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How to improve our standings in the world’s education rankings

December 7, 2012

I recently saw a reference to yet another article decrying the state of US public education. Here, in a nutshell, is what I think:

Like with the recent presidential election, be careful what you wish for.

Huh? I’ll explain.

See, we say we want one thing, but we reward another. I taught high school for 34 years, in rural, blue-collar and then in “high achieving” suburban environments. I saw a wide range of student achievement and parental and societal expectations. What bugged the living hell out of me wasn’t the belief that if the kid didn’t get into exactly the right college, he would be a failure at life, although that pissed me off a lot. It was that there was so much focus on the environment of the school and the social life offerings there.

It was as if the kids and parents were picking a place to go for their summer vacation, not to get an education. The appearance of the campus, the athletic teams, the other social programs for the students, all the stuff completely unrelated to the actual business of learning dominated their thinking.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We have been looking at education that way all the way through, K through 12 and beyond, for decades.

Schools can’t be demanding, unless it’s an Advanced Placement course. Then you can do darned near anything to a kid and the parents won’t complain, because it’s cool because it’s a college course. We had one at our school that was targeted at sophomores. Sophomores? Really? Since when are they able to handle college material? If they are, why stay in high school? Skip the crap and go get the degree.

But the degrees are watered down in a lot of fields, too, and grade inflation has made “academic rigor” practically meaningless. I laugh when I hear somebody from a regular college complain about the “for-profit colleges” that are out there. To me, they should all be for a profit and not receive any state tax money. You want a college education, you pay for it. You need loans, you get them yourself.

“But college is too expensive.” Sure it is…cut the nonsense out of it, just pare it down to the education, and you can probably reduce costs (and staff) by half. It’s completely gotten out of hand.

But that wasn’t the point of this piece. It’s why we can’t compete in the rankings with other countries.

Here’s how to fix it, if the rankings are the priority:

Shoot the horses that can’t jump. Start in, say, 6th grade, separating kids by examination into college bound and non-college bound programs. Non-college bound will prepare the “workers” our Socialist President thinks we need more of. (How Lenin of him to call us “workers.” Sheesh.) Another set of exams at 8th or 9th grade. Kids who test high in science and math don’t get to be dockworkers or taxi drivers, or investment bankers or hotel operators…they are funneled into engineering and pure sciences, or into medical profession preparation.

You see, in many countries those are the kids who are tested for the rankings – not the entire general population. Every time we include everyone in that kind of testing we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Make businesses run the colleges. For example, if you test well in 12th grade, you can go to the college run by GE, or by Apple, or by BP…their own R&D folks would teach, and you would learn what they want you to learn to actually be of use to them. Afterwards, you work for them for a number of years to pay back your education. No summer vacations starting in mid-May, no winter or spring break…you learn straight through, 8 hours a day. You could do the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in two years, tops, without “Gender studies” and garbage like that loaded in the curriculum. No football games, no fraternities.

This would also give those companies a stake in how the lower grades are handled…I can’t see how that could be worse than the way we in public education are led by the nose by the colleges today.

Sound silly? Japan has been doing this for more than 20 years, that I know of. I know because I was present for a panel discussion with Japanese educators where they laid the system out for us.

Trim the fun stuff out. No more athletic teams. No extracurricular activities. No fine arts. None of those are used in those rankings, so why bother? Do you think the Estonians who rank higher than our kids are all great violinists or soccer players? If they are, it is because their parents decided to have them do that after school on their own, not depend on the school to pay for it and teach it. There are some outstanding concert bands in Japan, for instance – but not school-sponsored, and they for sure don’t rehearse during the school day.

And yes, I know that since I am a former fine arts teacher I sound hypocritical. Remember, I am telling you how to raise our rankings, not to provide the proverbial “well-rounded education.” Obviously that has not been a priority or I would not have had a job for 34 years.

If you know of a country that matches the extent of arts and athletic and extracurricular activities we offer in most of our schools, let me know; I don’t know of one – including those who rank ahead of us.

While we’re at it, we can cut about half the social studies classes – have you looked at what kids are offered today? But American History and American Government, especially learning about that pesky Constitution, are not required. But we don’t cut the Home Ec and Industrial Tech – those are needed for the kids going into the service and technical industries. We need more auto shop, not less.

Full-time school. Sorry, fellow teachers, but the cushy part of the gig is the days off. We aren’t bankers and really it doesn’t make sense to barely see kids 180 days a year. Kids no longer work on the family farm, and that’s what determined the school schedule a hundred years ago that we still use today. Give ’em July off, even, but not Columbus Day, or Presidents’ Day, or whatever, and for God’s sake cut out all the shortened days for conferences and teacher work days and meetings. Just teach the kids. We have been reducing the actual number of hours kids learn for decades. It’s a crime, and I never saw that most of those days were worth the time spent. Most of us thought most of the stuff we did was a waste of time and effort. Often the activities were planned to make it look like the administration had us focused on something new and cutting-edge; then we went back into the classroom, closed the door, and taught like we always had because the old way still worked.

Make teachers accountable. Not in terms of social interaction, but in knowledge of subject matter. I don’t want my granddaughters to get an education from people who teach math but got no higher than a B in algebra – and that is far too possible today. One of the reasons for the turnover in education is because smart people get out to do something real with their lives instead of putting up with the administrative BS, the snotty kids and their arrogant parents. That leaves us with, sorry to say, not the top of the heap. I’m not saying we need PhDs in physics to teach our classes – often those folks have no clue how to teach. But we do need people who know how to teach and what they are teaching.

Look, to a great degree, the effectiveness of a school has to do largely with the raw material. I taught in a district that selected for intelligence just like a Catholic high school that required entrance testing, except ours was based on housing costs. You couldn’t live in the district if you couldn’t afford a house there, and really stupid people rarely could. Or really unmotivated people. Move kids from low-achieving areas to that school and sorry, you wouldn’t get the same results. We were good but not that good. We had smart kids to work with, motivated kids with motivated parents and a history of valuing a good education. So we got results and were ranked high in the state tests. But that’s a topic for another piece another day.

That should be enough to move us up, say, 10 places. But we won’t do it, because we can all complain about the rankings, but we still want our daughters to be cheerleaders, or in drama, or our sons to play football or (heaven forbid) join the Chess Club. And then, when they graduate, we want them to “enjoy their college experience.” When or if we ever get more serious about kids getting an education than about the football team’s record, we’ll see some changes.

Oh, and one more…

Make the schools ethnically and culturally homogenous. According to an article in the UK Guardian, the top 10 countries in reading are:

South Korea
Finland
Canada
New Zealand
Japan
Australia
The Netherlands
Belgium
Norway
Estonia

Math and Science rankings were similar. Show me how any of those countries are as ethnically and/or culturally diverse as the USA. The dirty little secret is that we are trying to be everything for everybody, and to do anything else is racist by the standards of the US. I’m not saying any ethnic or cultural group is less able than another, just that cultures dictate learning styles, as well as a host of other things that help or hinder receptivity to educational processes, and we can’t do everything at once for everybody. I think some of the inner-city charter schools are doing well because they understand this and focus on particular neighborhoods and populations. They have high standards but they don’t have to take their eyes off the educational ball. We are constantly being told we have to do this and that because of culture and diversity. Either we all learn the same way and buckle down or we don’t. If we can’t get to kids one way, we don’t have time to find six others. We really don’t. But other schools can.

When I retired, the smallest department by enrollment was “Educational Services,” or what used to be called “Special Education.” It also had the largest number of faculty. Huh? But that, too, is another piece for another day.

This little piece ought to piss some folks off. But I’m telling you, if the goal is to be better at math than the kids in Finland, we have to become them. We can’t do it the way we have our schools structured now.

Well, what do you think?

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