Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Liberal Vs Conservative: Education

A couple of weeks ago I received an email in response to one of my posts. The writer explained that he generally disagreed with pretty much all my positions but enjoyed my blog anyway. He wanted to know if I would be interested in doing a post in which we would chose a subject and then he would approach it from a Liberal point of view while I would present a Conservative view. Before answering, I took a look at his blog Re/Creating Tampa, and found myself enjoying several of his posts though it was clear that he, Dave, and I are polar opposites. The following is our joint post. I would like to thank Dave for inviting me to join him in this endeavor and I would encourage everyone to check out Dave's blog (I particularly enjoyed his recent posts on Francis Bacon and net neutrality).

A View of Education from the Left by Re/Creating Tampa’s Dave

Is there an education problem in the United States? Despite the hand-wringing and the warnings of imminent calamity from both sides of the political spectrum the problem is not as dire as we’ve been led to believe.

Given that education reform is a key platform for both Democrats and Republican, how can I write that? Easy, I checked to see what parents thought about their children’s education. Nearly 80% of parents are happy with the education their children are getting. And that satisfaction rate has been hovering around 77% over the last decade.

The Bush brothers each made education a signature issue. Jeb revamped Florida’s education system, and George W. pushed through the No Child Left Behind act. These efforts came after more than a decade of conservative criticism of our public school system and advocacy for voucher systems and parent “choice.” The Bushes’ moderate conservative reforms have received mixed grades. In Florida the FCAT has created a tool to measure schools, moved Florida out of America’s educational basement, but had no success stemming the rising tide of high school dropouts.

The current administration has some education reforms of its own, and they’re similarly moderate. Since his days as a Senator the President has pushed for schools to emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math. President Obama’s also an advocate of extending the school year to be more competitive with global educational systems. Arne Duncan has been tasked with closing, or substantively revamping, the 5,000 worst-performing schools in the U.S.

There’s no doubt that there’s room for improvement. Measured against the world, some metrics suggest the United States is slipping into mediocrity. But, keep in mind that reading scores among 9-year-olds and young teens improved dramatically from 1970 to 2000, especially among female students. Math scores also improved from 1973 to 2004 for the same age group. And, with the initiatives of this president we should also see increases of people returning to college and finishing their bachelor’s degree. The university system of the United States remains the best in the world, despite showing signs of strain (13 of the top 20 universities in the world are in the US).

The moderate liberal reforms of this administration are the correct first steps. The stimulus has saved the jobs of tens of thousands of teachers. Obama’s address to elementary school children sets the right tone of personal responsibility and high aspirations.

Liberals further to the left of the political spectrum, from John Dewey to Ralph Nader have urged for an education system that places civic responsibility at the center of its education philosophy. The most important thing we can do for our children is to continue to push for the reforms championed by liberals like Dewey and Nader. We need to put civics classes on par with English and math classes. We need to stop teaching our children how to be efficient at rote tasks, and de-emphasize punctuality, obedience, and memorization. Instead we need to focus on critical thinking skills. We need to teach our kids how to ask good questions, how to analyze sources and facts, and how to make cogent arguments. We need to stop educating them for a role in middle management and start educating them for entrepreneurship. Most importantly we need to educate our children on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

A View of Education from the Right by Carol

What is the state of education in the United States? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Parents in the United States are overwhelmingly happy with the education that their children receive. In light of the facts, it is hard to imagine why. From the Center for Public Education:

American kids are good readers in comparison to many of their peers across
the globe. Only three countries significantly outscored the United States at the
elementary and high school levels (PIRLS 2001). The reading performance of U.S.
fourth graders was particularly strong. They scored significantly above the
international average (PIRLS 2001), while our fifteen year-olds scored slightly
above the average (PISA 2000).

U.S. math performance is mediocre. American fourth graders performed
above the international average but were significantly outdone by young math
students in eleven of the twenty-five nations participating in the assessment
(TIMSS 2003). U.S. eighth graders performed about the same (TIMSS 2003). By high school, our students’ performance falls below the international average. Only
eleven of the thirty-nine participating nations did significantly worse than the
United States (PISA 2003).

U.S. science performance is a study of contrasts. On one hand, both
American fourth and eighth graders scored above the international average (TIMSS
2003). Only three countries did significantly better than the United States with
their elementary students and American fourth graders outperformed their
counterparts in sixteen other countries (TIMSS 2003). But as in math, our high
school students were significantly outscored in science by their peers in
eighteen of the thirty-eight participating countries with a performance that was
below the international average (PISA 2003).

The gap between affluent and poor students in the United States is near
the international average. When comparing students’ performance by parents’
educational level, parents’ occupation, and number of books in the home, Canada,
Finland, and Iceland had smaller achievement gaps than the United States while
Germany had a larger gap (Hampden-Thompson and Johnston 2006). The results are similar when looking at students by their immigration status and first language

The American adult population (ages sixteen to sixty-five) performed
near the bottom on a six-nation assessment of literacy and numeracy. The United
States performance exceeded only Italy’s. Outscoring us were Norway, Bermuda,
Canada, and Switzerland (ALL 2003).

These results are despite that we far outspend other countries per pupil and contrary to our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s claims, our students spend more time in the classroom then their counterparts in other countries who consistently outscore them. Worse, only 69.2% of American students graduate from high school and of those who do graduate and go to college, more than 60 percent of students enrolling at two-year colleges, and 20 percent to 30 percent at four-year colleges, must take remedial courses, for no credit, before they can take entry level freshman courses. There is no excuse for our children to leave high school unprepared to take the next step.

How did we get to this point and how do we turn things around? We got to this point because we have lowered our standards and stopped challenging our students. Conservative Albert Jay Nock wrote this of education:

“After the three Rs, or rather for a time in company with them, his staples were
Latin, Greek and mathematics. He took up the elements of these two languages
very early, and continued at them, with arithmetic and algebra, nearly all
the way through primary, and all the way through secondary schools. Whatever
else he did, if anything, was inconsiderable except as related to these
major subjects; usually some reading in classical history, geography and
mythology. When he reached the undergraduate college at the age of sixteen
or so, all his language difficulties with Greek and Latin were forever
behind him; he could read anything in either tongue, and write in either,
and he was thus prepared to deal with both literatures purely as literature,
to bestow on them a purely literary interest. He had also in hand
arithmetic, and algebra as far as quadratics. Then in four years in college
he covered practically the whole range of Greek and Latin literature;
mathematics as far as the differential calculus, and including the
mathematics of elementary physics and astronomy; a brief course, covering
about six weeks, in formal logic; and one as brief in the bare history of
the formation and growth of the English language.”

Nock, who passed away in 1945, called it The Great Tradition and it was. School was not about ’self esteem’ and it wasn’t about fun. The purpose of school was to gain knowledge and become educated. It involved memorization, tons of reading and writing until the students fingers felt like they would fall off. Students were constantly tested and in order to pass the tests they had to know facts. Things were a whole lot tougher then but our students thrived. My how things have changed.

Memorization is now a dirty word. Forget about learning Latin; vocabulary, word meanings, sentence structure, and spelling aren’t important-the “thought process” is. Multiplication tables are boring so children are taught to estimate. Testing is bad. Grades are bad. Rather than challenging students, school is made easy.

Often, teachers are unfairly blamed for the dumbing down of our schools. Much of the dumbing down rests squarely with the parents. Sorry, but I spent too many ‘conference nights’ waiting for my fifteen minutes with one of my children’s teachers and listening to the parent ahead of me berate the teacher because their little Johnny deserved better grades because blah, blah, blah. Self esteem was born and education died. Yes, children are happier when they succeed but only if the success is deserved. They do know the difference. Teachers are responsible for teaching; parents need to be responsible for their children learning. We can and should do more to hold both students and teachers accountable but we cannot force parents to be involved in their children’s education on a day to day basis. Cheating our students of a challenging education is not the answer, does nothing for the child’s self esteem and leaves our children unprepared to meet the future. Instead, school districts should encourage in-school mentoring programs utilizing retirees to provide children with individual attention when they do not receive it at home.

Children drop out of school because they believe that school has nothing more to give them. In many cases, this may be true. Not all students will go to college and there should be no stigma attached to students who despite their best efforts aren’t capable or don’t chose to attend college. High schools should offer students viable alternatives that will allow them to attain a measure of success at whatever they do. If a student wants to go to a trade they will need to know how to estimate a job (math) and take that estimate and turn it in to a proposal (writing). Wouldn’t a student be more likely to stay in school if they felt that they were learning something that would be relevant to their future? If children receive a solid education in the primary grades they should know by high school whether college is in the cards and be adequately prepared to go in a different direction if they desire. Wouldn’t it be better to allow students to enter an apprenticeship program after their sophomore year than to have them drop out with little to no hope for the future?

Thirty years of lower academic standards and less accountability has led to a fall in test scores, higher dropout rates and students who leave school unprepared for college, employment and life. It is time to go back to basics. If we demand more from our students they will deliver.


Alan said...

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

Alan Cook

Anonymous said...

"Memorization is now a dirty word. Forget about learning Latin; vocabulary, word meanings, sentence structure, and spelling aren’t important-the “thought process” is. Multiplication tables are boring so children are taught to estimate. Testing is bad. Grades are bad. Rather than challenging students, school is made easy."

I'm an educator and this is completely misrepresenting the latest research driving educational methods.

Yes, memorization is a dirty word because student's don't learn anything when they memorize. They don't gain an understanding for what they are memorizing. However, once the it is clear the understand the concept, then they can memorize things like simple math facts and times tables.

Learning Latin is not the only way to expand vocabulary. Students are taught and tested on word analysis;prefixes, suffixes, base words, and word origins. Sentence structure is taught and is important, especially for ELL students. Spelling is taught.

Thought process is hugely important for a number of reasons. By understanding a child's though process, a teacher can diagnose the reason for a learning obstacle and differentiate learning accordingly.

Children are taught to estimate as a strategy to finding the correct answer. For example, in 1st and 2nd grade, students estimate 34+25. They are taught to add 30+20 as an estimate. This is because the next lesson will be to add tens and ones. 30+20 +4+5. They are not taught to estimate because other methods are " boring." They are taught to estimate as a way of learning a new skill.

The real problem with education is the general public has no respect or understanding for the details and specifics involved in education. They make simplistic arguments without a real understanding of the profession of teaching.

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Mike said...

I didn't hear any mention of special interest groups and the forces they are putting on American society to dumb down the population.

Kansas and Texas school boards weren't taken over by anti evolutionists by accident. How can we expect our children to be scientist if they are told in school that the scientific facts that point to evolution are not true? Special interest groups actively try to discredit scientist to put doubt on global climate change.

Why did we stop the conversion to the Metric System in the 80's, or I should ask, what special interest group was the administration paying off? We are now the only nation in the world where are children do not speak the language of science.

The reality is, the right is not interested in fixing this. If they did, they would loose there base.

Caroline said...

I do agree it should be blamed somewhat on the parents. There are too many crack parents in the U.S. who, once their kid reaches jr or sr. high, don't take part their chid's life anymore. That's why our high school standards are so low. Standards haven't dropped. Students are being taught mathematics and writing much sooner than any of the previous generation was...by the time the kids reach high school there's nothing left to teach the kids so they go on to calculus and trigonometry which lots of students won't use. The other part of the blame of dropouts does lie on teachers. High school teachers become much less personal and never do anything about a failing student. People have stopped caring about the individual student and more about test scores.

Of course memoriztion is a bad word now. Students only memorize the information long enough to know it for the test. They don't retain anything memorized more than a couple of months if they don't use it. We rely more on critical thinking and thought process because we have finally realized that students learn differently. We have right AND left brained students. (one operates math and science while the other side operates arts and creativity. Most people are primarily talented in one or the other).

Of course our schools need to be improved but we shouldn't raise the standards anymore. We just need to make things a little more personal and emphasize different subjects in order to retain the students' interest. The moment students feel bored or unimportant they will stop trying.