Thursday, August 16, 2012

Education Blues

Of all the things my mother did for us kids, I have to admit that homeschooling us was one of her braver and more brilliant moves. Not because I think homeschoolers are the future gods of mankind, as my mother does (hint: she’s biased;) but because the current system of public education is downright awful.

Children aren’t passing on their own merits, both because it would hurt their “self-esteem” and the schools funding. I know a couple kids that graduated to high school without being able to read past a first-grade level. And not because of learning disabilities, but because they hadn’t been forced to learn how.

A full quarter of the American population never finished high school. Think about that for a moment. That’s not some little number, that’s a huge friggin’ chunk of people. And the hilarious thing? Whenever standards are raised, there’s an uproar. There was a push here in Oklahoma to require kids graduating high school to take a standardized exam similar to the GED in order to receive a diploma. Instant screaming from parents, teachers, and the kids themselves. Why?

Because all and sundry were afraid the kids wouldn’t pass and get their diploma. No seriously, that was the stated reason.

And even for the kids whom the public school system isn’t a total failure, there’s major skills left untaught. Classes on money management are rare enough to make the news. Civics is generally a class about “this is the structure of the US/State/City government.” Little to nothing goes into teaching the kids about politics, how to study potential candidates, what their rights are and how to exercise them.

The arts are experiencing a bit of a resurgence, but are still the red-headed step-kids of the school system. After all, who cares? No-one broadcasts school concerts on primetime local channels. Gallery showing of high school art is publicized mostly within the school population itself, and generally gets the vibe of “look what little Billy/Suzy made in class.”

A kid can skate by, slouching through the system with little to no consequence, and be released into the world with whatever life skills he or she can gain from peers. And a kid can’t make it through even that long, dropping out is on the table.

Kids that can move or throw or tackle get prime treatment. Help with classes, tutoring, even occasional “fudging” in some cases, to help the kid stay on the team. So no incentive to learn, there.

The kids who can’t play, or aren’t good at playing, are dumped in the “not sporty” box, bullied or becoming bullies, with the programs that might help them being cut. And even if the programs do exist, the stigma of “not being good at sports” makes participation in those programs just another tool in the bully’s arsenal. Some of these kids will learn out of self-defense, true enough. But how many more will just decide there’s no point? They’re not jocks, so no-one cares, right? No incentive to learn.

As a college student, I sat next to and worked with fellow students who can’t spell or write clearly. Students who believe that tossing a bunch of words on paper in some semblance of order qualifies as a paper.

I’ve heard students talking about every subject under the sun, and I can almost always spot the ones that skated through school. They’re the ones that can’t form sentences to save their lives; who express illogical opinions with the clear and ringing tone of dogmatic truth, without the ability to defend their opinion.

So what’s up with all this? Why is the US education system flushing itself?

Well, a few reasons present themselves. First is that there really is no money in K-12 education. The funding blows, the pay blows, the job blows. And these savings are passed on to the taxpayers in the form of lower costs and children that are essentially babysat for 12 years, with an option to learn now and again. On top of which, the only way for the system to get more money is to show high passing rates. So kids that haven’t paid attention, or who’ve been overlooked by the system will just keep getting passed up the line until they flunk horribly, drop out, get a decent teacher...or graduate.

Second, the world is growing ever more complex. Higher and higher level material is being pushed to younger and younger kids, without the support network to help them. New methods of teaching kids are being discovered, but are having trouble gaining a foothold in the face of decades of the lecture/activity/homework style. Out of all the students I’ve met? I’m one of four I know of that actually works well for.  

Third, and perhaps most depressing, is the kids are left uneducated for their own good. If it’s a choice between fighting a child to get them to learn, and simply punishing behavior, why fight? Repeated sanctions have a great track record in any field, no? I mean, it works on whole countries when the UN does it. Wow, that was hard to type with a straight face.

Solutions, then: well, there’s a couple. But I doubt I’ll see them in my lifetime.

More funding, properly allocated. Put towards more teachers, better programs, academic studies to find better ways of educating kids. Where would this mystery finding come from? Well, perhaps standing down military spending, congressional raises, and a minor tax hike would be a good start. And if you feel the need to cuss about a tax hike to educate kids, I hope you choke on your own rhetoric.
Better educational incentives. What, you thought learning something was enough to get kids to listen to someone that controls their lives for 6-8 hours a day? Nope. Give them a reason. Reward good academic skills. Kids compete like they breathe, and using their self-esteem as a reason not to reward those who succeed and spur those who don’t care is just plain stupid.

Give the teachers a little more power to handle stuff. These are people who’ve been through a minimum of 4 years of college, exhaustive exams, have been licensed, certified, and fought to get to a point where they can educate a kid. And no-one trusts them to stand a kid in a corner?

I mean, seriously, you’d trust a paramedic to get your kid to a hospital and keep ‘em breathing, a policeman to protect your kid from bodily harm, and a bus driver to take them however many miles back and forth each day to school. But you won’t trust a teacher to know when a kid needs some corner time?

What are the chances of any of this happening? Not likely. Cause seriously, as long as the football’s on, the world keeps turning, and at least a few make it out of the system alive and with a decent start at an education — well, it’s the next generation’s problem, right?

Yep. Just like the education system’s problems when you were growing up were supposed to be yours to fix.

1 comment:

  1. Having started in the school system in Kindergarten I got to experience all the riches the public schools have to offer. When I was in school, the push down curriculum had really not hit yet and while we were expected to learn more it wasn't extreme as it is now.

    The first hellish experience came in first grade when AR points were implemented. This idea was supposed to help encourage reading by forcing children to read books then take a comprehension test for points. If you did not pass the test you had to pick a new book and start over. You had to receive a set number of points to pass to the next grade for that area.

    At various points in the year each grade was brought together and those with the most points got prizes. This involved announcing everyone’s points in front of all the other children. This led to untold amounts of bullying by the children who were more inclined to reading. The only thing the AR system did successfully was keep me from reading for pleasure till late middle school.

    In spite of several single incidents, all the teachers in Elementary and Middle school at least seemed devoted. They loved their jobs and seemed to genuinely enjoy teaching, even in a flawed system working for their daily pennies.
    It was not until high school that the shit hit the fan. By that time the "No Child Left Behind" system was in full swing causing the curriculum to slow to a snail’s pace. Curriculum originally designed to last a few days took weeks to cover meaning that by the end of the year, much of the curriculum went untaught.

    The classes themselves were unnervingly basic. All history, government, etc classes were taught by coaches. Coaches were required to teach SOMETHING to stay a coach. This resulted in the worst excuses for teaching that the public school system had to offer. As soon as game season started the curriculum became focused on such historical classics as Titanic, Remember the Titans, Pearl Harbor, and the September 11th Remembrance Film. I will never forget my junior year in high school when my history teacher told the class "Look I have play books to do, just keep it down to a dull roar ok?" For the next two weeks we had free time that class period. Any time a ‘jock’ was in the coach’s class they alone received individual attention, though rarely about the class. It was not uncommon for a coach to pull the team members aside to talk plays while the rest of the class was left to their own devices.

    Math was the other subject in high school that was considered to be a complete joke. All assignments were graded on completion credit. As long as you wrote out how you solved the problem, even if it was wrong, you received complete credit for the problem. This led to a complete lack of all interest in the actual assignments. It was not uncommon for someone to ‘complete’ a homework assignment in about 30 to 40 seconds. As an attempt to even out this obscene amount of disinterest, the tests were graded based normally. The crux came from the fact that if you got a zero on every test but did all the home work, you could still pass with a “C” in the class.

    The final push of insanity came when children began to realize if they simply quit doing assignments they could be moved into the ‘special education’ classes. These classes included an even slower less complicated version of the curriculum. Suddenly the classes started to fill, as children who had excelled in earlier years suddenly developed a wide variety of learning disabilities to avoid having to exert any real effort.

    Something needs done. The current mode of ‘punishment’ needs removed. The assumption that a misbehaving child would be upset about having to stay home for a week is insanity, as well as the assumption that the parents will give a damn either. The steps you listed above are steps that should have been taken years ago and maybe eventually someone will put two and two together but until then, America’s youth can continue to fall through the cracks in our broken school system.