October 11, 2004

beginning at the middle

As I sit down to organize my thoughts about the best approach to fixing our public education system, I feel a bit like policy makers must have felt in pursuing a fix of US equity markets after the crash of 1929. Events have demonstrated with devastating clarity that the system is broke and no serious person with any knowledge of the situation denies that repair are in order, but the task is so daunting that it is hard to know where to begin.

So, lets begin toward the end: High School.

High School in America is a joke for most children. Academic standards are ridiculously low and distractions are ridiculously high. I think more than any other phase of childhood education, this is where the most radical change will be necessary. Or at least radical in the sense of changing our collective notion of what High School is all about.

The problem of where to begin thus pops up immediately because the first change I would make in High School is to reintroduce the 8th Grade diploma. Bear with me: I have to start somewhere. For the purpose of discussion, I’m assuming some fixing has gone on at early grade levels because a functional illiterate who holds an 8th Grade diploma is no better off than a functional illiterate holding a 12th Grade diploma. My idea in this regard is that by 8th grade graduation, surely it is reasonable to expect that a pupil will have adequately covered the three Rs.

Creating this bright line distinction and enforcing that the diploma actually means something would free the High School years for something more useful. Anyone who has been to High School in the last forty years understands that are kids who are going to college and those who are not-High School should reflect that reality. Kids who are college bound should get a real college-prep school where things like Calculus, Greek and written examination are the norm and not just reserved for those that track high based on the tests. Similarly, kids who choose vocational programs should get the real deal: actually learning how to be an electrician and how to get a job.

And before I go further, comment posts regarding how great their High School’s Advanced Placement programs were will be summarily deleted: I’m talking about the real world, not the privileged suburbanite wonderland that most of this Curmudgeon’s friends went to school in and send their kids to as adults. OK, not really. I still have an open posting policy, but I will ignore such dribble.

Here is the great news in my proposed scheme: because the 8th Grade education means that the basic skills have been acquired, switching between College Prep and Vocational programs is greatly simplified. Certainly remedial work would be necessary going either direction, but the artificial wall that says, “since you scored low on an exam in fourth grade, there is no way you are getting into Calculus” can be done away with forever. And as a bonus, the High School drop out would find themselves looking for work yet possessing skills that would actually make them useful to potential employers. I’ll bet we can get Wal-Mart to pay for some of this just because of the tremendous off-set they would get from not having to perform so much remedial education.

This transition would be tough, but worth it. And though I like these ideas, I think they still come up short in addressing some of the underlying social problems.

Which, of course, leads me to other radical ideas.

Eliminating sports from public education really shouldn’t seem all that radical. But it is clear that we must do this if we are to get serious. Lets face it, the transition period alone will be so difficult that the kids must be freed from distraction. There is nothing at all radical about suggesting that our kids focus on academics. Sports is the 800 pound gorilla that dominates on our public school campuses and it is time to cage the beast.

If you are distressed by this possibility, I would ask you examine closely why it is so bothersome to you. Then weigh that against the inadequate education of generations of kids and see how the scales do not balance.

It isn’t that I think Physical activity is unimportant for kids, because I certainly see the utility. And I definitely would not abandon Physical Education for younger kids as the serotonin regulation is itself invaluable to a good academic atmosphere. The problem is the culture we create around athletics in the older grades that is damaging to the athletes and to the students. And frankly, it just isn’t as important as an education.

Hey, if you kid is the next Tony Mandarich, send him to an after school program for the physically gifted. There simply is no more time to waste on half-measures and idealistic bull-feathers.

And if you think this simple plan is radical, just wait till you hear what I want to do to elementary schools.

10 Comments:

Blogger Tony Plank said...

I fear education interest with my suffering blog readers has run its course...as I suspected it would. Seems like nobody gets riled up over this topic quite like this Curmudgeon does. Which is of course the premise of the posting that started the educational theme and why I hesitated to start talking about this subject in the first place.

Ah well, back to more conventional topics soon!

9:44 AM  
Blogger Common Good said...

Maybe everyone agrees with you on this one. I certainly do when it comes to removing the jock culture from our public schools. Plato suggested gymnastics... maybe that's the way to go. :)

btw... Wal-Mart is the devil.

CG

9:58 AM  
Blogger Prof. Ricardo said...

Tony,

As you weigh different strategies for the renovation of the government schools, you may want to take into consideration the financial incentives and psychological aspects that make this behemoth a very healthy independent monster that creates more problems than it solves.

Financially. Public schools have a guaranteed customer base. Mandatory school attendance laws have been expanding the number of years required of children to be incarcerated. Currently in Texas that figure stands at 12 years. The last couple of years we have hade a couple of proposed laws in Texas to add kindergarten on one end and a 13th year onto the other end. It was governments answer to not accomplishing in 12 years what our forefathers did in so little time. This extra time gives the government an increased customer base of enormous proportions. If we add one more year of incarceration, how many more teachers, books, school rooms, tax base/rate, administrators and other worthless individuals, would be necessary?

The fact is, educating takes very little time. You can learn to read in two weeks. In two months you can read fluently. You can teach concentrated history in short order. You can knock out geography, science, and English grammar so quickly. Why does it take so long now? Two major reasons. First, we are teaching children too early. Although some children pick up on reading at age 4, many are not ready till they are 6, 7, 8, 9, or even 10. But we sit little energy packed tykes in desks and drill them with boring whole language books like Dick and Jane, or more probable today, Heather Has Two Mommies. Reading is for information and enjoyment. What information do four year olds need that they can’t get from their parents? As children experience a need to read, that incentive drives them to readily receive reading instruction. What enjoyment is there in reading some seriously pathetic books that permeate the libraries at government schools?

Second, twelve years is an awful long time and we have to find something for the children to do. So we drag out the learning process, make it boring as oatmeal, and when the children, nonverbally rebel from the frustration of meaningless monotony by fidgeting, we tank them on Ritalin so that a new generation of glazed robots can sit quite compliantly while the years march by. Makes the job easier for the teaching staff too.

As for the psychology of sports, this involves the child in something they might actually like to do, and the parents of the child to cheer him on. They cheer on the team, the school, and the child. A remarkable PR move by schools to bring parents on board, build team spirit, all the while, Johnny can’t read, or can but hates to, and his natural inquisitiveness is squashed.

I realize all this sounds negative. I think the negativism is purely in the subject and not spin I created. I think that you’re on the right track releasing some children from incarceration at the 8th grade. I personally think that mandatory attendance laws should be eliminated. This would take care of the discipline problems so obstructive to current education. The schools can’t throw them out for bad behavior, unless they leave a butter knife, fingernail clipper, or other dangerous weapon in their car. So children continue to misbehave and disrupt class. Make attendance voluntary, boot Johnny if he acts up, and parents will see to it Johnny doesn’t act up any more. If you go voluntarily, then you’re there to learn, not to serve time. America had an incredibly high literacy rate before mandatory attendance laws. The average person was well read, studied far more difficult material than we are exposed to today. Just read our founders writings or any other material written in the 1700 & 1800's.

Because of the near idolatry of the public school system, we must triage this terminal experiment, I feel, at the expense of what our children could be, had their Ritalin riddled bodies not been placed on the alter of the public school system.

Prof. Ricardo

5:06 PM  
Blogger Tony Plank said...

Prof,

I agree with much of what you said. I have no problem with eliminating mandatory attendance laws though my concern would be parents using that as an excuse to not encourage their kids to go. I have a very low opinion of the average parent.

The biggest thing that I disagree with is what you are saying about kids learning to read later in life. I would be the last person to fit kids in a box and say every child must learn X skill by age Y. That said, there is a lot of study that supports that language skills are much more readily acquired at young ages. Additionally, the stimulation of different neural pathways can have complimentary affects as the neurological system develops in young children.

But more fundamentally what you were saying about strapping kids down into desks and expecting them to be little robots is well taken. This is an issue we are facing with my own Son now. Many kids don’t do that well and schools should adapt to that reality. Private schools certainly are and are even catering to these active children which tend to be statistically higher on different types of intelligence tests. I won’t hold my breath for the public schools to change. That would be asking way to much.

One of the other things I was planning to write about, but do to lack of interest I probably will not, is the concept of also bringing back the elementary school diploma. As a part of that, I would totally change the classroom environment and cater to young children’s different learning styles in a comprehensive fashion. This would ensure that the 3 Rs could be reliably implanted by the end of 5th grade-thus freeing them from “bondage” even sooner. This would leave the middle years as a time for exploration where children could find their areas of excellence and build on that through choosing a college prep or vocational program that fits them as individuals.

Thanks for the interesting post.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Prof. Ricardo said...

Tony: “The biggest thing that I disagree with is what you are saying about kids learning to read later in life.”

I checked out from my library a book you may want to read as you continue your research: Better Late Than Early: A New Approach to Your Child's Education by Raymond S & Dorothy N Moore. Their research and insight is illuminating.

Additionally, I had an individual tell me he waited to teach one of his children till the child was 10. When the child finally learned to read, it was over the course of a two week vacation. That’s right, he learned to read fluently by phonics in a car (home schoolers obviously) in two weeks. Once he learned, they couldn’t pry books out of his hands. He enjoyed reading. I’m not talking Dick and Jane. He reads The Iliad by Homer, and the like. Did he miss out on reading some simplified books in the meantime? Sure. But now he has a love of reading that will last him a lifetime. Compare that with what the average child today feels about reading.

You are right, children are different, and this is not for everybody. We succumbed to adult peer pressure and not wanting those who were against, or skeptical of our homeschooling, to have a bad opinion of us and our choice, we forced reading onto our son who was not ready for it. Sure, today he’s read The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Moby Dick, one of the Jane Austen books, etc. But I think we could have saved an awful lot of frustration on his part by waiting a year or two or three. Learning is fun. We shouldn’t make it such a chore.

Prof. Ricardo

8:53 PM  
Blogger Tony Plank said...

Prof,

I am not really disagreeing that some kids probably do learn to read better later in life. But like you, I am colored by my own experiences. I was an early reader myself and have trouble imagining what it would be like to have had it any other way. And my Son is just now starting the Chronicles of Narnia-he is five and a half.

The point is early reading isn’t for everyone, and late reading isn’t for everyone. It isn’t like one way is right or wrong in this regard. One downside is that I am a horrible speller and already I am noticing that my Son does not spell well: just last night he wanted help spelling a very simple word with which he was very familiar. Bottom line is parents need to be aware that there is a whole universe of learning styles and teaching techniques and that if they will take the time to fit things to their kid’s learning style, the possibilities are endless.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Texas Conservative said...

Alas, you may be correct with your first comment. There are so many problems with our school system that I can faintly muster the energy to tackle it all. Your approach is good by taking it chunk by chunk. I'd like to specifically address your "get rid of sports" idea.

My first reaction was to blast you on the notion of eliminating sports from High School. However, you make a good point. If we eliminated all/most things that don't contribute to a better education for kids in high school, we'll continue to spiral down that path of sub-standard education. Of course, except for the students in AP classes, of which I was one. Though I wouldn't call my high school, which served an area where most residents were at or below the poverty line, a "privileged suburbanite wonderland". The one exception, no doubt.

Upon reflection though, this sounds a bit socialistic doesn't it? Even Marxist. Forcing schools to get rid of sports? Soon to be accused of covering the GOP talking points, I would be in favor of modeling our high schools after our colleges without having to go through the drastic process of eliminating sports from our schools. Would anyone argue that competition creates a better product? Our colleges are still the envy of the world in large part due to this competition among them. I'd like to see a voucher program that creates competition among high schools just like the kind of competition among universities. Of course, I know you're response. It's just not radical enough.

I also like the 8th grade diploma idea. I think that (look out here come the GOP Talking Points) is in line with what our president did to enact standards that measure where we are to help us know where we need to go. I don't see how anyone could disagree with that. If he dusted his hands and said "There, I fixed it!" that's one thing, but I urge you to locate that quote. This administration, along with both Republicans and Democrats in both houses that voted for NCLBA agreed with that.

I don't want to sound flippant, I think this and your other post highlight some real need for change. You and I just don't agree on how to go about it. I do tend to be more realistic about what I perceive to be a plausible solution as opposed to what I see as a Charlie-Rangel type solution that, though well-meaning, would never be enacted in that form. If we're talking grins and giggles or some Sim-City type education, then let's have a big rummage sale and earn some scratch for our pigskins.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Tony Plank said...

TexaCon,

I’m not sure exactly where you are disagreeing with me. I am a strong supporter of vouchers and I do view that as the best path given where we are now. That doesn’t change the fact that vouchers isn’t happening as long as we keep voting for Republicans and Democrats. And, even with vouchers I don’t envision the public schools going completely away, so I’m just trying to stake out a position on what public schools should be.

We do disagree on the sports thing. I just fundamentally think the whole jock culture thing is a big part of what is wrong with our schools and our society as a whole. I would hope that after we got our priorities in order and kids on a path to success, we could bring sports back into schools in seven or eight years. But we need to apply those financial resources to the academic problem as well as get students, teachers and administrators clearly focused on what they should be trying to accomplish.

OK. So one idea I put out there is some broad sense lines up with Shrub’s stated agenda. I really could care less about anything the man says. I know you think that is unfair, but the man is not to be trusted. If Shrub by some accident of political happenstance has some positive effect on education, I will give him no credit. Politicians often have positive effects on policy, but only when that accidentally aligns well with the polls and spinability.

But again, I’m not sure on what we disagree-sounds like we are both voucher advocates.

PS. Compare me to Rangle again, and I will have to blog slap you.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Ric said...

Wow. You at least prompt me to think about things I haven't thought about. You know, the high schools in our area are probably not a lot different from yours. But we have seen in recent years that involved parents and a responsive district admininstration can achieve some great things.

Academic standards have been set so high in Arizona, that there recently a majority of high school juniors couldn't pass the required test to graduate. Faced with that reality, knowing a "social promotion" won't happen, grades are going up. What a concept!

In addition, our local schools have been pushing G.A.T.E. Programs for the last 8 years. My daughter tested into such a program. She received much more in depth, challenging instruction in math, sciences, literature, economics and languages. She is now finishing her Phd at St.Louis University in Medieval Literature; is fluent in 6 languages and is teaching writing and Latin. I attribute this to a public school system that made these types of programs available to students that really wanted to learn. I agree that this type of curriculum should be the norm and not just for the gifted. I have confidence that people rise to the challenge. But it is not politically correct to challenge the lowest common denominator.

Oh, by the way, sports is often overdone. I am for using the club sports model found in South America. No secondary sports at all. Privately funded clubs for boys and girls. We have them now, and you can tell which kids get club instruction in addition to high school coaching. No comparison. I guess I shouldn't knock high school sports too much, however. My daughter was also the captain of the State Cheerleading Champions. All those gymnastics and dance lessons did come in handy.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Tony Plank said...

Dusty,

First, hello. Glad to have you in our midst. I notice that we share of love of Daniel Boorstin. I don’t run into too many of us Boorstin fans. I think The Discovers is one of the best books of all time.

I am certainly glad that you live in a public school system that is getting its act together. There are schools out there that are quite good. I hear that even the crappy school I went to has greatly improved. But this is not the norm. And worse yet, the plight of the urban inner cities is unspeakable. This is why I support vouchers so strongly: helping the least among us-not the middle class.

Thanks for posting and I look forward to blogging with you.

7:40 AM  

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