Dr. Stat

Dr. Stat is a Statistics Professor. This blog is his opportunity to share ideas and opinions about education (especially math education), politics, and whatever else comes up.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

A Rigorous Education is Un-American?

It has been about a year now since the controversy about a rigorous Math-Science charter school erupted in Massachusetts. Michael and Julia Sigalovsky, disappointed in the local schools that seemed more interested in providing fun for the students than actually educating them, wanted to start a school based on ideas borrowed from successful institutions in Germany, China, and the Soviet Union. The interesting thing about this is the incredible resistance the proposal generated. See:

The Age 1/18/2004

Boston Globe 3/21/2004

Said Julia: "I believe kids in elementary and middle school are just wasting their time in school. Everybody feels they're supposed to have fun. They're capable of learning at a much higher level."

Said Michael: "Well, you tell me this: why are the vested interests so desperate to stop American kids being smart kids?"

The school is to open Next Fall. Their website is at: http://www.amsacs.org/index.htm. I wish them well.

The comments below were written last year in response to the Boston Globe article.

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My father is a World War II veteran too, who served in Germany. I think he would be puzzled by the comment "I don't want my kids educated like Germans." I certainly am. He knows that the Germans accomplished great things before and during the war, even if Hitler used those accomplishments for evil (and some of those Germans escaped and put their talents to work for America). But that's a long time ago. I don't know much about today's German school system, but I will say this --if somebody has a system that works, I don't care who it is--we should see if it works for us too. The name-calling, juvenile objections given are really masking the sinister truth--that a lot of Americans think that an effective, advanced education is a BAD THING. It just isn't fair if some people have more talent than others, and if some work harder than others, and so achieve at higher levels. It's Un-American. Oh, it's perfectly fine for some athletes to achieve at higher levels through incredible dedication and long hours of work combined with natural talent. But that's probably because athletics is "only a game." In something serious, like academics, such a thing is unacceptable. We can't allow some people to put on airs and act smarter than others. You never know, they might try to take over the country or something. It's also perfectly fine for some adults (adults, not teenagers) to work hard, apply their talent, and succeed in business. We give them honors and put them on magazine covers next to the athletes. But they had better not have started these successful habits in middle school! That wouldn't be fair!

Too many Americans, including many educators, are cheating the children as well as society by cutting off the children's educational potential at the feet--that is, in elementary and middle school. I agree that we should "leave no child behind." But while our efforts to bring the low achievers up are noble, we are indeed depraved if we deny our high achievers the opportunity to show us what they are capable of. Every time somebody comes up with a plan that will help our most talented students live up to their potential, the plan is attacked as "un-American" or "racist" or "classist." It will surely widen the achievement gap between the rich and poor, the black and white, etc. It is politically Dead On Arrival. Sigalovsky is right, and anybody who thinks seriously about these matters knows it.

There is one thing that is more damaging to educational achievement than any other factor. We have given up the work ethic. Most students never learn the lesson that long hours, hard work, and dedication are the key to success. Some learn this in athletics, and this is often a factor in their future success in the adult world of work. But precious few have the opportunity to learn it in academics. The trend has been going on for a long time, but in recent years the change has become overwhelmingly evident in higher education. Colleges see more and more students who are simply unwilling to do any work. They say they don't have time for homework, or they don't say anything--they just don't do it. They seem to believe that by occupying a seat in the class they should have earned the right to call themselves educated. "If by the age of 13 they don't have the habits, the hard work, and logical thinking, it's too late." Thus spake Julia Sigalovsky. I would call her a prophet if it weren't for the fact that her profound statement really ought to be self-evident.