Back to school

I’m sitting here eating a bowl of 8 a.m. chocolate ice cream to celebrate one of my favorite days of the year:  the first day of school.  I’ve always loved the first day of school.  As a child, I loved the sense of possibility:  wonderful things could happen during the year.  I made new friends, learned new things, and had the pleasure only a child gets in growing older.  As an adult, I love the school year because I crave stability in my day-to-day life, and school provides that.  The rhythm kicked in instantly today — up at 6:30, at the bus at 7:15, home alone at 7:20.  Now I can work (and play at my blog) until the bus comes home and the after school routine begins.  Predictable and enjoyable.

The first day of school, though, also brings to the fore all the ambivalence I have about our public school system.  A large part of me is grateful for clean, lovely school facilities; kind teachers; and the absence of tuition.  But another, equally large part of me is worried about what the year offers educationally.  As you know from my embittered blog posts last year, I was very unhappy with the way in which my children were taught.

Each bit or byte of information was taught in a vacuum, with the kids learning meaningless “hows” (that is, they learned little pieces of mechanical data on how to do any given thing), without ever getting the all important “whys” — Why do we do this?  Why does it matter?  Without context it was often hard for them to understand how all the little pieces fit together, and without meaning it was almost impossible for them to care.

I also took umbrage last year at the endless focus on arts and crafts, a focus that substituted paint, tape and string for actual learning.  I have no problem with a child working on or mastering a subject and, as part of that work or mastery, choosing a craft project as (a) an expression of his or her knowledge, (b) a way to increase that knowledge, or (c) a way to convey that knowledge.  I have huge problems, though, with days and weeks spent putting together (for example) papier mache California missions, even as the children have absolutely no idea where the missions came from or what purpose they served (beyond abusing Indians, of course).

I’m not the only one dismayed by the state of American education.  Victor Davis Hanson also tackled the problem today, noting the school’s failures, and proposing some solutions.  I’m on board with some of his conclusions:

We should first scrap the popular therapeutic curriculum that in the scarce hours of the school day crams in sermons on race, class, gender, drugs, sex, self-esteem or environmentalism. These are well-intentioned efforts to make a kinder and gentler generation more sensitive to our nation’s supposed past and present sins. But they only squeeze out far more important subjects.

***

To encourage our best minds to become teachers, we should also change the qualifications for becoming one. Students should be able to pursue careers in teaching either by getting a standard teaching credential or by substituting a master’s degree in an academic subject. That way we will eventually end up with more instructors with real academic knowledge rather than prepped with theories about how to teach.

And once hired, K-12 teachers should accept that tenure has outlived its usefulness. Near-guaranteed lifelong employment has become an archaic institution that shields educators from answerability. And tenure has not ensured ideological diversity and independence. Nearly the exact opposite — a herd mentality — presides within many school faculties. Periodic and renewable contracts — with requirements, goals and incentives — would far better ensure teacher credibility and accountability.

Hanson also rightly points out that we do many of our students a disservice and put an unnecessary burden on the schools by insisting that all students become, at least for their tenure in school, academics.  To take a kid who could become a master mechanic and make him feel like an idiot because he doesn’t grasp the soggy symbolism in The Great Gatsby is a dreadful, wasteful thing to do.

What Hanson misses — what everyone misses — is that part of why our schools do a bad job is because we use a system that neither engages the students nor, in the absence of such engagement, does it use the type of relentless drilling that would substitute automatic responses for actual understanding.  Here’s an education example to explain what I mean:

Phonics have pretty much returned to American classrooms, after it became apparent that the whole language approach was a bust.  I never understood why American educators would abandon phonics anyway.  We are blessed in that, while our language has some anomalies, there are also certain fixed rules that can quickly teach any child to decipher the mysteries of letters and words.  Given that our language hands to us the gift of reading on a silver phonic platter, the decision to go to the “whole word” or “whole language” approach, which expected the child to master one word at a time, by sight, was insane.

Proponents of the whole language system justified it by pointing to the high level of literacy amongst the Chinese who, lacking a phonetic alphabet, are forced to use a whole language approach, with students memorizing every written symbol.  What these “educators” forgot was that the Chinese students drilled for hours and hours per day, six days a week, to force the symbols into their memory.  We in America took a perfectly good phonic system, turned it into the much more difficult whole language system, and gave our children 40 minutes per day, 5 days a week to master it.

The above type of educational idiocy isn’t unique to reading, although reading is the most glaring example.  Math teaching, too, has for decades been divorced from the meaning of math.  Kids as young as 7 begin to memorize algebraic patterns without first being introduced to the magic (and I mean magic) of how manipulating numbers can be used to solve mysteries.  Really.  It is magical that math allows us to write “5 + X = 6” and to figure out what X is.  Math should be taught with a sense of wonder.  Instead, kids are handed one grain of sand after another and promised that, in a decade or so, they’ll look back and see that, through all that mindless drudgery, they were actually building a sand castle.

Until we are able to instill in our students a sense of wonder, purpose and understanding about the information they are being forced to acquire, nothing we will do will fix the deep hole in American education.  We can skirt around the edges — fixing buildings, firing bad teachers, remove extraneous feel-good political material from the curriculum, freeing non-academic kids from the burdens of pointless English text analysis — but we’ll never improve the situation until we change our core approach and decide to engage our children’s minds.

10 Responses

  1. I would encourage you to look at some of the professional literature on reading. Phonics is useful for some students in some situations. Knowledge of phonics and phonemes is certainly needed, but it is not sufficient. What whole language brought was an appreciation for the higher level thinking skills that deep reading calls for. While certainly just whole language has been seen as not enough, just having only phonics would be too limiting. After we learn the basics of reading, there are levels and levels of depth to explore. Consider the Tanakh and the Talmud: How many ways there are of reading them. Learning takes many different approaches depending on what is being sought, to who, and for what purpose. If a child cannot read, phonics might be useful, but after that, more tha letter and sounds are needed to open the richness that good words may hold.
    Educational theory is crucial for thoe who teach. Mr. Hanson misses a central point about teaching: that it is not just content knowledge, which is needed, but also the ways in which content knowledge may be gained by others, and the role of the teacher in other’s process as leader, coach, guide, model.
    I know so little of your children’s schools, but I would suggest that taking with teachers and administrators might help. I know in my district calling and visiting do make a difference. From what you have said about where you live, I wonder what they are doing. Good luck with your kids. We have found family discussions and reading time, good old modeling, to be the best way to impress that learning is fun and essential.

  2. That should be “to whom”. I hit submit too quickly.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Baxter. As it is, anyone over 40 grew up with a phonics/whole language mix — we learned to recognize phonic patterns and then expanded them into whole language. A generation, however, grew up without the phonic patterns, and struggled to recognize the completely abstract symbolism that a word becomes absent phonic recognition. It’s like taking a microwave oven and teaching someone to cook in it using a two sticks to make a fire.

    As for the teachers at my kids’ school, they’ve been told for so long that they’re wonderful and the top of the heap and the best around that these young women, who are usually fairly ill-informed beyond there programmed teaching methods are hostile to even the most mild questions or suggestions. (And I know greag or greg will say, “But Bookworm is a nasty wench who wouldn’t know mild if it hit her in the face.” Au contraire. I can be beyond tactful. These teachers don’t respond.)

  4. g wouldn’t know mild if his three alternative personalities (ray pastor, michael, and greg/greag) told him.

    Aside from that, Book, I learned how to spell phonetically. Meaning based upon the sound made when reading or speaking, I can spell a word that I have never seen fairly accurately. Not totally accurately, but the longer words tend to have weird constructions that I have to memorize afterwards. For a word that I have read or spelled, the combination of phonetics and memory creates 100% accuracy. Sovereignty and perceive as well as deceive, are such words that look as if they “should” be spelled another way. But memorization of a few specifics should solve such. Until, at least, it gets to where it looks right.

    I picked most of this up from failing spelling tests in the third grade and reading huge amounts of books in the six grade. In a sense, it combines the whole language bit with phonetics. Memory, sight, hearing, and tactile feeling from typing or writing, they create a combination from the senses.

  5. Given that our language hands to us the gift of reading on a silver phonic platter, the decision to go to the “whole word” or “whole language” approach, which expected the child to master one word at a time, by sight, was insane.

    To me, I recognize words by the first 2-3 letters, its length, and maybe how it ends. Combined with phonetics or some other sense, I can actually feel whether it is spelled right or not. Even if I had never seen it before, or someone else had spelled it. Not a particularly useful ability, but very nice in proofreading. Although it works less proofreading my own text than others, perhaps because I almost never proofread my own writing unless I have to (or unless it’s too late).

    are forced to use a whole language approach, with students memorizing every written symbol.

    That might account for the noted Asian advantage in math. Sheer memorization and mental juggling of lines can account for speed in mathematical calculations. Although almost anything can account for speed in mathematical calculations if you exercuse the grey matter right.

    In Chinese, things that have the same sound with different meanings, also are written with different characters. Yet they have the same sound, with simply different tonal levels. Or accents. I think one barrier to learning written Chinese via phonetics is that each character has its own sound, and often times you can’t even get the right character set from hearing it unless you know which meaning the person is using. People have gotten used to using their ears and brains to figuring out the difference.

    A generation, however, grew up without the phonic patterns, and struggled to recognize the completely abstract symbolism that a word becomes absent phonic recognition.

    Much of the learning in China is traditional rote memory. Which is another way one can increase one’s mathematical and abstract computational speed.

    The more senses the brain can interweave concerning an action, at one time, the easier the brain transfers short term memory to long term memory. In this case, I believe that regardless of which path you take, you must utilize visual memory, auditory memory, and spoken memory together with writing, typing, or any other sense. With that, a person will learn. Not easily, but he will be more productive than not. Less time will be spent on reacquiring what one has forgotten.

    With the addition of each new sense, it will become easier to remember using only one sense. Concerning visual memorization, it is a lot easier to memorize a word that is seen, if one also knows how to spell that word and how to pronounce it.

    Yet pronounciation and writing are not part of just looking at a word on paper. It involves writing, speaking, as well as other actions involving other parts of the brain and body.

  6. Book,
    I often see articles based on tests given the children in the 1900’s, 10
    s, 20’s, on through the 50’s, that make it “clear” that since the 60’s we’ve been dumbing all of our children down to the point where they are all village idiots.

    I do not know if this is true or not; what do you know about this? What are your thoughts?

    If it is true, what teaching and learning techniques were in use throughout those fifty-odd years that made them so phenomenally successful? And why don’t we return to THOSE techniques, knowing how phenomenally successful they were?

    If there is any truth to those claims, that is…

  7. The problem you describe with the teachers not listening is a sad one. When all else failed for one of my sons, I called the superintendent(my wife does the mild, I am polite but persistent). Take at look at the test scores of the school and for the students of your teachers. Perhaps there is leverage there if they are not getting the results they should, although if you are in a wealthy area, the kids may be doing well because of parents and in spite of the system.
    Mike asks questions about the methods of earlier times. We need to remember that many folks dropped out earlier then, thats why graduating from high school had value, not many got that far. Most of the ones that stayed in were wealthier and/or more school savvy. When working on an assembly line got you into the middle class, why stay in school?
    During WW I many draftees were rejected because of their educational level. Only fairly recently has graduation from high school been seen as a minimum for all. And now of course it is totally inadequate.
    Schools can only do so much, either good or ill. Parents play the major role. See Annette Lareau’s “Unequal Childhoods” where she presents illuminating views of how different childhood may be for different children. The reportage is good; the analysis I do not all agree with.

  8. Good points, Baxter. I especially agree with the parenting. What I’ve discovered with my kids is that the schools are glossily packaged, but are chained to the limited, politicized California curriculum. The difference between my school and one in a bad SF neighborhood is the parents: we tutor our kids, we talk to them, we nag them about their homework, we visit their schools, we talk to their teachers. That is, we either actively assist the education or we let our kids know we’re watching them. And that’s entirely separate from the fact that kids here grow up in homes filled with books and cultural opportunities.

    Interestingly, though, many of us parents did not grow up that way, but emerged educated and ready to pass it on. I guess we’re simply the ones who stuck it out educationally….

  9. California sunshine will rot anyone’s brains, Book.

  10. My father dropped out of school after eighth grade and worked very successfully in a trade. He and my mom definitely made good middle-class lives for themselves. It is interesting that in just forty years, the path they took has become nearly impossible to accomplish.

    Thanks, Book and Baxter. You’ve pointed out that, culturally within America, only recently has completion of high school become merely the basic standard.

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