Saturday, September 7, 2013

What Does School Really Teach Children?

Today is Saturday, September 7, 2013.

By now, all public schools have been in session for at least a few days, and for those that started after Labor Day, the coming week will be the first full week of school.  While I agree that public education in the United States can always be improved, I think that it has been used as a favorite whipping boy for a lot of people with axes to grind.  I'm going to refute every one of the statements in this graphic, so please keep reading.

Public education is not a federal responsibility in the United States, as it is in so many other countries.  Rather, the U.S. Constitution says that all powers not specifically given to the federal government and not specifically forbidden to the states are automatically the province of the individual states.  What this means is that we do not have one overall "education system" in this country.  We have, instead, 50 different systems, one for each state in the Union.  (And yes, we have territories, too, and they have their own systems, thank you very much.)

Yes, I know there is federal legislation called, for lack of a better name, "No Child Left Behind."  That the most recent, and current, re-authorization (2001) of ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), first enacted in 1965, passed as part of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty."  Based on research that discovered a link between poverty and low performance in schools, the act provided extra funding for remedial reading and math education. Since, according to the Constitution, the federal government is not responsible for education, the only reason the federal government could enact a law like this was to provide for "equal access to education."   I should also note, for the record, that the Department of Education, a Cabinet-level office, has only two functions: assuring equal access to education and measuring academic progress across the nation.

The bill was originally enacted through 1970, and has come up for re-authorization every five years.  Since the last re-authorization was 2001, and it's 2013 now, you can figure out for yourself that the 113th Congress has been unable to agree on a re-authorization, which is nothing particularly new, since its predecessors, the 109th, 110th, 111th and 112th Congresses did the same.

Some people may be unaware of this, so I'm going to state it clearly here: The original bill explicitly forbids the creation of a national curriculum.  And in spite of the fact that we do have a Department of Education at the federal level, the office has nothing to do with the creation of a national curriculum.  It's true that, over the years, the various state systems have become somewhat homogenized, due in large part to television and the Internet.  People in one place can see what people in other places are doing, and schools in one state often adopt curriculum ideas and delivery systems originally created in other areas.  Still, it's important to realize that there is no national curriculum, nor has there ever been, nor will there be, unless the U.S. Constitution is amended.

OK, that said, I want to look at the statements in today's image.  I'd like to point out that a lot of what people think about schools was originally put into their heads when they were in school, so many of our ideas about schools are those of pre-adolescents and adolescents, and not those of adults.  It's amazing, actually, how many ideas from our pre-adult years are still deeply held and deeply felt.

1.  Truth comes from authority.  Actually, that's not the case.  What we would very much like to get across to kids, especially nowadays, when anybody can upload information onto the World Wide Web,  is that it is necessary to look at all sides of an issue, and it is necessary to evaluate sources of information for accuracy, reliability, and bias.  Students must be taught to look at all the information out there, whether they agree with it or not, whether their parents agree with it or not, whether their church agrees with it or not, and whether their or their parents' political party agrees with it.  Even if you disagree with "authority," you do have to recognize that some people think of it as authority.  And in order to disagree with "authority," you have to know what authority says, in the first place.  That's why we teach what accepted authority says in our schools.  It's a springboard from which we can form our own individual thinking, not a platform to rest on.  If you do a study of what was taught in schools in the past, you will get an idea of how "accepted authority" changes.  What you were taught in your elementary school is not necessarily what will be taught to your grandchildren.  Don't make the mistake of thinking that everything schools taught decades ago is still being taught today, or that it will continue to be taught in the future. 

Categories in Bloom's Taxonomy
(Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001)
Image:Wikipedia Commons
2.  Intelligence is the ability to remember and repeat.  Sorry, but this is way off.  The ability to remember and repeat information is the lowest level of learning, according to Bloom's Taxonomy, a classification of levels of educational objectives.  Modern IQ tests actually focus not on knowledge of facts and figures, but on pattern recognition, which is at the heart of all learning.  Of course, you have to know what patterns there are already before you can create your own, and there are certain things that it is useful to have in your head, rather than have to depend on a calculator or the Internet to look them up.  If you were upset at having to memorize addition facts and multiplication tables, I'm sorry, but if you went ahead and memorized them, you will be ahead of the game if the electrical grid should ever fail and all the computers become useless, and the calculators run out of battery power.  Notice, also, that analysis and evaluation, which I mentioned in terms of information sources from "authorities," are at the top of the chart, meaning they are the most advanced levels of learning.  They depend on pattern recognition, and guess where you learned that: in kindergarten and first grade, when you made paper chains – red, blue, red, blue, red, blue...  Frankly, the vast majority of students don't get to the top of this chart, and if you are one of that majority, perhaps you didn't get there, either.  Just saying.

3.  Accurate memory and repetition are rewarded.  Sure, they are, because it's a start, but if you think that's the only thing that is rewarded, you are way off the mark.  The best rewards are internal ones, not external.  For those students who become proficient readers, reading is its own reward, because it allows us to delve into subjects that are of interest to us, personally, and it allows us to learn whatever we like outside of what is taught in a classroom.  It would be so nice if everyone could come to the understanding that school is like a base camp for mountain climbers.  Anyone who wants to get to the top of the mountain has to climb up from there.  It is not the responsibility of those who maintain the base camp to see to it that climbers get to the top.  Sure, they can provide the climbers with equipment, but the final responsibility rests with each individual climber.  That means you.  The schools are supposed to provide students with basic knowledge and skills.  The students are supposed to take it from there.  So my question is this: Did you envy the little rewards given to other students for their efforts without trying to earn one for yourself?  Did you just accept the Skittles the teacher handed out, or the little piece of paper that said you did a Good Job, without making any further effort?  That's your problem, not the fault of the schools. 

4.  Non-compliance is punished.  Have you been in a school building as an adult?  Have you had to manage up to 35 kids in one room without the situation devolving into complete and utter chaos?  If not, then you don't have a clue.  For anything to get done, even such a menial task as taking attendance, there has to be some semblance of order in a classroom.  Otherwise, the public would well and truly have something to complain about, because nothing would get accomplished.  Seriously.  All educators know that it takes only one child to completely disrupt a classroom.  The rules are there to ensure smooth operations and logistics, student safety, and the creation of an optimum learning environment.  I'm sorry you didn't like the rules, but to be realistic, any human endeavor that involves groups here on the physical plane has to include some form of organization, if chaos is to be avoided. 

As far as teachers expecting students to comply with handing in assignments and taking tests, I have to remind you that in order for grades to be as "objective" as possible, there has to be some "evidence" of student learning, which is why teachers collect student work and why they give paper and performance tests.  In high schools, gradebooks are legal documents that can be challenged, so teachers have to document how they arrived at a particular grade for the student.  Many high school students are unaware that teachers are required to give a certain number of grades per quarter, trimester, or semester (whatever the grading period is).  If a student refuses to hand in an assignment, the teacher has no other option than to give the student a zero or an F, or whatever mark is used for "non-compliance."  I'm sorry if you see that as a punishment.  I always told my students, "I don't give you a grade.  You earn it and I record it in my gradebook."

5.  Conform: intellectually and socially.  I don't believe this is something you learn in school.  It is something you learn outside of school.  Public schools simply reflect what is currently socially acceptable.  If society changes, schools will change, too.  I find it exasperating in the extreme to hear people complaining that schools enforce conformity when those same people expect their own children to conform to their own beliefs and moral values.  If you want conformity, look to the churches. And since when do businesses and corporations get off the hook?  They expect conformity from their employees.  What about the military?  Now there's an organization built on conformity.  Public schools are mirrors of society, not the original image.  

Change yourselves and your public schools will change.  :-/

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