Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Education: Are we the ones with the right idea?

I am about to speak heresy. I'm also about to contradict things I've said in other posts, but you know what they say about consistency.

I've been thinking about this since November when Mark Tabor did a post on the film Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination. That film compares education in America, China, and India by following around students from each country. Although I haven't seen the film, my impression from what I've read about it is that American education comes off as much less rigorous and American students as much less serious than our foreign counterparts. I also get the impression that the implications this film attempts to convey are ominous. But a funny thought occurred to me: maybe we're doing it right.

Since long before I became a teacher, American education has consistently been blasted for being woefully deficient in academics. In fact, in March of 1958 Life Magazine did a feature with a nearly identical concept to that of Two Million Minutes. They followed around a couple of students from the Soviet Union and a couple of students from the United States. While the Soviets were busy doing complicated physics and chemistry experiments, the Americans seemed only to be concerned about the upcoming sock-hop. Anyone reading those articles must have wondered how America could ever win the Cold War. But we did!

Anyone reading Nation at Risk in 1983 would probably wonder how the United States could possibly remain a world economic power 25 years later. But we are! And it was reported in September that those bozos who have been coming out of our schools make up the most productive work-force in the world.

Every year, I see former mediocre students who have become much more successful than I ever thought possible. For some reason, their not having wowed me with their performance in American History when I had them as tenth-graders didn't hold them back very much. Amazing! At some point, they realized what they wanted to do, and once they did, they went after it and achieved it. I don't know if it's something having to do with American practicality, but that seems to happen a lot.

There is great value in academics, and I don't think there's any question that a lot of other nations put much more emphasis on them than we do. I have to admit that I've always felt guilty about that. But a lot of our students get part-time jobs and put a significant amount of time into them, and other students put an incredible amount of time and energy into high school sports. That doesn't happen in other nations. But maybe there's more value in those things than we realize. Maybe the fact that we don't emphasize academics as much as those other nations, which allows our students to put so much time and effort into those other things, is actually a good thing.


Anonymous John Wills Lloyd said...

It is interesting to examine the reverse questions sometimes, if not often. Thanks for that.

As I read your post, I couldn't help but wonder about a superordinate question: What's the focus? Mayhaps the putative focus on academics attributed to educators in other societies is a actually a focus on excelling in general, not just excellence in academic skills and content knowledge. Mayhaps it's an emphasis on efficiency, that sustained and focused emphasis on practice and application leads to more rapid and deeper acquisition of skill and knowledge (analogy: Michael Jordan's practice regimen).

A second wonder: Is my surprise about students' outcomes more about me than it is about the students? Some students who surprise us might have had better outcomes than we predicted for many reasons. Just a few:
* My judgements of outcomes are based on different measures than our predictions.
* My predictions were based on something that is actually irrelevant to outcomes; it's something that I think is important, but there's some other factor that I'm not seeing that is the accurate predictor.
* They wouldn't have had outcomes as good as they had, if we hadn't pushed them as much as we did; they did actually benefit from the emphasis on X (whatever one chooses to say characterize her or his instruction).

In part, your conclusion points toward considering the value of learning in other areas. I'd definitely like to see emphasis on "well-rounded" education (e.g., arts and sports as well as academics). And, if the goal is to have students who have reasonably balance between academic, self-mangement, and social growth, then we should articulate what that means in measurable outcomes and apply our educational system to achieving that goal efficiently and effectively.

Oh well, random ramblings.... At any rate, it's risky to make decisions based on one or a few individual cases. And I'm just another case. I bet some of my high school teachers thought I'd amount to nothing and some others thought I was destined for great things. They were all mistaken. Teehee.

1/02/2008 3:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fear sells; creating a sense of inadequacy and insecurity drives purchases that promise potency and confidence. Why in the world would we fall into the spell of advertising psychology regarding public education? The more a nation sees itself in competition with other nations then it develops fears of falling behind or loosing out in some way. Why it is it that so many smaller countries seem to go on for centuries secure in their national identities without worrying about their future place finish in some World Facts ranking? All this data mining to locate our kids educationally is sheer idiocy. Comparing educational systems is like comparing families: each is simultaneously successful and dysfunctional in its unique way. We can't leave this stuff alone because too many people make a living off of having us worry about it.

1/02/2008 9:45 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

And yet, Anonymous, you can't be a complete educational relativist. There are fairly clearly some educational systems that are objectively worse or better, even if you were able to take all relevant factors into account.

In a sense, it's the same as the objection to NCLB (or any test regime) based on "teaching to the test". I think the teachers have a point, but that the answer should be developing better tests, not scrapping the idea of figuring out how well we're educating students in preference for a faith that we're doing it pretty well.

There are some terrific aspects to American culture. We should still look at other cultures and try to improve, even if it doesn't mean adopting those aspects necessarily. For example, in South Korea apparently students have an average of four hours of homework per night, frequently staying at school until 11 pm or so. We might well reject that on it simply being unnecessary and unworkable, but we should at least look at it (incidentally, in the US students have about an hour and a half and in Japan they have about an hour).

If our educational establishment actively focused on the things that hold our students back, I'd feel a bit more comfortable about ignoring what every other country is doing. When they seem to simply resist change as an established institution, however, I worry. And I think there's a fair bit of that going on.

1/02/2008 7:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

John and Anonymous, thank you for your comments. I was a little surprised to find so much agreement. I was afraid the first comments I'd find on this post would be from people who wanted to string me up.

Crypticlife, my life just hasn't been the same without you! I really can't disagree with what you've said. I agree with you that we should learn from other countries. I'm just afraid that we might be in such a hurry to be like nations that do better than us in international tests that we'll end up throwing out some things about our system that are actually good.

I think it's safe to say that there are few other nations in which teachers have to tolerate the things that American teachers have to tolerate from some students in their classrooms. Will it shock you to find out that I think we should emulate those other countries when it comes to that???

1/03/2008 4:53 AM  
Anonymous Zeke said...

I've often said that some of my 'worst' students were the ones who would stop to plow my driveway then I had fried the belt on my snowblower [as one did last week] or be the one to start a successful small business, as well as being the ones who always wave and want to talk to me on the street.
Perhaps my biggest complaint w/NCLB is that it assumes that all can and/or want to/are ready to achieve 'proficiency' in high school. The type of testing used by NCLB can't possibly determine how well some/many students are achieving on many important scales and it forgets that people learn and change more in response to real needs than to artificial stimuli.

1/06/2008 6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A logical thing to do might be to try *shortening* the school day (and/or year), then. Perhaps 4 hours intensely spent (say, 8:00 to 12:00) might be better than what we do now?

I went to a private high school, and at the time I used to joke that the school day was shorter than that of my public school counterparts, but we made up for it with a shorter school year and by having each class only meet four times per week.

My local public school has two extra classes per day *and* an optional zero period. Academics from 7:10 in the morning to 3:25 in the afternoon seem like too much.
Maybe fewer hours more focused would work just as well as what we do now, plus free up some extra time for these other activities.

-Mark Roulo

1/18/2008 7:18 PM  

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