Over at Least I Could Do (a webcomic as well as a blog), a post about the abysmal education numbers recently announced from Washington DC:

They’re telling us that only 12% of DC’s 14 year olds can read proficiently.

That’s insane, that’s ludicrous. Hell, it’s bloody criminal.

That statistic keeps rattling around in my head, and I admit I’m having a hard time accepting it. In a day and age when media, the internet and literature are so freely distributed, how can this be the case? This is a statistic I would expect in a developing country, and not in the United States of America, not the nation’s capital for Christ’s sake.

These kids need to put the drugs away, lay down their right to bear arms, leave their gang, stop going to war and pick up a book.

Can someone honestly tell me what we’re teaching our kids in school, if not how to read?

I really want to know.

As the thread goes on, there’s a lot of left-wing “Evil Dubya Bush and the No Child Left Behind program” attacks, but very little substance beyond that. A few teachers have weighed in, to point out inherent problems in the national education system, some of which are connected to NCLB and some of which have other causes.

I’d like to offer up a few points from my perspective – having gone through public schools and private schools, and in my current employment with an entity that tries to train the next generation of teachers.

#1 – Teachers really don’t get the support they need.
#2 – Regional and social factors aren’t helping.
#3 – Insistence on “self-esteem” hurts the system.
#4 – Insistence on keeping all kids together hurts the system.

In my mind, the last is the worst portion of the problem – (public) schools in America have largely done away with the idea of having more-advanced and less-advanced classes, except for the required “remedial ed” courses based on teaching kids with severe mental handicaps or psychiatrically determined learning/behavioral disorders. If you see a grade school with 3 classes per grade (small, I know), you will never see them arranged by previous academic achievement, with the smartest kids all in one class. No, you’ll see them arranged by random lot, with the smartest kids in each class bored stiff while the teacher desperately tries to educate the idiots who don’t even want to be there and whose parents don’t care about their kids’ education. Add in the socially promoted kids (those whose parents threatened to sue the school district for daring to suggest Johnny repeat a grade or three), and pretty soon you have an entire 8th grade class that’s reading on a 3rd grade level – the idiots because they’re idiots, the rest because they’ve never been given anything better as each successive teacher simply taught to the idiots’ level. Just to cap it off, a teacher who actually fails a kid is to be punished, and no thought ever given to culpability on the part of the kid (who goofs off, doesn’t do homework, makes spitwads with his books, etc) or parents (who, blissfully clueless, insist that the teacher “just hates our little Johnny” when his conduct and lack of study are brought up in conferences).

This is a system that completely fails kids on a psychological level, trying to force-feed “knowledge” without experience or learning. For the kids who respond best to being challenged, being stuck in a “pace of the slowest idiot” class is the surest way to teach them that school is worthless – why should they explore and learn and experiment, when they’re spending 8 hours a day being re-taught something they already absorbed years ago? In the current system, the overachiever will soon learn that going above and beyond is going to be punished; the rest of the kids in the class will see them as a “showoff”, teachers will peg them “disruptive” for getting off the lesson plan, and independent thought… well let’s face it, in the edjamacashun factery, that’s just not to be tolerated. The lesson to the overachiever is simple: overachievers are not the good little drones the system wants.

For the kids who are naturally competitive, they completely lack a reason to compete and a proper metric by which to measure it; grades are quickly noticed to be meaningless, and class ranking means nothing either. Since the overachievers are being beaten into submission, they don’t have anyone in a “top tier” to compete with anyways. When half of the school system are “honor students,” and the other half don’t care about it, competition loses its meaning. And of course, in the name of “self-esteem”, direct competition between students is to be avoided.

For the kids who are natural underachievers, the unstratified system provides no notice whatsoever; quite the contrary, there is a complete lack of attention to them. There is no “congratulations, you’re in the dummies class” shock that might wake a few up and make them realize that they should work harder. There is no definitive attention on how they got where they are. There is no drive, however small, to get out of the “dummies class.” The system assumes every kid is just like them, and makes everyone else wait for them to catch up. If that weren’t enough, the system specifically (in the name of “self-esteem” again) denies all but the barest identification of just which kids it is that are holding the class up.

Stratify the system, and you can get some marvelous results. Yes, you have a whole class of kids who are moving at the slow pace… but you also have classes that aren’t. A class full of geniuses, semi-geniuses, and just average-but-competitive-natured kids will do wonders, the geniuses and semi-geniuses with their natural love of learning and exploration, the competitive ones in trying to keep up with their peers. The teacher in the class with the remedial kids will have a more solid reason to urge that a kid be held back (they’re already underperforming), and won’t have to deal with the disruptions caused by bored-out-of-their-skulls kids who already learned today’s lesson three years ago. It’s a win-win situation.

Just to be clear on this point: when most kids were sneaking in comic books to read during class behind their real books, I was sneaking in the works of Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Anne McCaffrey. Did any of my schools support this? Far from it. I was actually told at one point by a school counselor that if I deliberately scored poorly on a couple tests, so as not to be on the top of the GPA list, my classmates would probably like me more. It seems the school system had decided to “grade on a curve”, in that they took the top score of the class on each test (and the aggregate homework grades) and “recentered” it so that the top score was the “new 100.” If the top score was an 80? Everyone got a free 20 points to add in. Unfortunately for the school, each class had 1-2 kids who threw the system off; we were scoring consistent 99-100’s while everyone else got 85 or less.

Category: School

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6 Responses to Failure to Educate

  1. ? says:

    [T]hey took the top score of the class on each test (and the aggregate homework grades) and “recentered” it so that the top score was the “new 100.” If the top score was an 80? Everyone got a free 20 points to add in.

    That grading system is hateful. I transfered mid-year into a science class who’s teacher did that. Before my arrival, almost the entire class were getting A’s on the strength of scores in the 60-70% range. And after my arrival . . . well, let’s say my fellow students knew exactly who to hate on.

    Better to fit the grades to a bell curve.

  2. SFG says:

    I’ll agree with the evils of the top-grade-is-100 system.

    Much as I hate to turn this place into iSteve and summon Klansmen onto your blog, you guys are aware that one the reasons we can’t track is that the ethnic composition of the tracks winds up being different. An inefficient education system is the price we pay for social peace, unfortunately.

  3. a_c says:

    SFG: Yes, that, and also we’d lose the warm-and-fuzzy aspect of believing that we really aren’t leaving any child behind. If HC’s methods are implemented, parents, students, and teachers would benefit, but the rest of us would be shocked out of our equality-of-outcome thinking, which would be painful for many.

  4. Peter says:

    Much as I hate to turn this place into iSteve and summon Klansmen onto your blog, you guys are aware that one the reasons we can’t track is that the ethnic composition of the tracks winds up being different.

    That would not, however, be the case in the Washington DC schools, the subject of the linked post.

  5. Webmaster says:

    SFG and a_c,

    There’s a whole debate about the question of why equal opportunity should, or should not, be judged on the measure of “equal results.”

    I really don’t care whether “equal results” come up or not. If a kid is honestly slow, then they should be in the slow class, but they shouldn’t be disadvantaging the smarter kids by holding them back. If a kid is showing “slow” results because their parents aren’t involved, or they aren’t motivated, or they have poor friends or even an entire ethnic group possibly teaching them that being smart is equivalent to racial treason, then we have a problem to address, a very serious problem, and trying to hide it is going to help nobody.

    And it doesn’t help matters, unfortunately, that 99% of the people doing this kind of research have obviously made up their minds on what the results of their supposed “research” should be. When an entire field of research is set on “disproving” something rather than being conducted objectively, groupthink can manage to do what facts can’t due to basic mistakes that are reinforced over and over.

  6. Webmaster says:

    I suppose, thinking on it, I should be more clear on my last statement:

    It is my firm belief that 99.9% of “researchers” in the field of genetic/intelligence correlation are biased.

    There are an amazing number of them whose bias is to hunt down anything they deem “wrong” with studies that seem to show such a correlation, and to hold their own studies designed purposefully to “disprove” the earlier ones – in other words, studies not set up to objectively investigate a question, but designed specifically to reach a certain conclusion.

    There have also been a fair number of researchers who go in from the opposite perspective, trying to “prove” a genetic/intelligence correlation on some level. They attack the studies by the former group, just as they leave themselves wide open to attacks by the former group.

    In the end, the research is all over the map because there is little research that’s actually objective. And that’s unfortunate, because we then wind up having trouble identifying things that we might otherwise be able to address.

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