Monday, July 30, 2007

Elementary schools cut back on social studies, science, and the arts

This should come as no surprise to anyone, but a recent study shows that elementary schools are cutting back on social studies, science, and the arts in an effort to focus on the things that are being tested under No Child Left Behind, like reading and math.

The Washington-based Center on Education Policy (CEP), which released the report, said the research finds that about 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English/language arts or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess.

According to CEP, "A majority of the nation's school districts report that they have increased time for reading and math in elementary schools since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, while time spent on other subjects has fallen by nearly one-third during the same time, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy.

"The report, based on a nationally representative survey of nearly 350 school districts, finds that to make room for additional curriculum and instructional time in reading and math - the two subjects tested for accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act - many districts are also spending less time in other subjects that are not the focus of federal accountability."

It seems to me that in the areas of social studies and science there is an obvious solution to this problem, and it is recommended by E. D. Hirsch. That solution is simply to incorporate more social studies and science--part of what Hirsch calls core knowledge--into our early reading programs. Rather than having kids read stories about Freddy the Frog or Billy the Bear, why not have them read children's stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King? Is there any reason that we shouldn't do that?

Hirsch argues that this would actually be the most effective thing we could do to improve kids' reading over the long run. He says that American schools are already doing a good job of teaching the mechanics of reading, and this shows up on international test scores through the fourth grade. We start dropping after that because tests become based more on background knowledge, and our kids don't have much of that. Hirsch's point is that if students have little or no background knowledge in a subject that they are reading about, they're not going to understand what they're reading no matter how good their mechanics are. That makes great sense to me, because I see it in my own life.

Right now, I'm reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I'm enjoying it. But on Saturday, I read about Franklin's experiments and discoveries dealing with electricity. Now, my understanding of electricity is almost nonexistent, so I was lost after about one paragraph. There was talk of "positives" and "negatives" and "charges" and "electricity is a fluid" and it all meant about nothing to me. For me, it was the least enjoyable part of the book so far, and I couldn't even begin to explain anything about it to you. So if someone tested my reading skills based on that section of the book, they would probably conclude that I was a very poor reader.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I read about Franklin's views on Indians, African-Americans, and slavery. I already knew something about that going in, but I was able to learn a lot from reading this section, and I found it very interesting and enjoyable. If you wanted me to explain this section to you, I would be able to do it with a great deal of confidence. The background knowledge that I had was the key.

I admit that I am no expert on the subject of elementary education, but I do know that many of the kids I get in my sophomore American history classes have an appalling lack of background knowledge. There are kids who don't know who our first president was, there are kids who don't know what war involved slavery, and there are kids who have no idea that at one time African-Americans and women weren't allowed to vote--and I'm talking about my regular classes, not my basic one. When kids have so little background knowledge, it is hard for me to make the class interesting and meaningful for them. I can get them to learn material for a test, but I have no confidence that many of them will retain much of that knowledge even a month or two later. I know all these kids are getting American history in seventh grade, and I know they're getting some in elementary school, but maybe they're getting too little too late.

I want to make it clear that I am not pointing my finger at elementary teachers for the lack of American history background knowledge that so many students suffer from. I'm not sure what all the reasons are for this "knowledge deficit," but obviously the family plays a huge role, and I also think our culture bears some responsibility. But I think that by introducing more American history content earlier than we do now, our early elementary programs have the potential to be a big part of the solution. Hirsch is very critical of the reading material that is now being used in most of our early elementary programs, but I must confess that I know little about it. I do know that even when I was very young, I enjoyed hearing stories about people like Washington and Lincoln. It seems to me that having more material like that in our early reading programs is something worth trying.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

An entrepreneur does something to HELP public schools!

Entrepreneurs, if you really want to improve American education, and you're not just looking to privatize the system, here is an idea for you!

Bill Marvin cares about public schools, and so did his wife, Margaret, who passed away last December. Margaret was an English teacher and then a community activist and part-time columnist for our local newspaper. Bill took Marvin Windows and Doors, a small window company in Warroad, Minnesota, overcame a fire that seemingly wiped it out in the 1960s, and turned it into what might be the most successful business in northern Minnesota.

Bill and Margaret have also been incredibly generous to our community in Warroad, Minnesota. Among other things, they have donated our public library and our school's Olympic sized swimming pool, but this year they topped themselves. They set up a $50 million scholarship fund for kids who graduate from our high school.

We have about 100 kids per class in Warroad, and Marvin Family Scholarship fund will provide $10,000 per year to students who want to go to college for up to four years. This year 34 seniors got them. I should add that this is not based solely on GPA. The Marvins are very big on community service, and they look very closely at what kids have done in that area when awarding the scholarships.

Just think about what this means for families in our community. It basically means that if you are in the top third of your class, you have a very good chance of getting just about everything paid for if you decide to go to a state college or you'll have a lot of help if you want to go elsewhere. I mean, knowing the effort that is made by the typical high school student, how hard is it to be in the top third of your class? I believe that just about any student who really wants to accomplish that probably can. What an incentive to do well in school, and to be a good citizen while you're at it!

I've said in previous posts that high schools tend to go through cycles in which the student body gets better for awhile, gets worse for awhile, and then starts to get better again. I had also said that our student body in Warroad had slipped over the last couple of years, and it looked like that slippage was going to continue. I can't think of anything that could do more to reverse that trend than this gesture by the Marvin family.

There are a lot of entrepreneurs in America who say they care about education, so they fork out millions of dollars to encourage people take their kids out of public schools, and millions of dollars to set up things like merit pay schemes. If Bill Gates and company really want to improve public education in America, maybe they should take a look at what Bill and Margaret Marvin have done.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Politicians, please be careful when fighting the dropout problem!

Chicago has just passed a very well meaning law that I think is a bad idea.

Driving a car ranks near the top of many teenagers' wish lists; school, for some, doesn't make the list at all.

So this fall the secretary of state's office and state education officials will try to use that desire to get behind the wheel as leverage to keep more of them in the classroom.

A state law that went into effect July 1 will revoke the licenses of students who have more than 18 unexcused absences from school, are expelled or drop out.

It's part of an effort to stem the statewide dropout rate, which topped 24,000 students last year. The number has declined from more than 36,000 five years ago, but education leaders and lawmakers think the new law can help bring it down further.

The problem with this policy is that its sole purpose is to keep kids in school. Forcing high school kids to simply "be in school" when they don't want to be there does no one any good and it probably does a lot of harm to many other kids who want to be there and want to get an education. I wish that courts and legislatures would learn that any time they tell kids that they must be in school, they need to include some sort of minimum performance standard.

A story I used last year in a post illustrates this point better than any I've ever heard. A few years ago we had a student who was ordered to be in school as part of his probation. Instead of going to his classes, the young man would frequently wander our hallways, where he would get in trouble and eventually be brought to the principal's office. Finally, someone asked him, "Aren't you concerned about how this might affect your probation?" The student's reply: "The judge just told me I had to be in school. He didn't say anything about going to class."

I'm all for encouraging kids, or for that matter people of any age, to get an education. I'm sure that that is what judges and legislators who want to force kids to stay in school believe they are doing. But they're wrong! Judges and legislators are generally people who did reasonably well in school, and they're acting according to their past experiences. They assume that anyone who is in school will pay a reasonable amount of attention, do some of the assignments, and get something out of their classes, because they did. They don't understand that some kids in school make no attempt to learn anything in their classes, and they don't understand that if those kids are disruptive, they can make it much more difficult for their classmates to learn.

I must admit that I cannot recall ever shedding a tear over any student I've known who has dropped out. I have never seen dropouts as "victims" of our education system, as so many seem to. When it comes to dropouts, the only people I've seen as victims have been the kids stuck in classes with them before they dropped out. Our school has never had a very high dropout rate, so maybe that's part of the reason I see things the way I do. Maybe I would look at things differently if we had a thirty, forty, or fifty percent dropout rate, but I really believe the principle is still the same. Education is an opportunity. It is of great value when someone is willing to grab it, and make the most of us. It is of little or no value for those who aren't.

Before you conclude that I am simply a heartless educational Neanderthal, I want to make it clear that I am all for allowing dropouts back into school if they ever make the decision that they really want an education. Chicago had a program like that a number of years ago that was featured on 60 Minutes , but I have no idea if the program still exists. The 60 Minutes program featured a mother who was in her early thirties who was attending classes with her sixteen-year-old daughter. The young adults featured on the program seemed to be doing well, and that doesn't surprise me, because they had made the decision that education matters. When that happens, we can help people--I don't care how old they are.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Test scores vs the teaching

This year was my third year of teaching A.P. Government. I took the place of a man who had probably been the most respected teacher in the school, so I had very big shoes to fill. The first year that I did it, I worked my backside off, but I was not very comfortable. I had never taught a college or A.P. class before, so I had always emphasized what I wanted students to learn, and then tested on that. Since the A.P. test would be given at the end of the year, and I had no idea what would be on it, I couldn't do that. American government is a huge subject (Aren't they all?), and there were times when I felt overwhelmed. I had never before had a class of mine take a national or a state test at the end of the year on something I taught, so that A.P. test became very important to me, and I can't say that I was exuding confidence when it was given. But when the results came back, I was thrilled. Out of 21 kids, eleven got 3s, which meant that they got college credit, five kids got 4s, and one got a 5--the first one on an A.P. Government test for anyone in our school for a number of years. (For those who don't know, 5 is the best possible score on A.P. tests, and 1 is the lowest.) The results were far better than they had been the year before, and so I felt pretty good about the teaching job I had done. When the next school year began, I was holding my head up a little higher, and my chest was sticking out a little farther.

This year, there is no question in my mind that I did the best job of teaching the class that I have done during my three years. My understanding of the material has greatly improved since my first year, and my presentations were definitely superior. Yesterday, I got the results of this year's A.P. test. The results: Three 3s, two 4s, and eleven 2s. My head has come back down, and my chest has come back in.

Is it possible--just possible--that those wonderful results that first year weren't a result of my being a great teacher? Is it possible they were more a result of my having great students? Nah, that couldn't be. Everybody knows that it's the teacher who matters.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Experts' vision vs. reality

Back in February, I did a post about how frustrating it can be for teachers to discuss education with non-teachers. Some non-teachers took that post to be insulting, but it wasn't meant to be. As I said in the post, I wasn't arguing that non-teachers had nothing to contribute, but there are some things we, as teachers, have to deal with that non-teachers just don't understand. Elizabeth had a post recently that partially illustrates what I'm talking about. She writes about high school students who actually believed their teacher fought in the Civil War and knew Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth understandably seemed somewhat shocked by this, but I doubt that any teacher was. We see it all the time.

Last year I wrote about a girl that I called Suzy to illustrate exactly the same type of thing. I'll shorten it up a little here, but this is the story:

Suzy was a girl that I had a couple of years ago in one of my American history classes. She was a nice girl, who made a reasonable effort in the class, but she was not the American history equivalent of a rocket scientist, so my class was difficult for her. At the end of every marking period, students in my classes have to satisfactorily complete a "Required Knowledge Test" in order to earn a passing grade. (I did a post on my Required Knowledge Test last fall.) The students have to get every item correct the first time the test is given, or demonstrate to me that they've learned any items that they've missed.

On the test at the end of the third marking period, Suzy initially got two wrong. That meant that after she got her test back, she would have to go back and learn the correct answers to the items she got wrong, and then I would quiz her orally on those and any related items.

One of the questions she got wrong was this: Who was the most important American general in Europe during World War II? The answer Suzy had given was George Washington. Ouch! When she came up to my desk to go over the two items she missed, she had no problem with the other item, but when I asked her this question again, once again she said, "George Washington." The girl was persistent.

Now, I wanted to help her through this, so I asked her three other questions that she had gotten correct on the test. "Okay, Suzy," I said, "who was America's commanding general in the Revolutionary War?"

She replied, "George Washington".

Then I said, "Okay. And when did the Revolutionary War occur?"

Suzy said, "In the 1770s."

"Okay, that's good. Now when did we fight in World War II?"

"In the 1940s."

"Okay, Suzy, you're right again. And like you just said, George Washington was our commanding general in the Revolutionary War, so who was America's most important general in Europe in World War II?"

At this point Suzy looked at me like I was an idiot who couldn't understand plain English, and said in a way to make it clear that she was running out of patience with me, "George Washington!!!"

This story did have a happy ending. Suzy eventually did learn that Dwight D. Eisenhower was our most important general in Europe in World War II, but it definitely took some help. She simply could not seem to make the connection on her own that if George Washington had been our general in a war that took place in the 1770s, it would have been a little difficult for him also to have been our general in a war that took place 170 years later. This inability to make connections is not terribly unusual for high school students. As I indicated earlier, high school teachers see things like this every day.

Suzy is a nice young woman who has since graduated from high school, and she will do fine in life. I think most high school teachers have at least a couple of Suzies in their classes every year, and it's our job to try to make our classes meaningful for them, just like it's our job to try to make our classes meaningful for kids who go on to prestigious colleges, as well as everyone who is in-between those two levels. We might not always succeed--Suzy's confusion certainly makes that point--but it's our responsibility to try.

One thing I have found is that there are very few non K-12 teachers who understand the incredible variety of kids we deal with when it comes to ability and background. This is as true for many so-called experts as it is for any layman. I recently visited a site containing E. D. Hirsch's Revised Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, and I checked out the section on American history from 1865 to present. I read Hirsch's original book on cultural literacy a year ago, and if my memory serves me correctly, he says that the items on his cultural literacy list are things that every high school graduate should know. Now, I think a lot of what Hirsch says makes great sense, but I find his belief that all high school graduates should know this stuff to be beyond pie in the sky.

I must confess that there are items on his list that I don't know--Mary McLeod Bethune, Jeanette Rankin, Stonewall Riot, Charlotte P. Gillman. (Looks like I'm a little weak on my women's activists!) That's not very many, but I teach this subject, and I feel like I know it pretty well. There are other items that I have only a vague familiarity with, and others, like Griswold vs. Connecticut, that I know only because I teach A.P. American Government. Yet, Hirsch says that any literate American should know them all. I don't think this guy has worked with too many high school kids.

In fairness to Hirsch, he doesn't pretend that his vision is the way things are now, or that it could be unless things were done much differently. His presentation of a cultural literacy dictionary is part of his push to have more content taught at earlier ages. What is intolerable is when politicians try to legislate something even more unrealistic than Hirsch's vision, and that is exactly what the Minnesota State Legislature has done with it's Academic Standards.

The Minnesota State Legislature and a bunch of ivory tower academic gurus have put together a list that my sophomore American history students are supposed to know by the end of the year that I have them. I can find any period in American history interesting, but I think it's fair to say that one of the least interesting periods to kids is the period from the end of Reconstruction (1877) up to the beginning of our involvement in World War I (1917). Here is a list of what the state of Minnesota says my kids should understand about that period:

Transcontinental railroad, Morrill Land Act, Plains Indian Wars, Dawes Act of 1887, Wounded Knee, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, White Earth Reservation, industrial mining in the southwest and midwest, the Bessemer Steel Process, barbed wire, business leaders such as James J. Hill, John Deere, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, impact of railroads, agricultural productivity and mechanized farming, factories, new forms of marketing and advertising, trusts, Mark Twain, Ashcan school of painting, Stephen Craine, Sears catalog, Street lights and trolley cars, the Tweed Ring, the new middle class Victorian culture, architecture and literature, Ellis Island, Angel Island, ethnic enclaves, Melting Pot idea, 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Scientific theories of race in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws, Poll tax, literacy test, Grandfather Clause, founding of the Ku Klux Klan, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Plessey v. Ferguson; anti-Chinese movement in the west and the rise of lynching in the south, the shift from workshop to factory, Knights of Labor, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, Railroad Strike of 1877, Homestead, Haymarket bombing 1886, 8 hour work day, Pullman strike 1894, Monetary policy, Greenbacks, Gold Standard, Depressions of 1873-79 and 1893-97, Farmer's Alliance, Grange movement, Populist party, Omaha Platform of 1892, 1896 election, free silver, William McKinley, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene V. Debs, Frances Willard and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, National American Women's Suffrage Association, women's suffrage, 19th Amendment, Hawaii, Alfred Thayer Mahan's theory about the importance of controlling the seas, Cuba, Filipino insurrection, Puerto Rico, Admiral Dewey, Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Yellow Press, William R. Hearst, intervention in the Boxer Rebellion, Jane Addams and the settlement house, Florence Kelley, Upton Sinclair and muckrakers, Ida Tarbell, Conservation, planned use and the origins of the national forest service, Preservationism, Yellowstone National Park 1890, Sierra Club 1892, Robert Lafollette, city manager system, civil service reform, initiative and referendum, Progressive Party and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, income tax, 16th Amendment, Sherman Anti-trust Act, direct election of senators, National Women's Suffrage Association, Carrie Chapman Catt and the winning plan, The Woman's Party, Alice Paul.

Last year we spent twelve school days on this period, including tests. Now, I suppose I can throw all this stuff at my kids, but if I do that, how interesting do you think it will be? How much of it do you think any of them will really understand? How much do you think someone like Suzy, or someone with just a little more ability than her, would understand? Do you think the geniuses who put these "standards" together, and the "statesmen" who voted to make them policy even know that kids like Suzy exist? Or maybe they just want us to leave those children behind.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

One teacher's summer vacation

Non-teachers absolutely hate the fact that teachers have three months off in the summer. I know this because I am married to a non-teacher. The phrase, "You have three months off!" is heard in my household more often than "Remember the Alamo!" was heard during the Texas war for independence. And when my wife says it, it is not with a smile on her face. In any case, here are the things that this teacher is doing with his three months off:

1. I run the Warroad High School weight room. My hours are 9-11AM on Monday thru Friday and 4PM to 7PM on Monday thru Thursday. I'm always disappointed at how few of our kids take advantage of this. I have one son who rode weight training to a college hockey scholarship and a five year pro career, and another who earned a regular spot on a state championship team because of it, so I am a believer. This year, our female athletes are pretty good about getting into the weight room, but our boys are pathetic. Not surprisingly, the same females are also the best students we have in our school. The kids who work the hardest at their sports are almost always the same kids who work the hardest in their classes.

NOTE: Because I'm working 22 hours a week, I've tried very hard to sell my wife on the idea that I really don't have summers off. She ain't buyin'!

2. I am revamping my AP Government class. For the first three years, the heart of the class consisted of the very traditional method of assigning readings and then lecturing on those readings. This coming year I will make the kids completely responsible for taking notes on the text and the readings on their own, and most of our class sessions will consist of me peppering them with questions. I think this is going to be a little harder for the kids, but I think they'll learn more, and I also think the class sessions will be a lot more fun.

3. I am converting my Basic American History class to Powerpoint. Last year I converted all the notes from my regular American History class to Powerpoint, so I've got a good base to work with.

4. Househusband! I am now in charge of making the meals at our house. Needless to say, this was my wife's idea. Hey, what can I say--she's a buyer at Marvin Windows. She's a better negotiator than I am.

5. Powerspray our very big deck. I did that a few weeks ago, and I was in a bent-over position, lugging the machine around for seven straight hours. My back will never be the same. I can't blame my wife for that idea--it was mine. I think I must have been drinking at the time.

6. Fermoyle family vacation! This year it was at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. And now it's over, darn it! I got a heckuva nice tan, and now that I'm back in good ol' Warroad, I can watch it fade for the rest of the summer.

7. Reading. The serious stuff has been Dumbing Down Our Kids, The War Against America's Public Schools, American Gospel (a history of separation of church and state), and Presidential Courage. I also always have one of my novels going. My favorite new one has been Sea Change by Robert Parker, and my favorite re-read has been Runaway Jury by Grisham.

8. Blogging. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best time for a teacher to blog, because you have some time. So many teacher-bloggers take the summer off, and then start blogging like crazy during the school year. I don't know how they do it. Half the time when I get home from school, the thought of reading and writing about education makes me want to throw up. Of course, the big problem during the summer is finding material to blog about. I mean, why do you think I did this?

NOTE: I live within a couple of miles of one of the nicest lakes in America (Lake of the Woods), so most people in Warroad love fishing and boating. I don't! Last year, in one of my few attempts at fishing, I caught my own face when a walleye spit out the hook as I was reeling it in. My attitude about boating is best expressed by this statement by some character in a novel I read a number of years ago: "Being on a boat is like being in jail with a chance of drowning."

Friday, July 13, 2007

The hazards of testmania

There is nothing that bothers me more than cheating among students, so it's pretty hard to excuse this guy.

An Amarillo teacher leaked a portion of this spring's TAKS writing test to his colleagues because he wanted his school's students to have a better chance at passing, a state investigation has found.

The teacher said that he leaked the information because he believed that educators in other districts were doing the same and that Amarillo students were "as deserving of prior knowledge of TAKS test information as students" in those other Texas districts, according to an investigative report released by the Texas Education Agency.

Yikes! He actually sounds like some of the kids I've caught.

David Tamez, an elementary bilingual teacher, told investigators that he obtained the test information by volunteering to serve on a statewide committee of educators who help determine which questions make it onto the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills each year, the report states. He alleged that members of those committees regularly smuggle out secret TAKS information to share in their home districts – a contention TEA officials vigorously dispute.

"You know good and well what people are doing," Mr. Tamez said, according to a tape recording of his interview with investigators. "They're writing down prompts; they're writing down information."

The TEA inspector general's office is recommending a further investigation to determine whether Mr. Tamez's claims of widespread improprieties are valid.

This guy sounds like an excellent candidate to get out of teaching. It's hard enough to get kids to see cheating as wrong without having people like him in the field. Although I'm not as opposed to testing as some other people, this is definitely a hazard of our increased reliance on it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A columnist's view: It's teachers vs. parents

I recently visited Joanne Jacobs excellent site and came upon this column by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post. The column is about the Democratic presidential candidates who recently spoke to the NEA convention and (Get ready to put on your surprised face!) for the most part told the delegates exactly what they thought they wanted to hear. I found the tone of Marcus's column annoying, and there were a number of things she said that I would definitely take issue with, but it was her very last paragraph that really got me:

Yes, teachers are an important Democratic constituency, but aren't parents Democratic voters, too -- parents who might welcome a message about accountability and expectations? If, that is, one of the candidates were willing to deliver it.

First of all, let me say that I find the spectacle of presidential candidates pandering to any interest groups--even if it happens to be a group of teachers--sickening. Even though I'm not enthusiastic about the idea of merit pay, I can respect Barack Obama for being willing to discuss it with a group that he knows is against it.

But in her column, Ms. Marcus presents the delegates to the NEA convention as being completely representative of teachers in general. That is not the case. The delegates to the NEA convention are far more liberal and far more supportive of positions that the national union takes than rank and file teachers. Ms. Marcus, as an experienced political observer, should know that.

To read Ms. Marcus's column, one would conclude that teachers are universally against merit pay, and that is obviously not true. As the New York Times pointed out a few weeks ago, many Minnesota teachers are working with their districts to develop merit pay plans. To read Ms. Marcus's column, one would also conclude that teachers all want to do everything we can to protect teachers who are ineffective. That is pure crap. I have written in a book and in a number of posts that I think it's important that principals be given more power to remove their worst teachers, and I have expressed my dissatisfaction with our tenure and seniority systems. I have never claimed to be in the majority on those issues, but the amazing thing to me has been how many teachers have told me they agree and how few have told me that they disagree.

What I really resent about her last paragraph is that Ms. Marcus implies that teachers and parents who are concerned about their kids' education have diametrically opposing interests. It's as if all parents want us to have these high expectations for their kids, and we're just not doing it. We're just interested in padding our pocket books, and being as lazy as we can get away with. It is certainly possible that Marcus is being dishonest, but if this is what she actually believes, she hasn't got a clue.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The war against America's public schools

I have begun reading What You Should Know About the War Against America's Public Schools by Gerald Bracey. I actually thought the points Bracey was making in the first few pages of the book were a little lame, but as I've gotten farther into it, I'm finding some interesting points. Here are some of them.

1. Bracey is very critical of corporate America's assault on public schools for not preparing our students for the workforce. He uses this as an example:

As indicative of the commercial approach to schools, consider this from Alan Wurtzel, president of the Board of Directors of Circuit City, a large Richmond, Virginia-based discount electronics retailer: "In hiring new employees for our stores, warehouses, and offices, Circuit City is looking for people who are honest, and who have a positive, enthusiastic, achievement-oriented work-ethic." Few high-school graduates show up with these attitudes, Wurtzel claimed, so they had to turn to students with some college education. After reading Wurtzel's essay on the op-ed page of the Washington Post, I called Curcuit City's personnel office to find out what kinds of reward the firm offered for all these positive traits. The answer was: minimum wage for most, and straight commission for the sales force.

2. Although it might seem like heresy to question the idea of pushing for more and more kids to attain higher and higher levels of education, Bracey does just that:

(American businesses) push schools to alter the curricula to make students better fit their needs, and they call for increases in skill levels even though most jobs do not require highly skilled workers....The call for more and more education, and higher and higher skills, may be viewed as an attempt to hold down the wages of skilled workers. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics projections clearly show an increase in the proportion of skilled jobs between now and 2020, they also show just as clearly that the overwhelming majority of jobs will require an associate's degree or less. Increasing the supply of skilled people will only make them less valuable.

3. Bracey does makes what I think is a convincing case that international test results have been twisted by critics of American schools, and that American students are actually doing much better compared to those of other countries than the media has led us to believe. Bracey is very critical of the increased emphasis on testing, and he lists the following qualities that tests don't measure:

Creativity, Critical Thinking, Resilience, Motivation, Ambition, Persistence/Perseverance, Humor, Attitude, Reliability, Politeness, Enthusiasm, Civic-Mindedness, Self-Awareness, Self-Discipline, Empathy, Leadership, Compassion, Courage, Cowardice, Endurance, Confidence, Focus, Teamwork

I do think that due, in large part, to our extra-curricular programs, American schools might do a better job of helping students to develop a number of these traits than schools in other nations. Although I'm not as opposed to testing as Bracey and many others, I wonder if he hasn't given the reason why Americans are consistently viewed as the most productive workers in the world despite the fact that we never lead the world in test scores.