This Week in the “We Are So Screwed!” Department…

15 Feb

While Chinese tiger-moms flip-out on their kids if they don’t get into Harvard AND Julliard by age 16 (if not earlier!), according to a report released last month, it seems many – too many – American parents are content to let their children fail basic scientific proficiency tests.  This does not bode well for our role as the most innovative Country in the world, to say the least…

Here’s some background:

The figures, which cover tests in 2009, come from the National Assessment of Educational Assessment Progress, which is also known by the catchier brand name “The Nation’s Report Card.” It’s not a test of all students, but rather 156,500 fourth-graders, 15,100 eighth-graders and a surprisingly low 11,100 twelfth-graders.

The selection process involved picking schools that best represented the national, state and local demographics, and then picking students at random from these schools. Students with disabilities or other special educational needs were given special conditions (such as additional time) along the lines of what they would receive on a state exam basis.  The results led to students being graded as achieving a basic, proficient or advanced level for their age group

The numbers really speak for themselves, and what they’re saying certainly ain’t good (emphasis mine).

Among fourth graders, 72% reached at least the basic grade, 34% reached at least proficient, and 1% reached the advanced level. That left 28% that failed to reach the basic grade.

Among eighth-graders, 27% failed to reach basic, 63% reached at least basic, 30% reached at least proficient, and 2% reached advanced.

In the twelfth-grade, 40% failed to reach basic, 60% reached at least basic, 21% reached at least proficient, and 1% reached advanced.

While I’m hardly surprised that only 1-2% of students tested reached “Advanced” proficiency levels (other studies have suggested similar results), I’m TERRIFIED by the % of students who failed to achieve even basic proficiency, especially considering how proficiency levels are defined:

The bar isn’t exactly set too high with definitions like these, yet an insane amount of students are still failing to clear these low hurdles.  I have some Asian and Russian/Eastern European friends who were doing the AP Calculus BC curriculum in by the equivalent of 8th or 9th grade in the U.S. (that class is usually taken in 12th grade here, and only by a very, very small % of students).  By these definitions, advanced 12th graders only have to “recognize a nuclear fission reaction;” not explain, just recognize.  That is NOT FREAKING ROCKET SCIENCE! The reaction is NOT THAT HARD to recognize!

I should mention that I’m coming at this from a perspective likely far different than that of most Americans (although some if not many of my readers may share a similar one).  I’m caucasian, both my parents have advanced degrees, and I grew up in a relatively affluent suburb in North NJ with relatively good public schools.  My parents were also pretty involved in making sure I did well in school.

Enough about me, though.

There’s been study after study (after study) about how to improve science & math education/performance in this Country for at least 2 decades, meanwhile there’s been little in the way of progress.  Surely part of this is due to demographics, societal norms/trends, and the like, but I believe from my experience and research the three fundamental drivers of math/science achievement (ignoring disability, etc) are the rigor of the academic programs, skill/knowledge of the instructor, and the pressure and guidance applied to students by their parents to succeed academically.

I’m not a parent but I know I was a little bastard growing up, so I realize that raising a kid is HARD!  Alot of kids I grew up with, even those who came from families similar to mine, simply didn’t care about math and science, and its clear their parents didn’t care much, either (otherwise they wouldn’t be buying their kids cars for getting C’s in regular-level science classes).  If parents in affluent cities/suburbs aren’t pushing their kids to achieve in the classroom, what chance do underprivileged kids in ghettos and inner cities have?

I’m also not a teacher, but I had a whole bunch of crappy ones (and a few very good ones) growing up, all the way from elementary school through graduate school.  I also know a few teachers and have spent a good deal of time talking to them about things like this.  I think tenure needs to go.  It does not exist – explicitly – in any other field, so why should it in education?  It’s a perverse incentive that encourages mediocrity where we should be promoting excellence and punishing repeated failure (this is a more nuanced discussion for another time).

I had the distinct pleasure of being part of a “guinnea pig” class of a new science curriculum in NJ in highschool.  Instead of traditional progression of Bio, Chem, Chem 2 or Bio 2, Physics, we had something like Geophysical Systems, Biochemical Systems, Choice of Chem/Bio, and senior year I think it was either Physics, Chem, Bio or even nothing.  Not only has the curriculum been moving in the wrong direction (away from teaching more in-depth/complex subject matter), but some of the teachers were just downright awful, both the “new breed” and the tenured ones.

My teacher for Freshman year “Geophysical Systems” (or whatever the hell it was called) spent a week teaching basic electronics, and I told her the entire week she was teaching it wrong (Dad had taught me this stuff years beforehand).  My reward for trying to help was being forced to sit in the front row with the threat of detention if I “mouthed off” anymore.

Fast forward to the following Monday, and the teacher came in and literally told us to throw out our notes from the prior week, that she was going to re-teach the lesson.  Last I checked, this teacher was given early tenure and may now even be a department head.  Awesome, right?

I don’t expect every kid to be a math/science genius, nor do I think such an goal is even optimal were it even possible!  Some kids are going to be great (or even just good or realistically mediocre) artists, tradespeople, or any number of careers in which they’ll ever need to know anything trigonometry or organic chemistry.  Generally, is it better to have a more-educated population than a less-educated one? Absolutely, and we should make every reasonable effort (with respect to marginal utility) to increase the level of education of the population.  This is especially true if our future really is going to one of  and “idea” or “service” economy.

I think a better educational system would be one that identifies – relatively early on – the kids who are unlikely to (due to interest and aptitude) achieve academic success in math/science, as well as those who are unlikely to achieve success in the humanities and/or trades.  While all should be encouraged to improve their weak spots, we shouldn’t encourage – or worse, force – the kid who wants to be a writer or painter to take AP Physics, nor should we force the kid who wants to be a computer programmer to be in band/choir/art.

Similarly, we should not be forcing kids who want to work on cars (etc) to take all these classes the lessons from which they’re unlikely to ever really use.  By Senior year of highschool, the kids that are going to be/want to be trades workers should be encouraged to pursue such careers, not encouraged to spend all their time on academic study so they can waste another 4 years and $100,000+ at University!

Being well-rounded is certainly preferable to extreme specialization – especially at such a young age – but the current approach that essentially (excepting those at the very top who generally excel in most/all subjects) aims to make everyone a “jack of all trades, master of none” is in need of serious overhaul.  Such an overhaul would do wonders to slow if not reverse the damage done to our manufacturing/industrial base while ensuring a we have a well-educated “intellectual” labor force competitive with the likes of those in Asia and other countries.


One Response to “This Week in the “We Are So Screwed!” Department…”

  1. teknophilia February 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    There are a lot of incentives for people to pursue STEM majors, like scholarships, internships and other programs; but the stigma attached to these areas as hard, or boring makes most people avoid them.

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