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.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

How to fix education

I am in general despair about the state of American education. There are so very many things standing in the way of quality education. Many of them come from within the schools, others come from communities, and others come from politics. So many obstacles prevent the schools from doing what is needed. I see the results coming into the colleges--and it's not pretty.
Teachers (including professors) have always complained about the quality of students, and it is difficult to fairly ascertain whether there has actually been a change, but I am convinced that there has. Unfortunately, I think that the causes of the problem have been misdiagnosed. There have been major changes in the maturity of high school graduates. Compared to high school graduates of the 1950’s, many no longer know how to set goals and work toward them, and most no longer take responsibility for their own learning. In fact, there is a widespread attitude that education is something the teacher/professor does to them or for them.
This is unfortunate both because it is false and because it hinders the student's ability to obtain a true education. Students essentially want to be entertained for four years and then be given a diploma for it. These are attitudes they learned in K-12 education. In the last 20 years, K-12 education has become far more entertainment-based than it ever was before.
I used to review teacher-ed students' portfolios, and time and again I would see that their educational philosophy was that "learning should be fun."
I'm not against having fun in school, since it is a great motivational tool.
But what students really need to learn is not that learning is fun--rather, that hard work is rewarding. It is no different than being on the football team. When you go to practices, the coach says "No pain, no gain." He makes you work hard, he makes you exert yourself to your maximum potential--and from that you learn, grow, and ultimately you find that the struggle itself is fun. K-12 has missed this point by a mile. This is the true meaning of education--learning how to exert your mind to reach new heights, new capabilities, and doing it because it is both rewarding and necessary.
Some people talk about the class differences as a factor in education, but I would argue that they often miss the point of class differences. There are no fixed classes in America. By far most people do not finish life in the class they started out in. We have class mobility. However, what keeps people in the lower class is not the lack of opportunity; it's the lack of attitude. As long as people think of themselves as victims, being held down by society, or the dominant race, or some such thing, they will fail to address the true problem and thus fail to solve it. People's attitudes about education have to change. That's priority one. Neither NCLB nor any other major player in the education game is addressing this, mainly because you always run into problems with "political correctness." Telling the truth here becomes racism.
And of course, racism is a "killer word," an epitaph that kills any idea no matter what its true merit or worthiness.

NCLB is defended on the basis of achieving equity in education between the races or classes. I have been asked how any government founded "for the people" could allow inequity in education. That's a good question. A better question is, how dare the government step into the people's lives, take the responsibility for education away from the parents by force, make the kids go to schools that teach things the parents do not believe in and would not tolerate in their own homes, destroy the religious basis of the society, and finally, destroy the work ethic of an entire generation by teaching that you should feel good about yourself no matter how lazy you are or how little you accomplish? Anyone who is concerned about the education of black children (or lower class children) ought to take a look at how black people a hundred years ago taught their children to succeed and contrast that with what is happening today. The contrast is stark, to say the least. It is black and white, to risk a bad pun. Look at George Washington Carver. What were his educational opportunities? What did he say black people should do? Look at the statements of all the leaders right up to Martin Luther King, Jr. They all stated that it was the hard work and perseverance of the individual that mattered. I think King called it the "Quality of our Character." Today's black leaders don't say that at all.
They keep talking about getting the government to step in and straighten things out. But government won't succeed, because government can't get at the root of the problem. Simply put: individuals have to take responsibility for their own education. There is no other way. K-8 is the time when these attitudes are formed. If you haven't done it by then, it's unlikely that it will ever be done.