Thursday, December 06, 2007

What is really wrong with our schools?

On a semi-regular basis, the talking heads on the evening news will discuss what is wrong with American education. If you scan through your paper, there is usually an article or two addressing the topic. What is common, in these talks and articles, is that there is always someone with strong opinions WHO HAS ZERO CONTACT WITH CLASSROOMS. Their solutions are similar to Aristotle's view on gravity, they are based on anecdote, observation, and logic - not experience. By dropping two balls of different weights, Galileo quickly showed that Aristotle's assumptions regarding gravity missed the mark.

This is my 17th year teaching. I have taught in public and private, rich and poor. There are numerous problems I see in education, yet they are rarely addressed by those in power.

Imagine this: I decide to switch careers and head back to college. My goal is physics. I have never taken a class before, but I am eager to start. I go to the registrar's office.

"Hmmmm... you seem to be about 40 years old," she says. "You would look out of place with a bunch of 19 and 20 year olds in Physics 100. Let's put you in a first year graduate program. You would look less out of place there and it would allow you to work with people at your own life stage."

Of course this sounds absurd. This could never happen. Yet, it happens in schools across America everyday.

In the example above, I would, in reality, be put in a Physics 100 class; perhaps a 200 if I tested out. In addition, I would not move on to a higher level of Physics instruction if I failed the previous class. Many classes have pre-requisites.

If I were put into a graduate level physics class as a novice, would I not feel a great sense of frustration? Irritation? Hopelessness? In addition, what would the Professor do with me? His vocabulary and instruction would be too high for my level. Should he stop instruction every 10 minutes so he can work with me? Does he "busy" the other students so he can attend to my level of need? Do I have any hope of catching up to the rest of the class in this disjointed arena when I skipped over the 5 previous classes?

To me, this is one of the great issues facing schools today. Most schools in America place students according to age. This hobbles the students who want to move forward and frustrates the ones who need more time. This causes both ends of the spectrum to misbehave. Bored, but for different reasons.

This is not as big an issue in wealthy areas where students tend to be more homogeneous. But in schools like mine, where most students come from poverty, the variance in student abilities can be enormous.

I teach a sixth grade class. By law, and by the tests hanging over my head, I HAVE to teach the sixth grade core. Few of my students are ready for it. I have a handful who can nearly read at a sixth grade level. Below that I have an even spread... all the way down to the kindergarten level. How does a kindergartener read a 6th grade textbook about the life of a protist? Two-thirds of my class cannot do their times tables. They have to think hard for a solution to 12-7.

Ex-educators, who lead workshops teachers have to attend, tell us that to succeed here we must differentiate our instruction. That means "Teach to each child on their level". The folks who lead these workshops BAILED from the classroom. I tend to not regard their advice highly. In any case, the math simply doesn't work. How do I teach six subjects to 33 different students? in six hours? at 7 different grade levels? everyday? effectively?

You will often hear proponents of the present system say "Every child has a right to instruction at their grade level." I disagree. I say every child has a right to instruction at their learning level.


Brook said...

here comes a non-teacher question: are there different-but-equal problems (educational and/or developmental) with putting kids of a wide variety of ages in a class together? Can't most who have graduated high school (and are therefore basically adults) better handle a wide age-mix of other adults in class than kids at that developing age can? I agree with just about everything you say, yet I think there are real legitimate reasons for keeping kids with their peers that aren't applicable to adults. for example, think about some of your worst students, and ask yourself if you would want Jacob to be in a class with them, to be influenced by them...

Andrew said...

I agree with you. That is one of the reasons this problem is not addressed. No one wants to have the situation you describe, yet the logistics of creating classes that do not have wide dispersals of ages is difficult and expensive. Our schools are designed for mass production; we keep moving them up the ladder - ready or not. Nevertheless, I believe the reason many kids struggle so much is because they have been put in classes that are academically out of their league.

It would cost money to approach schools with a different mode, but people don't want to pay what we are paying now... let alone more. I think it would pay us back in the long term, because I think it would alleviate other ills in society.

Adam Gonnerman said...


I grew up EXTREMELY critical of the school system I went through. Too many screw-ups on their part to list here, but I did definitely see what you are talking about. I should have been failed year after year because I didn't do homework and did poorly on tests, but in truth I could have exceeded the school's standards and when I finally got my act together my junior year of high school, I even took a college-prep literature class at the same time I was re-taking a second-year literature class (and doing two courses by correspondence so I'd graduate on time). In my case the problem was one of motivation based on a lack of sense of ultimate purpose, and this was resolved when I discovered I was made by Christ and for him (Col. 1:16).

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