Friday, March 11, 2011

The End of Education

When I was in public school, classes always started after Labor Day.  August was still part of our vacation.  These days, of course, school starts sometimes weeks before the national holiday.  They’d be better off staying on vacation.

I sincerely doubt they are learning much in school.  For starters, for close to a decade, legislators have been imposing standardized tests on the kids as a way of determining the quality of education.  The basic concept behind the testing sees plausible:  make sure that teachers and schools are accountable for their efforts to educate our children.

However, standardized tests hardly do that.  For one reason, some people simply don’t function well on that kind of testing.  I never did.  My scores were invariably low on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).  Despite that, I graduated magna cum laude from Kent State University.  Standardized testing also assumes similarities in culture.  That’s simply not true.  For example, one of my foreign students in high school could not answer a question about cats on the FCAT, because, in her culture, cats are unclean.  She simply declined even to read the question as soon as she saw the word “cat.”

The tests also are incredibly unbalanced.  Students learning English will naturally score very low, even though they are expected to take the same test as native speakers.

To make matters worse, the tests are being used to determine raises and school finances.  The Florida legislature tried that approach in 2010, and it was vetoed.  The new governor has already said he'll sign the bill, which is being fast-tracked through the state legislature.

That is ridiculous, given the fact that schools with a large percentage of foreign-born students can never do as well as schools filled with natives.  Moreover, a new immigrant who learns a simple English sentence has accomplished a tremendous amount.  However, that seemingly pales when compared to a native who pens a jumbled, barely literate essay.  How can anyone measure such disparate results with the same scale?

Worse, teachers have lost all opportunities for creativity because they are forced to teach to the test to buttress their school’s status and their own salaries.  That’s not education.  It’s a return to the rote instruction of bygone schools, long since recognized as stifling and self-defeating.  As a result, No Child Left Behind legislation has left every child behind.  It remains the worst legacy of the previous administration, which is saying something considering two wars that rage on..

New York State long ago solved the problem with its Regency Tests, which test what students are supposed to know after completing a particular education level.  Teachers’ salaries and school finances are not chained to the results.  Neither are teacher imaginations.

To make matters more complicated, society is changing rapidly while education remains bogged down in a different era.  Students today function in an independent environment: they choose when to turn on their computer, what music to listen to, who to talk to on Facebook and other social networks, and more.  Yet, they come into a classroom and are expected to function as a cohesive unit.  No classroom I ever had in public school as either a student or a teacher had computers or the kind of modern technology that students regularly use.

Naturally, as a result, students are bored and disinterested.  Their attention spans have been shortened by the quick editing that infuses television shows and movies, but they are expected to sit in a classroom for as long as 75 minutes without losing concentration.  

The entire model of education has to change to recognize the reality of today’s world.  The days of lectures are over.  Students must be able to choose what they want to focus.  They can learn to read and write that way.  History becomes relevant within that context.  So does math.  Socialization will occur in the normal way outside of class or by having students with similar interests work together.

Teachers’ roles will not change.  They still must direct students, but they must show wider contexts so a student does not become so focused on the single topic.  As an example, consider horses, a common delight of many students.  For history, a good teacher will help the student understand how horses were used to tame the American West, were part of the Spanish Conquistadors success and were a crucial element in Scythian and other ancient culture’s warfare.  At the same time, horses would be used in math: determining size, speed, feed etc.  In short, the student’s interest becomes the focus of wide-ranging educational opportunities. 

In the regimen, students would eagerly learn all they could about a subject they care about while, at the same time, be happy to share the information with classmates.   They would also be able to shift subjects as their interests changed.  The computer would help them find the information they need and assist teachers as well.  Every student will learn at his own pace with the teacher facilitating and guiding, not following some ironclad format.
This would be a major change in education, but one that would enhance learning while breaking the testing manacles gripping today’s schools.

Besides, it’s not as if schools haven’t changed in the past.  Just look at the calendar.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer and educator.  He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since.  He hold an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  You can write him via or this blog.

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