Monday, March 15, 2010

A diller, a dollar, a dithering

I haven't had a clear view yet of the president's plan to reform education. Perhaps it's brilliant, or perhaps it's another case of a person thinking that, because he's eaten in a restaurant, he's qualified to be a chef.

In anticipation, then, here are some things that nobody with the power to make things happen will bear in mind but that might make a difference in our educational system:

1. Cohort testing. I was at a gathering in Strong, Maine, at a blue-ribbon school, with the faculty and Senator Susan Collins, and this was raised as a major factor in testing. You can't judge this year's fourth grade against last year's fourth grade. It's not fair and it doesn't tell you what you need to know. You need to follow each group as they move through the system. How did this group do in fourth grade, compared to the progress they made in third grade the year before? Collins said she, and her fellow-senator Olympia Snowe, were aware of this issue and wanted it to be part of the re-authorization. Okay, time to step up.

2. An end to hazing of new teachers. This is not a problem everywhere, but it's certainly an issue at a lot of schools, and it has an impact on educational attainment. To begin with, we lose some potentially good teachers because they are hazed instead of mentored. They are deprived of classroom space, they are shuttled to the least desireable assignments, they are given the worst schedules, because they are lowest on the totem pole. That's wrong.

But more to the point, the problem of seniority is that too often, the hardest kids are left to the least experienced teachers. You can't show "adequate yearly progress" when the kids who drag down the school's average are being taught by novices. It is natural enough that more senior teachers would rather not have to deal with the unteachables. But that's what experience is for, and it's not right, it's not fair and it's not good sense to leave the hardest assignments to the faculty members with the least experience. Share the burden, my brothers and sisters.

3. Teach kids stuff they want to know. One common element of other nations' educational systems is that they recognize a difference between engineers and poets. The Big Lie told in American circles is that this system "locks kids in" before they are old enough to know what they really want out of life.

It is not just a lie, but a damned lie, because it is a lie that hurts kids and hurts our educational system. About two years ago, I met with a group of some two dozen exchange students, from at least three continents and a variety of nations that ranged from Serbia to Venezuela to Turkey to Vietnam, and I asked them about the tracking systems in their education. If you were in an engineering program and you decided you wanted a liberal arts education instead, what would happen? They shrugged and said that you would talk to your guidance counselor and you would switch. One of them (one of the two Turks, I think) laughed and said that, if you kept switching back and forth, there might be a problem, and they all laughed at that. But they were flummoxed by the idea that you couldn't change your mind. Of course you could change your mind. You're a kid, after all.

4. College for all is a bogus misdirection. On one hand, it is nonsense to prescribe "college for all" because not everybody needs to know much about Shakespeare. On the other hand, "college" has come to mean any large building with desks and a whiteboard. We need to get clear on what we mean by a K-16 educational system.

To begin with, if it takes 17 years to build an educational portfolio that will get you a job, then we need to make it equitable. All kids, regardless of family fortune, must be able to reach the bottom rung of the ladder, and if that is Grade 16, then let's support that much education. When it only took a "grade school" (i.e, 8th grade) education, we paid for that much, as an investment. And when a high school diploma became the lowest common denominator, we paid for that, too.

The process whereby people get that necessary BA, without which you cannot get an interview,  and end up with thousands of dollars of debt is completely immoral. If it is the base requirement, then we, as a society, have an obligation to invest in our future and make that the hallmark. When college was a frill, it was up to the student to pay for it. But if we are going to dictate college as the base requirement, then we have to pony up and invest in our future.

Which brings us to what I've heard so far: The President wants all students to end up at a point where they are ready for college.

To which I say, okay. But those who call the tune must pay the piper, and it's not fair to call a tune and then charge the dancers for trying to keep up.


Brian Fies said...

One modern education trend I think has done a lot of harm, and hits your Point 3, is the gutting of vocational education classes in high school and even middle school. Used to be you could take auto shop, machine shop, wood shop, electronics, drafting, secretarial, home ec. Students who didn't fit in anywhere else found refuge and excelled there. That's mostly gone now. So what are the kids perfectly suited to finish their 12 years and start a job or trade supposed to do? Stick around to compete against future engineers and pre-meds? Why?

Fact is, I wasn't a vocational-type student, but I saw the value of the classes. Their loss, and this idea that everyone should go to college, shows a lack of understanding of the dignity and value of working a trade. As anyone who's ever had a home repair can testify, an honest skilled tradesperson can pretty much name his/her own price. Two or three of the smartest people I knew never finished high school.

Around here, the schools attracting students (not just from across town, but from throughout the county) are those that have rebuilt some vocational tracks. For example, my girls' high school has a culinary arts track that turns students away. I think a "magnet school" approach is practical: maybe every high school in a district can't afford its own auto shop these days, but if one can--and if students are allowed to cross geographical/political boundaries--it could still serve its purpose.

Mike said...

New York has a good vocational system, given the limitations of the overall structure of school. Districts team up to fund good voc-tec facilities and kids go there for as much as four years. The dream would be (A) to have all their academics there as well, so they didn't spend half the day in their home school and half at the voc-tec and (B) to keep it separate from Special Ed, also centralized often in the same facility. This obviously doesn't help with the "not smart enough for college" label. Still, I've seen some excellent programs in culinary arts, auto body work, horticulture, etc. and some excellent kids come out of them.

(One of our ad salesmen in Glens Falls said the bodywork grads can't get work at local shops because they've been taught to do it right instead of just get'em in, get'em out and get to the next one. However, good restaurants don't feel that way about culinary grads who care.)

By contrast, in Maine, voc tec was also shared by multiple districts, but the programs where I was were only one-year classes, more like an exploratory experience than actual training. Some kids could get a kind of "directed study" to stay a second year, but I'm not sure how much more they learned, since their classmates were all newbies.

For my part, I'd like to see a continental system where there are entirely separate schools for tech kids as opposed to college-prep kids -- with the assumption that tech kids here would be qualified for college with perhaps some community college transition.

The idea of "too dumb for college" won't be gone until there are fully separate schools rather than a patchwork of part-time instruction.

Sherwood Harrington said...

If ever we do adopt such a system -- separate schools for tech and college-prep -- I hope that there will be significant parts of both in each.

My dad, for the early part of his working life, was a high school teacher, principal, bus driver, and business, math, and shop teacher (it was a very, very small school!) He was magnificent in woodwork, while maintaining careers befitting his liberal arts education.

If he were around now, I'm sure he'd be advocating the inclusion of manual arts in any liberal arts preparation, including in higher education. When I was in high school, introductory shop was a required course for all boys. Of course, that's no longer so -- just as physical eduction is no longer required for undergraduates in the college I went to.

Skools are goin to hell, I tell you.