Friday, May 18, 2007

Roger Sweeny: Academic rigor not necessary or sufficient for most students

In my last post, I did some hand-wringing about the low priority we put on academics in America. There were a number of very interesting comments made by various people about that post, but the one I found most interesting was one from Roger Sweeny. I hope Roger doesn't mind, but I found it so interesting that I decided to use it as a post. I thought it represented a very intelligent and unusual point of view, and I'm interested in what other people think of it. So here it is:

Why should public schools, schools that kids have to attend until they reach 16, be academically rigorous? It certainly isn't what most kids want.

The answer that is usually given is that academic rigor creates success later in life (usually defined as a higher income). But I think that is simply untrue.

There is no question that, generally, kids who do well in school make more money than kids that don't. But the direction of causation doesn't run from school to success.

Kids don't "do well" in life because they did well in school. The kids who will do well in life are the same kids who will do well in school. They are goal-oriented, hard working, etc. They make their schools look good.

No doubt schools can help develop some habits of hard work, etc.--but as Dennis pointed out a while ago, it is often athletics that does this more than academics.

Lots of things can develop qualities that will make a person more successful in life. Academic rigor can do this for some people. However, for most people it is neither necessary nor sufficient.


Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Well heck, if nobody else is going to comment, I will.

I like what Roger said so much because it goes so much against the grain of what we are expected to say about academics and academic rigor. Despite our true attitudes that are betrayed by our actions, if someone says "academic rigor," we are all supposed to verbally genuflect. Well, Roger isn't genuflecting. I don't know whether Roger wanted to do this, but I think his comment gives some justification for the way public schools do things, and it also offers a reason for how well our nation continues to do economically despite the poor performance of our kids on international tests.

5/20/2007 3:36 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

If I had to choose between dumb/uneducated but driven kids on one hand, and smart/educated but driven kids on the other, I'd choose the latter.

Academic rigor may not be necessary or sufficient, but it's certainly a nice-to-have. This sounds like nothing more than an updated version of Leary's "turn on, tune in, drop out". It didn't work in the 60s, and I see no evidence it'll work today.

5/20/2007 9:04 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Darren, I'd let Roger speak for himself, but he might not even know that I posted his comment. I think he's just being realistic. Is "academic rigor" really for everyone? I saw our principal after he had substituted for one of our basic type math classes for sophomores last week. He was shaking his head and saying, "The state expects those kids to get through algebra II? No way!"

By the way, in a later comment, Roger writes in favor of high stakes testing, so I don't think he's advocating, "Do your own thing, man!"

5/20/2007 12:10 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

More and more, I'm coming around to the point of view that education serves a meta-cognitive function. Not to say that the subject material doesn't have value in and of itself, but in the 11 years since I've graduated high school, I've never once had to solve a quadratic function. Rather, schools teach how to learn, but only if we're doing it right.

A recent column in Computerworld raised the point (while arguing about including iPods in classrooms) that if students can cheat on a test by using a calculator, or iPod, then it's not a very good test. Much as it pains me to admit it, most of my Grade 11 History students are not going to remember the Kellogg-Briand Pact after the end of my course. Maybe if I teach it right, they will remember that war doesn't have to be the only solution to an international problem. Maybe.

Whether that falls under academic "non-rigor" is anybody's guess, but focusing on names and dates isn't going to be the most helpful thing I can do for them.

5/21/2007 11:10 AM  
Blogger Dennis_Fermoyle said...

Gasp! Are you trying to tell me that there are people out there who don't know what the Kellogg-Briand Pact was??? I'm shocked! SCHOCKED!!! And I don't know about you, but I'm solving those quadratic functions all the time! By the way, what are they?

5/21/2007 11:48 AM  
Anonymous Roger Sweeny said...

My comment was inspired--in part--by the big meeting we had this year on the day before the first day of school.

Various eminences addressed us. One of the messages was, "Don't believe the people who say our students haven't learned much. Don't believe the people who say our students don't know as much as students in other countries. The American economy is the richest in the world."

I was quite willing to accept the second part, but I knew the first part was twaddle, demonstrably untrue. All the international testing programs put American high school students in the bottom half.

More than that, every high school teacher knows that his or her students will do considerably worse on mid-year and final exams than they will on assessements at the time of the lesson. And we know that there is a simple explanation for that: the students haven't really learned much of what they supposedly learned--but they are not bad at memorizing for a few weeks.

It is a cliche in my school that "by August, they've forgotten most of what they learned the previous year."

So to the extent that public schooling helps the American economy, it can't have too much to do with subject matter knowledge.

5/21/2007 1:11 PM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

I completely agree with you about the low priority that education gets in the world. I just blogged the following:

"Its amazing to me that the political blogosphere only cares about education when it can be used to score points against which ever political party they are against. The rest of the time, all that interests most political bloggers is whether some guy named Scooter is going to serve any prison time."

I think on this we can agree.

6/06/2007 8:10 PM  
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