Let’s Save Public Education In America

Let’s Save Public Education In America

… a toolkit of ideas suggested by the author

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

–Mark Twain

A few months ago, The New York Times reported how American high school seniors ranked last or next to last among the industrialized nations in Math and Physics. In the Third International Mathematics and Science study, which tested samplings of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders from 23 industrialized countries, the U.S. 12th grade student scores were lower than the international average in Physics and Advanced Math, which includes “calculus, geometry, and equations.” Furthermore, in these categories no industrialized country scored lower than the U.S.

None of this surprises me. After having taught college freshmen Algebra and Computer Science off and on since 1979, I can honestly say I’ve encountered a noticeable difference in the approach, degree of willingness to learn, and general attitude of the average freshman student. The eager and wide-eyed freshmen of the pre-Nineties era have seemingly been replaced with cynical, sometimes disrespectful, know-it-all freshmen obsessed with obtaining an A, and more inclined to cheat. Like most college professors, I prefer the student of yesteryear.

There are several factors which have contributed to this significant change, including the onset of political correctness, a general decline in discipline and punishment, and some drastic curriculum changes which attempt to stray far from the Anglo-Saxon/western concept of education. Part of the reason lies with misguided parents wanting the best for their children, who equate a better education with a better grade. In March of 1994, USA Today reported how more than 90% of New York’s school teachers felt pressure to pass students even when they fail. Of those who felt the pressure, 85% said the pressure came from school administrators, 63% said it came from parents, and 19% said school board members also got involved. The real danger to students is that grade inflation gives students a false sense of accomplishment and reflects that they learned something or learned more when in fact they learned less, or in the worse case nothing at all.

Furthermore, the inflation of grades can cause a domino effect: students get higher grades than they actually earned, get accepted into a particular university or college program for which they are not prepared, and either fail or take the easier route of cheating. When I first started teaching in 1979, cheating was a rarity. Since I have taught mostly computer programming classes, it was easily identifiable when two or more students handed in the same exact programs as homework. I always took it seriously and usually got a confession in my office with tears and what I believe to be honest remorse. Some students flunked out, some tried the more straight and narrow path of doing the work, and some probably kept on cheating. But in the last ten years, much has changed. More students started cheating more often, got really clever about it, and were disconcerting in their claims of innocence. Some cases I would give them the benefit of the doubt, and in some cases the cheating would be so blatant or undeniable that with the university’s support, I would punish anyway. The disturbing element was the lack of remorse or guilt of having been caught, and the repeat offenders who were so good at it. A sort of pathological cheater. The concept that they will not know anything when and if they do get through the class or the degree is lost to them. Apparently we have created a post-education social working climate where such rogues get away with it. It’s a common sentiment in the computer programming world: “That guy/gal doesn’t know anything, how did they get this job?”

The cheating predicament is then compounded by a lack of discipline and punishment in the public school systems, even at the university level. There seems to be confusion and a set of inappropriate moral questions associated with discipline and punishment. Some believe discipline and punishment are not necessary. This is incorrect. Discipline, when used correctly, negates or prevents the need for punishment. For instance, strict guidelines for all students should be spelled out in writing at the beginning of the school year/semester for each class. Make clear the moral implications of cheating and plagiarism, and what the punishment would be should anyone get caught. Furthermore, when one does get caught, follow the punishment guidelines to the tee, making an example of the perpetrators if necessary and appropriate. Rightfully so, the days of violent types of punishment like swatting or hitting are gone; however punishment should still be administered in the form of loss of privileges, detention, expulsion, or something thereabouts, depending on the crime, the age of the student, etc.

Some other fixes to the current epidemic of educational illness in the public school system are presented below.

1) Create a serious campaign to simultaneously beef up curricula and get rid of dead weight in public schools. Another possible fix to the weak scores obtained by American high school seniors would be to better emulate the private school sector and simply beef up the curricula in public schools. Many times the brightest students at public schools are bored. Additionally, sometimes superiority of faculty (a sort of tenure) allows teachers to get lazy and protects them with the sometimes dangerous concept of job security. Enough said. As a teacher who has taught for 20 years now, I know it is my responsibility to keep up with the field I teach, and explore new ways of teaching it. This is a given at the university level; is it also at the lower levels in public school?

2) Add an ethics and morals class early on in elementary school. Students with absolutely no guidance as to what is right and wrong are everywhere. The others, with strong moral backgrounds, can give their worthy inputs to the subject area. The controversy behind adding an ethics class to the curriculum may be voiced from the same groups who so violently obsess over and fight school religion and prayer. The way to handle this debate is to treat the subject area philosophically. Teachers could carefully discuss certain hard truths like killing is wrong, cheating is wrong, causing physical harm to another is wrong, etc. Then encourage the students to question and explore ethical dilemmas like the breaking of a promise, fibbing, theft, polygamy, abortion, etc.

3) Get rid of cable in the classroom and replace with more one on one learning. People don’t quite know how to point the finger at television. One young mother boasts how quickly her toddler learned the ABC’s and how to count from endless hours of watching Barney. Another moans about how her one-year old daughter can’t be peeled away from the TV. My children are allowed a very small supply of television (like almost none) because I feel it can make couch potatoes out of children and can make children watchers, not doers. The average child in the U.S. watches an average of 4,000 hours of television by the time they begin school (according to the Dept. of Education). Given this, do they really need any more in school? Consider a nation like ours, where illiteracy is still a huge problem. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a study done in 1985 revealed over 72 million adults 17 years or older could not “read and write well enough to function effectively in life.” Books and reading will help remedy this situation better than cable in the classroom. Toss it. Reward children like we got rewarded: with the school assembly and a movie or live performance.

4) Rethink the use of computers in school. Educational research would be helpful here to help determine exactly what the role of computers should be in education. Even though I have 3 college degrees in computer science, I still question the role of computers today in pre-college education. The computer is obviously a tool that should be incorporated into many subjects. There is little question whether word processing and hence typing should be taught, however the extent to which subjects like web browsing, game playing, and computer art should be taught probably should be minimal. Especially since many are already spending endless hours doing the same at home anyway. Remember that hours devoted to such pursuits in the classroom may make administrators sacrifice such worthy subjects such as history, math, physical science, or the liberal arts. Kurt Vonnegut, in his last book Timequake explains it in an exquisite way:

“It now appears that books in the form so beloved by [my] Uncle Alex and me, hinged and unlocked boxes, packed with leaves speckled by ink are obsolescent. My grandchildren are already doing much of their reading from words projected on the face of a video screen.

“Please, please, please wait just a minute!

“At the time of their invention, books were devices as crassly practical for storing or transmitting language, albeit fabricated from scarcely modified substances found in forest and field and animals, as the latest SiliconValley miracles. But by accident, not by cunning calculation, books, because of their weight and texture, and because of their sweetly token resistance to manipulation, involve our hands and eyes, and then our minds and souls, in a spiritual adventure I would be very sorry for my grandchildren not to know about.”

Kurt Vonnegut heartwrenchingly pleads for emphasis of the book, not the computer in a child’s educational formative years. I agree with Kurt.

In summary, it is horrific to imagine the prospect that the richest land in the world with the most opportunity to offer the most advanced public education may be botching it because school leaders and curriculum designers are swayed by protective parents, ignorant teachers, and unknowing straw-grabbing politicians. Sprinkling a curriculum with multi-cultural history, literature, and ideas can be a good thing as long as the baggage that often goes with it (i.e. political correctness, grade inflation, etc.) doesn’t take over the direction and future that we offer our young and very valuable participants. Time is of the essence, drastic measures may be needed for the current public educational system. Hopefully, the educational leaders are up for the task at hand, will not be close-minded to new ideas and will have the gumption and courage to be able to examine their past practices with humility.

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