23 May, 2008

Academia: No Child Left Behind

Hello, readers!

It seems that I have neglected my promise of a weekly update. I recently asked our wonderful host for some ideas of topics that I might be able to comment on. I am only 18 years old, and never had much of a mind for politics, so most of the discussions here go right over my head.

However, there is one that I might be very qualified to reflect on. Education.

Bush has been in office eight long years now, (Eight. Christ. That still scares me.) which puts his first time in office when I was about 10 years old. That's early elementary school, which means that I have no real recollection of what education is like without Bush in office. So it was at first difficult to figure out how to comment on something for which I have no real frame of reference, but I knew that I have always heard of the NCLB, or No Child Left Behind act, one of Bush's little legacies he bestowed upon us lucky adolescents. So I took a few key ideas from that act and thought I'd share my thoughts.

Teacher Quality

One of the first things I came across was the idea of "Teacher Quality". It required basically three things: a teaching license, subject expertise, and a bachelor's degree. While certainly I agree that teacher's should not be ignorant fuckwits who don't actually know what they're talking about, I find these criteria are not particularly useful in accomplishing that. Subject expertise I would say does contribute to a teacher's ability, however with the emphasis on "teaching to the test" [see below] it is difficult to define what is expertise. Still, this doesn't help figure out what makes a teacher a good one.

The inherit problem here is that not everyone agrees what should be taught, and how to teach it. There are paradoxical problems in education about what we "need" to know. For example, in my Junior year literature class, we had this teacher named Stephenson. Poor woman, having to teach my class. Now, she was a perfectly intelligent human being, but here's a quick preview on our education:

The first day of class we read an article that told us that there are more than one "right" answer. Basically that any given situation could be interpreted various ways, that different viewpoints and perspectives will provide different ideas of what is "right", and they are all equally valid. Yet, when we try to analyze events in such novels as Huck Finn or A Scarlet Letter, we were obviously being steered towards the correct interpretation. The problem was that according to Stephenson, there were only three possible correct meanings behind any given metaphor:


Oh, and phallic symbols.

While it was fun to figure out how every character in Finn fits into these categories, it's also troublesome when you are told that your opinion, your subjective interpretation is wrong.

Poor woman. We tormented her so much in class in so many ways; at one point, a student rode into class on top of a book cart, crashed into a desk and fell over in a heap. The same student would occasionally walk into class without pants. We would pass around a Spark Notes book before a test. I, meanwhile, sat in my corner and read and doodled and BS'ed my way through the tests. She ended up moving to England the last month of the school year, dumping a substitute on us. She hasn't come back yet.

So trying to coerce your students into telling them what you want is not a sign of good teaching. However, it's not always the teachers, its how they are told to teach, which brings me to the next point.

Teaching to a Test

In school, homework is pretty typical in most science, literature, or social studies classes. You are given some sort of comprehension assignment, usually reading, and are given a worksheet, which is usually just fill-in-the-blanks copies of said assignment. It's a basic process of taking in the information, storing it long enough to fill in on the dotted line, and forget it. While obviously certain aspects of class are slightly more useful or engaging, this works not only for the microscope assignments but the macro-scope goal of education: score well.

Education's entire goal is to score well on a test so that you can get into a better college. Really, that is what high school comes down to. It's all about teaching you what is going to be on the test. If it's not on the test, it doesn't get taught.

Another personal example:

I am just finishing up my AP/IB Biology II class. In that, the teacher rushes through a full year college-level course, switching between a bird's eye view of "This General Concept Might Be On The Test" to a very close inspection of "This Specific Section Will Be On The Test." Some sections we pass over entirely if it's not likely to be on the test, and we don't stop long enough in any of the sections to internalize the information in order to be useful for any period of time longer than the end of the testing period. Even then, with all the days off and vacations they ambush us with, we never have enough time to get all the information anyway. One 50 minute class (usually with anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes of actual learning, due to goofing off, homework questions, and the fact we never start on time) is NOT enough time in a day to learn anything.

It's far too often that I hear a teacher say, "We're skipping this section because you don't need it for the AP test".

The most rewarding science class I have ever taken was my Sophomore year Biology I class. The teacher, an amazing man with the name "Shindledecker", taught us how to think about biology. He'd talk with us all period long about what we're learning, showing us different ways to approach it, how it applies to our life, and tips on how to remember them. Not memorize them for a test, but how to actually make the mental connections between what we learn in class and what we learn in life, in order to apply this knowledge in a useful way. I might not be able to give you the scientific definition of the function of the Endoplasmic Reticulum of a cell, but I know that it's basically the "highway of the cell", which conceptually is far more useful than knowing the jargon. One day, we walked into class and on the board was the word "Salmon" circled. A few lines were connected to it, such as "dams", "bears", and "fishermen". Then we spent the entire period making connections between salmon and what it directly influences, and what those impacts would have on other factors, and so on and so forth.

However, the advanced classes, the classes in which you have the most potential to learn the most and apply it to life, are the classes which are forced to do well on tests. Thus, they must teach to the test.

See, because of NCLB, public schools only get their federal funding if they cooperate by conducting some kind of test on all students in the state as a method of measurement of educational progress. Almost all schools take the cheapest route; multiple-choice standardized tests. So they are forced to educate the students according to what these tests are on.

Now, this isn't all bad. Reading comprehension levels have increased, and the test scores themselves have gone up, if that means anything, though the scores are a pretty hollow victory considering what we're giving up.

However, NCLB opens up options for schools to "play" the system, such as giving the students "practice" exams, which are usually just last year's tests, to prepare us for the upcoming exam. The focus is entirely on doing well on the tests. It's quite ridiculous, really.

Restriction of Classes

No, not social classes. Because of the trends in education, non-core subject classes have been cut down ever year. My school used to offer all kinds of woodshop-type classes. We used to offer Russian as a language. While my school is particularly well off and still has many non-core classes, those classes as a whole have been reduced across the board. Focus on tests means that the students and staff are pushed towards math, reading, and the sciences, with a very low emphasis on arts, physical education, and similar courses.

This limits the curriculum. Let's borrow from every high schooler's friend, WikiPedia:

"Schools are required to use "scientifically based research" strategies in the classroom and for professional development of staff. Research meeting this label, which includes only a small portion of the total research conducted in the field of education and related fields, must involve large quantitative studies using control groups as opposed to partially or entirely qualitative or ethnographic studies, research methodologies which may suggest different teaching and professional development strategies but that do not result in evidence demonstrating efficacy"

Oh yeah, and there's one of my personal favorite little quirks of the NCLB:

"NCLB (In section 9528) requires public secondary schools to provide military recruiters the same access to facilities as a school provides to higher education institution recruiters. Schools are also required to provide contact information for every student to the military if requested."

Then of course, NCLB also wants all, and I mean ALL, as in 100% of students, to perform on the same level in the areas of math and reading. It's a lofty goal, but not one that I think we should be striving for. Students are too individual, each with their own ways of learning, to expect everyone to be on the same level as everyone else. It limits those who are advanced, and it pressures and punishes those who are behind.

I've gone on for long enough. There are other issues with education today, but it can be summed up thusly:

Modern American education is too centered on learning specific core subjects for the purpose of high performance on standardized tests in order to prove "educational progress", neglecting the individual needs of many students, and not teaching us the skills and imparting the knowledge that will make an actual difference on our lives.

Bush is leaving office. I don't know what will happen to education. Not everything is bad, of course, but if I could ask for a few changes with our new leader, it would be that education focuses less on test scores, possibly removing standardized testing for the purposes of federal financing and the goals outlined by NCLB completely.

Later, I'll comment more specifically on some of these topics. Including:

-Should teachers be paid according to a "merit pay" system?
-What should we actually teach our children?
-The role of technology in school
-Grade inflation
-Social pressures and influences in school

I am a Senior in high school, graduating on June 14th, this year. I have about three weeks left of school, so I will be reflecting a lot about my time in high school. 4 years, 32 classes. I got a lot to write about, so you'll be hearing from me again.

And everything changes
And nothing is truly lost.
-Neil Gaiman


Dana Hunter said...

Kaden, this was insightful, informative, and fucking enraging. What terrifies me is that you go to one of the *better* schools in this country. Ye gods.

Thanks for the report! I'm eagerly awaiting the next installments!

Anonymous said...

AP classes may not be ideal, but they certainly will save you a lot of money if you pass the tests. Remember that (depending on the college you go to) each class costs between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. Much more expensive than an AP test. Also, the more AP tests you pass, the faster you can get to the really interesting advanced stuff in college.

NP said...

Thanks for the great post! I've written a little something about education (specifically focusing on writing) for the carnival. I'm looking forward to your comments on it.