Friday, July 10, 2009

Education Means Anything Except Teaching

As my children have navigated their way through the California public school system, I have had a parent's view of another of my favorite examples of the decline of the human species - the education system. I need to throw out a disclaimer that I am NOT a product of the same school system - I was sentenced to 8 years at a small Catholic school, and was not released into the public school system until high school. So, my personal experience was MUCH different than the modern public school - but I think that also allows me to look at the current system as a complete outsider.

My kids were very fortunate, a brand new elementary school was opened in our neighborhood when my oldest son entered 2nd grade. The new school was really excellent - the principal was top-notch and she hand-picked her crew of teachers. However, even this ideal situation was flawed. At my son's previous school (only 3 miles away) the first grade program had embraced a hand writing method called the D'Nealian Method. OK - I don't know why they felt they needed to use a method that none of the parents knew anything about, but if they thought it was an improvement - OK. But unfortunately when he got to the 2nd grade, they announced they had abandoned the D'Nealian Method and gone back to the more traditional Zaner-Bloser Method. So, after having the slanted, curly D'Nealian method drilled into him for an entire year, he was now told everything he was doing was incorrect, and he now needed to try to both advance his skills AND re-learn the basics at the same time. Since 1st and 2nd grades are critical in the development of writing skills - he was seriously screwed, and I honestly believe this affected him at a crucial time and continues to affect him. My daughter (who is younger) was more fortunate and did not have this disruption.

But, all-in-all, elementary school was fabulous - especially when compared to middle school. Middle school is an absolute nightmare. It is the worst combination of jaded, uncaring teachers plus draconian, inane school policies plus obnoxious, viscous preteens - all jammed together in an over-crowded and under-maintained facility. Kids learn some important skills in middle school - they learn there is safety in groups, they learn that the weak become targets, and they learn that adults will not always be around to save them. Is this really what we want to teach our 11 to 13 year old children? But it's not just that it isn't a safe environment - they also fail inside the classrooms.

The middle school curriculum is bizarre. For the first time, kids are categorized and segregated - both by their abilities and also by their interests. But God help your child if they don't fit in one of the available categories. Your child has one big decision to make. If they want to take ANY music, then they give up all of their electives and take music for the 3 years of middle school. They are not able to take shop or computers or art - only music. Or, if they choose not to take music, then they can choose from a variety of electives - but they can not take any music classes. Why? Who decided that at 11 years old you need to decide that music is more important than anything else? It is yet another ridiculous and arbitrary rule created by the group that believes they are the only ones who are qualified to know what is best for our children - the educators.

The educators like to blame the parents for not helping to educate our children. I call Bull Crap. The school system doesn't want our help. If they did, they would actually communicate to the parents about the assignments that are coming up, the topics they are teaching and references we can use to help our kids complete the assignments. A very small minority of teachers use tools like Parent Connect to inform us of the scores our children have received - but even the best of them give us those scores only AFTER the assignment - they do not tell us what the assignment is, or when it will be due BEFORE the due date. Why not? Don't they know what assignments they are going to assign? Isn't it nearly identical as it was last year and the year before? Here's a new flash to the school system - the parents can't help if we don't know what you are doing in the classroom! You can't honestly believe we are going to find out everything from our kids, can you? Have you talked to our kids? They can't remember what they had for lunch, let alone what assignments were issued. You claim that it is the kids responsibility to keep track of the assignments - but which is more important - the lesson in accountability or turning in the book report? Gee - since you only issue a grade for the report, maybe that should be the priority, no?

The schools are completely focused on the state testing scores. That's really a shame - because focusing on standardized testing is not going to produce better students or better human beings. Should there be standardized testing? Yes, there should - it is the only way I know to evaluate a large population. However, there is a fundamental problem with using standardized test scores and ignoring that problem completely oversimplifies the reality of teaching children. As an example, I use my own experience in a college engineering class. The department head decided to evaluate the different teachers all teaching the same class by having each teacher submit two questions for the final exam. Every class would take the same final, and the test would be composed of all the questions from each of the instructors. When I took the final, it was obvious which two questions came from my instructor. I easily solved those problems. The questions from the other instructors were MUCH more difficult - I didn't understand the problem statements and I didn't have a good grasp on how to approach the problem. When I spoke to students from the other classes, they felt exactly the same - the problems from their own instructors were easy, but the others were extremely difficult.

What does this example show? It shows that how problems are presented is just as important as the core concepts being learned. All of those instructors were presenting the same concepts - but how they presented those concepts and the example problems they used to illustrate the ideas differed. I have no doubt that with enough time and with access to the right reference materials, we could have all figured out all of the problems - but in a test environment you don't have a lot of time or any references - you either recognize the problem and the solution approach, or you probably aren't going to get that problem correct. I believe the same situation affects the state standardized testing. Problems that the kids recognize are solved easily, those that are not recognized are probably not solved. Of course there are kids who do well no matter what - and there are kids who will not do well - but the vast majority in the middle of the bell curve are the ones being hurt - and that is the overwhelming majority of our children!

Of course, the schools are focused on the state testing because their funding is tied to the test results. I'm not sure that's the right metric to be used for school funding. It's tempting to make the funding performance based, because we want the schools to have incentive to succeed. I agree the schools need to be held accountable for their performance, but if the standardized testing is flawed (and I claim it is) then that's the wrong metric to use for funding decisions. I would rather see the schools judged against standards, but controlled more locally. And part of that local control is parent involvement in the policy decisions at their schools. I'm not talking about the PTA or the other pretend organizations - and I'm also not talking about the school board or the other political/bureaucratic bodies - I'm talking about parents with kids currently in the school with a seat at the management table and with direct input and visibility into the operations of our schools and how the money is spent.

Would this work? I have no idea. Could it be worse than what we have now? I very much doubt it! I believe it would elevate the issues that matter to parents, and it would blunt the schools penchant for using the parents as their excuse for their own poor performance. I want the accountability at ALL levels on ALL parties - the kids, the parents, the teachers AND the administrators.

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