Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Education deserves a thread of its own!

In a previous thread, JP posted: "We need a national debate about what we expect public education to accomplish."

Well, folks, we may not represent a "National Debate", but the gang here debates well. I agree with JP. When you ask the question of what K-12 education should accomplish, you are most often provided with vague outcome descriptions.

Now, for starters, let's look at one aspect of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), testing. NCLB says that in order to receive a diploma attesting to satisfactory achievement in a 12 year curriculum, you must test satisfactorily during the 10th year! So, the standard for a HS diploma is based upon a test of slightly less than 10 years of that schooling. Is there something wrong with this picture?

And, what do we want these students to learn? Well, that shifts from edubabble fad to edubabble fad. Has anyone wondered what the lack of long term internal discipline and consistency in the field of education has done to the effectiveness of that education?

Lastly, and sorrowfully, I have to admit that I do not accept that every child in the US is capable of earning a meaningful diploma in 12 years. And, gasp - gasp -gasp, there are some who are incapable of earning one at all. There are a variety of reasons (both voluntary and involuntary) for this, but the reasons (causes) are inescapable and most likely incurable.

But first and foremost, JP's question must be answered, and what a "diploma" means must be narrowly and fully defined. And the debate has nothing to do with the expectations of students and their parents. What does our society need? We've spent a few decades catering to the students, and it doesn't seem to have benefited the greater society that much.



almost drafted said...

Thanks Al,

I'm hardly an expert -- I left school after 2.5 semesters because I felt that college was interfering with my education. But I've got some ideas that people can throw rocks at, which I think is a good way of kicking off a wide-ranging discussion. Warning: many of these ideas are not at all politically correct.

First, Al's question about what a "diploma" means. I'd say a high school diploma means that the holder is trainable enough to succeed in an entry-level job in the commercial world. A college diploma in a given discipline means that the holder is more or less trainable in that discipline or a related one.

It is trainability that matters to employers -- when I've asked people how much of their education is actually used their current jobs, the answer was usually 15% or less.

Within a discipline, there is the notion of certification. One might hope that certifications increase that percentage significantly.

But everyone thinks that a college degree is a minimum requirement, which is how we got to a higher education system in which disciplines range from candle-making to cosmology. And colleges are in business too, e.g., offering political science degree programs in the 60s -- for those who wanted to do their draft dodging at home rather than in Canada -- and communication degree programs for highly valuable athletes.

Clearly, this must be sorted out, though I don't know how. The military seems to have a better handle on this. The DoD can tell anyone in the service to pick up a rifle, if necessary, but they have a knowledge classification system that assigns people to specialties they can actually do.

All that is vital to the commercial world, which is in turn vital to the economy, which is in turn vital to the success of this country or any other.

Outside the commercial world, we need to train people to be citizens. I know! Let's have courses in civics! Oh, wait, civics has been thrown out to make room for teaching-to-the test, as in NCLB.

But both economic usefulness and citizenship require some basic training, to wit, the ability to think critically. If I were Education Czar, I'd make sure the following things were taught in grammar school or high school:

- invalid argumentation (see

- symbolic logic (hey, once you get past, or replace, the notation, it ain't that hard)

- civics

And I suspect the first two could be easily exemplified by way of TV and print advertising. Whoa, I almost forgot speeches by politicians. What a gold mine of illustrations that would be! The third needs only dusting off the civics books.

I've rambled long enough. I have many more half-baked ideas, but it's time to throw rocks.



sheerahkahn said...

The way I would do it is as such…
School “should” be structured is to introduce the child to the basics in 1st through 5th grade in the subjects of math, English, science, art and music, phys-ed, and history.
6th through 9th grade should be how to assemble and use the mechanical processes of the subjects and present them in a coherent manner that prepares them not just for next level of subject difficulty, but also for life as well.
10th through 12th grade is the final classes in which the child has a grasp of advance algebra, geometry, and trigonometry with an introduction to pre-calc. Has a grasp on not only on their immediate history, but also of their national history as well as world history. They also should have a grasp on Art encompassing the entire spectrum of expression from pencil to music and theater.
But it is in the realm of science in which they not only know all the basics of science, but also what the various fields of science can do, and not do.

Because I agree, the first 12 years of school is just to make the individual a “potential” fully functional contributor to society, but it doesn’t end there either.
The next level should divided up into three cohorts:
Those who have no desire to go to college
Those who have a desire to be technically competent
Those who have the desire to go further with their education.
You will note that of the three groupings, the issue of “qualification” for college doesn’t appear, because everyone who graduates from high school should at least be de facto qualified to go to college.
For the first group, a year long program of OJT in which the student spends one year doing a variety of jobs from construction, retail, which includes restaurant, business, to manual labor like warehouse, and then the last two months specializing in the field that appeals to the most.
The second group would go to the restructured Junior College level where they would learn whatever specialized technical field they wanted to learn: Electronics, electrical systems, Automotives, Industrial, Law enforcement, Administrative assistants.
The third group would be those who want to go to the standard four year colleges.

But herein lies the other option, national service.
National service comes with benefits.
For those who serve 6 years, they would receive a personal $2000.00 dollar tax credit in addition to their standard tax credit for the rest of their lives.
For those who retire after 20 years, they would receive a $3000.00 personal tax credit, plus also their retirement benefit.
For those who serve 10 years in the NG or NS, they would receive a $2400.00 dollar tax credit for the rest of their lives, and if they complete the full 30 year program they would receive the $3000.00 personal tax credit on top of the standard personal tax deduction.

Combat related
-Full Military: Service period 6-20 years, mandatory retirement after 20 years.
-National Guard: First must serve a 6 year stint in the full military, then can apply for National guard, which would then be a minimum 10 year commitment, to mandatory retirement after 30 years service.

Non-combat related
-Peace Corps: Service period of 6-20 years, mandatory retirement after 20 years.
-National Service: First must serve a 6 year stint in the Peace Corps, then can apply for National Service, which would then be a minimum of 10 year commitment, to mandatory retirement after 30 years.

Anyway, that’s my idea, for whatever it’s worth.

Pluto said...

You guys are discussing important stuff here but I'd like to bring up something that is vital to the success of public education and yet is completely outside of education's control.

Speaking as a parent of two teens, one of the biggest issues in education is parental attitude.

My kids have been in a school district continually on the verge of collapse but with caring parents. Currently we are in a well-funded school district but the parents don't care nearly as much.

The first school had totally worn out textbooks and couldn't afford paper unless it was donated. The parents and kids overcame tremendous difficulties and the kids got a pretty good education (although the school district is still sliding down the slope and keeps getting worse).

The second school district has to fight a huge battle every day against parental indifference to get the kids to learn anything. Fortunately they have the resources to get the job done and the kids do generally get a (barely) acceptable education. The kids who have education-friendly parents get a great education and tend to start attending college full-time starting in 11th grade.

Studies have shown that there isn't enough money in the world to teach kids when their parents are disinterested in education (or parenting) but school districts can get by on a shoestring budget if the parents are willing to help out.

You need to take into account these facts when you are redesigning the American education system because they will make or break your design and you have very little influence over them.

sheerahkahn said...

"Speaking as a parent of two teens, one of the biggest issues in education is parental attitude."

With empahsis on "parental attitude."

Oh hell yes!
That is a huge, gianormous factor!
My two sons, one in college, one in HS were driven to madness because of me and my wife.
My eldest, in a fit pique, declared to us both, "I'm only going to college because you two are making me."
To which my wife jaw hit the table, looked at me, looked back at him, and I could hear Houston in the background doing the countdown.
So, I did what any dad would do...I took the boy out to the sidewalk in front of the house, and introduced him to the admissions office of the college of hard knocks.
However, my wife is on the school site council for our district and her viewpoint is that there are certain segments of cultures who value education, and s couple of cultures who call it "extended family" over education.
Not much you can do about that, Publius, but you are absolutely right.
The unfortunate reality though is that the "extended family" culture views school as little more than publicly funded baby-sitting.

sheerahkahn said...

lol, sorry, I was thinking of Publius, Pluto, when I was typing my response.
I apologize for the confusion.

Aviator47 said...

Interesting thoughts gentlemen.

From my experience, both as a student and teaching at the high school and university levels, there are a couple of fundamentals I would throw out. This covers some thoughts, not all

1. K-12 must help develop mental/intellectual discipline. An undisciplined intellect is not conducive to learning. One does not develop intellectual discipline in a cafeteria type of educational setting, where students pick and choose what they wish to study. There is nothing wrong with a pedagogical model while the students are being armed with foundational skills. "Independent thought" is fine, but needs a solid foundation for it to be of use.

2. K-12 education is about standards. If the young do not learn to perform to standards at this stage of their lives, they never will.

3. 9th through 12th science courses must teach the scientific method. If a student has no concept of what a "controlled experiment" is, they are lost. There are too many science courses taught with the lab portion (if any at all) being simply of illustrative or entertainment value.

4. K-12 is the only time many people will be offered rigor in the arts. This is part of forming a mature mind and cannot be neglected.

5. Government and history are also important, and high school must not only teach factoids, but the impact of historical events and the actual working of our government.

6. As FDChief said on a parallel thread, we need teachers who can teach. But, they also much have subject matter mastery beyond the packaged courses now being sold to schools, or they are simply courseware administrators. All too many HS teachers I worked with were simply one commercial lesson plan ahead of their students, and rarely ahead of the subject matter in that lesson plan.

Lastly, every student cannot learn at the same pace, but like it or not, life after graduation is not self paced. More on this later.


FDChief said...

OK, here's where I can get all subject-matter-experty, as a former HS teacher and holder of the coveted Oregon State Teacher Certification.

Problems with education in this country can be pretty much broken down into three levels:

1. Problems at the individual student level.

People have different capacities for mental skills. Many people have good cognitive ability, are good task organizers, and can access, organize, analyze and synthesize information quickly and accurately.

Many cannot.

Our industrial education system rewards quick workers and disciplined thinkers. People with poor organizational skills, slow cognitive processes and low-level reading and writing abilities will suffer. Also, unfortunately, will "inductive" thinkers, genius-level students in some cases, Einstein-types who would rather woolgather about General Field Theory than get down to work copying "The cat sat on the mat".

Also, remember, for most of human history education was reserved for a tiny minority. In the Western nations we're running up against the biological reality that not all human brains work well in a post-agricultural technic society. Some people were just born to be goat-herders and bakers - but we have a very small demand for goat-herders and bakers now.

Another thing that tracks consistently is that student achievement can be predicted with something like 94% accuracy by looking at family income. Better off parents are usually better educated and start their kids off reading and writing sooner, value intellectual achievement and support educational strengths like good study habits and academic discipline. Better off kids have clean, well-lit, organized, safe homes to come from and foster intellectual discipline. Better off kids tend to care about school status and gain it from academic achievement.

Individual and family differences in educational ability may be the single largest factor in overall educational achievement, but they are also the most intractible and the least amenable to outside effects.

2. Problems at the classroom level.

Some problems at the classroom level are, simply, a problem of people who can't teach. Teaching is more art than science; much of it is a craft, like dancing or music or acting. Many people are very knowledable in their fields but just can't teach because they don't know how, and it's nearly impossible to "teach" teching. You can teach tips, techniques and tricks, but it's like "teaching" painting or acting - what works for you probably won't work for me until I warp it to fit me, and by that time it'll be unrecognizable to you. Most teachers die in the first year or two as they realize that a) they actually hate teaching REAL kids, and b) have no gift for it, and c) get little or no support or assistance from their peers or their administrators.

But mostly the problems are inherant in the model.

Since the descent from the trees or before humans learned by observation and imitation in tiny groups or one-on-one. You followed mom and dad around and learnedhow to dig for grubs. OR Uncle Murdoch apprenticed you to his forge, or showed you how to goad an ox-team.

Suddenly about 2500 years ago we developed the pedagogical model - a group of students listening and talking to Socrates. Since then we're refined it into our industrial paradigm - students in large groups listening, reading or working to meet a published standard.

Not surprisingly, this system works very well for people who work well independantly, are task-centered, and are good at absorbing, analyzing and processing verbal and written data.

For the rest?

Not so much.

Back with Part 2 in a moment...

FDChief said...

Education (continued)

2. Problems at the classroom level (continued)

The bottom line is that pretty much EVERYone can be educationally successful - to the degree that their cognitive abilities allow - given unfettered access to a mentor/teacher and no more than another individual or two to learn with. The individual teacher-student relationship allows for nearly unlimited flexibility in adapting the teacher's method to the student, and vice-versa, and the materials to the strenths of both.

As the ratio of students to teacher goes up the probability of student success drops. Once you're over fifteen or twenty students (and less at younger ages) to one teacher you're on the edge. More than 30:1? All that's going on is traffic control.

Think about it this way:

No sane platoon leader would take a platoon (30-40) GIs anywhere by himself. To do the simplest military task the LT has a platoon sergeant, three to four squad leaders and six to eight team leaders - a total of between 10 and 13 subordinate leaders to run a "classroom" of 35-40.

But we expect a schoolteacher to manage a classroom of 30-40 kids, AND ensure that all of them attain the highest levels possible.

Ain't gonna happen.

What does happen is that darwin's laws take effect. The kids that are well organized, can read and write easily and quickly, and are largely capable of managing themselves, generally do pretty well. Fortunately for industrial society, this is about 3/4 of the average classroom.

At the top end the really smart kids, the inductive thinkers, the "outside-the-box" people who become the Steve Jobses and Alexander Graham Bells are bored and irritated. They get in trouble, or drop out, or find alternative ways to get what they need.

At the other, the people who are born to be goatherders are pretty much fucked.

And this is in an "average", middle-class classroom. Add the dysfunctional factors of poverty, family turmoil, etc.?


There are some things you can do about these classroom problems.

The most effective would be a dramatic reduction in class size, like to 4-6 students/teacher. This would be expensive on a "major weapons system" level, and will never happen.

Another would be a dramatic change in the way we train and start teachers. An acceptance of the reality that teaching is a craft, like carpentry, and is best learned through a long apprenticeship rather than a "profession" that you learn in the classroom like the law or medicine (and I would add that the law and medicine, with their extensive internships, residencies, associateships, etc., usually have MUCH longer "apprenticships" than do teachers, who typically have less than a year of OJT under a "mentor" who typically doesn't really care - since the student teacher is one MORE thing he or she has to do - and is only involved for the additional pay).

I would add to Al's comment about K-12 education being used to build intellectual discipline. Part of the problem I see is that the teaching profession has issues with discipline. One of the most difficult, unpleasant tasks, and perhaps the single most common issue that drives teachers from the classroom is discipline. I had problems with it myself.

Coming from a military background, I expected my students to get with the program. But, in reality, my program isn't their program. They have no reason to buy into what I'm selling. Real life, work and survival is a million miles from where they are.

And as Al points out, their entire school life has been built around giving them the maximum latitude possible.

But any drill sergeant knows that if you give the Joes all their privleges from Day 1 you have no leverage with them, and there is nothing to concentrate their attention.

So IMO part of the fix needs to be a very rigorous K-8 curriculum based on mastery of fundamentals, analytical and critical thinking. Al's money graf is "9th through 12th science courses must teach the scientific method. If a student has no concept of what a "controlled experiment" is, they are lost." But the problem I saw teaching freshman science is that the kiddos showed up from 8th grade completely ignorant of what scientific testing is and how it works. Try explaining how a lab demonstrates buoyancy or air pressure to kids who have no idea of the difference between a a "dependant" and an "independant" variable, or who understand the concept of testing hypotheses.

So part of our problem stems from the fact that by the time these kids get to HS they have a vague familiarity with a lot of subjects that's two feet wide but a millimeter deep.

Part 3 to follow

FDChief said...

Education 3

3. Problems at the school and district level.

The most "solvable" problems occur at the highest levels.

Schools and districts have problems that stem from several major sources: from individuals (usually administrators), from organizations, or from political bodies and the public.

Problems stemming from individuals usually arise when the administrators (principals and superintendants) work harder playing power games in the district and playing executive than concentrating on teaching and learning.

Most schools really NEED two adminstrators: a principal, to organize the coordination between the district and the staff, handle staff issues and deal with matters above the classroom level, and an assistant principal, to fill in when the principal is on the crapper and to act as the "bad guy" for the students who go wrong.

Most districts need a superintendant, an assistant and a handful of clerical staffers.

The rest are just wastrels without a purpose, a distraction and a waste of good oxygen, and, like any soldier will tell you, when you have staff officers without something to occupy themselves, they'll find something irritating for YOU to do...

Especially beware when you have a "Vice Principal for Special Studies" or a "Vice Principal for..." or a "Assistant Superintendant for Curriculum and Learning". These mooks are nothing more than educational warlords, and their turf battles and snowflaking will drive you nuts and cost you money without an likely educational gain.

So a hell of a lot of problems could be solved just by slashing about half or more entire levels of administration and converting the jobs into teacher positions.

Another level of problems is organizational. Some schools, and some districts, are just beaten. They have no goals, no objectives, they just struggle along trying not to collapse. Like a demoralized battalion that isn't disbanded or pulled off the line for complete retraining and reorganization, throwing money at these organizations will be reinforcing defeat. But people are very hesitant to roll up school and district admin teams they're familiar with. So, often, these incapable groups just keep wobbling along.

And, finally, what I see as the real, intractible problem is US.

Most of the education problems are solveable. We know how people learn, we know how to teach. But to do so would require several choices we're unable or unwilling to make.

First would be the realization that not all people are capable of mastering - or needing - a "liberal arts" education. Some are better at vocational, technical or mechanical tasks. So the notion of letting the students just pick what they want to learn - or trying to get EVERY student to learn a pre-college curriculum - has got to go. We do a lot of testing in our schools but do nothing WITH it. We have no equivalent of the German Hauptschule - Realschule - Gymnasium system where your academic skills have an actual impact on your education course. Instead we throw a ton of money trying to get our kids through HS and into some sort of college, where a lot of them are overwhelmed by the work and the intellectual resources needed to complete it. We would need to stop pretending that "everyone can be a star". Thing is, not everyone NEEDS to be a star. It is part of our dysfunctional social dynamic that it is "better" to be a rotten attorney than a good carpenter.

Second, we need to understand the very real costs of a good education. If we truly want our kids to be truly intelligent, to provide them with the education they need to make good choices, we need to be a LOT more involved, spend a LOT more time and a fair bit more money. It means we have to sacrifice the feel-good things we like to spend our education money like football stadiums and cheerleader uniforms. It means that parents need to GO to parent-teacher conferences and pay attention to their kid's schoolwork. And it means we need to tax ourselves to pay for the kind of education that kids in private schools get.

Will this happen?

I doubt it. The inertia is too strong, and the half-assed educational system that serves the public is just good enough to survive public unhappiness.

A big part of this is the existence of the private schools. These act like the U.S.-Mexico border. The wealthy kids with ambitious parents who, like the hardcharging, ambitious Mexicans, would be the most likely to rock the existing system are sucked away, leaving the "just-good-enough" people behind.

So my really radical proposition?

Close the private schools, or, better yet, take them over and make them public. Force the rich, the well-born and the able back into the public education system.

You'll see some changes then, by God.

Aviator47 said...


The problem I saw in the school system where I taught was that the curriculum was "life science", which did not teach scientific methodology, but "relevent" factoids about science. To me, that would be like teaching history without ever addressing chronology. Then they moved on to Chem, Bio and Physics and couldn't understand why they had to follow a methodology in lab, if the teacher/curriculum even addressed such an idea.

And, there is an over reliance on turning the kids loose on the Internet to do "research", which results in random versus structured learning. And, because of the vast amounts of material Google presents them, they are unable to sort out wheat from chaff and usually present homework that is, as you describe, a mile wide and a millimeter deep. I won't even begin to address the amount of plagiarism resulting from "cutting and pasting". They don't process the material through their minds, just text edit it.

I subbed for an American History teacher for a week, and assigned a weekend project that required in depth work. Broke the class into groups of four, with each group having to dig into a specific, assigned aspect leading up to, during and following an event and had them spend Monday's class session comparing notes, focusing their collective work and preparing to present their findings and conclusions on Tues. On Wed & Thur, we discussed the ramifications of all the material presented. They were amazed at how complex a seemingly simple event in history could be and how profoundly it could impact society. That there could be such a cause and effect relationship was a new idea for them!

My objective was not to arms them with an encyclopedic knowledge of this one event, but rather to make one trip down the path of historical analysis.

In another American History Teacher's class, students listed the Holocaust as a major event in US history! Why? Because the teacher showed Schindler's List while they were at WWII in the curriculum. Hell, if three class periods were devoted to this topic, more time than any other topic, it had to be a major event in US history! And, it gave the teacher three days of preparation free work. Wanna bet the kids had no idea that Italy was an Axis partner?


almost drafted said...

Jeez, the floodgates have opened! Just like old times.

I'd like to drill down on a couple of the points that have been made.


- Parental attitude. I think that another aspect of your point is the number of litigious parents we have now. Back in the day, if you came home and reported a teacher's reprimand, or even corporal punishment (didn't happen in our public schools, but a rap on the knuckles with a ruler was not uncommon in my religion class or in RC schools), parents would: 1) hit you, 2) ask what you had done, and 3) hit you again.

Today you are far more likely to see the threat of a lawsuit from parents who can't believe their darling child would do anything that justified the school's actions. (See below re: disruptive students.)

Also, I'm totally boggled by your report of parents not caring about their kids' schooling, even in good school districts. WTF, O? What's the back story here?

- Quality of school vs. quality of student. Yup, you can lead a child to knowledge but you can't make him think. George Bush went to Yale, which highlights the fact that higher education has "brand names" that cost much more but don't necessarily add value.


I don't know how I missed the scientific method in my edicts as Education Czar. Probably because I can't imagine life with out it. Its invention has been attributed to many people (Bacon, Newton, etc.) but it is essentially responsible for all the scientific and technical progress in the last 400 years. Our failure to teach this may be responsible for the fact that the US has the highest percentage in the world of people who think Darwin was all wrong. And an agent of the devil.

A corollary of this, and one that may be even more important than teaching the scientific method itself, is that science does not seek truth. It seeks the best available answer, and is willing to change that answer if and as evidence requires.

- Every student cannot learn at the same pace.

Bingo. Although it's a ticklish subject, and fraught with the danger of creating an elite class, we have to allow the brightest kids to learn at their own speed rather than slow the entire class down to the speed of the worst students.

And we must keep the disruptive ones from causing a slowdown as well. Note that some students are disruptive because they are bored by a slow educational pace. Some just need attitude adjustments. But in any case they must not be allowed to interfere with students who want to learn.

Advanced Placement courses in high schools address some of this, but it isn't done to any great extent in grammar schools. And while people talk about the superior education given by private schools, if true, I suspect it's because the private schools get to cherry-pick their students.

Somewhat related to this is the situation we face with "special needs" kids, particularly in the context of funding. Now, no one can fault parents for wanting to get the best education possible for their kids. And if a kid is physically handicapped and very bright, we should keep them on the academic fast track.

But at least in my state, the special education issue boils down to money (doesn't everything?). Upwards of 80% of town budgets go to education. And there is no broad-based tax, e.g., sales or income tax. All town revenue comes from property taxes.

So at budget time, people who want to spend more on education are pitted against those on fixed incomes, who can thereby be taxed right out of their homes. And high-income people laugh all the way to the bank.

The upshot of this is that the parents of special needs kids migrate to towns that have a good special education program. Since special education is disproportionately costly, this drastically increases the educational costs in that town.

Again, I can't fault parents for wanting to do the best for their kids, but good students should not have to suffer these consequences. Perhaps the answer is to centralize special education.

However, "mainstreaming" these kids is a sacred cow -- but if the parents are willing to move to a town with a good program, perhaps they can be convinced to move to the aforementioned centralized program.


Thanks for the thoughtful and experience-based exposition. It's all excellent and highly informative, to me at least. You made some of my points much more eloquently than I, but I had already typed it in... :)

But I think this one wins the blue ribbon:

"So my really radical proposition?

Close the private schools, or, better yet, take them over and make them public. Force the rich, the well-born and the able back into the public education system.

You'll see some changes then, by God."

Amen, brother.



Andy said...

Great thread! Learning a lot.

I think Al really hit on something with discipline. I vividly remember my first semester of college where three courses were taught in auditoriums with around 400 students. No one took attendance. No one cared if you showed up. All you really had to do was show up on test days. There was zero babysitting. There were a lot of students who simply did not have the discipline to learn in that kind of environment with all the new distractions of college life. I was one of those students. I did ok in those classes in the end, but self-discipline was a serious challenge.

I think another problem is that there is not enough emphasis on thinking skills and analysis and way too much emphasis on regurgitating information. How a student prepares for an examination, at least in my experience, is quite different for an essay exam than multiple-choice. Students tend to prefer the latter because there is not nearly as much thought involved, and teachers often do as well since grading is easier as well as tracking "performance."

Anyway, great comments so far, especially Al and FDChief.

Publius said...

Sheer, you have to watch yourself here. There is no way I could have ever posted anything as intelligent as Pluto's post that prompted your erroneous reference.

I'm going to echo the sentiments about the great comments. And I'm not going to go over already plowed soil, even though I do have some strong feelings. I'm not even going to flaunt MY coveted teaching credential from California, because I frankly don't view it as anything to be especially proud of, given the nature of the credentialing test. I would have been embarrassed if I hadn't gotten it on the first try, and I'm amazed that more than 50% of the aspirants fail it. After four years of college. Wow.

Teacher quality. Frankly, the majority of teachers suck. About 40% are rookies already disadvantaged by an inferior education (an education degree ain't real impressive) trying to make sense of a bizarre world. Most never do: 50% of all newly hired teachers leave within five years. Another 40% are old, burned out never wases, hanging on for retirement. The 20% in the middle are wonderful, smart, dedicated folks who are all that keep the whole damned edifice from collapsing. God bless 'em.

Teaching as a profession. Very low on the ladder in public esteem; teachers are considered to be losers by much of the populace. See above for the quality of an education degree; maybe the public is smarter than we think Salaries are low compared to other college graduates, which is inevitable when one considers that teachers only work 3/4 of the year. I used to get into it with teachers on this subject: I'd ask, "how can you expect to make what others do when you get the summer off and they get two weeks vacation?

Unions. Bah. Humbug. Absolutely resist any changes in the status quo. Are especially hostile to merit pay and the idea of accessions from other professions, with hard skill degrees rather than Kindergarten 101. Military guys take note: the unions absolutely hate the "troops to teachers" idea, as do the education major teachers. All the unions care about is money.

School administrators. Generally frightened rabbits. Dare not hammer students, so never back teachers.

School boards. Frightened rabbits, drunk with power.

Administrative overhead. Just why in the hell do we have school districts and school boards everywhere you look? Take a look at any good-sized metropolitan area. You will be amazed at the number of autonomous districts spread throughout. Local control sounds great, but it's often inconsistent with the learning process.

Politicians. Easy fix guys. That's what NCLB is all about. It's too hard to tell America that its kids are assholes being taught by assholes, but it's very easy to legislate a "fix." Governments at all levels in the U.S. are especially talented at throwing money at problems.

Parents. Assholes.

Kids. Assholes.

Us. Assholes, because we tolerate all of this.

The nation. Buh-bye.

Education is just another segment of American society that just can't cut it at a critical time in our history. Our financial system has failed, our political system is just about gone, shit, we can't even build a decent car. Companies are being sold off left and right to foreigners. Pretty soon, all Americans will be able to do is sell hamburgers to each other. Even baseball is going down the tubes. It's being taken over by guys from Latin America and Japan.

Think about excellence. Used to be a lot of that in this nation. Tie it into education, where things such as NCLB and mainstreaming of every kid kind of seem to guarantee that the truly brilliant kid, the future Nobel prize winner, will get lost in the shuffle. I once read something in response to the grumbling about superstar salaries in sports. It seems that the only professional athletes who truly earn their money are those very superstars, the guys making all of the dough. People don't come out to see the mediocre shortstop making $8M a year; they come out to see the superstars.

With rare exceptions, we don't do excellence in our society anymore, especially not in the schools. We just don't seem to be able to get the job done any more.


Aviator47 said...

Andy: I think another problem is that there is not enough emphasis on thinking skills and analysis and way too much emphasis on regurgitating information.

My view is that the student must learn certain facts and principles before they can process anything. If you don't know that the Civil War was in the 1860's, for example, it's pretty difficult to discuss it's impact on the subsequent course of history, as one might not know if something was subsequent or not.

Certain material does, indeed lend itself to multiple choice or fill in the blanks. We got to the moon via the work of people who memorized math tables in school, after all.

I am not convinced that a mind is developed by subjecting it to chaos. To be able to solve a problem, one must understand and be able to bring order to the facts bearing upon the problem. All too often, I saw teachers grant passing grades to really bad "essay exams" because they were crediting the student with "original thought", even if the conclusions were in no way supported by the facts the student did or did not use.

Grammar school is the place for simple mastery of basics. That knowledge base is expanded in Jr and High School, along with the understanding of cause and effect rooted in the basics that have been learned. But, if one does not know that 1+1=2, it's kinda difficult to do any "thinking" involving numerical relationships, other than pondering what is imponderable with the tools at hand.

I would posit that thinking and analytical skills are developed by studying the successful thinking and analysis that has gone before us, not simply turning students loose to create their own alternate realities. Even Carl Rove knew his was creating an alternate reality. His success was rooted in the willingness and vulnerability of a population "educated" to see non-sequitors and faulty logic as the norm.

SO, my experience was that you first master the simple facts. You then work with the simple facts to understand simple conclusions. Raise the level and complexity of the facts, and then see how they led to higher levels of conclusions. In the Army's training business, we called it "Crawl, Walk, Run".

That High School students could conclude that the Holocaust was a major event in US history simply because a really long, emotion laden movie was shown in a US history class is, to me, a prime example of failed education. I honestly would say that the bulk of my high school classmates would have asked, "Why, Mrs Teacher, are we watching this in our US History class?" But then, we weren't subjected to a long list of intellectual non-sequitors in our classes back then.


FDChief said...

Speaking of special education...

Oregon just completed a survey - yes, not very good, yes, not very accurate, but the first ever even tried - of what happens to it's SPED kids after HS.

Guess what? A quarter sit a home playing videogames.

About half are working at something (and here's where the survey sucked balls - they accepted ANY response of "he's working" as proof. No further questions - where? For how much? How many hours? - to try and figure out if the kid is supporting him/her self.) or going to some sort of college.

Another quarter is doing both, i.e. temping at Kinkos while going to community college nights...

The really sad part?

They don't have these numbers for the REST of the student population!!!

So, beyond the crap methodology, this survey is meaningless. There's no standard to compare the variables to. We have no idea whether the SPED kids - about 12 percent of Oregon's schoolkids - are doing better, worse, or the same as the rest of ORegon's HS grads. And, even worse, we have no idea what we're getting for all that HS money?

What a fuckstory. WASF.

sheerahkahn said...

Sorry Publius, you'll have to forgive me as I prone to confuse the geniuses and great people I meet with one another.

I have an old HS buddy of mine, part of our Military history club which was also known as "Wow, Rome kicks ass!" club.
eleven of us guys, all history geeks, all with wonderous thoughts of regaling others about all things history.
History is so cool.
However, life happens, and with it, reality.
Reality bites.
Of us eleven guys who had wet dreams of being history teachers, one is actually teaching history.
The rest of us...scientists, physicists, engineers, and one accountant.
Of us eleven guys, the one teaching history is the only one teaching, and he's passionate about it...and I'm so jealous...well, I'm not.
I teach in my church when the mood strikes me, or in home bible studies...but I think we all bring our passions into everyday lives.
History is still my passion.
However, what I've encountered amongst adults, whom I think are much better to teach, and easier to insult when they think they know more than they really do, is that parents really need help.
I mean the kind of help that allows them to "co-learn" with their children, bringing what the teacher is teaching to life.
Pratical application.
My eldest was studying biology in tenth grade about six years ago, and was having a devil of a time with it.
So his mother sends him to me, and he's dreading it. She's telling me, "use small words."
So I said, "show me the book."
Yes, those were my exact words.
What my son was learning in HS, I had learned in College ten years earlier.
My son and I slogged through the book, and I explained the key concepts that he should pay particular attention too.

I would like to point out that a lot students do not have a historian/scientist major, and a mathematics/business major as parents either.

The parents need to be brought on board, and personally, taught what the children are being taught so they can effectively contribute to their childs education, rather than being a passive bystander, or taxi from house to school.

FDChief said...

."With rare exceptions, we don't do excellence in our society anymore, especially not in the schools. We just don't seem to be able to get the job done any more."

I'd argue that there ARE good scientists, architects, and engineers out there.

There are just fewer of them coming up through the public school system.

And part of the problem, frankly, is a visa system that takes advantage of the excellent primary and secondary school (excellent in that they provide a rigorous grounding in fundamental concepts of math and science as well as intellectual discipline) systems in places like mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and Germany. How easy is it to sell an American kid on engineering, given the difficulty of the curriculum and the relatively low status of engineers in our society? How many episodes of "America's Top Runway Physicist", or "Who Wants To Be A Structural Engineer?" have you seen? While, to an ambitious kid from Taipei or Calcutta, engineering is a serious way into the First World.

We will continue to have a problem with this so long as music and sports are more attractive to American kids than the "difficult" professions.

Aviator47 said...


I have to plead guilty to a totally difference experience in current versus my HS science education. I attended a public HS in a bedroom suburb of NYC in the 50's. All of our science and math faculty held PhDs is their teaching discipline and worked in their fields in the summer. Neither of my children brought home texts in the sciences more advanced than I had in school. Modern discoveries were indeed covered, but the depth of the material was always less than we had in my day.

My HS Physics class was the first to use the Physical Science Study Commission's (PSSC)new program (1959). It was being written and designed as we went along, with a new shipment of text materials and experimental apparatus arriving every month. The labs were more advanced than my college physics the next year, and the 20 students in the HS class were broken down into 2 separate lab class sections to allow more teacher involvement with each 5 student team.

The HS where I taught also used the same, albeit updated, PSSC text, but without the robust labs. Rather, multi-media shows and tepid computer simulations dominated the "labs". The teacher was a guy with a B.Ed and M.Ed. in "Science Education". He was a nice enough guy, but try as I did, could not discuss Physics at the simplest theoretical or applied level other than as in his packaged lesson plans written by PSSC.

It's late here, so I'll quit for now. I'm going to put some thought to it and then post some of the activities we were exposed to in 7th-9th grade that I think were instrumental to all of us getting a rather excellent scientific/technical education. Not everyone went on to chemistry/biology/physics in HS, so the 7th-9th education was key to many being reasonably versed in science/tech, and we were.


Andy said...

More great comments.


I pretty much agree with what you said - I just think in too many cases there is an emphasis on regurgitation when there shouldn't be. Facts are important and everything you say about building a foundation is true, but I see, in a lot of cases, that the "fact" based learning extends far beyond where it should. It's particularly bad in the military with a lot stupid multiple-choice tests. I remember many tests that were obviously designed to see if you read the text and not much else.

And one of the foundations of learning is being able to express oneself in words, which is an area that seems to be a perpetual problem IMO. A multiple choice test isn't needed to see if someone knows when the Civil War occurred. I just think that such tests promote "cramming" data points which are forgotten once the test is over.

Pluto said...

This is truly a great thread, keep it up! People have made way too many interesting statements that I'd like to comment on.

FDC was on-target, as usual, but Minnesota is a vastly different education than Oregon. Here student teachers are VERY heavily used by the teachers because they don't have any other resources.

Also, Minnesotans very strongly respect teachers for the reasons that FDC gave; who else is brave enough to try to teach kids when they are outnumbered 30:1? You won't see me doing it!

The two school districts I described have never had the funding for excess heads. The under-funded school district had one principal for every two schools, one nurse for every four schools, and only one admin assistant in the school office. All of the rest of the positions were filled with parent volunteers.

We decided that we had to leave because the student-teacher ratio kept going up. It started at 25:1 ten years ago and last year some of the intro high school classes were at 40:1. The district needed to pass a new school levee every two years just to sustain this extremely poor level of activity. The last levee passed by 45 votes out of 26,000 cast. The next levee WON'T pass no matter what because people in the district are pushed to the wall and CAN'T support higher taxes.

The response to the question about why don't parents feel strongly about their kid's education is complicated. Others have already started addressing it but it falls to me to finish the sad state of affairs in America.

Unfortunately there is a fairly large segment of the US population that has emotionally regressed to peasants. Perhaps the word "regressed" is wrong because I would guess that these same attitudes have been common throughout US history for many years but the situation has become more critical as people need increasing quantities of education just to function in our society.

These are not bad people, they KNOW that they aren't smart enough to get a college education (even if they really are smart enough) and they KNOW that their kids aren't going to college either. Traditionally apprenticeships and parental training have enabled these people to become productive members of society. But our society is rapidly evolving to a state where such education is insufficient.

Another problem is that a LOT of these parents are trying to do the single parent thing and/or working 50-60 hours per week. They are so tired when they get home that they can't work up the energy or the creativity to help the kids develop their own self-discipline or creativity.

Finally, there's a HUGE issue that all young couples face these days; the extremely high (and rapidly increasing) opportunity cost of having children. Which would you rather be: well-off with no kids or poor and a parent?

The people who have the education and the stable personal history are increasingly choosing to not have kids. I don't blame them. I love being a parent and am a better person for it but it's REALLY hard and REALLY expensive. You need a bigger vehicle, a bigger house, there's daycare, clothing, class fees, safety seats, your grocery bill keeps going up and up... And DON'T get me started on college!

This means that the more poorly educated and emotionally unstable people are becoming an increasing percentage of the parental population. And conception is the last unskilled part of being a good parent...

I will close by noting that the Chief is VERY wrong on one thing IMHO and that is the relative status of engineers and scientists in our society. Bub, I work with a bunch of Civil Engineers, Geologists, and Chemists who'd pay good money to punch your lights out just for suggesting such a possibility!

Stand tall whenever anybody hints at such a thing, look them straight in the eye, and use your favorite obscure geological term to their faces, and then get out of there before they figure out what you've said!

Please pardon a moment of preaching to the choir. People will respond to you in the way they think you believe you should be treated. If you treat yourself well they will automatically be deferential. If you indicate that you deserve to be walked on they will pull out their hobnails and order you to lie down.

sheerahkahn said...

Information is not static, and the advances in science make the initial forays of the earlier centuries quaint.
Unfortunately, most forget that those earlier forays are the first steps to the grand building of knowledge we're contributing too.
However, pick and choose your subject because you only have so many hours to cram entire loads of information into a mind that, for all intents and purposes, is evolving as you teach.
That evolvement generally is what's on TV, which lasts right up to thirteen, then it's the other sex, and wow, is she stuffing or are they real?
By sixteen it's definitely sex.
By seventeen it's Gas, Green (dollars), Girls.
By eighteen, they're mentally out of the classroom, and whatever is left is just waiting to go to sleep.

Then there are the geeks, nerds, or the guys like me who played football, wrestling, and during the lunch period instead of ogling the girls, was in the library reading Herman Hesse, or some obscure history book.

Those students are there, they just need to be found, secluded from the rest of the barbarians, and then taught.

unfortunately for me...I couldn't write a sentence to save my life when I "graduated" highschool.
In fact I was bored with the whole regime.
Didn't get serious about writing till I got married seven years later...oh well, better late than never.

FDChief said...

Pluto: First, I'd love to think that young people are excited about and desire a career in engineering or geology or similar applied sciences. But my experiences were all the other way. Most Americans I run into either a) don't understand what I do, or b) don't care, or c) both. They're not mean about it - it's not like I'd a junk bond trader or used car salesman - they just don't see what I do as a "status" profession like lawyer or doctor. Why do you think there's such a long wait list to get into Stanford medical school while the Standford civil engineering program - as good or better - is taking applications from Shanghai and Hong Kong?

Second, I do believe that there ARE lots of good American engineers. But not as many as there could be. And I think a lot of that goes back to the difference between my experiences in MS/HS in the Sixties and Seventies with Al's in the 50's and Sixties. The rigor at the secondary school level was already dropping.

Now it's even lower. Schools have to work their ASS off to get students to meet the standards. You and I both know that there are 15-20% of the CatIV's out there that will NEVER make the standard. Unless the standard is lowered to the point of meaninglessness.

In the 1950's a HS dropout could get work in a factory or a farm or a store. Those jobs a gone, mostly, replaced by a machine. The schools are told that they "can't let these kids fail".

So in order to keep their dropout rate low, schools try everything, and the most common is to make life easier for the student. They know that this is not in the student's best interest in the long run. But like a Fortune 500 company, they aren't being run by CEOs (superintendants and principals) who can afford to think in the long run. If they fail to meet their NCLB test tandards - TODAY - there will be no tomorrow. So they drop the tough standards, shove the kids through a minimal level of "familiarity" education and call it good.

Shortsighted? Sure. But surprising? No. Our entire society is turing to a "short-term good" way of doing business. Why should we be surprised that our schools are doing the same?

Aviator47 said...


As to science/tech training, to a degree, curricula have been seduced by technology. What I mean is that so many of the fundamental elements of our world have been totally wrapped up in hi or higher tech approaches that the fundamentals are no longer at our fingertips, and thus are no longer taught.

In 7th grade science, we studied "electricity and magnetism". Started with DC and how it was "generated". Batteries and series versus parallel battery circuits and why. Had to wire some basic circuits and learned switching - single pole, single throw - single pole, double throw - etc, and how basic tasks were accomplished with these. We made electric motors and electro magnets.

Then on to AC and not only how it worked, but it's advantages/disadvantages. Made transformers to increase or decrease voltage, which led us to how to do the same with DC, and we learned and built vibrator pulsating DC power supplies. Oh, yes, of course we had to learn to use a multimeter to do this stuff.

Later, in 7th grade shop, we were taught basic electrical circuit troubleshooting, building on the stuff we learned in science class. Would be presented with an inoperative door bell setup, for example, and would have to determine, with a multimeter, if it was the AC power source, fuse, transformer, switch, bell itself or wiring that was the problem. And, JJ Ryan, the Shop teacher, referred to the basics Mr. Decker and Mrs Ulrich, the Science teachers taught us as we went along. The only flaw was that the girls only received a brief exposure to "Shop Class" exchanging with the boys who then went to "Home Ec". But at least they got basic electricity, etc in Science, if not the applied portion in Shop.

The above is considered way too "basic" for today's 7th graders. Or, more probably, way to complex for their teachers?

By the time we got to 9th Grade General Science, we were well prepared for Jerry Mele's rigorous exercises in controlled experiments. And, we even learned about "placebos" in his class, as he touched upon experiments involving human perception. Jerry is still alive, retired and kicking in our home town, and many of us stop by to thank him and chat when we go back there.

All of the above I had to teach to my kids outside of school. Never really exposed to it. Same for my grandsons, who can wire up a home theater, but were never really taught what sound is! If the wires don't have color coded connectors, they are also stumped.

Yes, there is a lot more technology to learn, but if the rigor of learning what makes a "black box" is lacking, then the box is nothing but magic to our kids. I fear that the trend to overlook the basics is a form of self aggrandizement by teachers who (a) wish to identify with the sexier stuff and (b) don't know the basics to begin with. Just because we now have solid state power supplies that eliminate the need for vibrators and dynamotors (look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls), the kids still need to understand the underlying electrical concepts these old devices so readily teach. I would be willing to bet that the average HS grad has no idea of what "chassis ground" in a car means.

If all a student learns is that a little black plastic thingie plugs into the wall socket and it will charge his IPod, he or she is in intellectual trouble. They are learning a lot about effects, and much less about causes. But then, the IPod is so much sexier than the hand wound transformers we made in 7th grade.


Pluto said...

FDC: You're right on all points, as usual. I just couldn't resist having a bit of fun, particularly because I recently overheard a discussion between a couple Civil's with seriously inflated egos in which they were ardently preaching to each other how they had the best profession in the whole world and were glad that the rest of the world didn't know about it so they wouldn't have to get malpractice insurance.

Al and Sheera -
You are also right on your discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the current classroom curricula. I'd like to add a bit to your discussion by pointing out the insidious and unintended effects of the "No Child Left Behind" act.

Because federal and state money is tied to the test, here in Minnesota elementary teachers take a MONTH to do nothing but "teach the test" so they can get the highest possible score. To be honest, they aren't so concerned about the NCLB test because it is really easy compared to the MCEA (Minnesota Comprehensive Education Act) test that is administered at the same time.

Because the tests emphasize Math and English, the schools have been pushing those subjects forward at the expense of Science and Social Studies (particularly history).

At the beginning of this school year I took a few minutes to compare my son's progress in school with my own experience at the same grade levels.

The kids were consistently two grade-levels ahead of me in English and Math (which was good). Social Studies they were about a year behind but only because we discuss this sort of stuff a LOT at the dinner table, the rest of the class would have been about 3 years behind.

Science was a DISASTER. Imagine an extremely bright 9th grader with essential no understanding of how sound or light worked. Who hadn't had any classwork in chemistry, geology, astronomy, magnetism, or meteorology. The biology classwork had mostly concentrated on human reproduction and especially contraception (kind of sneaky that). When I was finished inventorying his skills I was so appalled that I asked, "WHAT do you do in Science class?"

His response was "Mostly watch the same old 'Nova' episodes over and over again." Experimentation was basically forbidden for insurance reasons.

The sole saving grace in this story is that he got into a class this year called "Physical Sciences" that FINALLY had the same level of rigor that I used to see and attempted correct the last eight years of neglect. Since it was an honors class, the teacher was allowed to bury the kids in homework and did experiments 4-5 days a week with the kids.

My son had more homework from that class than he had in all the other classes combined and loved the class so much he even wanted to go to school when he was sick just to do the experiments. Unfortunately the class was only a semester long and it has been replaced by a couple of no-brainer elective classes that can be so boring that a substantial portion of the class falls asleep every day.

My son's experience with this Science class has encouraged him to take AP Chemistry next year which both he and I expect he will really enjoy.

Aviator47 said...


What your child experienced was a few years of no structure in his academic and intellectual development, precisely at the time when the brain is thirsting for it.

How can a school even consider no labs to save insurance money? Or is this just an excuse that is fashionable and acceptable in our world. Did they also stop contact sports?

I heard a great talk on "Chaotic Teaching Creates Chaotic Minds" back in the 70's. The presenter, from Johns Hopkins, was lashing out at the so called "Superbaby" fad, where there were texts written to use to teach your child some pretty heady stuff the minute they asked a question. He used the example of a 4 year old asking, "Why is the grass green", and read the answer (chlorophyll, photosynthesis, carbon, oxygen, etc) to us making our eyes glaze over. Of course, the book says that these are "life changing ten minute learning opportunities". The guy speaking to us said that these were purely exercises in teaching your child that their environment is chaos. The answers were too long and too advanced for a child that age. No wonder, he offered, that kids exposed to this silliness emerge with undisciplined minds. It would be better, he posited, to simply say, "Because it's the bunny rabbits' favorite color". That makes sense to a four year old.

All too often, science education is disconnected, superficial snippets. No digging into the basics. No foundational knowledge when they do their "lab experiments". But hey, Nova is really good TV.


Pluto said...

Al - Did they also stop contact sports?

Not quite. What they did was to increase the fees from $150 per year + buy your own gear to $1250 per year + buy your own gear and the parents had to sign a bunch of forms showing that they had medical insurance and that they would pay for any injuries that resulted, and that they wouldn't hold the school responsible.

When the parents protested the school said that if the parents didn't meet those conditions they'd drop the sports.

It is another small measure of our increasingly government-dependant society that not a single parent said anything to the effect of "I'll start a league myself and save us all a lot of money." They just grumbled and opened their wallets.

Aviator47 said...


Actually, it's the great American game of creative accounting. Rather than set the tax rate to support HS sports, simply charge a "user fee". If sports are a valid and useful part of high school, then the district should have the courage to budget for and raise taxes for same.

Unfortunately, Americans do not want to pay taxes. They want benefits for themselves, but heaven forbid they pony up for the greater benefit of the society. I had neighbors in WA who campaigned against any increased taxes for the local schools because they did not have kids or grandkids in the area, and thus refused to pay for something that would benefit someone else's children. And, they were more than happy to say so.


wourm said...

Al, education deserves several threads! Excellent comments, too.

Nothing stated here is new. Nor is any of this unknown.

There are:
-not enough teachers.
-too many poorly trained teachers.
-too few schools with sufficient funds to operate in an optimal manner.
-too few school districts with proper funding and the willingness of the constituency to pay up.

Did I miss anything?

I'd look for suggestions on how to solve these problems. Barring the slim likelihood that it would happen, I like FDChief's suggestion to close the private schools and force the wealthy to back the public school system.

Everyone needs to understand that education is important. Even those without children and those with grown children still bear responsibility for educating the children around them.

Publius said...

"Everyone needs to understand that education is important. Even those without children and those with grown children still bear responsibility for educating the children around them."

Very well stated, Wourm. I could not agree more.

But then, let's stir the pot a little on this one:

"I'd look for suggestions on how to solve these problems. Barring the slim likelihood that it would happen, I like FDChief's suggestion to close the private schools and force the wealthy to back the public school system."

It may be that the public school system is broken beyond repair. I'm tired of sending billions and billions of dollars off to a bunch of bozos who effectively work with no accountability. WRT the schools, and unfortunately, too many other segments of our society, we've seemingly lost the ability to in any way monitor how our money is being spent.

Yeah, yeah, I know all of the arguments. One of my degrees is political science. But we have to face facts: the job is just not getting done in this nation. Not in education, not in a whole lot of equally important areas.

Parents who pay for private education are able to at least get some accountability from schools as to how their money is being spent. No public school parent has been able to say the same for a couple of generations now. The public school system has just gotten too big and unwieldy, too preoccupied with money and special interests to even care about education.

The reason why you'll not see any neat prescriptions from me for cleaning up education (and I've got lots) is because I'm getting too old and I've been around the block too many times. No matter what all of us learned folks may say, there is not a thing we can do about uncaring parents. We are a long-lived species that takes a commensurately long time to mature. Parents, the stewards for growing human beings, are critical to this process. Parents have it within their power to neutralize undesirable societal influences and to focus their children on developing in such a way that they're capable of leading an independent life for 60-70 years without being a drag on the greater society. If parents do their job, public education can work. If parents don't do their job, public education can do nothing but fail.

Sorry, folks. I've been a social worker all of my life. Went to war for people who didn't give a shit, stayed in the Army for people who didn't give a shit, got up every day and went to work, tried my best to direct a child properly, paid my taxes, tried to teach the kids of people who didn't give a shit, generally tried to put something back in. Now I'm old and tired.

But I will tell you why education reform in and of itself can never work. It's all part of a much larger American problem. Some of these are uncontrolled immigration, the loss of decent paying blue collar jobs and the consequent degradation of the working class. Uncontrolled immigration has led to the formation of a very large uneducated underclass—there is no other way to put it—which, despite its poverty, still has lots of babies that ends up in public schools. And the same is true for blue collar America: folks that once made $25-30 an hour now make $10 an hour working at Walmart. Anybody think all of these folks aren't all a little pissed off at their lot in life? Anybody think their kids don't suffer for this?

Recall that the rise of our public education system coincided with the rise of a robust and healthy middle class. We're losing the middle class in favor of a paradigm where we have the superwealthy, a highly educated and decently compensated technocratic class and a lower class. The superwealthy and the technocrats can take care of themselves and their children. The lower class seemingly needs more help than we can afford, especially since so many of them are dysfunctional in many ways.

I think it's pretty simple. Lose a decently compensated middle class and you lose public education.

basilbeast said...

Well, Publius, if you're gonna start an organization of the Old and Tired, where do I pay the dues?

After 35 years of slogging through teaching kids in 5 different districts and 3 states, I'm being shoved out at last thanks to the budget crunch at state and local levels.

Now I get to be supported by the poor souls I leave behind for as long as I hang on.

Pluto, great post about how to treat people. But I thought the Swedes and Weegies in Minnesota knew better. Property taxes inherently are a poor way to support education, especially as it is at least claimed to be in America, the way up to a better life.

BTW, can't you figure out a way to rid yourselves of Bachmann and Coleman?

Great thoughts on ed. from everyone IMO, not a thing lacking good sense.

I've got a lot of things I can bitch about or suggest, but ultimately, my time is past.

One thing I'd do, if I had the TV ad's "Easy Button", would be to nationally standardize achievement in public ed., AND nationally standardize the financing of public ed.

This was brought to the nation's public attention when our new prez brought that So. Carolina girl from that rat's nest some call a school into the very seats of power of this country.

Where that rancid piece of shit So. Carolina calls a governor squats on his throne to refuse the money that could rectify the scandal of a student in his state who tries to get an education under those circumstances.

You know, just basicly remove the education of our future citizens from the political arena and do it proper justice.

That's all, folks.


Publius said...

"Well, Publius, if you're gonna start an organization of the Old and Tired, where do I pay the dues?"

No dues, Basil. You just have to be ready. Mind you, I'm not suggesting dropping out or losing one's fire, but what I am suggesting is that there comes a point where one understands that the deck is so stacked one way that the odds of seeing a winning hand are virtually nil.

Which leads me to your second key point: get the politics out. Hah! See old and tired. I've grown very weary of activist politicians, but I don't expect to see an end to it in the years left to me. Of course politics ruins the educational mix, but of course that won't change.

It's my belief that public education, such as it, is kind of a canary in the coal mine for our grand egalitarian experiment. The experiment is failing. Read Tocqueville. That French nobleman was pretty prescient.

Our society is failing. IMO, this is the fundamental problem with our schools. Recall Ann Richards re George Bush senior? "Poor George, born on third base and thought he hit a triple." That applies equally to the son and to most of the prime movers in our society today.

I'd say kids like me, white and who, even though born and raised poor, came from parents who believed that I had to do better than they did and pushed me to do so, were born on first base. Or maybe even just coming to the plate. Some of us got picked off, but enough of us made it to second or third or even to home plate that the American dream stayed alive.

We now have millions of kids in our schools who, for reasons of birth circumstances, color, national origin, what have you, were born with two strikes on them and Koufax on the mound. A few will get a hit and advance, but the overwhelming majority will not. These kids do not ever expect to do better than their parents. Worse, their parents don't expect it either. It's a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

Those poor kids with no hope are not only doomed themselves, they often act to harm many other kids because of their frustrations and inability to cope with the educational process.

We're not allowed to acknowledge the truth in modern society. Politicians in particular will never do so. They will instead continue to wring their hands and throw money at the schools, never uttering a word about how our society itself makes certain outcomes inevitable. Did you know that we have more people in prison in the U.S. than in the rest of the world combined? What does that tell you about our society.

Sorry to learn of your job setback, Basil. Been through that one myself and it isn't easy. But you've got the tools and the desire. I'm confident you'll do well. Keep us posted on what you're doing.

basilbeast said...

Oh I'm not old enough to start throwing towels around, and I still plan to be active in the local Dem. party. I still have faith in that and that Obama is the better choice we had last Nov.

That is, if he can come to his senses and kick some "banksters" out like he did with GM.

As for job setback, I've already got some part-time work lined up, so I won't be taking that big of a hit.

I've always believed, and still do, that if you want a democracy, you need a decently educated citizenry which has access to reliably reported news and which is at least to a limited degreed actively involved in their governance.

We have IMO for the most part the first part, but, for the bulk of the masses, not the access to information. I think hard times will spur the proles into action.

John Edwards, pre-adultery, was quite correct that we have 2 Americas. You're also quite correct, that we seem to be sliding towards the old Spartan system of Financial Super Warriors and helots, who regularly get trimmed ( auto contracts ) as the Warriors get the love and bonuses.

Prisons are generally a good indication of the triumph of "sweeping under the rug" actions as opposed to "facing some brick-wall facts" actions.

Thank you for your consideration and back atcha wishes for good times in life and on the links.


For Al: Have you gotten you Orthodox Study Bible yet?

An apt quotation:

For the beginning of Wisdom is a very genuine desire for instruction and careful attention to instruction is the Love of Her.

- - - - WoS 6:17


Pluto said...

Basil -
Pluto, great post about how to treat people. But I thought the Swedes and Weegies in Minnesota knew better. Property taxes inherently are a poor way to support education, especially as it is at least claimed to be in America, the way up to a better life.

BTW, can't you figure out a way to rid yourselves of Bachmann and Coleman?

Yes, we're figuring out that property taxes are a PISS POOR way to pay for education and are trying to figure out how to do things better. Lots of good ideas cooking over at the legislature. Doubt that any will get approved this year but we're moving in the right direction after a decade of really stupid partisan politics.

Coleman is already done, he just hasn't gotten off the stage yet. We're just now figuring out that the whole recount thing is a Republican scam intended to keep us from having two Senators for as long as possible. The local public backlash is getting pretty nasty for Coleman. He's done as a politician in Minnesota. Hope his 30 pieces of silver from the Republicans will be enough to carry him till retirement age.

Bachmann is a bigger problem. The woman is, in my personal opinion, insane. And her district is 60% reactionary idiots who think the year is 1955 and live for her every pronouncement.

She nearly lost last year's re-election bid with her idiotic comments about traitors in Congress but managed to save the day with a technically impressive last-minute smear campaign on her opponent prominently featuring false stories supposedly generated by the local media. The local newspaper in particular protested but it was too late and the local Republicans managed to douse the lawsuits before they got started. It was an ugly display of new/old Tammany Hall politics.

My best guess is that she'll go the way the same way as "tail-gunner Joe" and flame out after miscalculating how far she can can push an issue. Like Ann Coulter, this woman can only thrive by slowly ratcheting up the vitriol and that is harder to do than it looks. I just wish she wasn't from around here and will be glad when she's gone.

Pluto said...

I think Publius is onto something.

My local legislature is slowly evolving a set of theories on how education should work that is evolutionary in appearance but has the chance to be revolutionary if properly enacted.

1. Merit pay for teachers. The Teacher's Union has been fighting hard against this one but the local Republicans have included some neat provisions that remove most of the teacher's arguments against it. We've got eight school districts trying it out right now. Too soon to tell if this is working as desired yet but the most dire predictions of the Teachers Union have not come to pass and things look good so far.

2. The state pays for all educational expenses. This removes most of the nasty property tax issues and helps the state to have better control over educational content. The small government-types are still fighting against it but are slowly losing the battle.

3. Reduce Education's administrative expenses as much as possible. Everybody is working together on this one because school is so expensive. The Democrats are slowing down the effort because they are afraid that some special-needs kids might get neglected but we're making good progress on this issue.

4. Use technology where appropriate as much as possible. The big argument here is the "where appropriate" part. We're beginning to discover that electronic games are a surprisingly good way to teach kids if set up properly. Our local school districts are also experimenting in a whole bunch of interesting ways to see what works and what doesn't. The biggest issues here are figuring out how to measure what is working and what isn't and how to pay for the new equipment.

5. We're also experimenting with a lot of new teaching styles such as splitting the classes up starting in fourth grade and teaching the bright kids much tougher material (and rewarding them with lots of hands-on experiments). One of my kids is in this program and is working his tail off but is having more fun in school than he has since Kindergarten.

We've also tried out magnet schools which specialize offer a general curriculum but specialize in certain aspects such as technology or language immersion. That hasn't worked out too well, the problem seems to be that the schools are either too small or the students start lagging in all subjects except the school specialty.

We have also experimented with privately run public schools. That turned out to be a REALLY bad idea and we had to shut it down. Education is a necessary societal money-sink and you just can't turn a profit on it.

The primary motivator for starting this program, oddly enough, was the success of the Republicans in getting several private school initiatives passed that forced the public school administrators to take an honest look at what they were doing and started us down this road to improvement.

The net effect of our experiments is that the private school population has been slowly dwindling the last few years as rising costs and more attractive public school opportunities are taking their toll.

We've made a lot of mistakes to get this far but are beginning to see some benefits and are becoming eager to get further down the road.

FDChief said...

."Merit pay for teachers. The Teacher's Union has been fighting hard against this one but the local Republicans have included some neat provisions that remove most of the teacher's arguments against it."

My take on this has always been influenced by my experiences as an NCO.

Once before an IG (which featured a particularly savage IG team we'd fought and lost to before) one of my troops asked if my relatioship with them would be affected badly if we did poorly on the IG.

My response, if I recall correctly, went something to the effect that, as their leader, I was responsible for their performance in the IG. That a poor inspection would expose my failures as a leader and that as a result would be reflected on my standing with my peers and my potential for promotion.

And that, while the responsibility was mine, I believed that I had been training them respond, not with contrition, but with a sense of injured pride and violent resentment that would culminate in my attempts to provide them with painful, lingering deaths probably involving heated metal implements.

The bottom line for me as a teacher is that I can only give you so much. You, as a student, have to take the rest. The only other way is for me to threaten you with truly savage punishment for failure which, needless to say, affects our relationship...mmm...adversely.

I can see the practicality of a series of long-term studies of student achievement providing a clue as to the teaching skills of a given teacher and thus grounds for "merit pay" based on this. But it would include a HUGE mess of inputs: student background and overall academic performance before, during and after contact with the teacher, baseline test and practical performance measures over a similar period normalized for the student's age, sex, economic background and peer group.

But that won't happen. Next years' "merit pay" will probably be based on this year's test scores.

This is akin to taking a snapshot of someone in the shower and deciding whether he or she is a sex pervert or not.

I'm all for giving people advancement and raises based on their skills, but I've yet to hear a legitimate method to measure "teaching skills". Would you use the subject of their various paintings to rate Picasso's "art skills" above Rubens? Matisse? Jackson Pollock?

FDChief said...

." them correctly and would then respond..."

Pluto said...

Chief, your comments are very similar to the arguments used by the teachers union.

The Republican response was to have a VERY nuanced "merit pay" system. It never cut the pay of a teacher, only raised it if the teacher performed above and beyond the call of duty.

I don't recall all of the details but I know it included credits to the teacher for tackling ESL and kids from poverty-stricken families. The school also had to measure the performance of the kids year over year and formed a base-line so the school district would know when a teacher performed above average.

The core of the idea is to avoid treating the teachers the way we sometimes accuse them of treating the children, by passing the unacceptable and giving them a nice annual pay increase even if they didn't earn it.

The key factor in my personal acceptance of this system is that we are testing it on a small scale before we run this out to all school districts. The basic concept seems to me to be a good one but it will be extremely difficult to make work well.

By testing and retesting the concept we'll get the bugs out before it becomes a state-wide mandate. And we can drop the idea without too much pain if the concept proves to be too Utopian to work in our human society.

wourm said...

"I've always believed, and still do, that if you want a democracy, you need a decently educated citizenry..."

Yes! Stupid people make poor constituents.

Publius, I was ready to patronize you and say WASF only if we do nothing about it. But it sounds like you've done or tried to do your share. Sit back, have a beer and let the young pups do it now. But keep poking at us with a stick!

Sometimes we need that.

Pluto said...

Wourm -
"But keep poking at us with a stick!

Sometimes we need that."

Very true and well said.

FDChief said...

Pluto: The plan your state has come up with sounds good prima facie. I will be interested to see how well it is followed up.

My experience colors my judgement re: "merit pay". It's all well and good to way that, gee, an ESL or SPED teacher deserves more than a bread-and-butter classroom teacher. Yet I've known regular classroom teachers with a classroom of 40 teach their ass off and ESL teachers with a class of 6 that were lovin' life.

My take on this, and testing as a whole, is that the problem isn't that we don't test what the kids are learning (and, by inference, what their teachers are teaching them). We test that, a LOT.

What we don't do particularly well is USE that information to refine how and what we teach to whom. In my time in the classroom I've never had a counselor or advisor drop by for a chat that went something like this:

"Hey, teach, wassuuuuup? I got a packet for you on Joe Jones, in your third period World Studies A? You might be interested to take a look at his reading comprehension versus verbal comprehension scores. Kid reads like a manic, but your words're gonna go in one ear and out the other. See where I'm goin' with this..?"

Thw bottom line is that the advisory system is a joke, and advisors and counselors are overwhelmed. The students I got every term were tabulae rasa, and I pretty much had to adapt my lesson plans - to the extent I could - to the kids who were either ahead, behind or sideways from the "norm".

So you'll have to excuse me if I'm skeptical about the ability of the system to truly evaluate a teacher's "merit". To evaluate the soundness of a bridge you can perform a series of straightforward tests and get a numerical answer. It's expensive, but it's finite, and conclusive. But to evaluate something as subjective as "good teaching"...?

By all accounts Socrates could be an abrasive jerk who taunted and often verbally abused his students, to say nothing of, ahem, his libidenous propensities. And yet we consider him among the ultimate teachers - perhaps THE model of teaching.

How would a "merit pay" formula deal with that?

Aviator47 said...

While stationed in Arkansas back in the 80's I attended a Gov. Bill Clinton Town Hall meeting pertaining to his education plan. A local teacher complained about "Republicans in Washington" causing most of the problems. Clinton asked the woman if there were indeed many people with an AR high school diploma on the street that were functionally illiterate and and math inept. She said there were, and then began to reiterate her tirade about GOP federal failures in education. Clinton gently interrupted her and said, "Ma'am, to receive a diploma, someone had to sign grade reports giving these folks passing grades. Are you telling me that someone in DC signed these grade reports? I think the problem is more closely related to standards, and at the local level."

In my experience, academic standards have been akin to a yard stick, except the material used has been Spandex, not hardwood. Thus, a given measurement has little, if no meaning, as the yard stick can be lengthened or shortened to make a variety of lengths receive the same "value".

Some difficult questions to answer are what should the standards for a high school diploma be, who should set them and how should performance be measured?

We can talk all day long, but teacher incentives, classroom size, etc are nothing without standards. Once standards are in place, then the debate on how to meet them can begin.


Pluto said...

Chief: You bring up a lot of good points that I have neither the time nor the expertise to answer. All I can say is that we are all watching the program with great interest.

The state is in deep budget doo-doo and the "Merit Pay" program costs extra money (well under 0.1% of the state education budget) but that is the first thing that the teacher's union wants to cut (in fact it is the only place the teacher's union thinks should be cut). We are going to see just how dedicated the state government is to making this program work. There is a very good chance, in my opinion, that this program will be cancelled in spite of the full support of the now-crippled GOP party and the governor.

My sole interest in the program is that I have seen outstanding teachers and I've seen lousy teachers and their relative skill level has nothing to do with their salary or tenure. All that counts is how many years the teacher has been there and that better measures their political infighting skills than their teaching ability.

Pluto said...

Al brings up a very good point as well. I recall a Newsweek report I saw a couple of years back that convinced me that "No Child Left Behind" has some merit in spite of it's MANY flaws.

The report noted that all states require students to pass a state-mandated test to receive their diploma. It compared the percentage of students who passed their respective state tests against the percentage who passed the standardized national tests.

The best in the nation that year was Minnesota at something like 75%passing the state-run test and 88% for the national test. Worst in the nation was Alabama at 88% passing the state-run test and only 16% passing the national test.

There's no doubt that the numbers were skewed by a large number of factors but they still don't account for the relative difference in the difficulty of the state-run test.

Personally I think the kids are a bit overtested and that we should be trying to mine more data out of the tests we've got rather than administering more tests. But I suspect that too many people aren't really interested discovering what's going wrong in education, they are only interested in proving it isn't their fault.

I suspect that our current economic problems will last a considerable amount of time and that the rigorousness and usefulness of the local educational system will be very important to determining how well each region pulls out of the slump.

If I'm right much of the country is in big trouble.

FDChief said...

Al - IMO the only REAL function for a Federal DOE would be the determination of what an American should know when in possession of a HS diploma, the establishment of a national Regents Exam (written, practical and viva voce) to assess whether the student has met this requirement, and the tracking of what districts are doing to meet this standard and the value of the standard in entering higher education and getting employed.

But I think you'd find it would be a minefield.

Just in science education alone, you'd never get past natural selection. Let alone reproductive biology, geologic time and radiometric dating, and environmental topics such as climate change.

Imagine trying to "standardize" an English or social studies curriculum..?

Pre-1960 we could find a pretty standardized POI by just ignoring all the nonmainstream stuff we didn't want to talk about. Now?


Pluto: Believe me, I thoroughly agree that there are a fair number of people in the education profession who are getting paid WAY more than they should be.

The problem is finding out who they are. And I suspect that if the amount of money being devoted to this is less than a tenth of a percent of the total state budget the results will be less than satisfactory.

Look at another "subjective" profession - medicine. We know, just by anecdote, that most of the problems caused by malpractice are caused by a small proportion of the MDs working in a given field. But have you ever tried to find out who these people are? It's nearly impossible. And, looking at it from the AMA's standpoint, you can see why they'd be VERY cautious about using patient outcomes as a measure of physician abilities. Who's to say that a doctor might not have a run of patients go sour despite his or her best efforts and get gated bacause of it? In our litigous and adversarial society?

The more I think about it, the more I think that the FIRST step has to be what I suggested upthread: closure and/or nationalization of the private schools.

So long as the elites know that their kids aren't going to be subjected to moronic impositions of "creation science" or dopey edufads, that their prep school sheepskin will be a powerful lever to opening the admissions door at the Ivies and the CalTechs, they will be happy to let the public schools go to hell. Force them back into the mixer, and then the notion of a sane national graduation standard, school funding and rational and comprehensive testing and test result application has a chance of happening.

Aviator47 said...


Funny thing you mention a "Regents" exam. When I was in HS, a three hour NY State Regents final exam was required for every HS course. Thus, the time invested in measuring our mastery of the material we covered was some 15 to 21 hours per school year. That annual testing is more than the total testing taken by most students in measuring all of their 9th-12th grade studies.

Is testing the key to educational achievement? Not at all. It is a measurement of the individual's mastery of a given subject. A sound education generally resulted in reasonable Regents exam scores.

We did not find the Regents burdensome. It was simply our "final exams" week. We could purchase review books with copies of previous Regents exams, with answers, to use as study guides to see what a given subject's exam was like. Our teachers did not "teach the Regents", they taught the subject matter. Many did not even use or discuss the review books in class. They would advise us to buy the review book, do an exam or two and see that it was no different than an exam written by our teacher. Longer, yes, but no different in rigor and content.

What I find lacking in the NCLB type exams is that they were actually intended to measure a school's overall teaching achievement, by testing the students' success in answering test questions over a sampling of items. They are not designed to measure subject matter mastery. Even if a student does well on the NCLB exam, it does not indicate the kind of evaluation the Regents provided.

Second, NCLB testing takes place in the 10th grade, which is not a measure of the final product of a HS education, but a measure of about half of it. The logic here was that if a student fared poorly on the 10th grade exam, remediation could take place in the following two years. However, this "mid point assessment" has since morphed into the graduation testing requirement. Thus, the standard one must formally meet to graduate is to meet the measurement for a 10th grade education. I wonder why HS grads do not seem to have HS level skills!

Exams, such as the ones required by NCLB are intended to measure teaching success by schools, and then allow measures to be taken against under performing schools. Talk about a totally uncontrolled experiment! How does a 10th grade math exam pinpoint where and how math education has failed? Was it the 8th grade curriculum, certain 9th grade teachers, or the handicaps inherent in the student body itself?

And, last but not least, the vast differences in performance on state tests and national ones tells us how very elastic the yardstick really is. Pluto's example should be an eye opener.


FDChief said...

Al: All the reasons you cite are the very reason I used the term "Regents Exam" for a comprehensive national test. Both my parents graduated NY high schools in the 1930's, and their description of the Regents and its comprehensive effectiveness has stayed with me. Nothing I've seen here in Oregon comes even close.

We had something called a "CAM", a "certificate of Advanced Mastery" which was supposed to be your 12th Grade diploma, a portfolio of written, computational, spoken and scientific work accumulated over your final year. It never happened once the districts and taxpayers realized how much money it'd cost to pay the teachers to administer it and the districts to collate and proof it. Instead we have a "CIM" given, as you note, in 10th Grade and widely derided as a joke.

And the band played on...

Pluto said...

Chief: The more I think about it, the more I think that the FIRST step has to be what I suggested upthread: closure and/or nationalization of the private schools.

So long as the elites know that their kids aren't going to be subjected to moronic impositions of "creation science" or dopey edufads, that their prep school sheepskin will be a powerful lever to opening the admissions door at the Ivies and the CalTechs, they will be happy to let the public schools go to hell.

Hoo Boy, I really hate to mention this but I think it is a major part of our educational problem. Here in Minnesota the ringleaders of these "edufads" (great word!) ARE the elites.

I haven't been able to talk to any of the hard-core ringleaders among the elites but I have had some fairly in-depth conversations with their followers. Near as I can tell, we're observing some pretty hard-core Social Darwinism here.

They think that because they've got the money (and have converted to whatever belief that turns their crank) they have the right (and perhaps the duty) to help the rest of us see the light. "Intelligent Design," for example, seems to be primarily funded by wealthy Baptists (who scored a big hit last week when the Texas Board of Education decided to require teaching Intelligent Design next to Evolution).

The "Grade on effort rather than results" crowd seem to be a funded by (overly) liberal parents and educators in California and the East.

Now you're right on the mark, Chief, when we discuss funding issues. What makes me particularly angry about the situation is that the wealthy ASSUME that their little darlings are going to be smart enough to run the world and that the burger flipper's kid is automatically going to be a failure.

But there's another factor in play here, one that I mentioned upstream. People are discovering with increasing frequency that they can either be wealthy or have kids but not both. And they are choosing to be wealthy.

While there are a lot of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet types who willingly pay their taxes, donate huge sums to good works, and help to keep society running with some semblance of fluency; there are WAY TOO MANY of the other type.

You know the type, the ones who don't care about anything in the world other than from their own narrow mindset. Who expect the world to end as soon as they die so they don't care about the future. Who throw THEIR huge sums of money towards pet causes of extremely dubious value and consider Bill and Warren to be traitors to their class and seek to oppose them.

These wealthy loud Cat IV types are WAY too prevalent in Minnesota society and have way too much influence. We made the STUPID mistake of listening to them from about 1994-2004 and made so many bad decisions I shudder to think about that period. We've finally learned to start ignoring them when they don't make any sense.

One moved out of state specifically because he didn't feel we were treating him right and made sure we knew about it. He was disappointed by the huge and happy turn-out at a mock going-away party we threw for him. But they remember when they had the rest of us in a headlock and are wracking their small brains on the best way to get back into power.

Andy said...

Been away from this thread for a while since I was traveling, but a lot of good comments, as usual. This is a topic of immense concern to me as my kids are 5 and 4 and the oldest enters kindergarten this fall. So, a couple of thoughts:

1. Parents who put their kids education first go where the good education is. It's not unusual for parents to move across town for the sole reason of changing school districts. In fact, most of the people I know who aren't military lived in one area until their kids reached school age and then they moved for the schools. Some of this, I think, can be attributed to zoning and other types of city planning that, intentionally or not, tend to create neighborhoods that people with school-age children really like and most other people don't like (like retirees and young, single professionals). Education funding that is tied to property taxes only exacerbates this. There isn't much diversity in our communities as a result (with a few notable exceptions) but I'm not sure if that is new or has always been the case. As military, I've moved around a lot and every community has the "desirable" neighborhoods (from an educational standpoint) and they are inevitably suburban, middle-class or better and mainly composed of families with children. My wife and I tended not to choose to live in those areas because we find them to be uninspiring expanses of tract housing that are indistinguishable and come with long commutes and little else. With our kids entering school age, however, we face some choices - live in one of those neighborhoods, take a chance on a mediocre school district in a more desirable (to us) area, or pay for private school. For now we are lucky - we have base housing in an above-average school district.

2. I don't think it's possible or desirable, ultimately, to nationalize private schools, and I also think it's unconstitutional. To begin with, a lot of private schools are religiously based and I think people deserve to have that choice as long as it's not funded by the taxpayer. I can't imagine the Feds coming into Amish neighborhoods to force their kids into government schools. Ain't gonna happen, nor should it, IMO. Presumably, you'd have to outlaw homeschooling as well.

3. I've always supported the concept of merit pay, but FDChief's comments give me some pause. It seems reasonable to assume that many teachers will adjust their teaching to game whatever merit system exists, so such a system would have to be carefully thought-out, structured and supervised. If it's based on student performance in standardized testing, then those tests really need to be rigorous and comprehensive. Hard to imagine government implementing a viable and fair system that would be difficult to game with all the pressure from various powerful stakeholders.

5. Preschool. ISTM, and this is speculation on my part, that preschool is one of those fundamentals that gets neglected. Preschool is often an out-of-pocket expense (at least it was for us) and quality is not cheap. Since both parents typically work these days, that also means a lot of kids spend their early years in childcare, childcare/preschool, then gradeschool followed by day care. In very few cases is any of that non-school related supervision/education paid for by any level of government and finding quality day care and after school programs are very competitive (and expensive). More speculation here, but I think the fact that many families have two working parents generates a lot of negative second and third order effects on children. An at-home parent brings a lot of benefits that one doesn't hear about much these days. A lot of daycare seems to simply be a baby-sitting service where the kids are parked for up to 12 hours a day. I don't think that can compare to what a parent can provide (acknowledging, of course, there are slug parents out there, so there are obviously exceptions). Of course, I may be biased here since I've spent the majority of my time over the last five years filling that role between stints in the reserve and guard.

6. The explosion of single parents. I forget the exact statistic, but some huge percentage of poor people in this country are single mothers and the majority of those are single black mothers. The disadvantages for their children's education are immense. Many have a poor education themselves, are forced to live in the poorest areas with the worst school districts, have little flexibility and face a host of terrible choices and problems.

7. The irony in all this is that, theoretically, at least, getting educated has never been easier thanks to libraries and the internet. Some of the greatest minds of 200-300 years ago might kill for the resources we take for granted today. You'd think there is no excuse for not being educated since libraries and the internet (at those libraries) are free. Al, I your notion on subjecting the mind to chaos explains the irony - structure is required for learning for most people. In fact, cognitive theory clearly shows that, on average, the more choices and options people have, the worse their thinking, the less their understanding of the problem and the worse their decisionmaking. So I guess it's no surprise that there are few self-taught people who are able to independently learn from the huge, free resource pool we all have today. Most people need structure.

seydlitz89 said...

Greetings gentlemen-

Can't really add anything to what has been said about the situation of education in the US. Been out of the country far too long for that. I found the comments to be quite interesting and informative.

All I possibly could do was say a bit about what's going on here in Europe. As for my kids, we're happy with the education they have received (in a private German school here in Portugal).

There are plenty of complaints about the state school system here due to the usual culprits. However, teachers here are much better paid than in the states. Still there is too much of that tendency among teachers to be people who pretty much ended up in the job without any real ability/interest in it. They hang on because they don't have the energy or confidence to get out. That was the same in US Army Intel in Berlin btw.

There is also a marked trend towards "teach to test".

I've recently returned from an international English Language Teachers conference in Wales where I presented one of my usual impenetrable theory papers. I've noticed that we seem to be at something of a crossroads in ELT, that being between what I call the "30 second crowd" who think they can transform education into a series of entertaining computer games, and those who wish to stress a more contemplative/critical thinking approach. They - the former - have a lot of powerful interests behind them, as well as the current education Zeitgeist which sees interactive white boards and the like as being fundamental to the future, whereas my side (call us "the dinosaurs") can't even agree as to how to define "critical thinking".

basilbeast said...


Parents who put their kids education first go where the good education is. It's not unusual for parents to move across town for the sole reason of changing school districts. In fact, most of the people I know who aren't military lived in one area until their kids reached school age and then they moved for the schools. Some of this, I think, can be attributed to zoning and other types of city planning that, intentionally or not, tend to create neighborhoods that people with school-age children really like and most other people don't like (like retirees and young, single professionals). Education funding that is tied to property taxes only exacerbates this.

I think that this is the one thing that can affect national public ed. tremendously within a short time range. Property no longer, at least where I'm at, is an absolute proof of wealth.

Public ed. needs a more standardized base of financial support.

As for Merit Pay, an example from my district.

Our debate teacher and his students won the state debate championship this year.

His merit pay reward?

He's been told you're no longer the debate teacher, we're looking for someone else who costs much less.

There are other reasons I oppose merit pay, but in my experience, it won't/can't fly, unless the district has money to burn.

Those that do are in wealthier communities.


Aviator47 said...

Seydlitz: They - the former - have a lot of powerful interests behind them, as well as the current education Zeitgeist which sees interactive white boards and the like as being fundamental to the future, whereas my side (call us "the dinosaurs") can't even agree as to how to define "critical thinking".

The seductive nature of technology at work. I recall, a couple of decades ago, listening to a physics prof pontificate on the dangers of our society elevating applied science above basic science. He said that it is easy to apply science by the "hit and miss" technique - just keep trying various combinations and permutations until one seems to work. The problem is that if you design something by this method and it subsequently fails, you can end up with no idea of the underlying cause of the failure. And, of course, very often the failure is a result of not having known the underlying science to begin with.

Over the years, I have mentally applied the above caution to a variety of endeavors. If a person is not well versed in arithmetic and math, he becomes the slave of his calculator, not the operator of it. I wish I had a dime for every instance I have witnessed of someone blindly accepting an outrageous result on a calculator screen, simply because they never developed the mental skill of estimating.

Linguistic skills are equally important. Ardy and I are better able to understand folks here whose English is self taught, because we have learned to deal with literal translations of Greek words to English words spoken using Greek grammar and syntax. We appreciate their willingness to try to speak our language, and in return, they are graceful with our halting Greek. Interestingly, virtually everyone here seems to have a better grasp of the fundamentals of grammar and syntax than people we knew in the US. Even the little old farm lady knows that there is no gender in English nouns, and thus no matching articles.

If hi-tech teaching machines replace learning the underlying fundamentals, we are lost. And to learn the underlying fundamentals, they must also be used until they are a part of our skill set. It's nice living in a culture where the people don't rely on the cash register to determine the change for your purchase.


Aviator47 said...

As to math, I would raise the question of when it is reasonable for a student to stop "manually" doing math and transition to a calculator. I would suggest that it is not immediately following the memorization of the traditional "tables" and showing basic proficiency in calculations. Rather, it would be once they handled calculations "instinctively", and that is accomplished only after reasonable experience.

As an analogy, think of the modern GPS. One devotee has told me that he likes using it because he "always knows where he is". My retort was, "Do you 'know' or is the device that 'knows' and is simply telling you?" My logic being that if one is not using mental capacity to determine where they are, it is not really a "knowing" situation. I am not saying that a GPS is not handy. Rather, it does add to the intellectual vacation that much of the population has been on for too long. Very little thought, but a lot of electronically delivered material replacing thought. We are 'told' a lot, but actually 'know' very little.


seydlitz89 said...


"We are 'told' a lot, but actually 'know' very little."

I like that. Conditioning people to press buttons and expect results seems to be the norm. Also I would add that it seems to be a trend that people are losing the capacity for what I refer to as "critical thought", defined as being able to analyze a text beyond accepting or rejecting it totally, rather identifying specific elements that one agrees with or not and why. To this I would add the ability to think of cause and effect in terms of a sequence of decisions/actions and their probable outcomes, close to what Max Weber referred to as the "ethic of responsibility".

Notice how quickly education and intellectual capacity fades into ethics.

I can give a good example of what I mean in terms of this ethic. A friend and myself were flying back from the UK last week and a young man behind my seat (unknown to me at the time) had his blackberry switched on during the entire flight. Every time the stewardess would walk by he would hide it from view and then take it out again once she had passed, my friend who was sitting across the aiele from me saw the whole thing. He fumbled with it during the entire flight oblivious to any responsibility he might have for any damage this might cause. Everyone is expected to switch off such equipment for a reason after all.

From my friend's description the young man actually seemed to consider himself quite the clever boy. He also says he sees this commonly on flights . . . Inability to think in "strategic terms" or simply in a sequence of cause and effect relationships and considering the responsibility one has for their own actions.

What a sad state of affairs.

Aviator47 said...


I wish it were simply "critical" thought. The chaos inherent in many children's education leads to no real analytical or synthesizing skills at all. All too often, teachers accept bizarre leaps of logic or no logic at all as "creativity". Reaching bazarre conclusions is not creativity, and when encouraged, simply teaches a mind to produce fantasies.

I was proctoring an exam for a HS US History teacher one day, and to keep myself occupied, read through some student papers on her desk. The conclusions these kids were presenting on the topics assigned were, in the main, out in left field. We're talking 2 + 2 = 6 level of work. Karl Rove couldn't have spun better alternate realities. Yet, they were being given passing grades for showing "creative thought" and "interesting viewpoint"!

But ever more fundamental analytical skills seem to be missing. I am a member of a Vespa Owners' web group. I cannot believe the inability of people who work on their own machines to do simple electrical trouble shooting. People will blindly replace components at significant expense without ever applying a simple multimeter to see if current is even present in the first place. When I ask someone if they checked for voltage at a certain terminal, they ask how that is done. That was 7th-8th grade shop for me. And it was a mandatory subject. I won't even begin to address the number of folks who haven't a clue about AC versus DC.

In order to cover more advanced material in school, too many of the basics have been overlooked as irrelevant. Without those basics, how can one master more advanced material? My view is that if more material needs to be covered, than more time must be allocated to accomplish it. Covering more material in the same number of hours is one reason these kids come out with a superficial education.

seydlitz89 said...


Yea, basic stuff. Remember slide rules? There used to be competitions in using them . . .

Once again I think it's linked to defining "critical thinking". I had a director's wife in my organization once tell me that she really promoted "critical thinking" with her two kids. "I always encourage them to question the teacher as to why exactly they have to complete a certain assignment. Also they should consider whether they should do the assignment at all." She was so proud of herself . . . My response was, "I'd like some more wine please. . ."

almost drafted said...

We're back on the subject of critical thinking, which as I've said is the primary purpose of education.

I just want to repeat my suggestion about teaching what invalid argumentation is. See:

The Greeks long ago showed that you can call bullshit on many types of arguments on their form alone (ad hominem and "appeal to authority" forms, e.g.).

This lets you call bullshit on some assertions without having to look into the content of what is said. That leaves you far more time to deal with well-formed arguments that are also bullshit.

But even if this can't be inserted into a curriculum, I highly recommended that it be taught individually by parents.

On the topic of mathematical illiteracy, I highly recommend "Innumeracy" by John Allen Paulos:

I loved using a slipstick, and because it was pretty easy to drop a decimal point on a slide rule, you had to develop the skill of order-of-magnitude estimation.

Al also brings up the very good point of having to figure out when you move from in-the-head math to in-the-computer math.

On the one hand you have zillions of people who can't make change unless the register tells them the amount to return.

On the other hand, when a mechanical engineering post-grad friend of mine got his brand new HP-TI calculator (circa 1972), he said he could have finished his bachelor's degree in two years instead of four.

But look. We know that adding even numbers always results in an even number, right? So kids have to understand that when someone says, "I've found a series of 10,000 even numbers that add up to an odd number!", then you don't have to add up the column to know he's wrong.



Aviator47 said...


I suspect that in the rush to squeeze more "content" into curricula, we create a kind of "14 countries in 7 days" situation. Thus, students are introduced to mathematics, for example, and then turned loose with calculators to save time for use on other things. The calculator is not a time saver for one who is not competent in math, but a substitute for math competency.

A good friend of mine taught applied social science statistical analysis at a major university. To highlight how "dangerous" statistical computer programs could be, he did a simple exercise with his students. He had a computer file of the data of a religious preference survey of a small city. For computer entry purposes, the individuals' preferences had been coded as 1=Catholic, 2= Protestant, 3= Jewish, 4= Other and 0= None. Since the data had numerical "values", he had the class compute, for example, Mean and Median religious preferences. The software dutifully crunched the numbers as requested. The "Mean" was something like "2.2". He then discussed what this meant. Did it mean that the "Average" resident was a Protestant ("2") who kind of liked the Old Testament, or a Jew ("3") who was seriously leaning toward "taking this Jesus person seriously". His teaching point was that while the software will do anything you ask, you have to understand the basics and nature of what you are dealing with or you will generate accurate mathematical results that have no real meaning whatsoever.