Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Episode 54:


Education is a subject near and dear to my heart. Although I’m in m mid twenties, I’ve been involved in the education field for about a decade. I was a peer tutor in high school, took on private music students from 10th grade all they way through undergrad, and taught music at an elementary and high school. My mom is a teacher, and my brother is studying to become one. Having been so involved in the system, I think I am qualified enough to say our educational system is absolutely abysmal.

Education today follows a methodology that has largely gone unchanged for 50 years. Students learn systematically, that is a step by step process where the goal is to find the answer to the question. The problem is there is little emphasis on application, which in turn lessens the degree of apprehension – the true measure of knowledge (a student by be able to read every word in a 700 paged Harry Potter book, but if he doesn’t understand what he read the information is useless). In essence, students perform repetitive tasks, without understanding why they are doing that task. In such a case, only children who naturally posses above average cognitive ability will perform well. There are many reasons why I believe there is such a sharp decline in education and each reason could be a blog post itself. However, in 2001, George W. Bush did try to address education with No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

NCLB was a bipartisan bill that aimed to drastically redefine how we approach education in America. The progressive part of the deal included provided funding to certain schools, while the conservative part incentivized performance to dictate where these funds went. In essence, students take a aptitude test in 2nd, 4th, 8th, and 11th grades. If the school test scores are above average, they are provided additional funding, while under performing schools were given the chance to improve. If they didn’t improve, they received no money, and were a risk for getting shutdown, with charter schools possibly taking its place. I believe the idea is a bit backwards, because examination of under performing schools often times was due to the lack of resources, books, and high student to teacher ratio.

Lack of funding is a pretty irrelevant issue though. After 9/11, NCLB became a pretty pathetic excuse for a program. A few years into the Iraq war, schools, above average or otherwise, were not getting federal funding, or not enough. Because education is governed by the state, I cannot say what happened to other states, but in New York, the lack of funding led to sharp increases in the school budget, which is paid for by income taxes. As with everything else in the financial world, income taxes increased faster than wages did (and wages in fact have begun to decline by this point) and as a result, school budgets failed to pass. At its peak, George W. Bush invested 60 Billion into education, which was not enough to take care of the budgetary needs of school across the country. What NCLB did leave behind however are grueling tests that do not provide an accurate marker of a students’ level of comprehension.

The problem with NCLB (and I’ll try to explain this in layman’s terms the best I can) is it reinforces a methodology that considers getting the answer more important than how we get the answer, and how the answer is applicable in real life. This is a long way of saying “teaching to the test.” Once the test is over, the knowledge we accumulate vanishes over night. In order to maintain retention, the lesson is taught over and over again, which is very boring to the student. Students eventually abandon education. This methodology worked in 1950, because we were less cultured, not nearly as savvy, and far less connected than we are today.

We need to approach holistically. Rather deal with the step by step process; we should instead approach education conceptually. To do this, we start with the big picture – the application – and uncover the process through discovery. Furthermore, tests should be used as benchmarks to gauge progress, not the determining measure of knowledge. When students can immediately relate to the subject matter, apprehension improves drastically. Students do this naturally already because of the proliferation of technology. Students don’t read the manuals for their computers because they understand how it works conceptually. Ctrl-C is “copy” and Ctrl-Z is “undo” on every computer. Rather than adapt to the way students learn and embracing technology, teachers try to apply an obsolete methodology to student 2.0 because they are stubborn, or simply lack the training to do so. I think to a large degree we need a No Teacher Left Behind.

Teachers and students are still only a part of the problem. Parental involvement in education is severely lacking. Again, I could dedicate several posts to the topic. In short, many parents just do not know how to help their children anymore. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, text messaging, this new culture doesn’t make any sense to parents. Future parents who are my age will be far better equipped to help student 2.0. The school can help by showing parents how to help their kids, in essence providing a crash course into the modern student in PTA meetings. It has to be a multi-pronged, collaborative effort.

Initially I was a Hilary Clinton supporter. She was my senator and I had met her twice, so it was an easy choice. What got me in the Obama camp was his view on education. He completely gets it. Most every aspect of my educational philosophy I outlined here, he has mentioned in his speeches. His secretary of education gets it. Obama, being a relatively young guy, with young children is the embodiment of how responsible parents should be involved with their children’s education. He has already budgeted $135 Billion for education. It is important to remember that this money not only addresses cost per student issues (this is largely a state government consideration anyway), but also addition resources like netbooks for all students, upgraded science facilities in all schools, and repairs, extensions, and equipment for schools.

What are the alternatives to state education? The most viable option is vouchers. Since I know this is going to come up, turning education into a free market system is the worst thing we could ever do. I strongly believe every child should have the right to receive education. What a free market education will do is create a situation where there is a high level of competition (which is good) and winners and losers (which is very bad). The losers will have difficulty getting access to better education because the nature of competition would dictate schools admit the best of the best. The worst of the worst will have trouble using their education, because a factor colleges and jobs will consider is how prestigious your high school was (would you go to a doctor who graduated from Harvard of Jamestown Community College? Applying this standard to high school students would be disastrous socially and psychologically). This system works fine for universities because no one is required to attend one. I generally don’t have a problem with charter schools, but I do not believe that should be the primary source for education in America.

That’s that. Education defined and explained. We have someone in office that really understand what we need to do to improve education in this country. Is this one topic that my conservative colleagues can fall behind as well? I certainly hope so. Let the debate begin.
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9 comments: on "Episode 54:"

del patterson said...

This way too much for me to cover. I, too, have 34 years in the classroom and feel quite comfortable championing for the kids of this country.

First, my one main goal is to get rid of textbooks that cost around $75 per unit. The history/govt/econ texts are bent, biased, and written to show this country never made a mistake. Read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" is just fantastic and and a page turner.

Second, the tests under NCLB are meaningless (what person would want to be judged based on their last test). Where I taught it was illegal for the teacher to see the tests (before/after). Over the years, I learned that the history test dad nary a question about Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelts, WWI/WWII, the Declaration of Indep., you get my drift? It seemed to be more concerned about immigration, capitalism, and esoteric material.
A teacher's class could be challenging, exciting, engaging, and a great learning environment and still kids might not do so well on the test because often the material was never covered (who would know what to teach?)

When they talk about bad teachers, I just want to shout to the world that I saw far more incompetent principals and administrations
than teachers.

I could go on and on.
I taught in a blue collar school near Tulsa. I can say without doubt that our children are in good hands and that most of the teachers are doing an admirable job. If one has issues about teaching or schools, look to the CEO of the building and maybe you can see the problem readily.

conservative generation said...


Bravo! A post I can totally get behind. I would feel much more comfortable if you were secretary of education.

I'll stay away from the details of Obama's plan. Honestly, I haven't looked at it yet and I don't like to make uninformed comments. Perhaps you could lay out his details in the next post for educational purposes. It'll save me time having to pull it all together :) My skepticism is realated to why and how $138 billion is going to be spent. We need to also reform school bureaucracy and I'd hate to see us continue to prop it up to no end.

You are absolutely correct on teacher approach. I was always good at math, but hated math. I never understood how math could be applied. It wasn't until college I understood how it was used in the real world. Once my eyes were opened, I loved math and regretted not pursuing it more in grade school.

Grog said...

yeah I don't know how we can fix education but I do know that understanding the question is more important that understanding the answer.
Mr. Conservative generation used math as a great example. I went to a small charter school and my calculus, Physics, and chemistry teacher was the extremely overqualified Dr. Farhad Riahi, head of the Iranian Nuclear program until 1979. very nice guy but extremely demanding as you might imagine.
anyway the point is that in calculus for example we we required to first prove any theorems that were introduced. When we complained that other classes were just given the theorems to answer the questions, he replied,
"I'm not going to waste my time having you memorize arbitrary formulas that you won't remember in a month!"
...and I remember all the calculus I learned in high school

Devrim said...

Free market works, if it didn't all private schools would be out of business. When applying for college your SAT score is the determinant not which school you graduated from. Likewise even if you graduated from Harvard and 90% of your patients died, I wouldn't want you working anywhere near me.

If Obama had any confidence in himself about fixing the public school system, why are their daughters are in private schools ? You know the saying "put your money where your mouth is", $135 billion out of taxpayers isn't the what is relevant, but where he chooses to send his precious daughters is relevant. Fixing the D.C. school system should be relatively easy, no ? It is just one school district after all.

Problem with education today is we want everyone to be a doctor, lawyer, financier, engineer. Let's face it, everyone does not possess the intellect, drive, aptitude to become one of those, and that is a fact that won't change by throwing money at it. NCLB is therefore the biggest crock of chit I have ever seen. Our target in education should be to bring the best out of every student not try to keep everyone level. As much as we hate to admit it, we need garbage collectors, plumbers, factory workers too.

I mentioned it on CG's blog, today firing a public school teacher who is failing for this reason or that. How long does it take to fire a teacher in a private school ?

Obama can not solve these problems, if he says we need plumbers too, it is not PC. He can't even address the problems unions are causing in schools. The $135 billion he is spending today will evolve into entitlement programs, which the next administration will inherit, effectively increasing the cost of education but doing little.

The Law said...

del: you raise an excellent point, and one I overlooked. Administration is often the biggest reason school districts fail to produce results. One district has AWFUL administration. Principles in these ditricts simply do not have high standards of excellence. Like everything else, teachers in the inside track become a part of a "boys club" and are more focused on getting their steps than teaching. (university credits beyond your degree for professional development - typically, every 15 credits or steps, grants a teacher a significant pay increase) Thus it was not uncommon for a teacher to have 60 steps, and not be able to explain intelligibly basic education ideologies. This kind of lazy culture exisits only in places where there is bad leadership at teh administrative level.

Fortunately, the school where I worked was quite the opposite. Sure there was some political posturing, but we had required 1.5 hour faculty meetings every week and often times had to make presentations, and collaborate with other teachers in various grade levels to ensure everyone was on the same page.

Still, from my observations (limited as they may be) I still believe that teachers need to be trained to adapt to modern technology, so they can create a more engaging classroom atmosphere.

CGen: Will do... this post is an intro (albeit a long one) into many discussions on education, including numbers anf facts. And I'm glad that you and grog had teachers at some point of your life that could show you what teh skills you were developing are for =)

Devrim: Unlike many teachers I've met, I'm not against charter schools. I want our students to be productive members of society, so whatever road it takes to find their niche, I'm all for it. However, I do not believe in free market education as a replacement to public schooling, because I think it inherently makes schools, and the students who attend them winners and losers. Don't think for a second that the high school you attend doesn't play even a tiny factor in college placement. If you went to the LaGuardia School for the Arts in NYC, you better believe your chances of going to a music college is a tad higher, even if by .05%. But you are 100% right, the goal is to indeed bring our the best in every student.

However, I do not think it is fair to judge the Obamas on choosing the send their kids to private school. Private school is premium education. I mean, everyone needs a car, and there exists a car, say a daewoo for someone who needs a brand new car for only $8000. But if a person can afford to buy a Bentley, then they should not be judged for that either. There hasn't been children that young in the White House for a long time, and there were other factors, including safety and privacy to consider as well, which is easier to monitor in a closed environment.

Devrim said...

tL, your ability to dance around the problems created by presence of unions is amazing. Maybe the WH need to employ you as an adviser.

We discussed this one at CG's blog Cheese-Sandwich eaters, when something is free it encourages irresponsible behavior. One more example on that, say my brother is the DA in my town and he bails me out every time I get slapped with a DUI, do you think I will stop my behavior, do you think the cops will get tired of arresting me and waste time as I walk away every time. Today because "school" is free families aren't as involved in education. Let's roll back to the colonial times, when towns of 50 or greater were required to hire a teacher, they hired the best teachers out of Boston, out of NY not the village idiot.

Today the state tells me which school my child can attend, which teachers will be assigned to him, what will be taught to him. Although I pay for education via my taxes, because State allocates where those taxes are going the schools act to please the State.

You want to overhaul education, lets start at the costs. The ballpark figure is $12 K /year per kid. That is pretty much what every private school charges around my area. If I am paying as much as a Hyundai as much as I am paying a Bentley, it is very reasonable for the Hyundai perform as good as the Bentley. If the Hyundai is consistently under performing, tough costing as much, in a free market it would be forced to either cut its cost or go out of business.

Instead of State telling me where my kid needs to go to school, give me a check worth $12 K. If I choose to, I can hand this check to the public school system, or to a private school, or I can come together with 5 of my neighbors and hire a tutor of my choosing. If we can find a tutor that will work for $55 K a year, each family would be saving $1000; if the tutor we wanted asked for $65 K a year we would be pitching in $1000 a year, and if nobody volunteered to pay $65 K a year for a tutor, tutors would have to cut their prices.

If I had chosen to give my check to the public school system, before giving the check, I would do my research to see if the school I am investing in has adequate facilities, say like a well supplied computer lab. If the school wanted to gain my repeat business they would have to ask me if I wanted to teach "tolerance" for $X cost or should they build a chemistry lab for $Y cost.

The $12 K check would make me an effective shareholder in the education system. When people have no choice no stakes in a system, they really don't give a rat's ass what goes in that system. Let's give the people a stake, as education is an investment in our future.

Only a small problem with my theory, if I knew the government would take care of my kids no matter what, I would hire the village idiot for a tutor for $20 and spend the rest on "recreational" activities.

The Law said...

Haha! CGen would have me as the secretary of education while devrim i reckon, pinned me as the spinster press secretary =)

I don't usually agree with your economic philosophy devrim, but I do like how you think about things. There is however, another small problem with your theory --no one will "give you a check worth 12k" Education costs are always coming out of your pocket, directly or indirectly.

So if you can afford the 12k to put your kids into private school, home school or whatever, again, I have no problem with that.

Let's apply your free market senario. For argument's sake lets say education was completely free market -- there are no public schools. I'm not sure where you're from, but I was raised on long island, in the 10th wealthiest county per capita (at least as of 2006) in the nation. Let's say private school costs $12k a year. Let us also assume that some of the costs, say $2000 is tax deductable through an educational program NCLB v.2.0, so I'm paying $10,000/yr per student. No biggie, where I'm from, the median salary is $85,000, so I can swing it.

Let's now travel to the south in Wilcox County, Mississippi, the 6th poorest county in America by median household income at just under $17,000. Let us assume that a school of equal caliber of my Long Island school is also $12,000/yr. The family in Mississippi qualifies for the $2,000 tax credit, plus another $4,000 for qualifying in the low income education equality act, so they have to pay $6,000 out of pocket per student.

I'm left with a modest $75,000 to spend on life, while the family in Mississippi has only $10,000 left if their child is to receive education of equal caliber. Free market principles would determine that the school is financially out of reach for the Mississippi family, so they have to settle for low cost education else where. So they only pay $600/yr per student, but this school doesn't have science labs, guaranteed laptops for every student, and the student to teacher ration is 17:1 instead of my 10:1.

There is no question that if left to the school alone (as to rule out parental variables that would make this hypothtiecal impossible) my student will more likely be better prepared for college or the workforce as a result of attending the Long Island school.

Don't believe me? Look at major league baseball. Without a strict salary cap like the NFL, Big market teams more often than not tower of small market teams in the roster and win/loss column. The Yankees can afford to get whatever player they want. The highest paid player on the Yankees makes as much in the span of his contract as the Kansas City Royals have to spend for the ENTIRE team.

A purely free market approach to education inerently means rich students will get a better education than poor students. Government based education means every student is on a relatively even playing field. Much like the NFL that highly regulates salary caps which greatly mitigates big market dominance, the playing field is level enough for a small market team like the Cardinals to realistically expect to make a run at (and go to) the super bowl.

Also for the record, because it is a whole other can o' worms, I didn't mention teachers unions. (Part of the reasons I could dedicate a post to for why education has declined). I recognize the importance of unions, but I personally feel the system has been abused to the point where there needs to be a union against the unions. Not just teachers unions, but almost all unions, including the NFL players union! Plaxico Burress CLEARLY broke a zero tolderance law with his gun possession and if he were anyone else, he'd spend at least a year in prison. The the NFLPA want to bargain and appeal? I'm not anti-union, but I also recognize the system needs some SERIOUS reform.

Anyway, I'll state again, I'm not anti-charter school either... If one can afford to pay for premium education, then they should by all means pay for it. But especially in education, everyone should have the same chance for success.

Devrim said...

tL, you said no one will "give you a check worth 12k" , but you fail to see that you are actually giving me that money via the free education system which collects taxes from you, and gives them to me in form of free schools.

Again you said So if you can afford the 12k to put your kids into private school, home school or whatever, again, I have no problem with that. , problem with that is I can't afford any of that $12 K as that money is already collected from ME as property taxes, and the State Dictates where my kid goes to school. If you abolished property taxes than we might have a level playing field.

All I am saying is if we are going to spend $12 K / student; whether you pay $120 or $120.000 in taxes. I as the tax payer, should have a vote on where and how that money is spent. The US of A was established on the basis of a Representative Republic, today the Representative part seems lacking.

Grog said...

Just because you think you specifically aren't being represented, it doesn't mean the republic isn't representative...we kinda have a winners/losers thing going on and so you had a vote but your guy lost.
Not that I'm saying you shouldn't engage in political discourse, I'm just tired of republicans acting like their votes didn't count or something.

I'm just going to throw out some things I know from growing up in the Boston private school system (ISL)
Teachers get paid less at elite private schools, they like those schools better because they have ample resources and the students are motivated.
12k isn't enough, when schools like Andover and Milton have tuitions comparable to colleges.
A large portion of the schools budget is devoted to fundraising.
Because of this fundraising and endowments financial aid is readily available for gifted children.
The powers that be are exclusively rich WASPs.
every system has problems at least public schools don't have problems like the catholics

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