Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Increase the Beatings - commentary

The First Sergeant struts around the drill hall saying, "The beatings will continue until the morale improves." He was joking of course, but someone in the Arkansas Department of Education must have over heard him and missed the joke.

In America, only sixty-eight out every hundred students who start the ninth grade will finish high school. Only fifteen out of every hundred who start kindergarten will complete a college degree.

So, some governors and businessmen met to discuss the situation, and, they offered a solution: make the course work even more demanding. Put every student on a pre-college course and make the high school curriculum equal to a beginning college curriculum.

Where is the logic in this? Do these people think high school curricula got easier because teachers wanted it that way? They made it easier because they weren't comfortable flunking all the students who would not work and bucking parents who insisted their children be passed anyway.

Do these policy makers really believe that a student who is barely passing ninth grade algebra will suddenly perk up and go to work when you tell him he will now have to take four years of math to graduate?

So, our Department of Education came up with a two track system: the Smart Core track and the Common Core track. The Smart Core is the college prep track. Among other things, it requires four years of English, four years of math, three years of social science, and three years of physical science.

Certainly those are reasonable requirements for the college bound student, though I question the need for four years of math unless you are going into engineering or the hard sciences.

Then they declared Smart Core the default curriculum. The only way a student can opt out of it is with a parent’s signature.

It turns out that something like ten per cent of the students statewide, and as many as forty per cent in some districts, have talked their parents into letting them opt out. That is unacceptable to the educational bureaucracy, so they are considering doing away with the Common Core track altogether. It looks like the attitude is "let's make them all take the college prep courses."

The rational is that such an education is necessary for life in the modern world. “Things are not like they used to be.” Apparently we not only believe we can force kids to learn, we can force them to learn even more difficult material.

This coming school year is the year students will be required to pass four math classes to graduate. We profess concern over the rate of high school dropouts. What do you think is going to happen to that student who is struggling with math, and is probably taking two math classes in one year just to keep up, when he realizes he won't be able to complete four years by graduation time?

First of all, how many college majors out side of engineering or the hard sciences really need four years of math? Secondly, how many students really need a college education as opposed to a technical one or even on the job training? There are many college degrees and many careers that don't really need math skills beyond basic algebra.

Two Ivy League professors, Richard Murane and Frank Levy, wrote Teaching the New Basic Skills, a book Newsweek said you should read if you wonder whether your local school is preparing your kid for a good job. The authors say, "...there are plenty of middle-class jobs available to high school grads who skip college -- if they've learned the right stuff." Of course the right stuff includes language and math skills, but "when it comes to succeeding on the job, initiative, flexibility, and teamwork belong right up there with reading, writing and math." I would add to that list knowing how to dress correctly, how to be on time, and how to be worth one's pay.

We have a lot of kids who don't want to learn what we want to teach. We then force them to take tests they don't want to take. Then we use the tests to assess what they have, or more likely have not, learned. We then force them into remediation to re-teach what they didn't want to learn in the first place. “The beatings will continue until the morale improves.”

The problem is not and never has been the curriculum. The problem is one of motivation. How do we get the kids who don't want what we are offering to want it? You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. But, you can put a salt block beside the watering hole. Unfortunately we haven't yet figured out what that salt block is. We should not increase our educational spending another dollar or make any reform unless it directly and positively addresses the problem of student motivation. A good place to start would be to realize that a goodly number of students in the upper two high school grades don't need or want academic training.

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