Sunday, July 29, 2007

Concern for Our Children's Education

As a teacher and a parent, I am concerned about the condition of the United States' public education system. I have substituted all grade levels and taught Pre-K and 8th grade for three years each. I remember sitting in my education classes and hearing all about developmentally-appropriate education and child-centered activities, part of me thought this was great, but I also felt that it had been taken too far. The idea that each child is different is nothing new, anyone with more than one child or anyone that grew up with a sibling can tell you that. The idea of letting kids "go at their own pace" bothered me. It probably came from my middle class upbringing, in which my parents instilled a strong work ethic in myself and my sister. We were raised that you had to work for things you wanted, materially or educationally. I could never understand what was wrong with pushing kids to their fullest potential, yet that it what it constantly seemed like I was being told in education courses, that it was bad for them to have to work to learn or to push them mentally. (Now the professors never said this outright, and probably weren't even aware they were advocating it. I think I even asked the question once and got an answer about their self-esteem.) Having worked outside of education, mostly to get through school, I have observed that no where outside of the school environment will a boss make the job "employee(child)-centered" or let you go at your "own pace". There are deadlines in the real world and to teach kids otherwise is a disservice to them.

I spent some time this summer looking for a teaching job in Minnesota and I came across this charter school which utilized "Classical Liberal Arts" education. Basically it means that they believe in giving students a wide variety of knowledge about all subjects and that students should be taught specific facts rather than how to learn or the steps to being a critical thinker. This was how the founding fathers of our nation were taught. I started researching CLAE (Classical Liberal Arts Education) and found that it addressed many of my concerns, and concerns I've heard from other teachers, about what I see in public school. Sadly, I did not get hired on by any of the schools that I applied to. I'm not sad to still be at my current job, but the ideas got me passionate about education again.

In my reading up on the topic, I came across a book by one of the proponents of CLAE. I have lifted part of the conclusion here, because he says the things I've been noticing for years so well. The Romantic movement, in a nutshell, is that we are all wonderful the way God made us and should be allowed to do everything "naturally".

Quoted from "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them" by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

By now it is obvious to everyone that the Romantic-progressive approach to learning has not worked in American public schools. But the dangers remains that Americans will give credence to the continually repeated claims that the "new" ideas have never been properly tired. In the 1990s, that is the only plausible-sounding argument which could be marshaled in defense of these failed Romantic-progressive ideas. The "never-properly-tried" argument is difficult to counter decisively, because any example of failure can instantly be labeled a flawed, inauthentic attempt, while any anecdotal success can instantly be labeled a triumphant vindication of progressivist theory. But the research literature offers not one example of successful implementation of progressivist methods in a carefully controlled longitudinal study. In fact, as I showed in Chapter 4, process-outcome research has consistently shown just the opposite, that the Romantic-progressive approach is always the least effective approach studied. No wonder there is a continual demand by progressivists for new types of assessments that would make these results come out differently! Is is incumbent upon the public and the press to reject this "never-properly-tried" argument. We simply cannot afford more decades of "child-centered" credulity.

I would think that if you been trying an idea for over sixty years, it becomes very difficult to believe that it's not working because of the teachers. I doubt in sixty years that every single person did it wrong.

We cannot afford any more decades dominated by ideas that promote natural, integrated project-learning over focused instruction leading to well-practiced operational skills in reading and mathematics, and well-stocked minds conversant with individual subject matters like history and biology. We need to reject the ill-founded notions that every child learns naturally at his or her own pace and that teaching the child is more important than teaching the subject (whatever that means, beyond failure to teach the subject.) We must not accept the claim that knowing how to learn (which is an abstract skill that does not even exist) is more important than having a broad foundation of factual knowledge that really does enable further learning. We must reject the disparagement of verbal learning and the celebration of "hands-on" learning, based on the false Romantic premise that mere words are inauthentic components of human understanding. We cannot afford still to accept the untrue belief that adequate schooling is natural and painless, and mainly a function of individual talent rather than hard work. We must reject the false claim that delaying learning until the child is "ready" will speed up learning in the long run. We must cease listening to the siren call that learning should be motivated entirely by inward love of the subject and interest in it, without a significant admixture of external incentive. In short, we must cease attending to the Romantic ideas that the reformers of the 1990s, echoing the reformers of the 1902s, '30s, and '40s and all the decades in between, have been pronouncing in chorus. These ideas are emphatically not reforms. They are the long-dominant controlling ideas of our failed schools.

I have discussed similar ideas with many of my colleagues at work, and many of them have seen the damaging effects of making activities pretty all the time, especially in math. Some of you may read this and think that he believes that kids should never do projects or hands-on activities, he says several times in the book that this is not so. I have taken workshops for programs that are suppose to be revolutionary and improve students' scores, and most of the time it is already something we do with a new name and a slight variation. Changing the name of something does not change how it works or improve learning. Changing the title of a program or method is not reform, merely a vocabulary change, it reminds me of the politically correct movement. Altering a title does not change the reality.

I taught Acceleration (a TAKS, standardized test, tutorial class for lack of a better explanation) last year. Previously the kids could get out of the class if they passed a benchmark (practice test), last they could not. This class took the place of an elective and usually they were in math too, which meant they got no elective all year. I can't imagine how fried their brains were at the end of the day. I got to know those kids very well. I encouraged them to work hard with the offer of a individual reward if they improved their score each time and a class party if they all improved. My department head kept saying you have to teach them higher level thinking skills, and I kept telling her, they can think they just don't have the background knowledge. We had two parties that year and after the real test we had another. Out of my 16 students that had never passed the test, or hadn't passed since elementary, 13 passed and everyone scores went up. One of them even got commended, which means he missed less than four problems. I am teaching that class again this year, maybe more than one block, and I will be making my own curriculum.

I have heard people say that teachers don't care anymore, I find this very inaccurate, at least among the teachers I know. I would say they are frequently frustrated with the system in which they work because they are not listened to by the policy makers. I encourage all teachers, board members, and anyone else in education to take a look at this book and studies in psychology and neuro-biology. I plan on giving a copy to my principal and maybe the head of our school board (probably anonymously).