Monday, March 16, 2009

Educating America

The last couple of weeks I’ve heard President Obama and other people in his administration make comments on how they would like to improve education in our country. A few of their ideas include longer school days, adding on an additional month to the school year, merit-based pay for teachers, and providing a $4,000 refundable college tax credit that will require the student who accepts it to perform 100 hours or more of community service. After hearing these ideas I am troubled by the direction this new president wishes to take education.

The whole idea concerning longer school days and extending the school year by as much as a month are based on what other Asian and European countries are currently doing. The idea is that students in this country simply are not having enough time to learn all that is required of them. Now, this is an idea that I agree with, but from a different perspective. I do not think the problem is that our school days aren’t long enough or that the school year is too short. I think the problem is that a lot of high schools have become colleges, and as a result, the basics in middle and elementary schools are being taught so fast that students simply do not retain the knowledge they need, or cannot keep up at all and are getting left behind. Now, one thing President Obama is supporting is college credit classes in high schools. At face value, this certainly appears to be a good idea. But let’s look at the results. With more and more high schools doing this, our students on average have not become smarter, but dumber. And I need no test or statistic to tell me otherwise. If you want proof, just ask people at various ages’ math questions. My grandparents can add, subtract, divide, and multiply fairly well. My parents are equally as well. But myself and my brother, and virtually any other person I’ve encountered around my age, we struggle terribly. It’s a wonder younger people today are able to do any math at all. Now, in high school, I took many math classes. One of them, pre-calculus, actually was a college credit class, which counted for college algebra. In these upper level math classes, I did well overall; only once can I remember making anything less than a B and quite typically I made all A’s. However, after eight years of being out of high school, I now find myself struggling just to figure out what should be a simple math problem. I have trouble remembering the rules for subtraction and division in particular. I remember virtually none of the algebraic formulas. Nor do I remember most of the formulas for geometry. And what I’ve seen is a decline in retention. But much more than that, I’ve found that most of the math skills learned in those upper level courses I’ve rarely, if ever, needed outside of school. And the skills that I have needed, those basic math skills, I cannot always recall.

So, what is the problem? As I said, I did fairly well in most school math classes. So, why didn’t I retain more of that knowledge? I can tell you it was because what math was taught to me was taught too quickly. I had just enough time to learn how to take the test, do it well, and then move onto the next thing and forget it. I remember at the time wishing that we could slow things down a bit so that I could get a better grasp of things. And by time I did take that college credit math class, making that C was a struggle in itself. Now, having said that, it would certainly sound as though a longer school day or a longer school year would have been the solution. But let’s look at the bigger picture here for a moment.

Elementary and middle schools teach the basics in math at an accelerated pace so that there is time for college credit math classes in high school. Students are therefore rushed and do not get as firm a knowledge on the basics as they should. When they get to high school, math is either impossible for them, or has become a struggle, which is why so many students opt to take as few math classes as possible—they just don’t understand the subject and it’s too difficult for them. Those who take the higher level courses may find ways to pass them, but by time they get out of school they find that their level of retention with math skills has diminished considerably. Does anyone else see the problem here? Why isn’t high school teaching high school math and leaving the college credit courses to college?

There’s the real issue we as Americans are facing. Students are being rushed through the process, in an attempt to compete with other countries, and are not getting as firm a grasp on the basics as they need to be able to succeed. The solution isn’t to extend the times for school. The solution is to slow down the process, allow students to get a better understanding of what they’re being taught, and to then make college free to every student wishing to attend.

Did you catch that last part? Yep, I said “free” college. In this day and age, when we live in a world where free trade has virtually killed the middle-class manufacturing jobs that had once helped to make this country what it is, getting a college degree is one of the most important things a person can do. Without it, there just aren’t a lot of higher paying jobs available like there once was. So, if we’re going to truly be a competitive country again, when it comes to education and high paying jobs, we must make college a free opportunity to anyone who wants it. Why not simply tack it onto the already public education system? Now there’s a solution worth fighting for! If our leader’s truly wanted us to be the best in the world, they would provide a higher level of education without financially crippling a person with tuition, financial aid, and other loans just to be able to go. With this solution, elementary and middle schools can slow things down a bit, allow the students to get a better grasp of the basics, allow high schools to build upon the basics, and then allow more people than ever before to attend college, earn a degree, retain knowledge, and go out into the world as the smartest people in it. We can do this! So why haven’t we?

The other problem I have with President Obama’s solution is that it takes away time for kids to be kids. Longer school days? Longer school year? No, I don’t think that’s such a wise course of action. My first argument against this would be just because other nations do this, doesn’t mean we should as well. Just because something works in one country doesn’t mean it would work in this one, in other words. My second argument is that if you push learning and school nonstop on any kid, they’re just going to eventually become so frustrated, burned out, and against school and learning that they’ll give up and reject it. They’ll rebel against it. While learning is important, so is play. Allowing children time to be children, to run around and play and socialize with other kids, is a very healthy thing. And as our children continue to become more and more obese in this country, I see this as something crucial to not be done away with. But the bottom line is just that there needs to be a time for school and learning as well as a time away from those things. After seven to eight hours or more a day in school, five days a week, children need a break. Now, I believe it was Obama’s secretary of education who suggested the school day be extended as long as perhaps eight in the evening for struggling students. Huh? I’m sorry, but a twelve hour day is not what any student needs. By the end of the day their little minds will have become nothing but mush.

And how about extending the school year? This too will not work. The president seems to forget about all those rural students who, even in this day and age, need those summers off in order to help their parents on the farm. For a good number of farmers, this is critical to their family’s livelihood. Without their children’s help, there can be no farm. And with fewer farmers, the more this country will have to depend on produce from other places around the world in order to survive. But on another matter, summer time is the time for play. Again, I think children should be allowed time to be children. And what better time to get outside, run around, get plenty of exercise and play than during summer? Our children need this time off for those very reasons.

Now, concerning merit-based pay for teachers, I think this is a tragedy just waiting to happen. The idea is that a teacher’s pay will be based upon how well their students are learning. Again, at face value, this may seem to be a good idea. However, my concern is on what this will be based upon. I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine the measure of how well a teacher performs will be based upon how well their students perform on standardized tests. Now, isn’t this the same president who spoke out against teaching to the tests, a big part of No Child Left Behind, before he got elected? You see, the minute you begin paying teachers based upon how well their students are learning you make everything, yet again, based upon tests that do not and cannot cover everything needed to be learned—not everything can be tested by a multiple choice test. Furthermore those tests are skewed in that they incorporate the academic achievement of all students.

Let’s say a teacher has twenty-five students in her/his classroom. One third of them have a learning disability, and at least two are either physically or mentally unable to function just to take care of themselves, let alone to be able to take a test (this is actually about an average make up for a general class, believe it or not). Are you seriously going to tell me that you’re going to base a teacher’s pay upon whether or not all those students reach a proficient level of learning? For most of them this is impossible, regardless of however much wishful thinking is involved. Now, I’m not saying these students should be given up on, but just that no matter how much attention you give them, the odds of them performing just as well as a student without any problems like this are slim to none. For most, it’s just not going to happen. They may show signs of improvement, and with a good teacher this will happen, but they aren’t very likely to score as high as their other non-disabled classmates. That being the case, how could merit-based pay ever be fair? It can’t. What’s more, if this does become a reality, a large number of good teachers will eventually just throw up their hands and give up. They’ll give up because the system will be against them. They won’t have a chance to begin with. You could have an extraordinarily good teacher who, just because the makeup of her class for a particular year includes a high number of students with disabilities, gets penalized by a pay cut or even worse, faces dismissal. Where is the logic to this? For a president who says he wants to grow the number of good teachers in this country, he’s sure off to a poor start at keeping them and encouraging others to go into the field.

A teacher’s merit should never be based upon tests alone. In a lot of ways you simply cannot measure the worth of any teacher by any given definition. A teacher may be a good teacher simply because he or she cares and loves their students. For a student, a teacher’s love may be the only love they ever receive. But how do you measure love? A teacher may be a good teacher because he or she teaches the students self-worth and endurance. But how do you measure those things? You see, it’s not just how well a student does on a test that determines the worth of a teacher. You could have an extraordinarily poor teacher whose students do well on the tests. But what do those tests really say about her/him as a teacher? It’s these things that I believe President Obama fails to recognize. He’s looking at education from a very narrow mind-view.

Now, concerning the tax credit to students wishing to go to college, it’s not the tax credit itself I’m against. It’s the requirement that students who accept it must do 100 hours of community service. Now, community service is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But when you have to work, take care of a family, go to school, and do homework, that doesn’t exactly leave a lot of time for things such as community service. Especially not 100 hours of it. I have no doubt that some students will be helped by the president’s tax credit, but it’s certainly nowhere near a cure all, and for those non-traditional students such as myself, who has all those other things to do besides going to school, it won’t help at all—I for one would not be able to find the additional time to meet this requirement. So, whereas I think President Obama has the best of intentions by this, I think he fails to take into account the various circumstances people have in this regard. My argument again would be, why not just make college free to everyone who wants to go by tacking it onto the public education system? I guarantee if this were done, more people than ever before would attend college and earn a degree towards getting a higher paying job. Talk about our country profiting then!

I truly hope and wish for this President to do a good job. I think our nation needs him to do well. But I think with ideas like this, he is selling himself and our country short. He is taking backward approaches to the problems within our education system, looking over the root problems, and providing blanket solutions that in and of themselves still will not address the many challenges we face today.


P said...

Brandon - you said "I had just enough time to learn how to take the test, do it well, and then move onto the next thing and forget it"

I think you just defined my entire high school experience. At my school, seniors didn't have to take the final if they got a 90 or above in the class. Our physics teacher made us take the test anyway -even though the score wouldn't count. I got a 42.

I'm still proud about that one :)

Anonymous said... sound like you are a teacher. You have decribed elementary school very well. Teachers only have time to teach to the "state" test and all this material has be be taught by the end of March. The "state" test has forced teachers to rush through the curriculum. As a former teacher the state requires teachers and districts to add certain things to the curriculum...ELL, Bilinguial Ed., etc. The lack of displine is another major problem...teachers/administrators hands are tied for fear of a lawsuit. Also where are the parents your lower schools parents are absent in the child's education. With the FEDERAL govt. wanting to get more involved in the everyday will take a nose dive. More money, longer days or hours will only cause another set of problems for education.

Brandon said...

How very true indeed. I couldn't agree more.

Oh, and I'm actually a teacher in training. :)

Tit for Tat said...

Hey Brandon

Just curious, did you educate yourself by reading any of those 3 web sites I sent you?

Brandon said...

Yes, I did.

I see the possibility of some of the things mentioned as being true. Some of it makes sense. However, I think these arguments completely ignore church tradition about such matters. The church has traditionally always rejected homosexual activity. That hasn't, for the most part, ever changed until in more recent years. That in itself played a big part in the translations of the original texts into the newer ones. It wasn't as if no one knew how to interpret those older texts. Tradition had always achieved this. The problem was how to word them to say the same things or keep the same meaning.

I think some of the points made on those sites overlooks this little fact. It's not like the translators had no idea how to interpret the scripture. The interpretation had roughly always been the same. But some of the arguments I read seem to suggest that when the translators sat down to do their job, they were working from a completely unknown background as to the meaning of the words/passages they were translating. That simply wasn't the case.

Tit for Tat said...

Im glad you read them.
Good luck in your life. As the bright young man you seem to be, hopefully you will make informed decisions in regards to who you are and seem to be. If your view of a G-d is one of love, I would hope you question how denying an integral part of yourself is actually a loving belief. I would ask you this, Who determines how G-d see's things. You or someone else?

Brandon said...

I saw one of my nephews the other day climbing up on a book shelf. You see, there was something on top that he wanted--I have no idea what... maybe he just wanted to get to the top. As I came around the corner and saw him, and saw the shelf rocking back and forth, I quickly shouted for him to get down. He refused to listen though, because all that was on his mind was climbing the shelf. I had to run to him and take him down off of it. He cried and fussed because I wouldn't let him do what he wanted, but taking him down off of that shelf really was the best thing for him. If I hadn't, the whole thing could have tipped over on top of him.

God works in the same way that I did with my nephew. For some reason he believes homosexual activity is wrong. He tells me not to give into those things. I whine around about this sometimes, and fuss and get all frustrated and upset, and don't always understand, but I do realize that for some reason God wants me to keep from these things, because something about it will just end up hurting me. Anytime someone tries to prevent you from getting hurt, that's love. And that's how I see God. I want to climb the shelf, but he knows if I do, it'll just eventually tip over and come crashing down on me--he knows I'll get hurt--and so he stops me. Sometimes I listen to God about this, and sometimes I don't. I get a few inches off the ground. But God seems to always pull me down off that shelf everytime I start my way up.

I don't determine how God sees things. Nor does anyone else. God just lets us know, one way or another. Sometimes I can just literally feel him laying heavy upon my soul, my conscience, or whatever, telling me what he wants from me. Sometimes he urges me to stop certain things, or not to do certain things. Other times, he pushes me to do things I should be doing. Regardless, I don't invent what God thinks. And I don't listen to anyone else who claims to know everything God thinks. But I do believe God's word is our most powerful way for knowing Him and what his beliefs. It's the most comprehensive tool we have for this. And I do believe, as the scripture says, that it is God-breathed, and inspired by him. He's told us what he wants us to know through it.

On another matter, I noticed you leave the "o" out of God. Why do you do that? And also, you made your last comment sound like a goodbye note? I appreciate the best wishes, as well as the compliment, but don't be a stranger. Feel free to keep on reading and keep on commenting. If we disagree on some things, so what? Doesn't mean we can't have anything to do with each other. :)

Tit for Tat said...

I read somewhere that leaving the "o" out acknowledges that G-d is ultimately a mystery. I like that concept, it rings true to me. I believe the bible to be a great book full of wise truths about life. It is also full of obscene prejudices of man. G-d is too mysterious and too grand to be caught by a book. I will be lurking around, hoping someone can educate you better than I. LOL.

Brandon said...

I don't know why I haven't replied to this sooner. I think that's a neat idea about leaving the "o" out of God, recognizing some of the mysteriousness of him. I hadn't heard that before.