Monday, February 8, 2010

Further thoughts on Susan Engel... and on others who think that today's schools are overly academic

How can so many people, without visiting actual classrooms, so confidently and so wrong-headedly conclude that today's schools are so overly-focused on drill & kill and cramming for high school?

It occurs to me that, from the outside, all you might see is this:

1. More and more cuts to arts and music programs and recess time.
2. All that No Child Left Behind testing
3. All that early literacy, which now begins in pre-K or kindergarten.
4. All that homework, which also begins in pre-K or kindergarten.

But what too many outsiders don't realize is this:

1. Kindergarten is more like first grade in yet another way: with December cut-offs moved up to September 1st, kindergartners are often 25% to 33% older than they used to be.
2. No Child Left Behind tests set a very low bar (that’s how states maximize school "success" and minimize the need for costly sanctions), which keeps classroom instruction, and homework, at a very low academic level.
3. Grade-school literacy means lots of "read-alouds," "100-book challenges," and "writer's workshops," journaling, and "personal reflections"; not lots of actual instruction in phonics, penmanship, and academic writing.
4. While math instruction begins earlier than ever, NCLB testing, together with Reform Math's watered down curriculum, has reduced the level of instruction, and of mathematical challenge, to record low levels.
5. Art--albeit uninstructed art--is alive and well in all those math, science, and social studies projects. Indeed, if you don't produce colorful "creative" art in these projects, you won't earn a top grade--no matter how strong your academic output.

I agree that there’s too much homework and too much writing and too little recess. But my objection about the homework isn't that it's academically oppressive, but rather that it's a waste of time that deprives young children of precious free hours--for actual creativity (as opposed to "be creative"), for actual art (as opposed to "project art"), for actual games (as opposed to "close to 100" and "fractions war"), for actual reflection (as opposed to "text-to-self"), and for all those academically challenging things they might do at home in spite of school.

And I wonder why so many of those who make accurate observations about early literacy pay no attention to what’s happening in math. Might that have something to do with our broader culture, in which “I hate reading” raises eyebrows, but not “I hate math”?


Beth said...

My theory is that everyone's complaints are justified.

Progressives look at the public schools and say "this isn't a good progressive education!" and they're absolutely right. It's not progressive because there's no room for kids to develop their own interests. The homework overload and constant grading mean that it's almost impossible for a child to develop any sense of themselves as learners. Intrinsic motivation? Forget it.

Traditionalists look at the schools and say "this isn't a good traditional education!" and they're absolutely right too. The curriculum is set at an incredibly low standard, and even that doesn't get met reliably. And if the kid didn't understand something, the school outsources the problem to the parents.

There's a huge gulf between any theory and an actual public school classroom. In a classroom with 30 kids and one teacher, which has been "balanced" to include a couple of gifted kids, a couple of kids with learning problems, and a couple of kids with behavior problems, just keeping the peace for 6 hours a day is a tall order. This is why progressive theory finally gets implemented as graded coloring projects, and traditional theory gets implemented as endless repetition.

Anonymous said...

I come from Ireland originally and I was exposed to what would be considered a "drill and kill" education by many people involved in American education. But I enjoyed school and learning. I have an mp3 player filled with podcasts covering legal theory, science and other subjects. My educaton did not turn me off learning but actually increased both my desire and ability to learn.

A certain amount of rote learning and drilling are required to produce a well-educated child. Rote learning and drilling aren't the only ways children should learn but they are necessary. People who think you can educate a child without a certain amount of memorization and drilling are out-of-touch with reality.

I always hear that kids should be thought problem solving skills and critical thinking skills and not just a bunch of facts. But you can't solve problems without a base of knowledge relevant to that problem. You can't think critically about subjects you don't know anything about. I also hear that there is no point in teaching facts because students can use modern technology to look up whatever they need to know. But to actually make sense of what you have looked up, you need a pre-existing body of knowledge.

There is no getting around it. Students have to be given a large base of knowledge built on a coherent curriculum.