Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What's Wrong With Education

The US scores poorly against other countries in multiple subjects. One response has been to call for more school funding. I have a better idea - let's fire all of the teachers and replace them with people who will actually teach their subjects.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. An english teacher wrote to the Columbus Dispatch in response to a suggestion that teachers should be evaluated according to how their students do in standardized tests.

I will not teach my students the 21st-century skills of working collaboratively, using technology wisely or communicating effectively (except in the short-answer or five-paragraph-essay formats). I will not teach them how to be problem-solvers, how to be innovative or how to work well in a culturally diverse environment. I will not encourage creativity or original thought. My students and I will not discuss how literature connects with and reflects on our lives.

I will teach them the important skill of how to take a test. In class we will scrutinize multiple-choice tests, reading random passages out of context with no relevance to their lives. I will teach them how to bubble in correctly and how to erase completely. They will learn the difference between a No. 2 and a No. 3 pencil.

I will get to school at 7:15 a.m. and leave promptly at 2:45 p.m. I will take nothing home with me. I will stop caring whether my students have enough to eat (except on testing days, of course), whether they are able to sleep between the gunshots or their parents' screams, whether they are depressed or whether they have time or a place to do their homework. I won't ask why they are crying or where those new cuts came from. I will care only about how well they can take a test.

This is part of a common complaint by teachers about "teaching to the test". It is also symptomatic of the teaching profession as a whole. They don't teach their subject any longer. Instead of teaching high school English, this teacher is teaching "problem solving", "using technology wisely", and "working well in a culturally diverse environment".

I suspect that most parents, when they see that their child is taking English, expects that the class will consist of reading an analyzing English literature or will teach proper grammar and word usage. Instead he has gone off on his own.

Schools are redundant. The same basic skills are taught at different levels. If a single high school teacher goes off the tracks and teaches his own curriculum instead of the one in his job description then his students will still have a working set of skills. But what happens when a lot of teachers stop teaching their subjects? Test scores decline against other countries where the teachers still teach what they are supposed to.

That is why standardized tests are so important. We need to see if the teachers are actually imparting any knowledge in relevant subjects. Teachers take this as an affront because it gives them less control over what they can teach. Tough. If they had been teaching their subjects in the first place then this would never have come up.

There are other harmful theories in modern education. Many teachers insist that their job is not to impart knowledge. Instead they feel that their job is to instill a desire for knowledge in their students. This sounds nice but to date no one has found the magic formula to do this. The worst example of this sort of mushy thinking was a math course called "Mathland" which was used briefly in California in the mid-1990s. No actual math was involved. Students were judged on how much effort and reasoning they put into problem solving. Someone who got the right answer would get a lower score than someone who put more effort into getting a wrong answer.

In contrast to this feel-good philosophy, studies have shown that the only way to teach math is the old fashioned way - memorizing tables and doing drills. It works but it is boring and modern teachers hate to make the kids work so hard (to say nothing of having to score all of those worksheets) so few schools do this any longer. They don't even teach long multiplication or long division any longer. Instead they teach the students to use estimates and to depend on calculators.

Then there is the cult of self-esteem. Educators don't want to make the kids feel bad by letting them know that some students are smarter than others. It used to be a joke that the kids at Lake Woebegone were all above average. Now it is the grade curve. How else can you explain students graduating with grade point average of 4.5 on a four point scale? Or a class having multiple valedictorians?

So, we need to purge the schools of anyone who has ever taken a class in education and start over again with teachers who actually teach.

No comments: