Sunday, December 28, 2008

What's Wrong With Education

I come from a long line of teachers. My college degree was in teaching, and my brother and sister are both teachers. Mom majored in ed, too, and taught here and there. Grandma taught. Great-grandma taught, back when a teacher had to be a single woman and she couldn't ride in cars with men other than her brother or father... Both of my in-laws are retired teachers, and their families are similarly peppered with lots and lots of teachers.

And so, when we get together we tend to talk about teaching, especially since Megan and Chuck are teaching now. We got together yesterday for lunch to celebrate Christmas with our dad, and the subject turned (returned) to teaching.

I wanted to put some of my ideas down here... Maybe the right person will come across them, someday. Maybe someone with the power to change things will see what I've written and change things, because things really need to change.

I think the whole problem with education stems from the idea that things must be "fair." For example, Megan was grading ISTEP tests, and a girl had gotten an answer correct, in the written portion of the exam, but had written it in the wrong place. The answer was marked wrong.

I understand the reasoning behind this - if one grader marks it correct, but another marks it incorrect, it's not "fair" so in order to be "fair" all answers must be written on the correct line or they're marked wrong, nevermind whether or not the results are indicative of the child's actual knowledge or ability.

It's right to try to be fair, but there comes a point where being too fair ends up being a disservice to all kids, rather than a service to some.

Hasn't anyone else noticed that our schools have performed inversely with respect to the amount we've relied on standardized tests? In other words, the more and the longer we focus on standardized tests (which are extremely "fair" because all of the answers are either right or wrong), the worse our schools get?

Does it strike anyone else that very few things in life actually have right or wrong answers? That most things worth thinking about come in shades of gray? That we'd be better off teaching our kids how to think, rather than how to memorize, even if one's ability to think is difficult to assess and grade?

Think about it. Facts are everywhere. I can use my cell phone from virtually anywhere to find any fact I'm going to need in a matter of moments. It's virtually useless for me to memorize taxonomy (kingdom, phylum, etc. - which I had to do in Bio 101 in college a few years ago - and now I can't remember a single bit of it), when I can look up whether my cat is a Felis domesticus or not (which I just did, thanks) from anywhere if it comes up. Unless you're planning on making a living by being on Jeopardy, it doesn't much matter. However, teaching kids whether it's more reliable to find that info on wikipedia or on or on Encyclopedia Brittanica's website, teaching them how to think in terms of classifying similar things similarly, maybe giving them a dozen imaginary plants and animals, and having them come up with their own taxonomy for those things based on their characteristics - wouldn't that be more useful to 99% of students (excluding the 1% who are going to go on to be taxonomists, biologists, or maybe veterinarians...)? I think so. But it's harder to make up a dozen creatures/plants and to evaluate a project like that than it is to give a multiple choice (or multiple guess) quiz on the structure of taxonomy, etc. and since taxonomy is part of the state standards at some level, and it's going to be on the ISTEP eventually, the kids have to memorize it, and then promptly forget it a few years later.

We need to let go of this idea of fairness, and allow teachers to subjectively evaluate their students, and to trust them as professionals to give lawmakers and school boards an accurate picture of public education (just as we trust professional doctors to give lawmakers and medical boards an accurate picture of public health) in order for them to do their jobs. Otherwise we end up with generations of kids who are extremely useful for filling in little bubbles with #2 pencils, and not much else.

We need to return to the classical model of education that worked for centuries. We need to teach kids about their culture, through reading the Great Books that Everyone Agrees are Important (Shakespeare et. al.). We need to teach in the Socratic method - through careful questioning and investigation, rather than rote memorization and repetition. We need to teach kids how to THINK instead of how to take tests.

Because since I've been an adult, I've had to think quite a lot, but no one has handed me a #2 pencil and told me to fill in bubbles in a very long time.

We need to teach kids how to write without using text messaging-ese and slang, so that if they ever do have the great good fortune to come up with an original thought, they will then be capable of communicating it to the rest of the world. We need to engage them in a way that makes reading and learning more rewarding than watching TV and playing video games, or surfing the web (and good luck with that).

We need to teach our kids to think scientifically - to look at something, develop a hypothesis, test it, revise the hypothesis based on the results of the test, test it again, revise again, etc. until they come up with a theory that's as close to the truth as we can approximate (remember, gravity is still just a theory...).

We need to teach our kids to be curious. But unfortunately it's hard to grade curiousity, and it's easy to bore them half to death with random facts (many of which are in dispute, anyway, so the schools play it safe by choosing the most boring version possible) which we can then test them on. History, for example, is a necessary pursuit - only when we know our history can we prevent its repetition or something like that, right? Well, I remember studying history in school, and it was BORING. It was usually taught by someone who was much more interested in coaching football than teaching history, and who treated it like a study hall where we read the book aloud to one another and then took quizzes and tests. YAWN. Only as an adult have I realized that there's a lot of good stuff in history - sex and greed and violence, comedy and tragedy, great acts of courage and humanity, coincidences that changed the course of the world... If history had been taught as a fascinating story, rather than a bunch of facts to be memorized, I might have spent less time writing notes to Jenny and more time actually learning.

Most of all, we parents need to realize that until the schools undergo a major sea change, the responsibility for all of this will rest with us, not the teachers.

And we need to go to a full year school curriculum, rather than the archaic agrarian practice of having summers off, so that the teachers don't have to spend the first month and a half of school playing catch up every fall.



Mrs. said...

All I can say is "AMEN!" to you!! I'm a new reader to your blog, but as a teacher, and as a mom, I second that emotion. Great articulate statement on much of what ails our educational system today. Happy New Year!

Kathryn said...

You are so right about the way we teach our kids in public school. That is a major reason Ian is in the 2nd grade in a Montessori school. They put a bunch of emphasis on curiosity and directing the children to think for themselves. There is not a "teacher" in the classroom - she is a directress and she doesn't lecture the children in a group, she takes a small group (3 - 5) children and shows them the basics of a concept and how to use the manipulatives and resources and then sends them to be curious and to use the materials to do their work. Last year wasn't the best year for Ian, but this year the curiosity and eagerness for learning has kicked in and he loves to go to school and find out and learn all kinds of new things. He has learned to fill out a weekly planner with all the required works and has the freedom to do them in any order he chooses. He is free to move about the classroom as needed to accomplish his works and he knows that as soon as the requirements are done he may learn more about whatever interests him. They place the burden of discovery and learning in the hands of the child where it should be. They are not spoon-fed but are responsible for their own learning. I am sure this will set the foundation for his future educational experiences.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I know for myself the only things I remember from my years of schooling were the few teachers who made learning fun. Those facts stuck in my head, not the millions I had to memorize.

I'm going to throw something out here. Do you think a lot of it has to do with laziness?? I think you mentioned it in your post where it would be too much work for the teacher to teach the way you described.

I think a lot of teachers aren't qualified to be teaching in the first place, at least here in Canada. They made such an uproar when they wanted the teachers to take tests based on THEIR knowledge of the subject they were teaching. They all refused to do it because they were scared they were going to fail. How sad.

Anonymous said...

well I too agree wholeheartedly, but in regard to dorindmonkey's comments. I have a couple things to say. I think she missed the point to a large extent, particularly about testing! How do you give teachers a test any more than students? And isn't it just as ludicrous to try to test the teachers? Doesn't that miss the boat as much as testing the kids? A teacher can find any "fact" they need to know, they often "bone up" on subjects before they teach them. A teacher is not a walking encyclopedia after all. What is important in a teacher is that they inspire their children to want to learn, that they give them the tools to learn, and teach them how to inquire and find answers to the questions that they come up with. This is exactly what you were saying--that the teachers are so overwhelmed with having to teach facts so that their kids can score well on these inane tests that they don't have the time to teach the things that are really important.
I have a degree in teaching, and I would not want to teach now, because of the burdens that are placed on teachers. When you add to the testing issue, the issues of 1) having little or no support from parents in their efforts 2) having to compete with the speed and flashiness of television and modern media, and 3)spending hours and hours of their time outside the classroom doing school related work, and spending their personal money on school supplies and things for their classroom and then to be not only way underpaid, but also criticized for their easy hours and long vacations; it's no wonder that people don't want to teach, and even many of the really good teachers leave out of frustration. It's a sorry situation when the people that are responsible for the education of our children are so undervalued and underappreciated.
We were a lot better off when teachers were allowed to teach and not just give tests.

Uncle Doug said...

So scary, but youre grumpy ol Uncle who spent 12 years on the school board actually agrees with most of your thoughts, Amy. (scary I know, but deal with it ! :) )

One (just one) of the issues of education is the idea of Accountability, Merit compensation, and "fairness" not only between students, but between teachers!!! It has come to the point in most public education where compensation is based solely on years experience, (and degrees), rather than on actual teaching abilities. I have had this discussion with many teachers and administrators also, and it is only the ones that are NOT doing the job, that are concerned about merit pay or discretionary, and subjective evaluations of teachers... In the interest of "Fairness" a teacher with X amount of years is paid the exact same amount as another, whether they are doing equivalent teaching or not. The translation of university tenure to all teaching levels has done nothing more than level what should not be a level playing field, in the interest of "fairness".

If the private sector had to deal with this tenure type situation like the public schools do, it would likely be failing as well.

Everyone knows there are "good" teachers... and "bad" teachers... Ones that really dont care whether they are doing a good job or not, yet after about 4 years, it is almost impossible to get rid of a bad teacher, if they dont want to go. Further, it makes the "Market" for teachers stagnant, because the way the system is set up, once a teacher is in a system and has this experience, it is very difficult to move between systems.

For a hypothetical, lets say 5-8 years from now, Trey gets a new job in oh, Indianapolis. Megan, who now has 10 years teaching experience wants to move with him. (duh!)
It is going to be VERY hard for her to find a new teaching position in Indianapolis, because of the financial situation of schools. The school has the choice of hiring a BS+0 new teacher at the starting rate, or being REQUIRED to hire Megan at the BS+10 level. Dont even consider it if she has a Masters... Now Megan having 10 years of experience, and of course being one of the worlds best teachers... (well, we think so) can not even be willing to take the starting BS+0 salary (or negotiate something in between) for the job, even if she wanted to. Therefore, schools end up with being unable to hire the best teachers, and instead are forced to hire the most 'economical' teachers. Since there is no competition for starting position jobs, there is no incentive to hire anyone other than the least expensive teacher. And, in the interest of FAIRNESS, the teachers unions have brought that kind of socialistic hiring practice into public schools. Since they dont want teachers performance really evaluated beyond the first 3-4 years, the incentive for higher performance and the resulting recognition (ie. merit pay) does not exist.

Being a public school teacher is one of the most difficult jobs to consistantly and enthusiastically do well, year after year, yet in the interest of fairness, we avoid doing 'real evaluations' nor recognizing exceptionally good or alternatively exceptionally bad performance because we want to assume that every teacher is EQUALLY (fairly) qualified. they are not. Like in any job, performance should be rewarded, not reduced to the least common denominator... (i remember that from math class.... :) )

Amy said...

"So scary, but youre grumpy ol Uncle who spent 12 years on the school board actually agrees with most of your thoughts, Amy. (scary I know, but deal with it ! :) )"

Wow. I've known you almost 33 years, and this is a first. We agree! I think we should celebrate this day annually as the first time you and I agreed on anything!!! :)

So many broken things in education. How do we fix them? Preferably before my kids get into school...


Anonymous said...

Have you considered home schooling your daughters? I understand some people can do that without losing their minds.

Uncle doug said...

Come on... its not the first time... I can think of a number of times but I am not going to expound on them on your blog...

There ARE good school systems out there and you dont have to sequester your children in order for them to get a good education. Its 90% the parental involvment and support anyway, not just the schools themselves...

This is good for a discussion someday. But I am not a fast enough typer...


Dan said...

Dear Amy,

I think that you've hit upon a lot of the right, oft overlooked ideas in the education debate. I was always the dream or nightmare student for my teachers - because I, god forbid, actually wanted to think and learn.

Currently, I'm a business student writing a thesis on how to improve education in our nation. If my proposals are accepted then I'll be getting enough funding and contacts to start making a difference; albeit through the private sector (at least to start). At least a business won't have to wade through the quagmire of special interest groups to get something done.