Saturday, May 29, 2010

FIXING PUBLIC EDUCATION: ITS FUTURE SHOULD RECOVER ITS PAST

I offer three generalizations about public education. One, the current generation of students is the second one to graduate from high school knowing less than the previous generation. Two, public education has failed so badly that its diplomas assure no one that graduates have mastered a minimum of functional information, skills, or habits of work or study. And three, efforts to address this failure by accountability schemes, especially tests, are counter-productive because they make everyone think of education as something useful only to increase school scores and provide credentials for graduates to get on with their lives.

If we knew and agreed how to fix this failing system and ensured that appropriate resources reformed it, we would have to wait almost a quarter century to see results and almost another quarter century to see their effects on our society, its culture, and its economy. In the meantime, America’s slide from promise, prosperity, and power would continue. It reminds me of a fellow veteran’s comment during the controversy about Agent Orange, a defoliant with harmful effects on humans: he said that it had killed him in Vietnam but that he had not yet died. Thanks to schools of education and their graduates for toxic doctrines, lax standards, and corrupt practices, the failure of public education has finished America as we have known it, but it has not yet fallen.

Education professors and public school teachers will scream in protest, blaming, among others, students and parents most of all. We have heard these screams before; what better defense than a good offense? But the educational priesthood alone decides that the public gets to pay-in, but it gets no buy-in. Teachers alone decide the actual curriculum (not to be confused with the “curriculum maps” on the LCPS website). They alone, unlike others workers, insist on being respected and rewarded for their intentions and efforts, not their results. In fact, they are fighting this administration’s efforts to make data on student performance a measure of teacher performance. Education professors and unionized public school teachers, in fostering and protecting mediocrity, rightly deserve most of the blame for the failure of public education.

Consider the teaching of English. Many of those who can read cannot read with comprehension. Many of those who can write cannot write something informed, coherent, and mostly literate. In my two second-term English classes at NMSU, not a few LCPS graduates could not write short papers on topics of their choice which were cogent and competent, without sentence fragments, splices, and run-ons. They and others, in their ignorance and their indifference to it, committed the gamut of other major as well as minor errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice. Criticism offended them; low grades outraged them. Of course: their incompetence had not prevented LCPS teachers of English from passing them.

Consider the teaching of mathematics. Students are trained to think about numbers and operations, not to use them. They write in journals how they would go about computing or solving instead of doing computations or solving problems. The result: basic incompetence. In an NMSU classroom, I asked a pre-nursing student what ten percent of 500 words are; her answer: 15. In a local store, when I said that printing addresses on 500 envelopes at $0.10 apiece would cost $50.00, the clerk gave me a funny look, walked to the register, and used a calculator to assure herself that I was not pulling a fast one. These LCPS graduates could not multiply by one-tenth, divide by ten, or move a decimal point one place to the left. Yet their incompetence had not prevented LCPS teachers of mathematics from passing them.

What can be done to reverse, however slowly, the wrong direction and continuing decline of public education? I answer by reflecting on my education in the 40s and 50s, which required my classmates and me to master the traditional materials of core subjects in traditional ways. Although most of us went to college, the few who did not were well prepared for careers. And all of us learned not only what was necessary to pursue either path, but also what we needed for better personal and civic lives. I do not believe that our education for colleges or careers yesterday cannot well educate students for college or careers today.

I have three reasons for my belief. One, traditional K-12 curriculums and associated instructional methods (e.g., classroom drills, quizzes, tests; homework memorization, exercises, papers) have a record of working. Two, my teaching experience with students ranging the socio-economic spectrum showed both to work. Three, new-fangled curriculums and methods have failed. Why in the world did education professors and public school teachers “fix” what was not broken? What were they thinking?

Their continuing gabble about individual learning styles and educational plans, fidelity to requirements, exposure to course content, diversity, and multiculturalism sounds like do-good rationalizations for evading and thereby eroding education. For they are not enabling subject-matter mastery, not establishing resulting confidence, and not encouraging student satisfaction so that students can take pride in what they learn in school. It is time to return to providing an education by which students can achieve educational success and a better chance to succeed after graduation.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post and right on, although I would lay more blame on parents. Parents who let their kids watch TV, play video games, and blow off homework deserve what they get. (Unfortunately, we get them too.) Raising three kids to adulthood taught me that the most important things parents can do are read incessantly to their babies and keep the TV off. I sprouted three excellent readers and, consequently, students this way. Try it - it's cheaper than XBOX but takes more of your time.

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