from the typical bureaucratic problems with government-run schools, there is a more basic reason why they cannot work. Well, perhaps they can work (here I sit), but they cannot work as well as a private system. The reason is that the purpose of the government-run school system is educate children…but there is no way to make them do it. Add to that the fact that the teachers’ union's reason for existing is to keep teachers employed (as opposed to educating children) and you have a recipe for disaster.

A privately run school system, on the other hand, would incorporate all the aspects of a free-market system…both the good and the ‘bad.’ First the good: competition. Assuming that parents actually care about their children’s education (which is a social issue outside education reform’s sphere of influence), schools will either sink or swim based on the quality of the education they provide. That means that the purpose of these schools is to educate children. If a teacher is not performing, s/he is fired and replaced with a more effect individual. This would be a huge improvement over the current system focused on keep teachers happy regardless of student performance.

Now on to the ‘bad.’ I say ‘bad’ for a reason that I hope will become clear as we move long. One aspect of a free-market system is inevitable failure. This failure is necessary to keep a market running efficiently. Failure is accepted as a matter of course when speaking about small businesses (as we know, nearly 60% of them fail), but people recoil at the idea of failure in education because we’re supposed to be protecting The ChildrenTM.

Let’s take a quick look at failure in education. We all know that currently it takes quite a bit to expel a student. There has to be a long-running history of extreme behavior problems recalcitrant to adjustment measures before s/he is removed from school permanently. In the meantime, that expulsion-deserving student is typically causing disruptions in class, acting as bully outside of class, etc. Our first societal instinct these days is to see that child as a victim of his/her environment and not responsible for his/her actions (until s/he turns 18…then all bets are off). Therefore, we reason, we cannot deprive him/her of an education. Of course, in a privately run school (where there is competition for good students) such a troublemaker would be tossed out as a matter of course. This is one of the ‘bad’ consequences envisioned by adversaries of school choice etc. Such situations are a societal gut check. Whom do we care about more; the good kids being deprived of learning time or bad kids causing the deprivation? The answer will greatly effect the outcome of the debate.

Finally, one of the most common objections brought to bear against a completely private education model is that there will not be equal access to education. Since it’s obvious that this is already the case, I don’t quite see how this is an issue. However, do we believe that things would get worse or better by kicking government out of the classroom entirely? Well, let’s see. Americans have found a way to make money at just about everything imaginable. Why not education? Do you honestly believe that there are not individuals out there with the ability to run a school for a profit? Are there no people who grew up in the inner city, made a bundle of money and might be willing to invest in a school…especially if they see a total lack of educational opportunities otherwise?

What it all comes down to is individualism and capitalism. To maul one of my favorite Churchill quotes: Capitalism is the worst economic system…except all the other ones that have been tried. Inject competition and individual accountability into anything and watch people and intuitions flourish. There will surely be some left behind…but is that any worse than what we’re currently doing: leaving everyone behind.

 

Three quick searches on this weeks topic

And three links for each search


Education Reform 2005
CER
CTER
EdWeek.org

Charter School performance
Rand.org
DC Charter School
TopSchools.com

Homeschool rates
HomeSchoolyellowpages
ActsChristian
HomeEducation

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.


Sunday, January 09, 2005

 

Week 3: A Few Suggested Changes to the School System

The current education system in the United States varies widely between states, and, indeed, school districts. Typically, standards exist at the state level for individual school districts to conform to... but how they conform is left up to the district itself. Now, President Bush has advocated "No Child Left Behind", without realizing that's a very nice idea, but ultimately damaging to some of the students.

I don't have numerical proof, here. What I have is personal experience, and the experience of family friends to go on.

Some of the changes needed for our education system are relatively simple. Some are far more difficult, and are based on society-wide problems.

For the simple ones:

1) This will set some people to howling, I'm sure, but I've lived through it, dealt with it, and stand by it. Separate out the kids according to ability, intelligence, and zeal for learning. I'm an honors kid, what my mother calls "A-Rail" (a misnomer, in my opinion). From the time I was in fifth grade, I was in a program called "Gifted & Talented". This gave everyone in it a chance to learn more than our classmates -- learn what we were capable of learning, instead of throwing paper wads at each other and getting perfect 100s on our tests in all classes (although all of us were pretty bad about turning our homework in).

And this gets to the crux of why I say the honors kids SHOULD be segregated, for at least some of our classes. We easily got bored while in with the normal kids, and also tended to intimidate the normal kids, by showing off too much. Mind, I'm calling them "normal", instead of "average". Several of them were as intelligent as we were ... but weren't as zealous about learning, didn't find it fun to be challenged, and by the time we were in eighth grade, we had lost several kids to the normal classes, because of the workload differences. (This loss increased as we got closer to graduation.)

For seventh grade, we had a GT English class. We went through everything faster, more thoroughly, and covered things the normal classes didn't. The class size was smaller than the normal kids had to deal with (a plus for ANY class "level"), which did help. But we did things like learn some Latin roots so we could figure out unfamiliar words faster and easier, work on brainteasers, and several other things. We did debates, too.

For eighth grade, some moron at the either the state level or district level decided that everyone should spend all of their core classes together. We survived like that for one semester, barely. I remember trying to read stories in class. The GT kids would all have the 10-page story read in 10 minutes tops, and we'd spend another 10-20 minutes waiting for everyone else to finish reading. It drove every one of us absolutely bonkers. The GT teacher managed to wrangle us all into the same "team", and mostly into the same English class, for our sanity. And we also had our GT class (which was no longer associated with a core class, which messed a bunch of us up on electives). I would say we learned a third of what we did while we were separated out.

In the classes we had no GT or Honors or (in high school) AP options, we generally pulled 100s, more or less sleeping though class. And while that may sound good, in the long run it wasn't. Why? The answer is one word.

College.

You see, we never really learned what homework was. We always did it in class between notes, or while we'd otherwise be twiddling our thumbs and chatting. Even with the AP classes in high school, with a few exceptions, we never were so completely challenged we HAD to do homework. In fact, the most college-like Advanced Placement class we had was American History under Mr. Beck. There's a reason he is viewed by a lot of the kids who had his class as a minor deity. Even Calculus wasn't that bad. I had to do homework for it, but only because it was part of the grade. Not because I needed to.

And the normal English classes, oy! the curriculum solely focused on getting everyone to pass the 10th grade TASS test (now the TASP, and supposedly slightly harder), but my younger sisters took it, and have assured me it's still nothing.

And then, I get to college.

A lot of things remained the same. But what killed me is where I previously didn't have to do the homework, I now had to. And that was hell, trying to learn that.

But in the classes where my imagination was caught and kept, I did outstandingly better than I did in the average, run of the mill classes. I pulled nothing less than an “A” in any of my honors level classes. (And I still sing the praises of said classes, every chance I get. Among the U of H Honors kids, you find two types – those who absolutely hated Human Situation, and those who utterly miss that class. I fall into the second category. I wanted to take it again, as a TA/upper level, but never could work it into my schedule.) My regular classes are actually what murdered my GPA… because I was so unchallenged, I didn’t even bother doing the work. Didn’t feel like it was worth expending the effort, GPA be damned (and it was).

2) The current socio-economic culture of the US workforce does not tend towards ensuring that enough teachers exist in the work force. And, just as often as not, the ones who are there can’t teach, whether they lack in knowledge in the field they’re supposedly teaching, or just have no teaching skills.

For example, despite disliking any chemistry more involved than “KaBOOM!”, I took Chem 2, which came in one flavor, Advanced Placement, two different class periods. A couple of the students figured out quickly that asking our teacher about the oilfields had him side-tracked all class, and we never had to take notes that way. Not that he ever had notes for us to take, he just tended to suddenly decide it was time for a test, over things he hadn’t even attempted to talk about, or even told us to read about in the book. And, on one of these tests, my class got grades ranging from 15 to 97. The other class period all managed, somehow, to get a 93 on the test (all twenty odd of the students). And we were the ones accused of cheating. Never did figure that one out.

Then there was the glorified typing class, where I ended up having to teach the teacher, on multiple occasions. (I also ended up competing in “Computer Applications” (glorified typing, and “can you use Excel?”) and placing first in the district to go to state by some four or five hundred points. I went on the band trip instead, since it was my senior year, and I’d never been able to go on the band trip before.) Another “computer applications” teacher, for the eighth grade, spent most of her time IMming her long distance boyfriends, in the middle of class. But because they had “degrees” in this stuff, they had the jobs.

Math and science teachers are hard to come by, as a general rule. If I could stand kids more, I would be trying to be a biology teacher, because the school districts around here need decent ones so badly. Of course, I took Calculus 3, so I’d also probably be fought over to teach algebra I/II, as well.

I won’t go into my rant over the English department teachers, because at least two of them were more than marginally competent. It’s just politics that ensured it was the nitwits who ended up in charge. Administration has to feel superior to the department heads, after all.

Which leads me to the next set of problems.

3) At least at my school district, it was Decided that because the new principal performed quite well on her back, and had had enough plastic surgery to pass for Barbie (faint plastic sheen and all), that her ideas of a) a trimester and b) a dress code were absolutely wonderful. (I have to admit that I only ever had scuttlebug as "proof" for her real behavior. But she sure acted like that's how she "got things done". I, personally, found her behavior disgusting.)

Can you say “disaster”? Good. Knew you could. However, she, and the entire school board, apparently could not.

For those of you not introduced to the joy and raptures of the trimester system, let me explain. It is the false idea that lengthening classes by about 35-50 minutes and decreasing the number of classes per day (by a whole two classes), while shortening the “semester” into approximately one-third of the school year, permits students to have the same amount of class time/note taking time/teacher time as shorter classes, every day, for an entire semester. In fact, supposedly, it permits more class time.

Not.

We suffered horribly, particularly the AP students. The AP tests were held about mid-third tri. So we had to have all our AP classes during the first two trimesters, so we’d’ve gotten through 75-85% of the material on the AP test… the remaining 15-25%, we spent cramming in during after school study sessions, with all our various teachers. It was murder.

Then, they had to increase the number of “credits” required to graduate high school, because the trimester system permitted students to graduate a year or more early – and can’t permit that to happen! The school district looses money when students graduate a year early.

And there is a maximum limit to how much attention even a teacher can spend on their subject, with any given class, before wandering off into Never-Neverland. Truly, there is a finite amount of calculus, chemistry, and suffering in the English classes that can be survived, per day. 90-100 minutes at a go just doesn’t work. I promise. We didn’t mind having that long per day for band, but a brass player’s lips only last for so long before you can’t make a squeak, let alone bust out a high D on pitch.

And then there was the Dress Code, which everyone called a “uniform”, including the superintendent, principals, school board, teachers, parents, and students. Mind you, according to the laws (as they read then), it wasn’t legal for it to be a uniform without having an exemption policy. So, in the wordage, there was a way to petition to be exempted. On paper, it existed. There was even a group from the school board and administrators that “reviewed” the petitions.

No petitions were approved. None of them (mine and my sisters’ among them). Doesn’t sound like much of an exemption policy, to me.

Now, let me explain the reason this “dress code” came into being.

Ms. Barbie-Wannabe I’m-Going-To-Wear-Mini-Skirts-To-Work-Around-The-Teenage-Boys couldn’t control the students. So the dress code was supposed to make the students easier to control, by increasing the punishments for not following it, while drastically limiting what the students could wear. (There was a “zero-tolerance policy”, for the dress code as well as the normal “zero-tolerance policy” crap.)

And then she simpered and whined, and made her mascara run, when – GASP – the number of students being disciplined increased tenfold. Who would have thought that by increasing what students could get disciplined for, you’d also increase how many you disciplined?? Just the increase in paper being used to write up detention slips must have cost the school district a whopping bit of money.

So, what do all these personal antecedents boil down to, as suggestions?


  1. Divvy up the kids according to zeal, ability, and desire to learn. Don’t make the distinctions permanent sortings a la Hogwarts Sorting Hat; some kids are later bloomers, others burn out. But make the distinctions. For everyone’s sakes. It may not be “politically correct”, but it’s a much more efficient use of the teacher’s and students’ time, if everyone in a classroom is roughly equal in ability.


  2. Start imprinting onto the next generation that there’s no shame in being a teacher. Start figuring out how to pay good wages to teachers, so that more of the bright minds not inclined to research don’t end up working in an office for the rest of their days, but go on to teach. And the administration needs to be sure that new teachers are being evaluated on a very regular basis, to ensure that their students are getting anything out of the class. Test scores may not be the best reflection of this – but if the students like going to the class because it’s interesting (not because they can catch up on their sleep), it’s likely the teacher’s at least doing a halfway decent job.


  3. Research sweeping policy changes thoroughly before applying them in a live situation. All programmers test their code before they present it to the public, and people still complain when a bug or thirty slip through something that complex. So don’t assume that a “great plan” to change “how we’ve always done it” is automatically going to succeed. And even if it succeeds elsewhere, it does not mean it succeeds in that particular environment. Rural kids need to be able to wear jeans, there’s simply too much mud to wear only khakis!



I could list more, I’m sure. But you’ve waded through this much, so for now, I’ll close my post. I’ll have a bit more to rant on/about for week four’s related question (I haven’t even touched on those experiences yet).

 

TCL Presents: Publik Edjakayshun - Round 1

School is teachers who don't know, teaching facts that aren't true to kids who don't care.
-Matt Groening - Life in Hell-

There you go. That's my article in a nutshell. See you all next week!

aside: "What do you mean, make it longer? What ever happened to Keep It Simple, Stupid?"

*sigh*

Well, I guess I should attempt to elaborate. American education is riddled with problems. According to a December 17th, 2003 study by the NAEP, in fourth grade math, in only three of the ten jurisdictions polled did the percentage of kids scoring in NAEP's "proficient" range rise above the teens—and in just one did it beat the national average. In eighth-grade reading, at least two-fifths of the students were "below basic" in seven cities. In the six lowest-scoring cities, the percentages of reading-proficient eighth graders were grim: Chicago - 15 percent, Houston - 14 percent, Atlanta - 11 percent, Los Angeles - 11 percent, District of Columbia - 10 percent, Cleveland - 10 percent.

Professors Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. did some research, and published their findings in an book called, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?. They found that three quarters of the students polled did not know that Columbus discovered the New World before 1750. One third did not know that the phrase, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" comes from the Declaration of Independence; some attributed it to the Gettysburg Address. Seventy percent could not identify the Magna Carta. Forty percent are ignorant of the fact that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred between 1939 and 1943. Almost 75 percent can not place Lincoln's presidency within the correct twenty-year span. Almost 50 percent can not place Franklin Roosevelt's presidency in the years between 1929 and 1946.

All this erroneous information eventually leads to things like 41 percent of the public believing that Saddam had something to do with 9/11, or 37 percent of them believing that some of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi. Then we wonder why other countries label us "stupid Americans."

Internationally, how does our country rank when it comes to education? Well, we scored just above Lithuania when it came to math, but the Slovak Republic, Latvia, Estonia and Hungary all do better. Kids in high school today aren't much smarter than they were 10 years ago. We're a 'C' average nation. Mediocre is better than lousy, right? We may not be the brightest, but hey! We're not Mexico!


Part of the problem can be attributed to the money (or lack of) that we spend on education. Consider, for a moment, the 2004 Federal Discretionary Budget. Our budget was 782 billion dollars. Of that 782 billion dollars, The Department of Education only received 53.137 billion. We gave more money to the FCC (2.81b) than we did to Historically Black Colleges (2.77b). We spent 3 times as much money on funding for the V-22 Osprey Aircraft (30 deaths and counting!), as we did for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Museum and Library Services combined (.511b). How about Reading First programs (1.15b)? Nah, let's spend it on Foreign Military Financing (4.14b) instead.

Perhaps if we spend more money on things like education and tools for education (libraries, museums, art, music and culture), we might get more kids interested in learning on their own. Back in Illinois, my school took us on field trips to Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It got me interested in learning about things outside of school, and instead of sitting in class, staring at the chalkboard for 6 hours a day, we got to watch SCUBA divers feed sharks, and look at rocks that fell from space! I became extremely interested in geology for a number of years, all because of trips to museums. In turn, I went to the library to learn more about xeolinths, lava flows and geologic faults, which nurtured an interest about natural disasters and the earth in general, which is a hobby that I still pursue to this day.

In fact, I learned so very little in high school, that I got incredibly bored and left after 3 years, took my GED (Good Enough Diploma), and scored in the upper 90th percentile in every subject but math. Even though I enjoyed most of my classes, I was bored stiff when it came to robotically memorizing facts that, in some cases, were completely erroneous. Watered down textbooks, reading assignments like "Go Ask Alice (outdated anti-drug propoganda), and authoritarian rules (I got in trouble for finding a few security holes in our school computer system, and suggesting how they be fixed. Punished for attempting to educate others, imagine that...) lead to me ditching school and avoiding any and all classes that didn't interest me. I learned more from my Science Fiction and Fantasy class by reading Bradbury, Asimov and Orwell, than I did from any of the other classes I took.


Public education is in need of a major overhaul. We can't continue on with things the way they are now. I'll get more into how things could be changed with my next article about private and home-schools.



On second thought, to hell with educating our children. Let's pick up a few TRIDENT II Ballistic Missiles instead.