I’m sitting here eating a bowl of 8 a.m. chocolate ice cream to celebrate one of my favorite days of the year: the first day of school. I’ve always loved the first day of school. As a child, I loved the sense of possibility: wonderful things could happen during the year. I made new friends, learned new things, and had the pleasure only a child gets in growing older. As an adult, I love the school year because I crave stability in my day-to-day life, and school provides that. The rhythm kicked in instantly today — up at 6:30, at the bus at 7:15, home alone at 7:20. Now I can work (and play at my blog) until the bus comes home and the after school routine begins. Predictable and enjoyable.
The first day of school, though, also brings to the fore all the ambivalence I have about our public school system. A large part of me is grateful for clean, lovely school facilities; kind teachers; and the absence of tuition. But another, equally large part of me is worried about what the year offers educationally. As you know from my embittered blog posts last year, I was very unhappy with the way in which my children were taught.
Each bit or byte of information was taught in a vacuum, with the kids learning meaningless “hows” (that is, they learned little pieces of mechanical data on how to do any given thing), without ever getting the all important “whys” — Why do we do this? Why does it matter? Without context it was often hard for them to understand how all the little pieces fit together, and without meaning it was almost impossible for them to care.
I also took umbrage last year at the endless focus on arts and crafts, a focus that substituted paint, tape and string for actual learning. I have no problem with a child working on or mastering a subject and, as part of that work or mastery, choosing a craft project as (a) an expression of his or her knowledge, (b) a way to increase that knowledge, or (c) a way to convey that knowledge. I have huge problems, though, with days and weeks spent putting together (for example) papier mache California missions, even as the children have absolutely no idea where the missions came from or what purpose they served (beyond abusing Indians, of course).
I’m not the only one dismayed by the state of American education. Victor Davis Hanson also tackled the problem today, noting the school’s failures, and proposing some solutions. I’m on board with some of his conclusions:
We should first scrap the popular therapeutic curriculum that in the scarce hours of the school day crams in sermons on race, class, gender, drugs, sex, self-esteem or environmentalism. These are well-intentioned efforts to make a kinder and gentler generation more sensitive to our nation’s supposed past and present sins. But they only squeeze out far more important subjects.
To encourage our best minds to become teachers, we should also change the qualifications for becoming one. Students should be able to pursue careers in teaching either by getting a standard teaching credential or by substituting a master’s degree in an academic subject. That way we will eventually end up with more instructors with real academic knowledge rather than prepped with theories about how to teach.
And once hired, K-12 teachers should accept that tenure has outlived its usefulness. Near-guaranteed lifelong employment has become an archaic institution that shields educators from answerability. And tenure has not ensured ideological diversity and independence. Nearly the exact opposite — a herd mentality — presides within many school faculties. Periodic and renewable contracts — with requirements, goals and incentives — would far better ensure teacher credibility and accountability.
Hanson also rightly points out that we do many of our students a disservice and put an unnecessary burden on the schools by insisting that all students become, at least for their tenure in school, academics. To take a kid who could become a master mechanic and make him feel like an idiot because he doesn’t grasp the soggy symbolism in The Great Gatsby is a dreadful, wasteful thing to do.
What Hanson misses — what everyone misses — is that part of why our schools do a bad job is because we use a system that neither engages the students nor, in the absence of such engagement, does it use the type of relentless drilling that would substitute automatic responses for actual understanding. Here’s an education example to explain what I mean:
Phonics have pretty much returned to American classrooms, after it became apparent that the whole language approach was a bust. I never understood why American educators would abandon phonics anyway. We are blessed in that, while our language has some anomalies, there are also certain fixed rules that can quickly teach any child to decipher the mysteries of letters and words. Given that our language hands to us the gift of reading on a silver phonic platter, the decision to go to the “whole word” or “whole language” approach, which expected the child to master one word at a time, by sight, was insane.
Proponents of the whole language system justified it by pointing to the high level of literacy amongst the Chinese who, lacking a phonetic alphabet, are forced to use a whole language approach, with students memorizing every written symbol. What these “educators” forgot was that the Chinese students drilled for hours and hours per day, six days a week, to force the symbols into their memory. We in America took a perfectly good phonic system, turned it into the much more difficult whole language system, and gave our children 40 minutes per day, 5 days a week to master it.
The above type of educational idiocy isn’t unique to reading, although reading is the most glaring example. Math teaching, too, has for decades been divorced from the meaning of math. Kids as young as 7 begin to memorize algebraic patterns without first being introduced to the magic (and I mean magic) of how manipulating numbers can be used to solve mysteries. Really. It is magical that math allows us to write “5 + X = 6” and to figure out what X is. Math should be taught with a sense of wonder. Instead, kids are handed one grain of sand after another and promised that, in a decade or so, they’ll look back and see that, through all that mindless drudgery, they were actually building a sand castle.
Until we are able to instill in our students a sense of wonder, purpose and understanding about the information they are being forced to acquire, nothing we will do will fix the deep hole in American education. We can skirt around the edges — fixing buildings, firing bad teachers, remove extraneous feel-good political material from the curriculum, freeing non-academic kids from the burdens of pointless English text analysis — but we’ll never improve the situation until we change our core approach and decide to engage our children’s minds.