Friday, June 30, 2006


In an effort to keep things fresh (because, after all, there are things happening in this world other than politics, though admittedly most of it is usually politically-based), I’m here with an editorial that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for some time now. It’s come to my attention for the last, oh, ten years or so—and this includes the Clinton administration, for those that would be quick to dismiss this as a conservative bashing—that the state of education in this country is more rotten than Denmark in Hamlet. What happened, people? America used to be the most academically advanced country in the world. And now, it seems as though the ones running this great nation have ranked the importance of education somewhere beneath the Save the Spotted Owls Foundation. It’s not just public schools, either. Private institutions are just as much a joke as P.S. 102 (this assertion is made with some trepidation, as the only experience I have with private schooling is on the university level). Because of this, we no longer rely on the compulsory stage of education to teach anything and simply send kids off in search of the highly-prized frameable piece of paper, aka the diploma. Teachers metamorphosed into underpaid babysitters…apparently, the only alternative to TV. And really, that’s all they can do, is babysit. Kids certainly aren’t interested in hearing what teachers have to say, and who can blame them? Why are we teaching the same outdated curricula from the 1950s? There are other playwrights and writers besides Shakespeare, there are other composers besides Mozart and there are other equally prestigious schools besides Harvard. Granted, there has been interest, in recent years, in turning around our educational system and making it work. It seems, however, that these attempts are half-hearted at best. My high school’s math program (and further, how it affected me while I was a student there) makes an excellent example.

My high school received a mandate from the state essentially warning that if our math scores didn’t improve, there would be some sort of serious consequences. As a result of this, the school adopted a new math system, called the Core System (sounds like exercise or computer equipment, right?). The new curricula claimed not to focus on the minutiae of any mathematical problem. Meaning, it didn’t matter so much how one got the answer, but rather that it was the right answer in general. I did not begin this program until my sophomore year of high school, having to take some kind of pre-algebra first.

As my teacher explained it, this new system put math into the hands of the students, rather than the instructor. The learning itself became more self-directed, with the teacher there as guide, should any problems or questions arise. We often worked in groups (yes, let’s take a bunch of sixteen-year-olds, put them in a group, and expect them to get any work done) and it was easy to let other, more math-oriented members do the work, while the rest sat by and wrote down answers. Not just answers, but paragraphs explaining why we got the answer we did. My friends and I now call it the “infamous Core math ‘explain.’” My math teacher further aggravated this problem by taking the term self-directed to mean, “I don’t have to teach, but rather, I can sit at my computer all hour and write email.” Sure, he’d answer questions if we asked him, but for the most part, he was there only in physical presence. Another facet of the Core System was calculators. To this day, I’m still convinced that educators and the Texas Instruments Corporation cooked up the program to sell more product, with kickbacks going to the schools—we were only allowed to use a certain type of Texas Instruments calculator. Any other brand was not allowed, and they run about $100 each. In fact, to support this claim further, the entire Core math program was designed around the TI-83 calculator. It almost got to the point where we weren’t allowed not to use a machine to figure the problems. The text itself encouraged heavy calculator use, the reasoning behind this being “that’s how it’s done in the real world.” The only thing that ever came of it was that I now cannot do some simple mathematical operations without the use of a calculator. Once again, I did well enough to pass, but the fundamental error in the Core system was that it assumed all students came in knowing the basics of algebra, and knew them well-enough to use this so-called self-directed learning. I did not, and my teacher didn’t seem to care to take the time to teach me. Therefore, I passed my math classes, but I didn’t do well. In later years, after I had graduated from high school and enrolled in college, I had to take remedial classes—a collegiate version of pre-algebra, of sorts. These were not the basic requirements for any students at my university, but rather, a step below them. I paid the full tuition for these classes, but I received no credit. Are we all starting to understand how I might feel that America’s educational standards resemble a rather stacked deck?

This is to say nothing of other subjects, such as English or science, and honestly, when it came to my English education over the years, I have no complaints. All it took was one phenomenal teacher in high school and my English skills catapulted light years away from the average student in the country. At college, reality came crashing down in the form of proofreading. Many, many students quickly learned that when it came to editing papers, they could find a trusted advisor in me. Why? Because someone actually took the time to teach me properly. Granted, the English language certainly counts as one of the most difficult in the world, and I cannot claim perfection. I wonder, though, how many of the Average Joe can tell me what a gerund is or why breaths are not good indicators of comma placement. These are not the minutiae of the language; these are the basics of communication. Perhaps not verbal so much as written, but still things that are considered basics. (Can you correctly identify why “don’t end sentences with prepositions” is the absolute dumbest rule ever conceived for the English language? Anyone that can gets fifty bonus points.)

I don’t even want to touch the problems with social science. Yes, they’ve revamped civics into something called “American Experience,” but it’s still the same, tired curriculum—perhaps someone should mention that updating the name doesn’t make kids want to learn the material.

In short, those that sit at the top levels of education boards and the like have become lazy. Yes, some things needed a breath of fresh air but when it comes to things like basic mathematical operations or learning the English language, it was too damn easy for students to whine, “But it’s just too hard!” And that’s what’s happened, ladies and gentlemen. We have dumbed down our educational system to the point where it’s doing more harm than before, just so that no student will ever struggle. No Child Left Behind? Every Child Left Behind, if you ask me. What it’s come to is the kind of dream system George Bush always wanted when he was in school: all multiple choice, so it was easier to cheat—no work required! But there is more than one kind of cheating going on in that school of thought, and the cheating that actually makes a difference is the one our youth gets because no one can figure out how to teach kids anymore. Education is the one thing that will make the largest impact on the biggest number of people (and I’m not even going to hint at the subject of using schools for military recruitment—it’s already too clear that the American educational system is one big ass-rape, anyway) and if any clear-thinking liberal had half a brain—yes…I said liberal—he’d come up with a better plan because he realizes, in the words of Whitney Houston, “I believe the children are our future.” Cheat them now, cheat us all later.


Advocate1 said...

And look who have been the beneficiaries of the dumbing down--the Republican Party and the religious right. Do we really believe that if we had a citizenry that was well versed in science, math, and civics (not to mention critical thinking skills) that we would see the kind of war on science that we see today. I really believe that the Christian Right (which is neither) sees science and technology as forms of witchcraft and alchemy. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but it seems to me that the cultural war is far more than that--it is a war against modernism, nonchristians, nonbelievers, and anyone else who refuses to carry water for the reich wing theocrats.

If I recall correctly many educational reforms were intended to make larning more fun, less boring. The idea had been to create a lifetime interest in learning and to promote critical thinking. But at some point something went very wrong and now the Christian Right has taken advantage of the end result; the end result being ignorance.

I also agree with your take on calculators. The idea that a curriculum would encourage the use of a particular brand name of calculator does indeed seem unusual--unless of course the company that made the calculators was getting a financial benefit out of the deal...say perhaps, the purchase of millions of calculators across the United States for "educational purposes?"

I'm still amazed by the fact that we have kids out there who don't even know how to read an analog clock with minute and hour hands. How hard can it be to read an analog clock? Good grief, I was reading a clock by the time I entered kindergarten.

For some reason I keep thinking about Leno's "Jay Walkers." These are the young men and women who will be running the country after I'm in an old folks home. Gawd. A leader of people who are historically ignorant; who don't know the Constitution and basic civil rights' and who can't even find important countries on a map. Such are the minions who the Christin Right deceives with half baked ideas such as creationism and theocracy. Now tell me--will they be able to administer the proper dose of heart medication without consulting a calculator? Not that it matters, becaue they won't know what time to administer the damned stuff anyhow because they can't read a f---ing clock.

glenda said...

exactly , advocate! and Kate,
the less people know, the more often they will believe the snake oil salesmen of the Republican party. Faith is more important than science!!!! Gotta keep the brain free from the burden of thinking.

Darren said...

You're describing a "constructivist" philosophy. It's taught at a lot of schools of education, but there are some of us "traditional" teachers who still expect to teach and expect children to learn.

California's state academic standards are very direct and progress towards them is quite measurable. CorePlus, Everyday Math, programs like that aren't even approved by our state Board of Education.

This change from the laziness you mention started under Democrat Governor Gray Davis and has continued under Governor Schwarzenegger. This isn't a right/left issue, it's a right/wrong issue.

Kate said...

I know it's not a right/left issue, and I took care to point that out in the beginning of the piece. Bear in mind also that this is an editorial, not an article.

Rachel said...

I think we're all on the same page here. Darren, am I safe in assuming that you were or are a teacher? If so, you have my sympathies. I eventually reached the point where I couldn't take it anymore. I saw more bright kids ruined by the system that Kate described. I saw more bright, creative kids who needed direction but who never received it. In essence we turned out a generation of kids who can't do math without calculators and who--as Ad1 will tell you--can't read a damned analog clock. And don't even get me going on basic history and civics.

Just one question. If you are a teacher do you see yourself staying in the profession any longer? When my husband and I learned that we were expecting triplets we sat down and decided that this was an omen: Get out now while the going is still good. We're about as left wing as you can get (my husband, Enlightenment on this blog, is an atheist and a member of the Green Party) but we homeschool simply because the public and private schools have devolved into just so much mush.

I would only add the following. If you want to know where some of this drivel originated I would suggest your turn east and look at Chicago. I'm sure the rest of you know what I'm talking about. What began as well-intentioned reforms have turned into something quite disturbing. Neither the students nor the teachers are expected to perform to their full potential. It's a crying shame.

On the other hand, I've had the not so unique experience of being home for my children (two boys and a girl--triplets).

Excellent Post Kate--in every way. I hope to hear more from you on this and other issues. Keep up the good work!

On another note: Kate, how are you coming along with the Pathetique?