21 November 2007

My 2¢ on Education Reform

And it may be worth less than that, but I couldn’t help but to take another read over Senator Obama’s education plan, which appeared again today in the news (link here). I won’t go over the whole thing again, if only because it doesn’t seem to differ from that of John Edwards all that much. There are references to universal pre-kindergarten education, increased federal funding of state college tuition, and creating some sort of accountability for teachers, though the measuring stick for this is oddly missing. Senator Obama says, according to the article, “Failing teachers would be moved from classrooms and replaced with ones who are competent.” I suppose that means a federally mandated teacher appraisal system. But I’m getting side tracked here.

The main point where Senator Obama seems to diverge from his fellow Democrat presidential candidates is with regard to parental involvement. Again, from the article, he says, “We can spend billion after billion on education in this country. We can develop a program for every problem imaginable and we can fund those programs with every last dime we have. But there is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child's education from day one.” Indeed, and I might add “until graduation from high school.” And even more, “an advocate for the education, not the comfort, of their child.” In my opinion, parental involvement is an overlooked aspect of why children fail in school.

What follows is just my opinion. I may be right or wrong. I’m happy to take any reasoned criticism; doing so will help me refine my thinking.

If I could change two things about education, they would not be teacher pay and instituting an ever-earlier start to a child’s public education. One would be a return to, and mastering by the student of, the fundamental elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic during the first eight years of school with continued testing of that mastery through graduation. The second would be relieving micromanagement of classroom teaching by instituting end-of-course exams over stated objectives (mastery of the above mentioned fundamental elements with regard to subject matter) and letting the teacher decide how best to reach that destination.

Return to a basic, fundamental, non-“fluffy” curriculum throughout the K-12 cycle. Reading, writing and arithmetic must be the foundation for higher level thinking. Too often, educators either aspire or are told to aspire to hit the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as much as possible. The result, in many cases, is that students may be able to think creatively, or they may feel really good about themselves, but they lack the fundamental tools of language, self-control and reasoning to get anything meaningful out of their heads. Or, on the other side of the scale, students may be despondent because they aren’t very creative; they can’t operate on the high end of Bloom’s because they don’t have those basic, fundamental skills. In either case, expecting students to operate on the high end of Bloom’s while hoping they pick up the rote, lower end skills (sentence structure, fact memorization, multiplication tables, and basic reading comprehension) is simply madness.

It is madness as well to dictate what and how a teacher presents to his or her class and simultaneously expect that teacher to individualize teaching to each child in the room. Yet all too often, this kind of doublethink is practiced – or at the very least, given serious lip service. The fear, I feel, is that schools will have teachers who just don’t clear the bar with regard to curriculum but who can’t be fired because of legal or contractual entanglements. The solution is to mandate a curriculum and teaching technique so that if something fails, it is a thing, not a person. Curricula can be changed with relative ease. The downside, which is substantial, is that mandating the what and how of teaching is actually professionally offensive to teachers who do care, who are competent, and who believe in a team approach toward education. For those competent educators, a list of objectives, a text and support from administrators and fellow teachers are the starting place for success, not a script to read from.

Those things being said, parental advocacy for education (again, not student comfort) is a great help for teachers and students alike. So maybe I’ve expanded to three things: parental advocacy, mastery of fundamental skills and individual teacher-driven curricula toward stated objectives. Now just how the federal government mandates or influences those things is another question.

5 comments:

Jack N said...

Bob,

Excellent observation and commentary.

The answer to your final question in the piece, the federal government should have absolutely nothing to do with education. At most, it should be a state function to set standards and other criteria.
Abolish the department of money laundering errrr I mean education.
Sending local money to washing machine dc to have those morons send it back to each state and local system is ludicrous and extremely inefficient..

Bob M. said...

Jack,

Thanks for the thoughts. I agree that the Dept. of Education is a waste of space and money. I'm a firm believer in locally driven education. I agree with you that the states should set standards (mostly end-states for graduates). Local school districts should be left to figure out how to get there. Imagine the diversity and local influence if this were the case.

einheri said...

Mr. Myer,
I agree with you on your ideas to make public education better. However, I would like to to add to your vision slightly. First, I would like to see more vocational activities inserted into the curriculum because quite often especially at the higher levels of secondary education, (such as AP and IB)students fall into the rut of only knowing "book learning" and they tend to have difficulty in applying their classroom studies to real world situations. Second, I am saddened in the decay of mandatory Physical Education classes. In the early to mid 20th century much more emphasis was placed on the physical ability of students. Now days, gym consists (or at least for me) of over paid football coaches simply baby sitting a group of students because it is required by state law. Anyways, there is my 0.0002 cents.

Bob M. said...

einheri,

I agree with you that the "hands-on" portion of an education is woefully lacking in most places. Given enough time and resources, in an ideal world, physical education and "shop" classes would be added to the core curriculum.

In fact, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I had to take some sort of Home Ec. class when I was in high school. Taking that and a year of drafting (the old-fashioned bit...not AutoCAD) didn't hinder my education at all.

Cheers.
Bob

PS: "one man army"? Correct?

einheri said...

I hate to get off topic but since you asked, an Einheri (plural Einherjar) is directly translated to "one-army-ers" which were the spirits of warriors who died bravely in battle. Thus joining "one army" under Odin to fight with him in Ragnarök. I chose the name because I am interested in Norse mythology (though I do not believe in it) and I like the concept of mortal enemies becoming comrades in the afterlife. (more information found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einherjar )