Sunday, April 19, 2009

Time Magazine Misses the Point on Education

Being a teacher in America is like being between a rock and a hard place; and if Time Magazine's latest article is an indicator, it doesn't look like that position is going to improve any time soon.

The article How to Raise the Standard in America's Schools is depressing for me as a teacher. In it the author, Walter Issacson, continues to make the same bad assumptions, apples and oranges comparisons, while offering the same tired solutions that schools have been saddled with for the past few decades.

The main thrust of the article is that America's schools need a national set of standards and benchmarks. He asserts that since No Child Left Behind let states set their own standards, it has been common for states to set the bar low in order to pass. In this, he mistakes symptom for cause. Throughout the article, he makes the case that it is the lowering of standards that is making America's students perform lower. Therefore his logic follows that setting high national standards will not allow local schools to skew numbers and will ultimately produce better results.

But setting higher standards as a way to improve achievement is, I believe, one of the primary failures of No Child Left Behind. It simply moves an arbitrary bar into the air without addressing the needs and conditions of various local schools. It would be like the Federal government coming to the car companies and saying, "We want you to develop cars that will time travel when they hit 88 miles an hour. If you don't have it to us in the next five years, we our going to shut down your company." This sounds absurd, but it is not far off the mark from edicts that are being handed to many public schools.

The author raises the fear that we are not being competitive on an international level. I do not dispute this point, but his solutions are based on apples and oranges comparisons. He never addresses the primary difference between the US and most Asian/European schools - Tracking. As early as the fourth grade, most schools outside the US begin tracking students towards an academic or trade-based education. Children who have an aptitude for academics are put together, while students who lack the desire or aptitude for academics are placed on a different course of schooling.

The effect of this on academic students cannot be overstated. I wrote an article last year (The Homeschooling Public School Teacher) that addressed the impact that disruptive students have in an academic classroom. Put simply, I believe students who do not desire an academic education cause our classrooms to lose a great deal of their effectiveness. It must be understood that there is nothing a classroom teacher can do about this but endure. Nothing, in our public schools, will be done about a disruptive student. They may spend some time in the office, or perhaps occasionally be suspended, but the majority of their time will be spent in the classroom as an anchor for the academic progress of their fellow students (and most classes have MANY students who fit this category).

In the end, Mr. Issacson repeats the same false assumptions about where our problems lie and therefore offers solutions that will give us more of the same. Solutions like those put forth by Mr. Issacson will punish American public schools for not producing the educational equivalent of a flux capacitor. These remedies never address the differences in our educational programs with those of our international competition; nor do they identify that students and their families are an x factor in the education equation that must be considered.

Unfortunately, President Obama seems to buy in to the logic of the Issacsons of America. This means we will have another decade spent missing the point; while teachers and schools remain the whipping boy.


Steve H. said...

Andy, I love your posts on education as, you know, I am recently in the education field. I wouldn't worry to much about Asian / US disparity. True, there is more of a focus on maths (using the proper plural form used Internationaly) and science by parents here but it is at a severe disadvantage to free and creative thinking. We may sluff that off as liberal hookey but it is absolutely necessary for inovation and adaptability. We recently had a literacy week here and the kids had to dress as their favorite literary charecter. Tammy was trying to get the kids to talk about their favorite Korean books and charecters. They were at a complete loss! They don't read (besides hyper amounts of anime). It was sad. These kids are pushed to go to after school math academies often losing valuale sleep. Its actually pretty pathetic. I will take our broken down public school system anyday to the Asian model of hyper math for no apparent reason whatsover.

Makes me wonder why the Asian countries are not in angst over why their students hugely lag behind their American counterparts in Arts & Literacy??

Kifer said...

I couldn't agree with you more, and I'm in an affluent district where most of the parents DO give a shit. We have gone to great lengths in recent years to eliminate distractions (see disruptive students) from our classrooms, and yet, it is still a daily battle. I'm curious, would you be in favor of tracking in schools?

Jon L. said...

I am late to the discussion... as usual. Your analogy with the car industry is right on. We already have standards: CAFE mileage standards (mandate it and they will build it, even if nobody buys it). I long ago gave up on the validity of international test comparisons. We could do better in some basics, but cutting out the creativity doesn't help. Our college/community college system also helps make up the difference (we might do worse in 8th grade, but what matters is how well a person does by the time they finish college or other training).

Andrew said...

I have mixed opinions on tracking. A German/French couple I know looked forward to getting their kids to the states and out of the European system. They felt it pegged kids way too early. I understand that. In their system, I would have been flushed out of an academic route. I did not make my turn around until the 10th grade.

However, it pains me to see how many motivated students are held back by the kids who have no desire to be in school. I wonder if there is not a happy medium. On the one hand, you have a rather oppressive tracking system, but on the other hand, America hardly has any damn accountability at all.

Kifer said...

You know, we are piloting a flexible scheduling program in our English classes next year where students will be grouped according to their abilities on certain strands in the curriculum. If a student is doing well and improves in that strand they will be able to move into the next class immediately. Our classes will be aligned to allow for that flexibility. Part of me cringes at this added complexity to my life, but the other half is excited to see the outcomes.

Andrew said...

It's a year later Sean... How did that go?

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