How NOT to Fix the U.S. Educational System, Part 7,249

22 Feb

As many of you who’ve been reading my work know, the topic of educational reform is near and dear to my heart.  While hardly 3rd-worldesque, the U.S. educational system is no-where close to where it should be, although I’d love LOVE to hear anyone argue the contrary.

I started agitating, personally, for reform while I was still in Middle School, although quite clearly, my efforts were largely in vain.  Since High School, I wondered why the “normal” courses were such a joke, where even friends who weren’t the studious type could eek by with a B (if not higher) with little, if any real dedication.  I’m not arguing that everyone in America needs to be able to crank-out differential calculus by the age of 18, not hardly, as that’d be an inefficient use of time and resources.  However, on the other hand, there is NO EXCUSE for an American High School graduate to fail basic algebra, geometry, and worse, arithmetic!

This weekend, the NY Times brings us news of the most recent, and naturally brilliant, reform approach, which would allow students passing a battery of “competency” tests to graduate after only 2 years.  Proponents of this plan argue:

Kentucky’s commissioner of education, Terry Holliday, said high school graduation requirements there had long been based on having students accumulate enough course credits to graduate.

“This would reform that,” Dr. Holliday said. “We’ve been tied to seat time for 100 years. This would allow an approach based on subject mastery — a system based around move-on-when-ready.”

The new system aims to provide students with a clear outline of what they need to study to succeed, said Phil Daro, a consultant based in Berkeley, Calif., who is a member of an advisory committee for the effort.

Naturally, I agree, the current system could use some work (to say the least!), but as I mentioned earlier, when a mediocre student can  coast through with C’s, clearly the intent of education is being mangled, if not completely mocked.  My main concern with this plan, namely the idea of  “an approach based on subject mastery” relies entirely on administrators to determine these thresholds, which, in my experience, is a recipe for failure.

Additionally, I’m not sure what other public schools get away with, but at my High School (admittedly one of the less-terrible ones) and several others that friends attended, it wasn’t exactly a mystery what was required to pass a given course, nor, do I believe, has it really ever been.  For all but those with serious learning disabilities (and not always then, either), hard work and dedication are almost always enough to get through basic High School course work.  Again, in my experience, most people hardly give it anything close to 100% in High School, even in the Honors and AP classes I took (guilty as charged, whoops!).  I don’t think the problem, is that kids don’t know what it takes to succeed academically, its just their too lazy and unmotivated to do it, even when told exactly what it takes (uh, ever heard of a Syllabus?).  Alas,  I fear this plan’s proponents are even more deluded (nay, high on their own supply) than I initially thought:

School systems like Singapore’s promise students that if they diligently study the material in their course syllabuses, they will do well on their examinations, Mr. Daro said. “In the U.S., by contrast, all is murky,” he said. “Students do not have a clear idea of where to apply their effort, and the system makes no coherent attempt to reward learning.”

Its backers say the new system would reduce the need for community colleges to offer remedial courses because the passing score for the 10th-grade tests would be set at the level necessary to succeed in first-year college courses. Failure would provide 10th graders with an early warning system about the knowledge and skills they need to master in high school before seeking to enroll in college.

Currently, many high school graduates enrolling in community colleges are stunned to find that they cannot pass the math and English exams those colleges use to determine who need remediation.

As noted, I’m all for innovative reform that incentivizes learning and academic achievement, but when the hell did the overall mentality in this country become so freaking lazy (…he said semi-sarcastically)?  From what (little) I know about culture in Singapore (and many parts of Asia), parents virtually beat the importance/necessity of educational excellence into their kids heads from birth.  Here, even in wealthy areas with good schools, I see parents who appear to not give less of a shit about their childrens’ academic efforts, so long as they never get one of “those” calls from a teacher or school administrator.  If the goal is to get students to “diligently study the material in their course syllabi” (with the fairly well-documented non-sequitur that such diligence will inevitably lead to success on exams), then parents MUST be brought into the picture.  I don’t have the answer here, but you cannot expect students to bust their ass when, after the bell ends at the end of the day, they’re free to run amok doing whatever the hell they want.

Further, this plan hardly encourages lifetime, or even long-term learning;  Quite the contrary, it encourages cramming, wrote-learning, and doing just enough to pass the exams to get the hell out of Dodge, er, High School.  Kinda like the FINRA Series 7 exam basically everyone in the Securities business has to take; virtually no one, and I mean NO one remembers half the material by the time they leave the testing center, because it tests crap most of us will never have to use again.  Similarly, just because a kid can pass a math test at Tzero doesn’t mean he’s retained those skills to actually use T+x months or years down the road.  Hell, I used to be able to do Integrals in my head and program in C++, VB, and Pascal!  Now, let’s just say I don’t exactly look forward to reading through some of the quantitative finance papers friends and colleagues have asked me to review.

The point is, ladies & gentlemen, that if the goal is to measure competency at date T and shove the kids out the door to whatever comes next, then this approach is pretty close to idea.  However, if the goal is to encourage students to REALLY LEARN the material, to embrace it, to use that knowledge, then this approach is sure to be an epic failure.

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4 Responses to “How NOT to Fix the U.S. Educational System, Part 7,249”

  1. Tiger Lily February 23, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    Great post. In my opinion, the whole reason behind the education system’s failings is the system’s attitude of requiring low expectations from students. Schools are unwilling to increase the intellectual scope of the material because it will require “more hard work” from just about everyone involved – more time doing homework for students, more effort from teachers, angry backlash from mollycoddling parents, huge administrative upheaval, etc. Perpetuating this is the idea among all key players that high school is the last time in your life for “fun”, and should not be taken seriously. No one seems to be interested in trying to bridge the gap from high school to college expectations.

    Once again, great stuff. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    • Anal_yst February 23, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

      Absolutely agreed, however, and I’m hardly an educational/cultural historian, what I’m curious about is this:

      When most of our (U.S.) ancestors were immigrating to America, parents, many of whom held down REALLY blue collar, manual labor type jobs, beat the importance of education into their kids. This traditional of parental support for hard work resulting in academic, and later career success seems to have held-up through somewhere around the middle of the 20th century (+/-), but as far as I can tell, as the overall standard of living has improved, there seems to be an indirect correlation with the level of parental involvement/encouragement/etc in childrens’ educational endeavors.

      I am convinced (and welcome anyone to challenge this belief, of course), that the so-called “destruction of the middle class” in this country is related to the deterioration in educational achievement (and the drivers thereof). I don’t have the time at the moment to put it together, but I’d expect the distribution of SAT scores (or another proxy) would correlate quite nicely with income distribution (i.e. very few at the top, most in the low-to-middle), very large raw score jumps to higher percentiles, etc.

  2. Tim February 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    The hardest part, in my opinion, is developing that foresight in students – that the amount of work and dedication they put in during high school will have a significant impact on their future. A great deal of students can coast and make it through with half decent grades and think they’ve come out on top….meanwhile they are already leaps behind their top peers here, let alone the influx of foreign students who have been rigorously developing their skills since much younger ages. It starts in the house, without a doubt, but no one talks about that because no one knows how to address it. So they go the lazy route and craft poor policy or just throw more money at the system in hopes of improving meaningless statistics.

    Where do you begin, then? The system does need to be reworked, and the achievement based (as opposed to credit/hour) system seems like a good idea, but perhaps setting up more top flight intellectual scholarships is the answer…not sure how else you promote student interest in highly intellectual fields, than to say “work really hard and you won’t have to pay for school and you have a chance to earn a lot of money down the road.” Addressing the in home aspect is quagmire though and one I still have to think about…

    • Anal_yst February 23, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

      Agreed with your points, naturally.

      I, like you, am not sure how to address the home-motivation factor. Some studies I’ve read suggest that the more-educated the parents, the more likely they are to promote education of their progeny. Others talk about what, in my opinion, miss the larger issue, that the more books parents keep in the home, the more academic success the child will achieve.

      While I don’t disagree with either of these findings, the questions in my mind is whether, generally or as a Country, we’ve collectively reached that comfort level where many people don’t feel compelled (for whatever reason(s)) to push harder. I watched some of my friends and acquaintances educational progress as we grew-up, some of whom came from wealthy, educated parents, drift aimlessly through the system. Others, with the same background, pushed, and excelled.

      Parenting is hard enough with just the basics, but I don’t think we can ever discuss how to improve the U.S. educational system without bringing parents more into the analysis. There’s not much, if anything, even the best teacher can do if his/her students go home and play xbox until they go to bed every night, after all.

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