Sometimes, the Old Ways are Better

The educational system is failing our kids and fueling some serious problems that are already showing up in the workplace. In a Letter to the Editor that appeared in today’s Orange County Register, Diane Singer makes these comments:

Standardized tests do not measure learning. Our schools train kids to take tests.

Parents should be furious that valuable instructional hours are wasted on a test-crazy movement that robs our kids of real learning and critical thinking opportunities. Sure the scores are higher; but can the child apply this knowledge, synthesize information, write a sentence or solve a math problem outside the classroom in the years to come?

We are already starting to see the effects in our colleges and in the workforce; kids who cannot write, perform basic math or think through a problem. We are on the verge of realizing a generation of children who lack basic academic and critical-thinking skills because they did not have the advantage of a learning-centered curriculum. What then?

You said it, Diane!

This very problem is something I’ve been writing about in my business blog “Writing English.” I offer a remedy that can be applied in the workplace. Companies can hire me to work directly with their employees as a “writing fixer-upper.” I review, edit, and help formulate the correspondence and documents employees need to produce. I solve the problem of bad writing for my clients, but it’s after the fact.

If anybody is seriously interested in solving the problem at its root, what is needed is a turnabout in the philosophy of education. Schools should be focusing on basic skills, core knowledge, and high standards. Pop-psych theories about self-esteem, union-driven policies that make it nearly impossible to get rid of ineffective teachers, and political correctness that wastes hours of class time dealing with all sorts of multi-cultural topics, all come at the expense of the “Three Rs.” They all contribute to the void that becomes evident after graduation when students venture out into the world.

At the risk of sounding like your grandmother, when I was in school we also had standardized tests. We had to pass a State Regents exam in every major high school subject in order to graduate. We weren’t trained how to take the test. We were just taught the coursework, and because we had to meet high standards, most of us passed the tests. We never heard of adults who couldn’t write a cogent sentence, or do basic math problems.

Last week I went to the grocery store for a few items. I bought only three things, costing $2.41, $3.45, and $1.60. I was in a hurry, so while I was waiting in line, I did the addition in my head, and took out my money. It so happened that I had exact change. When the cashier rang up my order, I already had $7.46 in my hand. The bagger, a young girl, was amazed that I knew the cost. “How did you do that?” she said. “You must be a genius.” “No,” I told her, “just old.” (In reality, I’m middle-aged, but in comparison to that girl, I’m ancient.)

Sometimes the old ways are better.

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Published in: on August 17, 2006 at 8:40 pm  Comments (13)  

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  1. Isn’t it scary how often the folks we have dealings with cannot add or subtract simple sums?

    Yeesh! And I have the distinction of being a poor math student – Class of ’73! That’s how long ago I was in HS! – yet these newer students are unable to do thier cipherin’. Sheesh!

  2. Oh, I know. My sister tutored some children as part of work study in college last year and she noted how hard it was because the “no child left behind” made it impossible to actually teach the slow ones anything. In short: our current education system sucks.

    I figured the sum in my head too, but it took a while. I’m really not good with numbers at all.

    But all of this might be good for those that apply themselves and become experts in writing, math or whatnot. It’ll be a valuable skill that’s in demand.

  3. Zooplah, it seems strange to stand out just because you can read, write, and add. That may be the way we’re headed unless the “education professionals” get their act together.

  4. Standardized tests can be useful, such as in the case of SATs, but they’re being overdone. Teachers with less funding have trouble teaching to the test, much less teaching beyond the test, so if a certain topic comes off the test one year, the students will probably not learn it.

  5. Agent KGB: Standardized tests have taken on a whole different purpose than the one they had when I was in school. They’ve become very political. But I don’t understand what you mean by, “teachers with less funding have trouble teaching to the test…” I don’t think it’s about funding. Money by the billions is thrown at education without much improvement to show for it. I think it’s about curriculum and well educated teachers. When there’s consensus on a basic core knowledge that kids ought to learn by the time they finish high school, and it’s taught by teachers who have mastered the skills and information themselves, then most kids should be able to pass tests that reflect the curriculum. The test shouldn’t be an end in itself. The knowledge, and retaining that knowledge should be the end goal. In other words, decide what you’re going to teach, teach it well, and the test takes care of itself.

  6. Absolutely. With the funding thing what I meant was that many schools in urban, poorer areas are often underfunded, while suburban schools have plenty of money, so I don’t look at the amount of money spent on education nationally, because I know it’s not distributed proportionally. Fore instance, I knew a math teacher once whose room didn’t have a chalkboard, and teaching math without a chalkboard is probably pretty difficult.

  7. Agent KGB: If you start from the premise that the government should be distributing money for education, then you’re going to get into these arguments about one area getting more money than the next. But I see government involvement in education as part of the problem, not the solution. Private schools have typically shown far better results than public schools, even though the per child expenditures are usually far less. Stop collecting those billions in tax dollars and leave them for families to use at the private schools of their choice, and watch what happens.

  8. That’d be a great idea if everyone were rich, but everyone’s not.

  9. Poor people’s taxes are wasted by government just as much as rich people’s taxes. If you left that money in their hands, they’d be able to get much more for the cost. Another problem in education is the unions. They protect incompetence, something also typical of big government. Another problem is lack of parental involvement. It’s so messed up that I’d be in favor of wiping the slate clean and seeing what the private sector can do about it. But that will never happen. It can only happen a little at a time, if district by district approves vouchers, and people can’t help but see the difference when parents and students have some choices and some power over how their education dollars are spent.

  10. You’re missing my point. If you’re poor, you can do less with your money because you have less of it, even though poor kids have just as much of a right to an education as rich kids. If we ended public education, poor kids won’t be able to get as good an education as rich kids, and some wouldn’t be able to get an education at all. Government waste is a problem, but less so in education than in other areas, the “Bridge to Nowhere” comes to mind. If you wipe the slate clean, people might see that private schools are better than public schools, but not everyone will have access to them, and certainly not everyone will have access to the good ones.

  11. You seem to think it’s the function of the government to provide for all of people’s needs. Unfortunately, many in the government think that too. There will always be a disparity between what poor people can buy and what rich people can buy. But I bet if private schools were available in the open market, competing with each other without the government schools to skew the playing field, low cost, good quality education would be there at ALL levels. The lower cost schools might not have all the bells and whistles that expensive schools have, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t provide a quality education – probably much higher quality than the government is providing now.

    You seem to be saying that even the poorest family should be able to send their kids to the most expensive school. Well, that’s the basis for the welfare state. Should the government buy everyone a Mercedes too, even if some people can only afford a Yaris, or no car at all? After all, everybody needs to be able to get around.

    If you’re worried about the kid whose parents can’t afford any tuition, I have no problem with privately funded scholarship programs.

    I believe a free marketplace would provide what is needed. There is no free marketplace when the government collects taxes, sets up the school system, and then doesn’t let parents choose which schools their children attend. At this moment, I think we have no way of knowing how inexpensive a good basic education would be if the government were out of the picture completely.

  12. First, no, the government is not there to provide for everyone’s needs, and certainly they shouldn’t buy people Mercedes, but they do have city buses and in my opinion they should.
    Capitalism works with the assumption that everyone will rise and gain according to their ability, in my understanding. Therefore, childhood presents an interesting problem, because people will gain according to their parents’ ability, not their own, and people will be unable to gain according to their parents’ ability as well, until they are adults. Education presents a further problem, because being smart won’t let you be a computer scientist or nuclear scientist or whatever alone, you need a good math or science or whatever education as well. Therefore it might be necessary to ensure everyone gets a decent education, which would then allow everyone to gain according to their ability, which would allow capitalism to function as it should. Scholarships would be helpful, but they wouldn’t ever be enough.

  13. How do you know that scholarships would never be enough? It’s something you can’t possibly know. The circumstances under which private scholarships might pick up where personal funds leave off, don’t exist. If the government weren’t taking so much of our money in taxes and using it for things they have no business being involved in, then there’s no telling what the private sector (charities and businesses) would provide.

    I don’t think you would want to try that experiment, and I doubt it’s something I will ever see. But, to put a cap on this discussion, I think we are in agreement that the education kids are getting these days is not good enough, and that better education is something to be desired.


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