Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Response to a Washington Post Article

The title says it all, here are some thoughts in response to this Washington Post article about five things they believe the public erroneously perceives about public education. You may have noticed that education is something that interests me, and although I teach at the college level, the status of K-12 education affects me non-trivially as it forms the foundation for the students I see in my classes. Since it really is a response, you ought to read the article if you want my thoughts to make the most sense, but it is an interesting article.

1) I think this bullet point glosses over a major source of the turmoil in the realm of higher education. Our high school diploma rates are rising, our college attendance rates are rising, so we are, ideally, expecting a larger segment of our population to perform at college level. Whereas in the past college attendance was, for the most part, restricted to the highly motivated or those for whom academic achievement came naturally, who are probably still doing fine in our education system, nowadays we are attempting to serve a wider clientele. (The word choice "clientele" in purposeful, laden with meaning, and an entirely different point which I have made elsewhere.)

While increasing access to higher education, and education in general, is laudable, and even perhaps necessary, from a democratic point of view. It does put additional strains on the system. At the K-12 level we find ourselves needing higher levels of preparedness than has previously been necessary. The phenomenon of the "social pass," while understandable from the point of view of a teacher, will hurt the student in the long run if they eventually progress to a level where they are evaluated on ability in any subject wherein they have been allowed to skate past with an insufficient understanding previously. Additionally, the influx of different types of students to higher education correlates with changes to the public perception of higher education, which in turn affects what people expect to obtain from their education, as I talked about in slightly more detail here. Long story short, it seems plausible that, while the average high school student has improved, the average college student is actually at a disadvantage to her historic counterpart due to the increased attendance at college.

So what? If we are "better educated" "on average," measured by some absolute scale of educational level, aren't we doing well? This goes back to the changing social meaning of education. Having better educated high school graduates now is less impressive if the a bachelor's degree is nowadays the societal equivalent of a high school diploma. Of course, some of this is entirely artificial, and I have read various articles talking about the over-emphasis on college education in today's society. Part of this is a reflection of societal values, while we want people around who fix our plumbing and build our houses, these positions are not glorified in our society. One could also argue that we are simply degree crazy, and some positions where a college education is not strictly necessary have become, be default, jobs for the college educated. For example, it seems many types of engineering could be done by graduates of a trade school, not recipients of a classical academic education, even more extreme, do Park Rangers (Outdoor Recreation Management) and PE teachers (I don't know what degree, Kinesiology?) NEED college educations to do their jobs well? And, if not, why do they need college degrees?

2) The only thought that the second bullet inspires is that I wish were observed and supported by a seasoned veteran teacher. I, of course, consider myself to be an underperforming educator.

3) I think the article overstates its case when it asserts that cooperation is necessary for education and performance based bonuses negatively incentivizes cooperation. The grounds for this opinion is the simple fact that cash bonuses appear to have no effect on educational preparedness, rather than a negative one. That said, I have never been a fan of evaluating a teacher's merit based on their performance on standardized tests. Among other reasons, classes are unique and it incentivizes training students to take the standardized test, rather than teaching them the material in question.

4) Once again, I think the article almost breezes over the most important point of this bullet. Motivated students are important! Furthermore, motivation cannot start in the classroom, especially if social value of education is already in question in the minds of students. After all, if teachers are percieved to be uncool and "out of it," then why should a student trust one when they try to explain why their subject is interesting?

That said, separating out the high performing students may not be such a bad idea, in order to challenge them at their own level rather than shackling them to the level of the "class average." However, there are a lot of very bad ways to separate students, and some of them even end up looking like accurate measures of their ability, such as self fulfilling determinations of ability and separation along socio-economic lines.

5) I don't know what to say to the 5th point, not in the least because I don't know how much of my class's performance reflects my efficacy and how much reflects other factors. Even when students persistently do not attend class I develop the feeling of having "failed them." (Which, by contrast is not the same as having flunked them, which I definitely do.)


elfarmy17 said...

I took Geometry in 8th grade, which is two levels of math higher than "grade level." My class had about twenty kids in it, from two different schools. Most were Asian or Indian. Most of the best and brightest among us applied to an intercity charter school, reputed to be one of the best in the county.

We also have magnet schools, which draw high-performing kids into low-performing areas to increase diversity. My cousin went to one of these high schools, and he said it wasn't really one high school as it was two high schools in one building. There were the local kids in their average classes, and there were the gifted ones in their advanced classes. Maybe it looks good on paper, but...(Note: that school is undoubtedly a great one. I applied to it myself, and I have friends who go there.)

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