Public School Reform

© Charles E. Corry 1999


 

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Introduction

My youngest son recently (1996) graduated from high school and I am proud of him. He served on the student counsel his senior year and faced many hardships and difficulties in his K-12 school years, including divorced parents and a father who lived 1,000-2,000 miles away after the divorce. Though such situations are commonplace today, they are no less difficult for the individual children than they ever were. Nonetheless, he made it through a system that would have had me making bombs in my chemistry course and plotting revolution for my social science studies. So his forbearance is, perhaps, admirable.

The problem is that, despite a high school diploma, this man/child is not educated in any sense that I understand the word. If the children do not reach the same level of understanding, or education, that their parents attained then it is a net step backward for the country and civilization. Though much of the information I learned 20+ years ago while doing a Ph.D. in geophysics is outmoded, and some of it I superseded myself, it does seem a discouragingly long way from my son's deplorable background to even the level I obtained all those years ago.

Though unfulfilled genius is one of the most common tragedies of the human race, it is still a tragedy, and mankind the loser. The despair is compounded when the society spends such a large amount of time and wealth in an effort to educate its citizens, only to end up with our present dysfunctional schools.

What follows are my experiences and impressions of the education system I have threaded with my two sons over the past 16 years. They attended schools in Jefferson County, Colorado, as well as schools in Rolla, Missouri, and junior and senior high school for part of their education on Cape Cod. They also went to elementary schools in Houston and Bryan, Texas.


 

It is the nature of man to rise to greatness if greatness is expected of him.

John Steinbeck


 

Basic educational requirements for teachers in K-12

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While working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the early 1990's I spent roughly two years working with the local high school in Falmouth, Massachusetts, attempting to restructure the curriculum and the educational process there. The student body was roughly one-third upper middle class children of the research community, one-third Afro-Americans, and one-third native Americans. This was a model school, and our efforts were used, in part, as a basis for reforming the state education laws.

One result of legislative reform was that teachers in the K-12 system are now required to pass a minimal competency test in Massachusetts. When the state began giving incoming teachers that test in 1998, roughly half of them failed. That result confirms impressions I formed of the disastrous level of the education the teachers themselves have. These impressions are from both my experience at the university level and working with teachers in the high school.

The simple truth is that very few teachers in the K-12 educational system have even the vaguest idea of how the American economy works. The underlying technology is simply black magic to them. Concepts as simple as Ohm's Law are completely foreign, let alone the calculus. Test the next teacher you talk to on how a transistor works, or how an internal combustion engine functions, or the derivative of x 2 . Odds on they have no idea what a transistor is and can't relate an internal combustion engine to what is under the hood of their car. And if you don't know the answers to these simple questions it is probably because your teachers didn't know.

If an English teacher hasn't sufficient competency in mathematics to balance a checkbook it seems to me that individual is not educated to any minimal standard that I understand, regardless of any diplomas or certificates they possess. Similarly, my impression is that one of the reasons present students can't spell is that their teachers can't either. Such a list of deficiencies in most teacher's education is rather large. In sum, universities and colleges are simply not educating education majors. Until the system educates the teachers, education at the K-12 level can only get progressively worse.

Having spent two years on a university curriculum committee as well as attempting to restructure a high school, among other achievements, I would suggest the following minimum course requirements for education majors:

Minimum course requirements for a teaching degree:

• Scores in the top quartile on the ASVAB prior to entry into a teaching degree program.

• A course in deductive, inductive, and symbolic logic including the use of truth tables.

• One year of differential and integral calculus with the addition of a course in ordinary differential equations for high school mathematics and science teachers.

• A minimum of one semester of physics with calculus, preferably using computers as part of the coursework.

• One semester minimum of chemistry with calculus, preferably using computers as part of the coursework.

• At least one semester of economics.

• A minimum of one year of American and world history.

• One year of English composition and spelling with demonstrated competency in writing and spelling.

• An introductory course in electronics and computer theory with an introduction to vectors and tensors.

• Proficiency in at least one computer programming language.

• At least two courses in the life sciences, e.g., biology, zoology, etc., or earth sciences, e.g., geology.

• At least one course in mechanics, in addition to physics, that introduces the engineering principles of internal combustion engines, rockets, structures, thermodynamics, and others that underlie a technological society.

First, I understand quite well that in present engineering and science curricula these are the courses that eliminate the most students. That is the idea! Don't we want only the best and brightest to teach our young people? I have never yet obtained a first class effort from anyone if I didn't demand such effort. If high standards are expected of K-12 students and schools then, as a prerequisite, we must have high standards for the teachers.

Conversely, at present we encourage the academically weakest university students to become education majors. Is it any wonder then that they become poor teachers? Less than half of the education majors or, later, teachers I have seen could pass the courses I have outlined above.

If we raise our academic expectations of education majors, many of them will rise to that standard. Those that cannot, or will not, should be eliminated before they ever enter the K-12 schools as teachers. It should not require a state-mandated competency test to keep such academically weak individuals from becoming K-12 teachers.

Secondly, these courses would not leave time for the present touchy-feely, build self-esteem by lowering the standards, courses so prevalent in education colleges today. Such a revolution would also replace many of the how-to-teach courses. I have yet to understand how someone can be expected to teach a subject they know nothing about whether they know "how-to-teach" or not. In today's K-12 system it is my understanding that most science teachers have never had a university level course in the subject they are trying to teach. My impression of English and history teachers isn't much higher. Once the prospective teachers understand the underlying principles of our society it is highly probable they can teach the requisite subjects without the touchy-feely approach now used. Conversely, how can they teach what they do not understand? From the present state of our schools it is obvious that they can't.

Third, how do you teach such subjects as art or music in today's society without computers? Yet time and again I found that K-12 teachers had no idea how a computer is used in such subjects, even in the rare event they had any computer experience. Again, the teacher's university education was deficient.

Fourth, the omission of a foreign language requirement is not an accident. I am not a supporter of bilingual education. As an oceanographer I have seen a fair bit of the world and English is the lingua franca of our times. Science, engineering, and aviation universally use English. Given the time constraints inherent in any education process it is my suggestion that a foreign language be an elective rather than a requirement. It is far more critical that college students learn computer technology than a foreign language in today's world and there are only a finite number of classes that they can take in four years.

It is clearly easier to lower standards than to raise them. It is also clear that raising the standards of education for educators will not come from within. Whether the standards I propose above are the ideal is irrelevant. Changes must be made and my proposal is a good starting point.


 

Teaching styles

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It has been my great good fortune to have gone to a number of Navy and Marine Corps schools, taken a multitude of industrial courses, and attended six different universities on both the quarter and semester systems. I obtained science degrees from three of the universities, including a Ph.D. in geophysics. I have also taught at two universities, including summer field geology courses at both of them, and lectured at a number of others.

Far and away the best schools I attended were the military schools. We attended class eight hours a day on a single subject, had copious homework every night, a quiz every day, and a final examination at least once every two weeks. I think in public education the jargon term for this style is the Copernican model.

I also believe that it won't work in public education.

One reason is the high attrition rate. In a Navy electronics school I attended, I was the only one of five Marines who started that finished. The Navy attrition rate was at least 20%. And this was among students who had been carefully screened prior to starting the course. Public education cannot screen its students in that fashion, nor discharge them so readily. Much as it might improve the student body, I do not believe we can decimate their ranks pour le example de autres in order to implement the military-style of schooling.

Having seen a good many, it is my opinion that students can learn from virtually any teaching style or method, provided classroom discipline is maintained and the teacher knows the subject both in a practical and theoretical sense. As a result, I believe that far too much time is spent trying to teach education majors how to teach. If a person has the calling to be a teacher and can survive the rigorous curriculum proposed above, it is extremely likely they will be able to communicate the information to their students. Leave them some flexibility in how they do it. Diversity of style among teachers is of inherent value to both the students and the system.

The factor of critical importance that I have been able to sort out in teaching style is continuity, particularly in the K-12 system. From what I have seen, children learn best when what they are being taught builds on, and is related to, what they already know. Further, a class that is brought to closure before moving on to the next topic is more useful than one that is fragmented by breaks in the school schedule.

With the present "shopping mall" public schools, students go from one unrelated subject to another. Since their objective is to simply put in enough "seat time" to graduate, the learning process is basically ignored. A basic, sequential, required curriculum that builds one course on top of another, and relates the subjects being taught, is essential. That is not to say that diversity or choice needs to be eliminated. Elsewhere I have used the example of giving the student a choice in art between watercolors and woodworking. That may not be possible in a very small school but packages should be possible in most. Most states mandate a course in state history but beyond that is it important whether the student selects a course in ancient or modern history so long as they get at least a year of history courses in high school? A required curriculum does not imply elimination of choice as long as academic rigor is maintained.


 

Sequential information

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Most people do not handle nonlinear relationships well and learn best when related information is presented sequentially in a consistent fashion. That is one basic reason the one-room school worked so well.

One result of the abandonment of a fixed curriculum is that in today's schools the students are presented with unrelated classes in a disjointed fashion. Only rarely does a student take classes in any coherent sequence and prerequisites seem to be a thing of the past. Almost never is there any attempt to relate the subjects a students is being taught, e.g., science and history, with their other classes, or with real life. In fact, I have only observed a few teachers who had the background themselves to be able to make such connections. Thus, the "shopping mall" concept where students "choose" enough classes so that at the end of their senior year they have accumulated enough "seat time" to allow them to graduate must stop. At least a core curriculum of related subjects seems to me essential for any vestige of education to be evident in a school's graduates.

The idea of teaching a science course in conjunction with history, and grading the reports from these classes as English assignments seems to me self evident. In similar fashion, wood shop and art might be combined with history, English, and technology. Introduce the concept of a potter's wheel, a lathe, and relate them. Have the students write about these subjects and then grade their English and integrate art into their text. Myriad combinations of topics should be evident.

Enlist the imaginations of students as well. As a professor I always learned as much from my students as they learned from me. That doesn't work where the students are simply expected to memorize and regurgitate.

A gross shortcoming of the present system is the failure to make students rewrite their papers. In the present scheme that would be boring for both the teachers and students. Unfortunately, rewriting is the only way I know that people learn to write well. Why not make students do a paper on a science topic, comment and grade it as both a science and English paper, rewrite it to include the history of the topic, comment and grade the English again as well as the history, add the related art, technology, business applications, etc., and grade it yet again each time?

With the availability of computers that would make each paper get rewritten and graded at least three or four times, and both students and teachers would see progress.

The downside of that approach is that teachers would have to cooperate and learn from each other in order to make such a technique possible.


 

School sessions

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At present, school sessions have a multitude of interruptions including holidays, training days for teachers, weather days, and breaks for no apparent reason. In Massachusetts there is a Christmas break, a one week break in February, and then a spring break in March or April. As a result, the kids end up going to school until the end of June with very broken school sessions. Educational continuity is destroyed along the way.

Nothing can be done about traditional holidays but schedule around them. But there is no good reason to interrupt a school session with breaks and teacher training. All these breaks do is disrupt the learning process and many teachers use the training days as paid holidays. Instead, why not break up the school year into distinct sessions of roughly equal length with breaks in between each session. Many states mandate a school year of about 180 days. That suggests three continuous sessions of 60 school days each, one before Christmas and New Years, a winter session with a one week break around the first of April, and the spring session finishing up in June.

Other than traditional holidays, nothing should be allowed to break up a school session that is within the control of man. Weather days may be unavoidable but they have become entirely too common and allowed for very weak storm systems. I know, in my day we walked five miles to school through three feet of snow, and uphill both ways. But today I have seen a snow day called when there was no more than a skiff of snow on the ground. My son commented that he could still see the grass on one such snow day. When even the children are questioning why school is being called off perhaps the administration is being overcautious. I would suggest building in five weather days per session and if they are not needed for truly severe weather, then extend the between-session break by a week, or end school a week early for the spring session. It is very likely that teachers and children would rather have an extended break than take an unexpected day off for a skiff of snow.

Another disturbing trend in colleges and universities is the tendency of professors to give final examinations the last class day rather than during final week. Though popular, that practice shortchanges the students, and is spreading into high schools.

I can see absolutely no justification for breaking into a school session for teacher training, as is so commonly done at present. That disrupts the learning process for both teachers and students. I grant that post-baccalaureate training is needed for K-12 teachers but there is no reason that training can't be done between school sessions. Discontinuities, such as in-service days for teachers, only disrupt the learning process for the students.

Conversely, breaks between sessions are essential. Perhaps you have forgotten the joy a child feels when summer finally comes and they are free to roam? For myself, I learned as much out of school getting into whatever mischief my brother and I could invent, and we were quite inventive, as I did at school. Learning must also be digested and subconsciously assimilated. Breaks in the school year allow for that provided there has been closure in the subjects between the breaks.


 

Drill

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Drill is unpopular in today's education system. Parker Penmanship was boring, repetitive, and tedious, so it was dropped. As a result the penmanship of our children is deplorable. Learning the multiplication tables is also only learned by repetitive drill in my experience. However, in an effort not to bore the students, or the teachers, they move quickly through the principles, a.k.a. the New Math, and on to division.

I found this out when my son failed mathematics along about the third grade and he came to live with me for the summer with instructions from his mother to "help" him in math. Now could someone please explain how you can do division if you haven't learned to multiply? It only took me a few days to discover my son couldn't but that concept seems to have escaped the New Age school system. Similar problems cropped up later with such basic concepts of calculus as area and volume. For three consecutive years my sons were given, note that I don't say taught, the concepts of calculating surface area and volumes. Not once did their teachers ever give them a practical use for these concepts, such as calculating how much paint would be required to cover a wall. "Story" problems are hard and boring. Having not mastered basic calculus, it was then on to vectors and matrices.

Subjects that took me years to learn, and semesters to teach as a professor, were covered in weeks in the high school courses. I dare say my geophysics students were much better prepared for such subjects than the average high school student and it took my students longer to learn than my sons were given. K-12 students are not Straussburg geese that you can cram the material down their throats while they are imprisoned.

Advanced topics require adequate preparation, now largely lacking, repetitive and boring drill, and the process takes time. Today, schools largely attempt to cover too much material in too little time, and have eliminated drill to make time available. I know of no one who learns well that way, so why is it being done?

I was not a passive observer in this process and, where I investigated, my experience was that the teachers did not know what practical use could be made of such concepts as area, volume, vectors, matrices, etc.

Unfortunately, our technological civilization rests on these principles and I, for one, find it utterly terrifying that the teachers assigned to present these subjects have no idea what they are used for.

Teachers who cannot relate the commonplace applications of the subjects they are teaching must be ruthlessly weeded out of the education system if it is to improve. The kids have excellent sonar for bovine scatology detection and half-measures are likely to simply make the situation worse. And, when the teachers know enough about their subject that they can explain it to their students, it will be necessary to drill, drill, and drill the children some more in order that they learn and understand the material.

Biologically, it would seem almost a waste of time to give most males under age 16 any but the simplest mathematics. At that, constant drill should be required. Save the advanced math until the males are emotionally ready. Yes, I know this is sexist but, if you haven't looked lately, there are differences between boys and girls, and the kids certainly notice the differences. We ignore biology at our peril, as the environmentalists have been teaching us.

Let's use the differences between the sexes in a positive fashion to enhance the strengths of both, rather than try to ignore them in the interests of "political correctness" and "feminism", which has had the effect of magnifying the weaknesses of both sexes.


 

Standardized tests

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For a number of years there has been a push to use standardized tests to measure K-12 student's achievements, education level, and rate the education system that teaches them.

Tests in one form or another have always been a part of modern education. Standardized tests such as the Iowa State, ACT, and SAT, have origins early in this century. However, these tests are basically aimed at the liberal arts, with emphasis on reading, writing, library skills, and some arithmetic. Teachers prefer such tests because they have rudimentary skills in these areas.

The ACT and SAT tests widely given to American high school juniors and seniors demonstrably predict the ability of the student's performance in their freshman year in college. However, these tests do not measure in any sense the practical education of a student who is not college bound, or performance beyond the freshman year for those who do go to college. Further, by design these tests do not include any measure of such fundamental technological skills as general science, mechanics, or electronics.

While working with Falmouth High School on Cape Cod I made myself quite unpopular by promoting the use of the one standardized test that does quantitatively measure high school students technological and liberal arts education. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) is given to more than 1.3 million high school students at >13,000 high schools in the United States each year. The test is given and administered at no direct cost to the student or school. Dating back at least to WW I, this test currently measures students ability and education in the following ten areas:

1. General science.

2. Arithmetic reasoning.

3. Word knowledge.

4. Paragraph comprehension.

5. Numerical operations.

6. Coding speed.

7. Auto and shop information.

8. Mathematics knowledge.

9. Mechanical comprehension.

10. Electronics information.

A sample of this test can be found at ASVAB. I feel it is self evident to anyone looking at this test that the questions measure skills essential to survival in a technological society.

I know of no other standard test in common use that comes anywhere close to measuring a high school graduate's education and abilities in our modern world.

Everyone entering the military is required to take the ASVAB. Their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), and whether they can even enter the Armed Forces, will be determined in large measure by their scores on these tests. For those oriented toward outcome-based education, the military has extensively studied how well the ASVAB measures an individuals ability to perform in a given area both during training and on the job after completing further schooling. The correlation is very good. So why not use it more generally to measure a high school graduate's education as well as the school's performance?

I think I have heard most of the arguments against the ASVAB:

One is that the Armed Services commonly use it as a recruiting tool. However, there is no compulsion attached to taking the test and then joining the Armed Forces. Of the more than 1.3 million students who take it each year only about 200,000 later join the military. Personally, I think it in the best interests of our society for the military to attract the best people it can.

Conversely, enlistment can be of great value to the future of the student as well. I doubt I would possess a science Ph.D. without the self discipline I obtained in the Marine Corps.

Another argument made at Falmouth High School was that they didn't teach many of the subjects needed to do well on the ASVAB. A major reason for that was the teachers themselves knew nothing about many of these subjects. My reaction was that I thought that was why we were attempting to reform the school curriculum? Also, giving the ASVAB to the current students would serve as a baseline for measuring how much improvement resulted from the curriculum reform. I would also suggest having all entering freshman take the ASVAB so that there was some measure of how much they learned during their high school career.

There are also the common arguments made against all standardized tests. They discriminate against women, blacks, American Indians, and any other group you care to name.

Nonsense!

What the ASVAB does do is measure the ability of an individual to function in our technological society. Any individual, regardless of race, creed, gender, or what status you care to claim, will have difficulties functioning in our society without these skills. The ASVAB does precisely what is needed: It measures how well a school has prepared a student for life in our society and how well the student can use the information given them.

What more can be asked of a standardized test?


 

Teaching the test

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There has been tremendous public pressure on the school systems to improve the students scores on standardized tests.

In response to this, one of the most appalling practices I found was the approach of teaching the test, rather the subject matter. Students are given examples of the test in the classroom and their daily lesson is how to answer the questions posed on the test. That approach defeats the entire purpose of the test and, in my experience, tends to lower the student's scores as they have not learned the subject. Thus, when the actual questions deviate from the test they have been taught, they have no background of information upon which to draw, or infer, the correct information from.

The response I heard to my objections to this pathetic practice was that "...the students have to do well on such tests..." as the ACT or SAT if they are going to go on to college.

I spent some years as a university professor trying to correct the wrongs done such students by such practices. Unfortunately, I cannot claim I was very successful. You might look at Essay on Learning for my impressions.


 

Self esteem and respect

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It is an ancient principle that respect must be earned. The current efforts I see in K-12 education to boost a student's self esteem, basically by lowering the standards, are extremely damaging, and are seen through almost immediately by the students. A students self-esteem is then further lowered by the realization that they were doing so poorly that they couldn't meet even today's low standards.

Like many things in life, self esteem is won, not given. Perversely, self esteem can often be found through failure for those with the strength to learn from their mistakes. However, modern education seems to be afraid to fail the students. Instead, from kindergarten on through university, teachers and professors are supposed to be sensitive to the special needs of the students. The "special needs" of my students centered around getting an A without having to do any actual work. In most of their classes that approach was quite successful. Unfortunately, they didn't learn anything in the process except how to con the system. That is a societal failure.

I learned self esteem the way most Marines do. My drill instructor repeatedly described every shortcoming I had in great and scornful detail. Then I repeated the topic until I could do it blindfolded and in my sleep. Want to meet people with immense self esteem? Talk to any graduate of Marine boot camp. I see no evidence that sensitivity plays any role in their training, however. Drill does, though.

In general, present efforts to build self esteem in K-12 education have the opposite effect from what I can tell. The kids don't need sensitivity, they need drill, whether it be the times tables, spelling, writing, or what have you. Once they have been drilled sufficiently to have mastered a subject, they will earn self esteem and be given respect.

Every touchy-feely, sensitive suggestion or attempt to improve an individuals self esteem, without requiring great effort by the individual, has been, and will be detrimental to the students welfare. If they don't earn it the hard way, they never have it. The way to self esteem is taking on difficult challenges and mastering them. Students need to be taught that failure is the norm rather than a disgrace. My scientific successes have almost always been largely the result of things I learned from previous failures.

The proper response to failing is to do it over again until they can do it, or allow them to move laterally into a subject they can excel in. Take an example in the arts. Not everyone will work well with, say, watercolors, but they may well shine in woodworking. Are the schools the place to judge which is of more value? So options are important in building self esteem.

The point is that few students will, or should, excel in all the topics a school forces upon them. There are underlying subjects, e.g., art, that must be covered in core curriculum, however, and all students must master the basic principles of these core subjects. Not all students need more than basic calculus, but all of them should understand and be able to use such basic principles as area and volume.

I think the present policy of requiring, or allowing, teachers to march lock step through the course curriculum is disastrous for a student's self esteem. Any experienced teacher will tell you that classes seem to have their own tempo. Some classes go through the material like rockets. Other classes will drag and drag and it seems like nothing is accomplished. Trying to move such a class through the material at a faster pace is self defeating and buys no one anything. So far as I can tell, the class tempo has virtually nothing to do with the abilities or intelligence of the students. A rare and gifted teacher may be able to move an unwilling class faster but usually it is much more prudent and instructive to simply drill the students at a pace they are willing to work at.

You can whip a mule all you want to but the mule doesn't walk any faster or slower. Students have a lot in common with mules. You can, however, repeat the lessons until they can somnambulate through them. That is learning too.


 

Discipline

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Maintaining, or enlarging, the students self esteem has become a preeminent goal of modern education. This metamorphosis has occurred to the great detriment of discipline and that is a tragedy.

The only path I know that allows you to conquer the tough problems is through discipline. Self reliance and esteem come through discipline and there is no easy, gentle, sensitive way to impart discipline. Did you ever see a Marine you thought lacked self esteem? Marine boot camp does it by pitting the recruits against each other. Can it be so difficult to impose similar methods in our schools?

Telling Johnny he is a bad boy and making him sit in a room by himself to meditate on his sins, and I have seen that done, is a joke among the students. Peer competition and review is an excellent way to insure the recalcitrant students are brought into line if applied intelligently and individually. Teachers acting as student advisors could also be effective in implementing such procedures on an individual basis.

Those students who refuse to accept discipline must be weeded out. Education is a privilege, not a right. Such methods would probably prevent some 10-15% of high school students from graduating with their class. Compare that with the nearly 50% who don't graduate in many schools under the present system, or are simply moved through the system along the path of least resistance without ever learning anything.

If democracy is to succeed, it must emphasize the greatest good for the greatest number. The present education system punishes the many for the sake of the failures in our midst. Students should learn early what it means to fail, and the penalties thereof if they refuse to learn from their mistakes.


 

Special education (SPED)

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A special hell should be reserved for those misguided souls who have instituted and maintain what is referred to as "special education." This is the same hell to which I would condemn those idiots of education who promoted the "Open Classroom" concept, though quite possibly they are the same individuals. In fact, I cringe every time I hear "educational reform" espoused by someone in the education profession. Every "experiment" or "reform" I can think of that these mountebanks have tried in the past 40 years has been an unmitigated disaster leaving us with today's mess.

At present, but perhaps I am behind in my jargon, the big($) experiment is "special education." The kids call it "SPED," and it isn't a polite term. Students who don't fit the "norm," and don't be so brash as to ask what is normal, are almost certain to be recommended for SPED at some point in their K-12 years. That recommendation should be fought by parents with the ferocity you would use to defend your child against a hydrophobic wolf.

At best, SPED classes put your child out of sequence with the rest of their class. At worst, such plans will mark the child for life, and destroy what little self esteem they may retain after being labeled a SPED student. I think the only thing that saved my son was getting away and coming to live with me after being put in the Jefferson County, Colorado, SPED program. After hearing what they had done to my son I fought tooth and nail to keep him away from the desecration of those profane "educators" who promote such perverted principles.


 

Student assistants

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If I gave a public contract to have a road paved, and the contractor hired people to do the work I would expect them to do the work. If, however, the people being paid to do the work found a convenient prison, and arranged for the prisoners to do the work for them while continuing to draw their salaries, then I think that would universally be regarded as misappropriation of public funds. How does the above scenario differ in principle from the use of students in high school as unpaid assistants doing the scut work the people being paid out of the public purse to do the work don't want to be bothered with?

If I am paying administrators to run the school, then when I call up, or visit, I expect to be greeted by someone I am paying to do that job. My experience with the local high school was that I was passed, courteously, from student assistant to student assistant and, for the most part, it seemed a great imposition on the paid staff to have to deal directly with a taxpayer and parent when I did break through to them. The students are not prisoners and should not be used in any capacity that is the function of a paid school administrator.

The concern that such usage constitutes misappropriation of public funds should also be investigated. Public officials being paid to do a job should be expected to do those tasks inherent in their position or surrender their salaries. Better yet, use these administrative salaries for school equipment, e.g., computers, instead.


 

Counselors

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The use of student assistants is understandable when you visit the counselor's office. For those of you who have tried to deal with even one or two teenagers, the daunting nature of trying to deal with the 300+ students assigned to each counselor in most schools will be evident. However, most of the work assigned to these grossly-overloaded individuals makes no sense to me!

What does make sense is that counselors should help students with college and vocational choices, testing, individual problems associated with discipline, drug dependencies, living conditions, pregnancies, and lending a helping hand where they can.

Instead, they are required to register and monitor the individual progress of several hundred students, most of whom are complete strangers to them. In this era of computers it makes no sense to require that of counselors. Worse, the students get little or no individual guidance from the overwhelmed counselors who, in turn, haven't the time to do what they should be doing. This system simply fosters the present "shopping mall" approach to education.

In a college or university a student is assigned a faculty advisor who is responsible for the student's progress from beginning to end. Except in exceptional circumstances, the student remains with the same advisor throughout their college career, and both the student and advisor come to know each other as individuals. Commonly, students who have the same advisor provide peer advice to the newer students. Dividing the work that way makes each faculty member adviser for a small and manageable number of students. It would not be an undue additional burden on each teacher to adopt such a system in junior and senior high schools, or even in elementary schools.

Teacher/advisors would also make a major contribution to maintaining discipline within the school since they could deal with the student on an individual basis instead of the mass production system used, out of necessity, by present school counselors.

One of the shocking things I learned working with Falmouth High School was that about 10% of the students did not live at home, or did not have a home, but were still trying to get through high school on their own. The jargon term the student's have for this is "sofa surfing." They stay at friend's place until they wear out their welcome and then they scrounge for another place to crash.

"Sofa surfing" is by no means limited to Cape Cod! Universities have housing offices to help students find a place to live. High schools go to great length to arrange homes for foreign exchange students. If we took the present load off of school counselors wouldn't it be possible for them to help our own children in a similar fashion? A teacher/advisor who has extended contact with a student could most likely find out which students needed such help. I would think that the PTA could be of enormous help in this area, as well, if student dignity, privacy, and confidentiality could be preserved.


 

Teacher's salaries

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It is chanted like a mantra that increasing teacher's salaries would attract more and better teachers to the field. Horse feathers! My daughter, who teaches first grade in San Diego, and I go around on this issue so it is a family argument as well.

My personal opinion is that K-12 teachers are rather more commonly overpaid than not, given their limited job skills, and generally poor education. What salary does a B.A. in physical education, history, English, sociology, etc., command on the open market? Such degrees are common among teachers and almost certainly their pay would be less in industry with such poor preparation.

Two further arguments: One, pay for those who enlist in the Marine Corps, as I and my son did, are not even minimum wage. The working "conditions" are dangerous in the extreme, the hours long, and the discipline and schooling are intense, with very little margin for error if you are to survive. Marines are constantly subject to physical and mental abuse of the most violent sort, the "contract" is irrevocable, and without union representation. If salaries and working conditions were a deciding factor, only a complete fool would join. The Marine Corps is a voluntary service and seems to have only minimal difficulty attracting recruits. In contrast with public education, have you heard any complaints about the quality, dedication, or performance of Marines?

Secondly, lets look at the other side of the salary scale. At present (1999), computer science graduates with basally no experience are commanding starting salaries in the range of $40,000 to $60,000 per year straight out of college with a B.S. degree and no experience. Within five to ten years after graduation they can expect to virtually double their salaries. Given such extraordinary compensation, if the teacher's "underpaid" argument were valid, there should be multitudes of students enrolling as computer science majors. The fact is that the number of computer science graduates peaked around 1985 and has been falling ever since. Guess they aren't interested in just the money?

Thus, there seems to me no question that increasing teacher's salaries, in and of itself, would not attract more and better qualified people into the profession. The reverse is more likely, as the standards for a K-12 teachers education are already so low that virtually anyone who can tie their shoes and somnambulate through enough classes can, and all too frequently does, qualify for a teaching certificate. Conversely, the best and brightest of our college students are repelled by such dumbed-down courses as are found, and required, in most educational colleges.


 

What should be done?

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If you have read this far you may have some interest in what I think should be done to correct American public education. By no means do I think I have all the answers and these suggestions are not meant to be inclusive. They are simply ideas and suggestions I have not found elsewhere that would make a big difference at virtually no additional expense to taxpayers.

In the suggestions below I make the tacit assumption that the present school budget in your district is adequate to cover the cost of the physical plant and that sufficient classrooms and teachers exist to put about 20-25 students per class on average. In those cases I cannot see any justification for spending more money on education though some schools might have to divert funds towards computers, or other equipment, rather than administrator's salaries. Also, in such cases I see a very minimal role for state or federal government in the local schools.

Cases where the physical plant is inadequate, or there are local shortages of teachers, may call for help from the state or federal governments. Such shortages commonly result from the shifting demographics in our dynamic nation. In such situations a local school district can be overwhelmed and the financial burden needs to be more widely distributed. Natural disasters and a shifting tax base may also cause undue hardship that requires help from a higher level of government. However, financial aid should not be used to take control from the local school districts. Diversity is of inestimable value in our society and central control is anathema to that process.

Whether or not the school budget is adequate is really irrelevant, however, in implementing the following suggestions because they can all be done at no additional cost. They simply require changing the way things are being done at present. Unfortunately, that is often the hardest thing to do.


 

Suggestions:

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• First, and foremost, universities need to greatly improve their educational standards and requirements for future teachers. My suggestions for minimum coursework for a teaching degree are given above. Such changes must come from outside the universities. Without such improvements in a teacher's education all other efforts are futile.

• Eliminate the present "shopping mall" education system at both the K-12 and college level wherein a student can graduate simply by putting in enough "seat time" without actually learning or knowing anything. Curriculums can be devised that set minimum standards yet allow for student diversity.

• Establish and maintain minimum standards at all grade levels that students are required to master before they can move on.

• Linear lateral and vertical movement between topics within a level should be encouraged but picking teachers by parents must be strongly discouraged. The present nonlinear presentation of material must be greatly reduced, and eliminated where possible.

• Eliminate the gender bias. Auto shop classes are as useful to women as men. Art and home economics are not exclusively feminine fields. Basic skills in these fields are necessary to both men and women. Test them to be sure they have such skills before graduating them.

• Conversely, differences between male and female are currently ignored in the "politically correct" public education system. Examples: Males under age 16 learn mathematics much more slowly than females of the same age. After age 16 the roles are reversed. Take advantage of such differences rather than marching both sexes in lockstep. Is there any valid reason why 17-year old males can't take algebra at the same time as 14-year old females?

• Broaden the K-12 educational base to include at least the subjects in the ASVAB referenced above. Test the students to be sure they have basic knowledge in all fields required to contribute to our technological society.

• If a student has mastered a skill, let them move on without doing the coursework. Testing out of a class should always be an option. In theory, it should be possible for a student to graduate from high school without ever having actually taken a class. Such a policy would greatly help the student/teacher ratio in many required classes. It also would seem possible to combine such a policy with home schooling.

• Provide more opportunity at the junior high and high school level for work-study programs. On the job training is as valuable today as in medieval times when a child was apprenticed to a trade.

• Eliminate the separation between vocational-technical and academic high schools. Both types of schools have value. Combine them for the common good. In Massachusetts a student is required to choose in the 8th grade whether they will go to a vocational-technical or academic high school. Very few, if any, students are able to change after that time. That is far to young an age to force such class distinctions on a child. A similar practice is known as "tracking." In either case, get rid of it!

• Improve speaking, writing, and spelling skills. I think it was Churchill who said there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.1 One of my suggestions to Falmouth High School was that the same writing assignment be used in many different ways. A science lab report might first be graded for the science, rewritten and graded for the English and spelling, rewritten again and graded as a history assignment, rewritten, added to, and graded as an art project. Art projects could work much the same way, reversing the procedure. The possibilities are endless and require only that several teachers cooperate and be broadly educated themselves. Student portfolios might be an integral part of such a program. Writing, artwork, and calculations should be done on a computer, of course, though not to the exclusion of learning fundamental concepts such as the multiplication tables.

• Eliminate the barriers between art and science. Most commercial art today is done on computers. Biology and geology, for example, depend heavily on artwork. Have the students do both. Of course, all the teachers would have to have the broad background outlined above.

• Match entering high school freshman or transferring students with a teacher/advisor with whom they remain until they graduate. The teacher/advisor would be responsible for ensuring the students he or she advises are properly registered for the courses needed to graduate, listen to their problems, and help them academically whenever possible, just as a college advisor does. The same system could also be used in junior high schools and even elementary grades.

• Encourage interaction between the upper and lower division students an advisor has to keep the workload on the teacher at a minimum and provide peer perspective and discipline to the younger students. Such a procedure would free up the school counselors to handle what they really need to do and help enormously with maintaining discipline. Similar programs are possible at both the elementary and junior high level.

• Make school sessions as continuous and complete as possible, then give the kids a break. A school year should be comprised of roughly three 60 day sessions. One in the fall with a Christmas break after final examinations, a winter session with a spring break of at least a week after final examinations, finishing with a spring session, and then off for the summer. In service training days for teachers should be limited to the between session breaks so as to provide continuity for the students. Weather days should be limited to truly severe weather.

• Students who don't want to learn, or simply cannot or will not obey societies laws, must not be allowed to disrupt a school. Students who fail repeatedly for lack of trying must be dropped. Oft times a child, or more commonly their parent, simply needs to be brought up short. Suspensions and schools for delinquents are two methods society has evolved to handle such children. Surely there are other methods as well? But by this I do not mean to encourage the use of drugs such as Ritalin, which I regard as dangerous.

• I do not feel that drugs such as Ritalin are the proper answer to any of societies educational problems. More and more such drugs are used on otherwise normal, intelligent children. When I read the symptoms of what Ritalin is prescribed for I wonder if society has witnessed the behavior of normal children, particularly little boys? Boys are rowdy, rambunctious, and inattentive by nature. For generations teachers have dealt with boys without resorting to cocaine-like substances to enforce control.

• Do away with "special education" programs. If they love their child, parents should resist with all their strength and anger having their child placed in a SPED program. "Mainstreaming" is the jargon term for putting such children back into the classroom. But some children truly need additional help. In the past, separate schools for the blind or profoundly deaf have been established. Can that concept be reasonably used to better advantage? High expectations of every teacher and student are an essential part of any successful school, not SPED.

• Children of two-parent families almost always perform better than those with a single parent. Society should encourage the participation of both the father and the mother in a child's schooling and upbringing whether the biological parents live together or not. Tax incentives and penalties are one way that comes to mind.

• Use a standard national test such as ASVAB to see how well high school graduates are being prepared by the local schools for life in our technological society. Make adjustments as necessary where students don't finish high school with the basic knowledge required. Then test again. The process will take decades but it has taken decades to get ourselves into the present disaster.

• There are two insurmountable barriers in restructuring a school curriculum, the school bus and the school band schedules. Deal with them.

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Last modified 2/15/14


1. I'm told the original source for this maxim is Louis D. Brandeis (November 13, 1856-October 3, 1941). It has also been attributed to Ernest Hemingway and, no doubt, other authors who recognized its validity.