Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Blag War! Education Reform

My friend Steve, from back when I was at MSU in Springfield, posted a video at his blog that's made the rounds of many education forums lately of a valedictorian criticizing the American school system. It's much along the lines of The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher (hell, she even quotes it) which I think has been discussed to death, so I didn't pay all that much attention to it. The video also rambles on with conspiracy theories and idiotic rhetorical questions ("Is there really such thing as uncritical thinking?") so it's not worth much.

But Steve had some additional commentary that I'd initially overlooked. He'd reposted it today on facebook and I finally took note of it and had some substantial criticisms of it that I'd left in a reply there. But because Facebook isn't conducive to extended conversations, we decided to discuss it more fully in blog posts.

So below is my response to Steve's commentary. Keep in mind this was originally written to him specifically, so there's a few references to some things that are inside references. I've edited it slightly in that light, but am still keeping much of it intact since this is primarily a discussion between us, although anyone else is welcome to chime in.
Reading through this as someone going into education there's some pretty substantial flaws with the reasoning here that jump out at me.

- Students often aren't taught material in earlier levels because it's not pedagogically sound. You have to learn to walk before you can run. Often times, subjects that students learn about later and wonder why it wasn't taught earlier, is because it required higher order thinking skills to discuss properly. This isn't ALWAYS the case and I think the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" is a great example of several things that COULD be included at lower levels. But it begs the question of how necessary they are. To get the general picture, getting into the details isn't necessary, regardless of how cool the topics are.

- You bemoan sticking students all in the same box. But keep in mind that they already are in many respects: They share (largely) the same American culture and they're already in the same school under the same teacher(s). These are boxes that we can't really break without destroying the entire premise of public education to groups of students. Thus, SOME degree of boxing has to be done. There's no way around it.

- While I'm greatly interested in the Native American methods to geometry, from what has been stated here, I question the ultimate usefulness (as well as the usefulness of the other discussed methodologies) in the broader context. The reason is that often such things, while useful at that particular level, are simply "tricks" that don't give any deeper understanding from which higher levels of understanding can be obtained. An example of this is the chart that Dr. Reed used to have students learn to create to do... well, something with the sun... around solstices.... something..... As you can tell, I can't really remember because it was ultimately useless. It would help you get a right answer in ONE instance, but if you were to go beyond that (which is the hope of all education; to provide a solid basis for FURTHER study), it is useless because it doesn't teach you WHY it worked that way. With the information you've provided here, I wonder at the utility of these practices in a broader context.

- You cite your partner as saying that Japan, China, and others start from 0% and work their way up for grading, but fail to make ANY argument of how or why this is better. Mathematically, they're equivalent. Epistemologically, giving students a positive starting point eases stress. Keep in mind Japanese schools have the highest suicide rates of any system in the world!

- She asks "why" standardization fails students, but doesn't actually answer the question. Instead, she answers the question "does?" but, at least from what you've cited, very ineptly. Looking at ONE case study is poor statistics and whether or not there are other variables that should be considered isn't even addressed. For example, one can question the effectiveness of IQ tests. Analysis has shown that they are extremely reliable in the culture in which they're written, but other cultures do extremely well. However, if the other culture uses the same base methodology to create a test, the effects are reversed. Thus, it's not a failure of the inherent nature of the test, but of the differences in cultures into which it is placed rendering it less effective. The same could be asked for test standardization. While I agree that standardization is extremely harmful, it is not inherently bad. It has its applications when not used over zealously. But what you've presented here begs the question, "How would indigenous populations fare if they standardized their OWN tests?" In other words, it should be self obvious that suddenly switching another culture onto OUR standards isn't going to allow them to do well. Additionally, how well equipped were the schools and students to do standardized testing? As we all know, schools that "teach the test" do much better. Did the Native American schools switch to this method or were they still teaching by methods not suited to the test administered? Such questions needs to be addressed before any honest analysis can be made.

- Your cited source compares "traditional" methods of teaching to "mainstream" stating that the latter relies on lecturing in group settings, whereas traditional focuses on individualized instruction and implies (without evidence) that traditional is better because it allows students to learn through "self discovery". While it is absolutely and undoubtedly true that we remember more of what we have learned through our blood, sweat, and tears, what it fails to take into account is the relative RATES of knowledge acquisition between these two methods. When this is taken into account, direct instruction is a far superior method. Allowing students to do things at their own pace with only guiding instruction is dismally slow. For example: Stating a principle and covering it in some depth would take ~1 class. Doing a lab to explore the same principle and cover it from as many angles would take a week. There's great amounts of extra baggage that come with exploration. Thus, we need to see a comparison between the amounts of material being covered in each culture. I have a strong suspicion that American schools have a lot more to cover, especially with ~3/7 of the curriculum being subjects aside from just the traditional Math, Science, Language, and History.

- You also imply the superiority of "observation, self-testing in private". While this too has a decided advantage, it again is missing an obvious point: In a class of 25 students with one teacher, if instruction is private, what are the other 24 students doing at that time? Who watches them? While in an ideal world students would be mature enough to practice their skills diligently, real world experience makes the idea laughable. While other cultures may "respect the ability of a person to learn experimentally" it just doesn't work in OUR culture.

- You note that in the transition from private to public schools, your reading and writing level did not subsequently increase. Have you taken into account other causes for this? I know you're dyslexic which generally manifests at a very early age (generally pre-school), but this isn't always the case. With me, it didn't become apparent until college level. Is it possible that this transition is when it manifested in you and it's just a chance correlation?

- You state the standards of what is to be learned is "bare minimum". How much have you really looked at them? As a teacher who has looked at them directly, I was initially overwhelmed by the amount of material I was expected to cover and make students responsible for.

- You state we need to "adjust [the education system] for various learning types" but do not make any argument of how this is actually feasible. Teachers are trained to cater to numerous learning styles, but at the same time, to what extent? When you get right down to it, EVERY student learns differently. Thus, there are as many learning types as there are students in the class. Is the same material retaught that number of times? No class would get anywhere at that rate! Instead, we tend to recognize about 5 broad learning styles and hit then as best we can. But still, does that mean we teach the same material five times every time? Or perhaps just rotating through styles? If so, then what happens to the students on an individual lesson when their style isn't being catered to? Rather, the "colonial" paradigm is, instead of flexing to people's learning types, we need to train students to be flexible learners. This IS actually part of "colonial" education. We attempt to make students well rounded by having such a diverse background. Whether flexing to students or making students flexible is really working either way is a subject of debate I can't address well.

- Let me again address standardization a bit more: Part of the reason for it is to have a national metric by which to judge success. How can we compare schools when their curriculums may be entirely different? And comparison is necessary. Otherwise, one cannot assess and fix failing schools. This was the point of NCLB. Standardize the curriculum and standardize the method by which schools are judged. Overall, I don't see this as a bad thing. (Rather, the problem most educators have is that NCLB sets expectations for improvement which are impossible without cheating (suspending or expelling students that have issues so they won't be included in the test, overdiagnosing special needs problems to get them out of the appropriate tests, asking that schools improve past a theoretical perfect....). Additionally, they have ridiculous penalties for schools that don't perform and demand that teachers be overqualified in many of the wrong ways, but not qualified in some of the most important ones.) So while standardization isn't great, it's necessary to some extent. I don't support allowing schools too much leeway and allowing much local control because that's when you get local school boards, generally controlled by parents, inserting their religious ideologies into the curriculum. Thus we need strong NATIONAL standards.
I'll edit this post to include Steve's response when he gets it up so the discussion train can be linked.


Stephen Fullerton said...

From Volizden aka Stephen Fullerton

Hey Jon thanks for this Dialogue here is my Blog reply FYI

Looking forward to you reply

R Stephen said...

From Volizden aka Stephen Fullerton

Hey Jon thanks for this Dialogue here is my Blog reply FYI

Looking forward to you reply