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September 23, 2011

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Thanks for the links LJ, both fascinating, especially the one on character.

Though my eldest is still a couple years away from kindergarten, my wife and I periodically have conversations about what to do about school for him. The public elementary school in our area is very good, but things go downhill quickly in Jr./Sr. HS. Do we send him to the public elementary school move to the neighboring district in time for Jr. High? Send him to private school at that point (assuming we are then still lucky enough to be able to afford it)?

She also frets about the impact of No Child Left Behind on the public schools, and whether they are becoming too rote to qualify for the Act's carrots. Thus, do we send him to private school even at the elementary level to avoid that? Is it too soon to worry? Etc.

My girls are both in a local charter school that has taken a somewhat drastic approach to meeting testing requirements: do such a good job teaching that the kids will have little problem with FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). Some teachers in Florida had adopted a Teach-the-FCAT approach, which made both teachers and students miserable.

Also, being a charter school they have a strict dress-code, with very little deviation permitted, and they have 100% monitoring of the hallways between class periods. So: no clothing issues, little of the potential for in-between-class beatdowns that existed when I was in middle school, plus demanding homework load.

We'll see if this little experiment works. My ten-year-old said just the other day: "It's like being in gifted all the time." Which for her is a good thing. She's learning to take notes and study, which is something I may never have learned how to do properly.

Please explain further why you think it is not "optimal" to bilingual in Japanese and English.

All the research I've seen on kids raised bilingual suggests that the small educational obstacles that appear early in life are counterbalanced by huge social and cognitive advantages later on--maybe even a later onset of Alzheimer's Disease symptoms in people who have it.

The only possible downside I can see to growing up bilingual (in whatever two languages) is this. There might be a temptation not to pick up a third language when the option appears. And you can never know too many languages. (OK, perhaps not a major risk. But the only one I can see.)

Even more, you can never know too many cultures. If there is anything that the world needs now it is more people who have some appreciation of the fact that theirs is not the only possible, or even only appropriate, culture. And your children sound like they are starting out knowing that, rather than having to learn it later.

Keep in mind that lj wrote "not, to put this delicately, the optimal combination." So it sounds like he's saying not that being bilingual is problematic, not that being bilingual in Japanese and English is problematic, but that there might be a better (i.e. more optimal) combination of languages in which to be bilingual.

Although from a parent's perspective education is a local and personal issue, it is really the quality of the education that ultimately matters for a society over a span of 50 years or so. I strongly suspect that the quality of certain private schools, and that of certain schools in certain geographical areas has improved dramatically (primarily as a result of their parents' efforts), our nation collectively has suffered for a number of reasons.

That the Chinese and Indians have figured out how to mass educate their kids effectively poses a significant challenge. The decrease in numbers alone in the scientific and engineering fields should concern us.

As with many things in life, many children today are not "sufficiently motivated" to develop an interest in their studies. They do not recognize the benefits, because to them, there may not be any down the road 10-20 yrs. I suspect that the U.S's decrease in participation in innovation through science is a factor. But also the income disparity is a factor.

Reggie Greene: That the Chinese and Indians have figured out how to mass educate their kids effectively poses a significant challenge.

"Effectively" is carrying an awful lot of weight in this sentence, and standing in for any number of unexamined assumptions, un-agreed-upon definitions, etc.

My son just finished three years of teaching in a Chinese university, so I have paid a little more attention to education in China than I might have otherwise, and I have his first-hand experience to draw upon. I would love to see the US mandate foreign language learning in the way that China has mandated English learning (from about third grade on), but other than that I don't see a lot of evidence that China's system is one that we should be emulating, however unhappy we are with the situation in the US.

Do you have any?

Me: Do you have any?

Evidence, that is.

**********

Reggie Greene: As with many things in life, many children today are not "sufficiently motivated" to develop an interest in their studies. They do not recognize the benefits, because to them, there may not be any down the road 10-20 yrs.

If the implication is that there was some kind of golden age in the past when many children did recognize benefits that might come to them 10-20 years down the road, I disagree, both as to the time frame and as to the general understanding of what children are like.

In general, I don't think kids "today" are all that different from kids yesterday or the day before that. The degree to which kids -- on average, stereotypically, whatever -- have any long-term perspective sufficient to motivate their choices in the present doesn't seem to me to have changed much from the time when I was a kid in the 50s, through the childhood and young adulthood of my own kids, and onward to lives of my great-nieces.

Some kids are motivated to work hard in school, some are not, some are in between, but the idea that a clear sense now of the returns that schoolwork might bring twenty years later is the major motivator of how kids handle school seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. I'm sure the sense of connection between now and later gets stronger as kids get older, but for elementary-level kids at an age when habits are formed and choices are made that are often hard to undo later, I don't think it's all that strong.

Further: the idea that kids are able not only to motivate themselves now for the sake of a return twenty years later, but are sufficiently informed about the state of the world to be able to project dim prospects twenty years down the road, and to have their motivation undermined by that understanding, is also a stretch.

not that being bilingual in Japanese and English is problematic, but that there might be a better (i.e. more optimal) combination of languages in which to be bilingual.

When the Chinese rule the world - as they have promised to do - speakers of either Japanese or English will be suspect; speakers of both will be regarded as Enemies Of The People. ;-}

The degree to which kids -- on average, stereotypically, whatever -- have any long-term perspective sufficient to motivate their choices in the present doesn't seem to me to have changed much from the time when I was a kid in the 50s

Janie, I would go further than that. Growing up in the 1950s, we had far less hope that the world would even be there for us as adults. Literally around at all.

For those too young to remember, we had drills, regular drills, in school on how to "duck and cover." The express prupose was to improve our chances of at least surviving in the all too likely event of a nuclear strike. When was the last time that a child had to deal with that kind of message: that life was all too likely to be short?

So I, too, am not buying the concept that children today are unable to believe in a future. The prospects for a future are, on the contrary, rather brighter than we were led to believe back in the day. Granted, children have relatively short time horizons. But it has always been thus, and nothing about today suggests that it is greater than it once was.

The ideal of the '50s is, it seems to me, always the white ideal of the 50s, or even, the white middle/upper middle class ideal of the 50s, when everything was fine, kids played, they learned, they worked hard, their father made a nice living while mother stayed home, everything was warm.

In pictures, this, while ignoring this and this.

I felt so cheated that our mom didn't teach us her native Italian. She and dad felt it would be too confusing. Years later when her friends kids could converse in English and Italian she realized her mistake but, too late. I learned Italian on my own, not exactly fluently and German well enough to Command a mixed rocket platoon.
Everyone should learn at least one other language, how to play a musical instrument and some sort trade to fall back on. In my opinion that makes for a well rounded person.

I'm in the process of doing much the same thing as lj and Levy. We're into our fourth year as an English-language household in the Netherlands, with two children born in Edinburgh.

My son was 6 when we arrived. He'd been in a Scottish school for one year. While figuring out how to get him into an ordinary Dutch school, we found an interesting alternative: a school for children from other parts of the world moving here. It aimed to teach them Dutch and continue their schooling, slipstreaming them into local schools after a year.

It was a difficult year. My son all but stopped eating for several months, until he believed he was doing well enough at learning Dutch to sustain his self-esteem. He's still got relatively few Dutch friends, but that's more likely to be because he's a geek than because he's foreign.

(This year, he starts learning English in school. Should be interesting.)

My daughter was 3 when she came. She's a more confident personality, and when we put her into a standard Dutch-language nursery, she learned to communicate with the teachers fairly quickly. She was fluent when she started school at 4, though it took some time for her vocabulary to catch up with that of her peers. She has no Engelstalig accent in Dutch, nor any trouble conducting friendships in the language.

Unlike Japanese, Dutch has deep connections to English. If that's closer to what lj would consider "an optimal combination", I can see his point -- but I'm not sure I agree with it. My kids' Dutch blends into their English a lot, particularly in their preposition use (but not, mercifully, their word order). In the end, it feels like they have 1 1/2 languages, not two. I suspect Japanese would be a better form of bilingualism.

Nice to have hit a sweet spot with this. As for optimal combination, I was thinking that Chinese might be a lot better to have than Japanese. l'm influenced by the fact that my university is facing the challenge of not getting exchange students to come here and because our exchanges are all one for one, so if the school doesn't send someone, we can't send someone, it makes life rather difficult. And they don't come here because Japanese language programs are being phased out, and Chinese is taking up the slack. And this was before the tsunami, which I think would have been overcome, but when coupled with the nuclear accident, well, I'm not so sure. So the delicate portion of the assertion is that I'm wondering what is going to happen to Japan in the future. However, I wouldn't suggest that the Chinese people have it out for both speakers of English and Japanese, as dr ngo did. I would, however, think they will have an attitude that I cringe when I see it in English speakers, which is 'why don't you speak my language?' and, if they do, 'why don't you speak my language as well as I do?'.

dr. ngo: "When the Chinese rule the world - as they have promised to do"

They have? Did not know that.

"the idea that kids are able not only to motivate themselves now for the sake of a return twenty years later, but are sufficiently informed about the state of the world to be able to project dim prospects twenty years down the road, and to have their motivation undermined by that understanding, is also a stretch."

I'm pretty sure that even adults aren't very good at motivating themselves now for the sake of a return twenty years later. But an interesting article in the NYT yesterday quotes an expert stating that "The difference between a 4-year-old who can wait 30 seconds for a marshmallow, and one who can wait 15 minutes was 210 points on the SAT." The article concluded that discipline is the key. Discipline doesn't really have to do with expectation of reward so much as habits of living.

As to China: wealthy Chinese still try to come to the US to go to college if they can, which says something. And Chinese education is affected by wealth disparity just ours is.

Kids with both English and Japanese under their belts are primed for careers as Volcanologists. The journals are in in English, and Japan provides the volcanoes. :-)

I would, however, think they will have an attitude that I cringe when I see it in English speakers, which is 'why don't you speak my language?' and, if they do, 'why don't you speak my language as well as I do?'.

As some famous people have said in the past, the US is the only country where speaking the language correctly marks one as a foreigner. :-)

Mark Twain (dead by now, I presume without exaggeration) already thought (or at least wrote) that US schools sucked and were fixated on rote learning. He also noted that for any question requiring a number as answer, the correct one is without exception '1492' ;-)

dr. ngo: "When the Chinese rule the world - as they have promised to do"

They have? Did not know that.

I was being sardonic, of course (but you probably knew that), and should more precisely have said "expect" rather than "have promised." This is based on many years of teaching - 95% or more ethnic Chinese - in Hong Kong, where the default assumption was that the 21st century would be the Chinese Century, because they were of course smarter and harder-working and more civilized than anyone else, and it was just a matter of time before they overcame the disadvantages imperialism had imposed upon them and rose to world domination. Not by any means necessarily political or military; just natural pre-eminence over all others, as in the glorious imperial past.


Kinda touching - it reminded me of the USA in the 1950s, when I was growing up. We didn't think it was perfect, but we thought it was #1 and would always remain so, with the rest of the world dimly trailing us. The Brits probably felt this way since before WWI, to judge by various manifestations of Victorian and Edwardian self-confidence. Does anyone know whether Japan got into this mentality in the 1980s?

In my previous comment, the word "since" in the penultimate sentence makes no sense, and should be deleted. Thanks.

Well, my time in Japan coincided with the deflation of the bubble, so it may have been different before that, but my impression was that Japan had a difficult time thinking that it would be #1.

A little anecdote that I don't think is dispositive, but interesting, when my father, who is second generation Japanese but didn't really get interested in his Japanese heritage until I came here, was visiting me the first time and was told that his name meant 'always 2nd' by my colleagues, and he looked a bit crestfallen, my teachers assured him that this was a good thing.

On the other hand, Japanese seem to have a very hard time when foreigners come and do better than them in typically Japanese things. Judo is probably the best example, and there is an basic uncontested assumption that a Japanese player should win the gold medal, and something is wrong if they didn't.

dr ngo's at 10:40 is very like the story my son tells after his three years in China, and very like the impression I got when I spent a few weeks with him in 2010.

As to language in particular, his impression was that they (including if not especially the leadership) were convinced that any day now the rest of the world would realize that everyone should be learning Chinese instead of English, but in the meantime they were trying to make sure their own people had some competence in the current worldwide lingua franca.

My own feeling is that our own (USian) exaggerated sense of our own importance is going to come back and bite us when (if not only when) vast millions of Chinese people have some competence in our language and almost none of us have any competence in theirs.

It's easy to assume that because English is much more common in China than Chinese is in the United States, we are somehow gradually infiltrating their culture. I think it's a mistake to assume this (for reasons relating to what dr ngo said), and in the long run, if we're not careful, it's going to be like when the grownups talk in front of the kids without the kids having a clue what's being said over their heads.

Thanks, dr ngo - I was being clueless. I agree with JanieM that our lack of competency in languages, especially Chinese, will be more and more of a problem. And although our colleges are still considered the greatest in the world, the anti-intellectualism that's pervasive these days doesn't bode well for that remaining the case.

As to the articles lj mentioned, I'd seen them earlier and was quite moved by the "Extreme Schooling" article. I had a very different reaction to the "character educaiton" article.

I am skeptical of the program of Randolph, the headmaster of Riverdale. The article ends supposing that the he is attempting to teach kids to lead "a happy, meaningful, productive life". He is quoted as saying "people who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Certainly, kids who have succeeded in school (not that it's an easy feat for them to do that) are going to be disappointed occasionally when "real life" situations present different challenges. Unfortunately, the way our academic system is set up, intermittent failure in high school really isn't an option for kids who want to land at the top of the academic pool - a prerequisite for going to Harvard, where Randolph went to college. Randolph supposedly learned his greatest life lessons during a break from Harvard, and then during time spent doing unusual things after college. Good for him, but since he already had a prestigious degree and a promising future, he could afford to spend a couple of off years building his character. (That's a traditional and safe way to go about it.) But it seems like he's experimenting in a possibly unhelpful way with his high school kids' curriculum by banishing AP courses and such.

It's a worthy idea to help young people find deeper values than mere ambition, but I wasn't convinced by Randolph's repudiation of the high school's earlier "CARE" program in favor of "performance character" values.

Although, thinking again about languages, maybe it will be awhile before Chinese is the lingua franca since Mandarin isn't universally spoken even in mainland China. Not that it's a bad idea to learn how to speak it, or any other language, obviously.

Maybe it will be a Fireflyverse after all with English and Chinese both being dominant ;-)

English has one advantage over Mandarin. It can be horribly mangled but still remain understandable. Errors in pronounciation are very unlikely to totally change the meaning. Mandarin and other tonal languages are very sensitive in that area.

China has that superiority complex probably longer than any other people around (and with a wee bit more of justification than most).

A Japanese speaker who learns the kanji at least has something of a leg up on the Chinese writing system.

Just to clarify, regardless of what the Chinese think, I don't think it's likely that Mandarin is going to replace English as a lingua franca any time soon, or ever. (Besides all the politics, all the inertia, and the issue of its being a tonal language, written Chinese is devilishly hard to learn, or so I've observed without learning any. ;)

I do think, though, that having a billion Chinese people who can speak some English and a nation of Americans most of whom can only speak English may hurt us a lot in the long run. I would even generalize from that...but not right now, I haven't had breakfast yet.

Most Chinese are taught English, but that doesn't mean that they learn English or have a facility with English. I don't have statistics on Chinese bilingualism, and only sketchy ones (Gallup survey from 2001) on American bilingualism - which says that 26% of Americans can hold a conversation in another language). I imagine that percentage has gone up - that poll stated that 43% of Americans between 18 and 29 were bilingual.

Our school systems don't do a very good job teaching foreign languages, for sure. But we have a lot of immigrants, and increasing numbers of people who travel abroad, so more people are managing to learn despite our educational shortcomings. We don't focus on having everyone learn a particular foreign language like the Chinese do - teaching English is required in schools (I think) all over China - not French, not Farsi. And again, although there is phenomenal educational success in some pockets of China, it's not universal by any means.

So, I guess the bottom line is, yes, what JanieM said: having a billion Chinese people who can speak some English, and a nation of Americans, most of whom can only speak English, may hurt us in the long run. It might hurt us just as much, with regard to China, if Americans are mostly bilingual, but in a variety of second languages. (Or not. I'm hoping that we continue to work towards a cooperative relationship with China - one that strengthens both countries, and that any competition we have allows us both to progress towards prosperity, environmental stewardship and human rights. Wishful thinking, but why not.)

Hope that no one thinks I'm trying to nitpick or be argumentative - I just think it's interesting to think about.

In my previous comment, the word "since" in the penultimate sentence makes no sense, and should be deleted. Thanks.

Since we're talking about language, I decided to mention that these correctional comments usually leave me thinking "huh?" and force me to go back to find the error that my mind automatically corrected while I was reading without my being aware of it.

I have observed one plus to the (deserved) reputation Americans have abroad for knowing no language but English. If I learn just a couple of words ("Thank you" for sure, and whatever the local equivelent of "hello" is), people will light right up. Just being an American who at least tries to use their language seems to be a door opener.

Personal side note: that also did me some good the first time I met my wife's grandmother. Just being able to say How do you do in Japanese blew her away. My wife (who, like most sansei, speaks no Japanese) says after that I was totally in with Grandma. You never know where a even just a couple of words and phrases in another language will help you along!

Really interesting article here from an expatriate New Zealander on the effects of the testing required by No Child Left Behind on her son and on his (originally promising) school:

http://publicaddress.net/busytown/testing-1-2-3/

(Jolisa's one of the closest things that New Zealand has to a Hilzoy...she is incredibly awesome in other words)

I have to say that I don't really understand the standardized testing "Teach to the Test" dilemma. If schools are supposed to teach a certain curriculum, how do we know whether kids are learning it if we can't test them? Is there an alternative suggestion as to how to measure kids' learning? The article that Annamal points to suggests that lower income schools have teachers who freak out and resort to horrible teaching methods in order that the kids do okay on the test. But the affluent school doesn't sweat it, and the kids do well on the test. But why the freak out? It's not the testing that's wrongheaded - it's the bad teaching and freaking out, no?

Sorry if I just don't get it. Slartibarfast's experience seems right when he says that when the teaching is done well, good test results follow. I think this is the approach the "standardization" people are aiming for, and I'm not sure why it doesn't happen. Nothing in the article that Annamal pointed to explains it.

sapient, I'd guess it's a matter of resource constraints leading to freaking out over a metric that will lead to your being even more resource constrained - a problem that resource-rich schools don't have to concern themselves with. It seems like something that makes life more difficult for schools already suffering under relatively great difficulty, which I think would be the opposite of what the goal should be. That it doesn't hurt the schools that have it relatively good doesn't seem very relevant in that regard.

Sapient, that's a good question, as we often don't explain why 'teaching to the test' is so bad, but simply invoke it, so I'll take a stab at it.

There are basically two things that you teach in any subject, the tools you use and how you use those tools. Subjects partake of various proportions, so we could say that perhaps math is more amenable to simply teaching the tools, whereas something like foreign languages, mere possession of the tools does not really mean much. This is why it is no coincidence that under these kind of extreme testing regimes, it is those subjects that find their main work in teaching how to use those tools, how to make the connections between the facts that you are given, suffer the most. Not only foreign languages, but art and music. By getting away from teaching how to make connections, how to use the basic facts to bootstrap into real insights, these kinds of subjects sort of wither on the vine.

And not only that, the subjects that are more amenable to a standardized testing approach become much more arid. This is what makes those Google job interview questions become strange (things like how many ping pong balls would you need to fill up a 747) because they are looking for people who obviously don't know the answer (which also prevents the test from being gamed) but are interested in people who could come up with a plausible estimate using information that everyone has.

Now, if you believe that mental ability is something that is basically fixed, teaching those kinds of how to use the tools becomes beside the point. The smart kids are going to figure it out, the dumb ones aren't, so if we just make sure they have the tools, we will be sure that things will sort themselves out. But if you think that mental ability is not a somewhat fixed quality, but can depend on the quality of instruction, testing regimes that focus on a checklist of facts rather than on processes can seem discriminatory.

Taken to its logical extreme, you get something like there are more than enough musicians in the world, so teaching music isn't really needed, cause the person who wants to become a musician is going to get the skills.

This is why affluent schools don't sweat this (and a lot of other things), because they know that the family will be providing some sort of backup, reinforcement of those main points, so the teachers know they don't have to spend all their classtime making sure that their charges are going to know the simpler answers, because their jobs depend on the percentage of students who get the basics right. But the students getting the basics right does not mean that they will be able to use those basics in a meaningful way. Even in math and history, two subjects that can be conveniently boiled down to 'things you have to know', the loss of not having students (and a larger part of the population) being able to use those tools to draw larger conclusions is palpable. There is a whole list of topics under current debate that might be a lot less fraught if just a little more knowledge about reading graphs, or connecting historical events, might be evident. In that sense, 'no child left behind' and high stakes testing is not some sudden u-turn, but in some senses, where the education system has been headed for a long time.

hairshirthedonist, thanks. I still don't really get it though.

In the area where I live, there are privileged and less privileged people, but these people's kids all go to the same public schools. There's a certain amount of "gifted and talented" tracking, etc., but the schools' resources seem to be similar. (This is in my particular county in Virginia.)

In Virginia, there's a Standard of Learning test (SOL). Since its inception, all teachers that I know have complained that they have had to "teach to the test." But the SOL's are very easy for high achieving kids, those who are doing well on standardized testing generally. So, really, passing the SOL doesn't require outstanding academic achievement. It seems reasonable to have some kind of baseline curriculum that is measurable, and that schools have to be accountable for. If some kids aren't able to learn it, some questions need to be asked and answered. If "teaching to the test" is the way the kids need to learn it, then maybe "teaching to the test" is the way it needs to be taught.

Obviously, there are infinite things to learn and it's not necessarily true that a school that doesn't meet curriculum requirements isn't teaching. And there are special needs kids whose scores shouldn't be factored in the same way that kids who aren't learning disabled are measured. But how do we evaluate schools if not with tests? The problem that I see is that if kids are graduating from high school functionally illiterate (something that apparently happens), there's a problem, and we need to figure out a way to identify and solve it. What is that way?

liberal japonicus, thanks. I didn't see your comment before I posted mine. I guess I understand that teachers teach tools for learning, and not just facts. But thinking back on my own experience as a student, I don't really see that such distinctions were made. Yet people managed to learn factual stuff that was "testable". If people learn basic reading skills, basic math and logic, it just doesn't seem that complicated to understand other stuff. Memorizing historical facts and concepts was how I learned history. Rote memorization was how I learned foreign language. Diagramming sentences was one way I learned grammatical structure. It just seems that if these things were taught, kids would learn, and would be able to pass tests. Plus we had time for art and music, which I'm sure aids the brain in figuring out how to do stuff.

"Teaching to the test" must be a problem, because everyone complains about it, but I don't see how just teaching doesn't result in a good test score. Maybe it's just something I need to experience.

This is what makes those Google job interview questions become strange (things like how many ping pong balls would you need to fill up a 747) because they are looking for people who obviously don't know the answer (which also prevents the test from being gamed) but are interested in people who could come up with a plausible estimate using information that everyone has.

(1) Having interviewed with Google, I can assure you that they don't ask brainteasers like this at all. In fact, if you look at discussion pages about Google interviews at places where software folks hang out (like Hacker News), you can find Google engineers explaining that they have a policy that specifically forbids questions like that.

(2) Google interviewers sign a non-disclosure agreement that greatly limits what they can legally disclose about the interview after the fact.

(3) Having asked that specific question myself in interviews before, I think you're missing the point of asking it. When I've asked it in the past, this is what I was looking for:

(a) do you get completely flustered at a question without an obvious answer? That's really bad since most of software engineering involves staring at problems that don't make sense.

(b) do you just make something up with no basis at all? some people are not capable of saying "I don't know"; those people need to be flushed out very quickly.

(c) do you come up with an answer but lack the ability to explain your reasoning coherently? If I'm going to work with you, I need to be able to understand you explaining complex things to me.

(d) how do you respond to criticism? Do you get angry and irrationally attached to your answer? What if I make wrong suggestions? Do you just accept all my input uncritically because you're incapable of politely telling an authority figure that they've made a mistake?


(3) I don't ask that sort of question anymore; in part, because I've gotten less deferential. It is hard for candidates to take questions like that seriously enough to sweat, and if candidates are not under stress, it is a bit harder to see how they cope.

In the area where I live, there are privileged and less privileged people, but these people's kids all go to the same public schools.

I'm not sure this generalizes. I mean, where I live, it is very common to hear people say 'meh, it would be dirt cheap to live in the city (or the cheaper suburbs), but the schools, the schools! Guess we have no choice but to live in an expensive suburb where we pay twice as much for housing and have triple the commute, but it is all worth it because the public schools are better.'

I actually think that cause and effect tends to go both ways on this issue. Towns with really good school districts tend to do all sorts of things that make it harder for poor people to move in and send their kids to that awesome school district; the easy way is to make housing more expensive so poor people can't afford to live there. So you mandate a minimum 1 acre yard (why hello there Sharon MA) or a very small floor area ratio; that means that anyone who wants to buy a house has to spend a lot more cash. Then you make it illegal to rent out basements and really onerous to subdivide. Then you make it extremely difficult to build apartment buildings; make sure to encourage every 'neighborhood' group of angry pissants to sue every developer and tie them up in court for years when they conduct the horrific crime of trying to build non-detached-single-family housing. Works best if you make the permitting process so elaborate and time consuming that the developers' investors will bail out.

There are tons of clever ways of ensuring that the poor/brown folk don't move into town, keeping the school system nicely white/affluent. And really, all these actions help keep the price of housing high. And that preserves the value of everyone's primary investments, so everyone is happy!

Re: teaching to the test. There is nothing wrong with teaching to a test. In fact there should be congruence between what the teaching objectives are, what is taught, and what is tested. There is something seriously wrong if the teacher isn’t teaching what is on the test and isn’t testing what has been taught.

The problem is that the test has to be appropriate for the learning objectives. All to often the assumption is made that the test has to focus on the sorts of lessons best learned through memorization. That’s a fallacy. The test should match the objectives and a good series of lessons will build from memorization through higher levels of thinking.

The best way to testing essay writing skills is to require the students to write an essay. The best way to assess the students’ ability to apply math to a real life situations is to create a situation that requires the application of the math recently taught.

Tests can be used to measure a student’s ability to synthesize knowledge, apply it, or create with it. Good tests require good teaching just as poor test force poor teaching.

That said there’s tons of research that indicates that the biggest predictor of a student’s academic achievement is the academic achievement level of the parents. There isn’t much schools can do to counter the influence of parents during the early years of language development. Low achieving students typically come from households where the adults use a limited vocabulary to express a limited range of thoughts, usually directives (Go to bed! Turn down the TV! You are going to miss the bus!) or emotions. Students from that sort of back ground start out way behind the kids who are raised in language rich households where the parents engage in reasoned discourse and there is very little schools can to make up the gap.

It’s easy for charter schools or private schools to look good just by cherry picking the kind of parents who send their kids to their school. Schools with a large number of kids that arrive with substandard vocabularies and a lack of exposure to the use of language to reason have a very, very difficult struggle.

My big objection to No Child is the implicit assumption that there is only one kind of success: grade level academic achievement. I think that is disrespectful of all the people who are not interested in what is, in effect, a college prep education. The goal of a school should be to get the kids into a life that matches their talents and interests. For some that might mean college prep but for others it might mean anything from car mechanics to modern dance. I think the best way to reform schools would be to create a very broad spectrum of programs, all kinds of voc programs, internships, apprenticeships, all kinds of avenues and let the kids decide what route they want to take to graduation. No Child is predicated on the false assumption that every kid has to learn the same things to be successful. That’s nonsense.

sapient, one thing that you had back in the day (not sure how far back in the day it was, but if it was more that 10 years, I think this applies) is a lot more time to take the facts that you had learned and put them into a framework. I know a fair number of people who went into teaching, and they tell me that as they strive to make the process more efficient, their reporting requirements are increased, and the time they have to develop ideas and teaching methods correspondingly decreases.

This was a problem when I was in school, and, to get a teacher's license, a lot of extra requirements were tagged on, so that getting a teaching license was another year or two. with no corresponding rise in pay. This was a way that state legislatures assured the public that they were interested in better schooling, but with no actual hit to the budget. Though it might seem like a distant connection, I feel like the same thing is, in effect, being placed on students now. They are asked to prove what they know more often and at regular intervals, and more bureaucratic structure is put in place, which is generally accompanied by budget cuts, because the tests assure everyone that something is being done. There are a whole slate of stories about parent back to school shopping lists ballooning because schools have to rely on the students to bring things.

It's difficult to try and separate out the things that are the result of poor implementation of the NCLB and what are fundamental flaws of the NCLB, but I have to think that the NCLB goes hand in hand with reducing school budgets, and no matter how many valid reasons one may have for wanting some sort of evaluative process to make sure that all kids are progressing, the fact that it is providing cover for reductions in budgets has me disinclined to argue the merits and demerits, as it seems more like a stalking horse than a program designed to improve education.

I do not know how the standardized tests in the US look like exactly. If they are anything like the theoretical driving exams over here (at least before they switched from paper to computer), then the value would be very low because they would have very little to do with actual understanding but with rote memorization of facts or worse: patterns. In the driving test example it was possible for many years to pass it without knowing anything about the rules of the road because the number of different exam sheets was limited. Many people simply learned the answer pattern (1b, 2ab, 3ac, 4a...) not the content. Even now after randomization was introduced, thinking about the correct answers instead of rote memorizing them for each question is a recipe for failure. My experience with standadization of tests in general is that it narrows down the spectrum. That is, more and more is left out because it is either too local or difficult to press into a standardized shape.
In the special case of the US there is also the problem of using the standardization to push out 'unwanted' stuff. I remember the attempts to effectively get evolution out of the curriculum by not requiring tests to include it. The assumption was that even teachers not biased against evolution would drop the subject in order to concentrate on the stuff that would be in the tests. Even without the testing mania I know that 'testability' plays a role in how curricula are applied. E.g. musical education tends to degenerate to pure musical theory (=math) because that can be tested easily. In theory (oh the irony) musical education is supposed to open the world of music to children that otherwise might have no direct contact with it apart from becoming mindless consumers. But how can one test appreciation?

questions Google has reportedly asked.

Yeah, those are not actually Google interview questions. Most of them are just spectacularly bad interview questions for any company to use.

If they are anything like the theoretical driving exams over here (at least before they switched from paper to computer), then the value would be very low because they would have very little to do with actual understanding but with rote memorization of facts or worse: patterns.

They're not really anything like that. At all. Kevin Drum described a bit of the 12th-grade geography test here:

they want you to identify continents by cross section, explain why Amazon deforestation is bad, understand how the Great Lakes were formed, pick out the probable result of poor irrigation practices, explain why Libya and Australia have a population density of six people per square mile, and then my favorite of all: "You are forming a United Nations committee to study the world crisis of desertification and what to do about it. List four different professions from which you will select your experts. Explain why you selected those specific professions and what each expert will be expected to contribute."

If you poke around the "Nation's Report Card" site, you can see sample questions for different subjects/grade areas. For example, math is here.


This is why it is no coincidence that under these kind of extreme testing regimes, it is those subjects that find their main work in teaching how to use those tools, how to make the connections between the facts that you are given, suffer the most.

That doesn't really jive well with the Geography test sample questions I described above. What's more, I don't see how students who are functionally illiterate or innumerate will be able to make many connections or use many tools to do anything....

It’s easy for charter schools or private schools to look good just by cherry picking the kind of parents who send their kids to their school.

The cherries are picking themselves, in your example. But, yes, you have a certain point: charter schools can look good because parents that really care about their kids' education tend to send their kids to better schools, and when those better schools are the charter schools, better test scores happen.

I don't think there's any getting around that, honestly.

My big objection to No Child is the implicit assumption that there is only one kind of success: grade level academic achievement. I think that is disrespectful of all the people who are not interested in what is, in effect, a college prep education.

I hear what you're saying, but I think No Child was intended to graduate kids from high school with certain minimal skills, not to get them all out of high school with college prep kind of abilities. But I could be wrong; it could be that No Child is aimed at getting kids out of high school having passed a whole lot of AP courses.

It's possible NCLB set their sights too high; I honestly don't know the specifics. And of course I completely agree with what you're saying about different needs for different career-paths; there's absolutely no reason that someone who wants to fix televisions as a career feel a need to take e.g. AP Physics.

"The best way to testing essay writing skills is to require the students to write an essay."

And there, Laura, is the real problem with the current testing regime. All of the tests are necessarily something that can be scored by a computer -- otherwise it is not only too labor intensive to score, but subjective besides. Which, effectively, means multiple choice tests.

A significant part of scoring well on multiple choice tests is beibng "test sophisticated." That is, you learn how to eliminate obvious wrong answers, so even if you don't know the answer, you have something like 1 chance in 2 of guessing right, instead of 1 in 5. And you learn how to notice that several available answers are very similar, so the correct answer is likely to be one of those. In some cases, you can even deduce the correct answer from the different "mistakes" in the answers on offer -- still without knowing anything about the subject.

(I'm spending my weekend working up some tests for a class on computer networking. A multiple choice test, for the same reasons. It isn't easy to avoid those problems. Possible, but not easy. I'm finding that I am generating a lot of "select all that apply" questions.))

No question that we should measure how much children are learning. (And, as important, which subjects they are not learning.) But it is pretty clear that our ability to make those measurements has seriously lagged our appreciation of the fact that we need to do so. There is, of course, a huge interest in having the test scoring reflect one interest or another (rather than something mundane like how much the children are learning). But even so, we really ought to be able to develop better testing methodologies.

All of the tests are necessarily something that can be scored by a computer -- otherwise it is not only too labor intensive to score, but subjective besides. Which, effectively, means multiple choice tests.

This is not true. If you followed the links I gave earlier, you would reach this site, where you could see the 2010 Geography questions. Note that many of them are Short Constructed Response or Extended Constructed Response and are not multiple choice. Such questions require students to write paragraphs, draw maps, etc.

Speaking of Kevin Drum, here is his old 2003 piece about the 5 paragraph essay, but unfortunately, the links in it have succumb to the ravages of time. He followed up with this, which provoked a lot of discussion about the 5 paragraph essay which seems to illustrate the problems of only making sure that students have the tools they need and not doing anything else.

At any rate, a 12th grade test is a bit late to be showing all the wonders of NCLB. And when you start teaching 4th graders any kind of test savvy, because you may not think they are up to learning the notion behind it (eliminate the two least likely answers and then guess at the remaining two), you've already ceded a lot of the territory.

This NYTimes Q and A has a lot of reasons why NCLB is problematic. On one level, one can say that any sort of national program would have these kinds of implementation problems, but on the other, it seems a lot like the current Republican strategies to make the government so dysfunctional it can be drowned in a bathtub.

I'm sure that most people realize this, but the Kevin Drum test that Turbulence cited at 3:35 aren't "No Child Left Behind" test questions. NCLB is a program administered by states and the tests aren't standard throughout the U.S.

I really enjoyed the Kevin Drum link though. A substantial number of our youth are very well educated, and probably do quite well on the test Kevin Drum cited. (Since the test is a mechanism to see how well kids, nationally, do, it's meant to be "hard" - otherwise, it wouldn't really measure any kind of a spectrum.) The students who are doing well in our society are VERY well educated, much better educated than a lot of the folks who were considered to be back in my day.

I agree with a lot of what Laura Koerbeer writes (always really happy to read your comments, Laura) but do think that if a kid graduates from high school in this country, that kid should be expected to know some things. It's not just for the students that we have public education; the public should be getting a return in the form of functional citizens. Functional citizens know a few things, even if they don't go to college.


I'm sure that most people realize this, but the Kevin Drum test that Turbulence cited at 3:35 aren't "No Child Left Behind" test questions. NCLB is a program administered by states and the tests aren't standard throughout the U.S.

That's a good point, but if you look at what states publish, you'll see pretty similar materials. For example, here are exams that MA gave in spring 2011.

My uncle, who was a pretty accomplished person, said that he thought that everything that high school graduates needed to know could actually be taught in a year at the age of 16 or so. The problem with NCLB is not that it expects children to know things, it makes knowing those things of paramount importance, such that it crowds out everything else. The link to the expat kiwi Jolisa's post above emphasizes that point.

My views about No Child might be effected overly by the way my state is administering the law. I agree that there is a core body of knowledge as well as a core body of academic skills which all Americans should share (with a few exceptions for various disabilities). However all Americans do not have to read at the twelth grade level or write a 20 page thesis paper. I get along quite well with very limited math skills. I fact, even though I have graduated from college (several times!), I'm pretty sure I could not pass the middle school math WASL test, let alone the high school one. I never learned to type, either.

I think that in some ways No CHild is a reaction against the old tracking system. When I went to high school kids were tracked and the voc track, which was widely regarded as the dumb kids track, was the ghetto of the school. The academic classes were dumbed down, boring, and rote and the voc classes were perfuctory, out-dated, and useless. No CHild is predicated on the asumption that every child can succeed in the same way academically and no child should be tracked into the school ghetto.

Well, I agree that no child should be tracked into the school ghetto but the way to avoid that is to not have a school ghetto. Build excellent voc classes and kids will be fighting to get into them.

An interesting sidelight on the idea that kids should actually be required to learn something in school is that legally, people have to be in school (or doing something equivalent) from one age to another. In Maine, it's from 7 to 17. No one is actually required to show that they've learned something in order to be allowed to leave, they only have to reach a certain age.

So yes, Virginia, you don't actually have to go to school when you're 5. (No one, not one person, knew this when I was deciding to homeschool my kids.)

And no, Virginia, you don't have to learn anything while you're there (though you might not get a diploma if you don't make at least a little effort along the way).

So there's a point of view from which compulsory schooling is one huge baby-sitting operation. Of course, there's an awful lot of money involved, which is one reason why everyone has been bamboozled into thinking the republic will collapse if kids don't go to school when they're 5.

Should we make people stay on into their twenties (thirties? forties?) if they can't give evidence of learning whatever it is citizens should know? (Not that I disagree that ideally citizens should know something....)

Laura, just out of curiosity, what state are you from? 90% of the people I know who have knowledge of it are from Mississippi, so I'm curious if there is any state where NCLB is a success.

The point about making exceptions for various disabilities is interesting, because in the NYTimes link I included, one of the comments, from Nevada, was that special needs students were required to test at their grade levels. Accomodations were made for the test taking procedure, but not for the content. Here is a brief excerpt

Yet NCLB requires these children be tested AT GRADE LEVEL and that their scores be included as part of a schools overall AYP score. Thus schools with a large special needs population are at a tremendous disadvantage of achieving AYP than schools with a small population.

I am a special ed teacher, and one of the most onerous meetings I ever have to attend is the meeting where the principal announces that – once again – “Our school did not make AYP,.because Special Ed brought our test scores down again…”

snip

This is one of the fatal flaws of NCLB – the AYP goals assume special ed kids will magically start performing at grade level standards, that second-language kids will miraculously acquire fluent English reading and speaking skills, and kids with severe emotional problems will be able to set aside their personal demons and conflicts aside and be able to focus on the test.

In short, that special needs kids will quit being special needs kids just for the duration of the standardized tests.

(fyi, AYP is Adequate Yearly Progress, and is applied to Language Arts/Reading and Mathematics for all schools. It is also done for elementary and middle school attendance and high school graduation rates. This is a link from Missouri that underlines how the AYP plays out in that state)

I'm still perseverating on this teaching to the test thing and how that seems to lead to rote learning and rote teaching in some states.

The school system that I used to be familiar with--all of my info is now about five years out of date--put extensive efforts into implementing tests that actually increased the levels of thinking skills which teachers had to teach to in order to get the kids up to speed to pass the test. The written language tests are essay tests. The reading tests require long, thoughtful written responses to reading prompts. The math test, ah, the math test! Not only do the students have to figure out multi-step problems and show their work, but they have to write out an expanation for what they did and why they did it!

So all of that has to be taught in class. Kids have to write lots and lots of essays to the criteria used to score the written essay test, write lots and lots of responses to reading prompts to the criteria used to score the reading tests, and write out their reasons for doing whatever they do in math class.

So classes are more rigorous and teaching is harder, too. Are enough kids passing the WASL to prevent the schools I used to be familiar with from becoming "schools of faiure"? Yes, in the case of the wealthy suburban school and probably not everywhere else.

There is one wildly successful school, a school that is wildly successfull with kids who have dropped out or been kicked out or just opted out because they couldn't stand regular school: the voc tech high school. The carpentry students build houses for Habitat for Humanity. The media students are learning to use technology I barely recognize. There's an awesome cabinetmaking workshop. And that school is packed with kids who did not pass the tests.

I don't know how the district handles that--kids flunking the standard tests but passing their voc classes.

Just to avoid the potential accusation of US bashing, there are estimates that 5-10% of the German population (and that might be even just the citizenry without non-native residents) are functionally illiterate, i.e. they either never mastered proper reading and writing in the first place or lost the ability due to non-use. I have no idea how this is possible since those are not all school dropouts. How did they manage to finish school? But even students in hard sciences (chemistry is where I have experience on that) these days often show a shocking lack of basics (elementary math, often spelling and notoriously history*). Who would have thought that a question like "what is the density of water?" would lead to blank stares.

*I remember a seminar (course) in History of the Exact Sciences on the topic of WW1 (at the university). In the first hour the prof tried to get a general overview about what the students knew. It turned out that a majority did not even know who was on which side (Germany and Britain against Austria?)

This is an explanation of the SOL as it relates to whether a student in Virginia can graduate. Performance on the SOL doesn't affect a student when it's given in earlier grades (I don't think so, anyway). It just affects the school's accreditation and funding. So, obviously, kids are encouraged to do well. Vocational certification can substitute for SOL verification credits when considering a child's graduation prerequisites.

Note that many of [the questions] are Short Constructed Response or Extended Constructed Response and are not multiple choice. Such questions require students to write paragraphs, draw maps, etc.

thanks, Turb. Learn something new every day.

In the US the reason for the rise in the percentage of kids in school who don't seem to learn anything is just a factor of the change in expectaions: all kids are now expected to go to school and stay there until the bitter end. When I went to school in the late sixties a high drop outrate was expected. Many of those kids went into marriages or went into living wage jobs at the meat packing plants. I lived in a farming area. In urban areas or highly unionized industrial areas it was routine for kids with union connections to leave shool and go to work without learning much at school and/or without finishing. Some of the drop outs were on a path ot a bad end--amatuer criminals, kids with early stage drug or alchohol problems, girls who got knocked up but not married. However many of them just started adult life early. Go back another generation and it was even more socially acceptable to leave school early.

Now a school with a ninety percent completion rate has "failed" the ten percent who didn't finish. Define a school as one that gets every kid to grade level and you define schools as failures no matter how hard the teachers try.

In our state at least the No Child standards are not minimal. The kids are expected to get to grade level. Part of that dumbing down that other states are experiencing might be states re-defining grade level downwards through their choice of testing materials because it is simply not possible to get all of the kids, or in some cases not even possible to get most of them, to traditional grade level.

No Child is intended to destroy the pulbic school system by forcing schools to become "schools of failure". In the districts I am familiar with the teachers, particulary in the early grades, are working themselves to death trying to get every kid to grade level even in schools that have a fifty percent turnover in the student body in one year. I also know teachers who have gone to private schools because, even though the pay is less, the job is so much easier.

No Child is intended to destroy the pulbic school system by forcing schools to become "schools of failure".

Assertive argument is assertive!

Assertive argument is assertive!

It's not like Laura didn't write, you know, a bunch of words to support her position. You can disagree with that position, certainly, but that's not the same as ignoring her argument and acting as though she simply asserted her opinion with no support.

No Child was passed by a coalition which included a large number of people who should have known better. Motives vary, of course. Some of the motivative behind No Child was probably an uninformed do-goodism. From the conservative point of view requiring public schools to meet an impossible standard or be publically labelled as schools of failure fits right in with the conservative campaign to delegitimize all public institutions. And the standard is impossible, The way things are set up schools have to meet a higher and higher standard every year. So the standard in Florida was probably pretty minimal the first year. It will not stay that way.

Effective school reform has to be based on realistic expectation of what schools can do, respect for the wide variety of outcomes kids and parents want, and a core of shared knowledge needed for basic citizenship. No Child doesn't do any of that. It's all pie in the sky aspirations and punishment for failure which very conveniently dovetails with conservative efforts to defunded public schools and promote the privatizing ideology. If left unchgalleged the long term effect of No CHild will be that a great many children will be left behind unserved by charter or private schools that don't want them and unserved by public schools that are unsupported and marginalized as a result of rightwing ideology. If you don't think Grover Norquist annd Karl Rove understood that, then you don't understand the Republican party.

acting as though she simply asserted her opinion with no support

I'm sorry, I completely missed the support part, and still can't find it.

I mean, it's not as if George's brother Jeb didn't make it his mission as a governor to improve education in the state of Florida. That, too, was probably trying to drown public education in the bathtub, in disguise.

I had no idea that destroying the public school system had such bipartisan support.

The wiki article on NCLB says its implementation was never properly funded. So, perhaps things didn't turn out as expected from one side of the aisle when they voted for the bill.

The article says a lot of things, but it never manages to say what "properly funded" means in dollar amounts.

Thanks for the thought provoking articles LJ.

What strikes me about the first NYT piece is that the challenges facing a kid whose parents can pay over $38K a year for private school tuition are very different than the challenges facing the kids in the KIPP program. What "failure" means - the definition of it, how it manifests itself in the students' lives, what price they pay for it, what opportunities they might have to recover any lost ground once whatever lesson might have been learned - are, I think, not really commensurate.

Apples to oranges. IMO.

To touch on Janie's posts, what strikes me about the difference between young people's motivations in the 50's and young people's motivations now is that, in the 50's and 60's, you could be a not-particularly-great school student and still have a reasonable shot at earning a reasonable living and making a decent life for yourself. Not just getting by, but doing good, useful, satisfying work, and achieving some level of real success in life, by any of several measures of success.

I'm not sure that's so widely available now.

The thing that strikes me about schools in the US is the very wide range of social functions they are expected to perform. Imparting a basic education, of course, but also an array of public health functions, general socialization of the student population, day care. In many contexts, some level of police function and/or social service intervention.

I am not at all surprised that they find it hard to succeed what is supposed to be their core mission.

My thought, for a long time, has been that you could impart what we consider to the standard high-school level of education to kids by the time they are 14 or 15 years old. We should get that done, and then let kids spend a couple of years exploring things that are of interest to them. The goal being for them to arrive at adulthood with some hands-on exposure to stuff that they might actually want to do for a living.

Apprenticeships, independent research, tinkering in labs, getting training in specific technical specialties or trades. Starting small businesses. Writing books and plays, and trying to get them published or performed. Playing the trombone 6 hours a day and scuffling for gigs.

I think for a lot of kids, the last year or two of high school, followed by most of college, are just a postponement of adulthood. IMO they're capable of assuming much greater challenge and responsibility than we give them.

I agree that failure can be a great teacher. But let them fail, and try again, and again, and again, at big things, not just some dumb-@ss test.

Last but not least, we should let teachers teach. We should pay them more, hire more of them so the student/teacher ratio is lower, and let them teach. Not expect them to be cops, social workers, crisis intervention counselors, babysitters, and surrogate moms and dads.

Let them teach. It's what they like to do, and what they're good at.

That, too, was probably trying to drown public education in the bathtub, in disguise.

I suppose this is a shot across my bow, as it were, but I'd just suggest, Slart, that you, with your work in the defense industry, you may have experience where some sort of bizarre or contradictory edict has come down and you are asked to do you best (and I'm sure that you do), but the purpose of the edict is not to improve whatever project you have going, but to provide some plausible reason for shelving or cancelling the project. Just because people pitch in (because they would rather try and get something done rather than throw up their hands and give up or perhaps see an opportunity to get something done, even though they may not agree with the way things are going) doesn't not erase the possible first intentions of those who initially proposed the policy.

The ability to discern patterns is an important thinking skill.

Medicare Plan D
Privitizing Social Security
Turning Medicare into a voucher program
Reforming Medicaid by gutting the federal funding under the pretext that transferring the expense to the states was a reform.
Defunding unemployment benefits under the pretext that the system was being reformed by making it a state responsibility.

Those are all attempts by Republicans to use the language of reform to further an ideological agenda--an agenda which is intended to destory the programs supposeldy being reformed.

There is no reason to assume that Republicans meant to do anything by "reforming" public schools except to destroy them.

doesn't not erase the possible first intentions of those who initially proposed the policy.

You mean Ted Kennedy? It is true, the only thing he despises more than children and teachers is the very idea of government services. He often spoke of his yearning to drown the government in a bathtub. And look how successful he was: he convinced George Bush to pass the largest increase in federal funding of K-12 education in history. Isn't that what Grover Norquist's aphorism about drowning government in a bathtub means? That you give lots more money to the government program?

I think this theory needs a lot of improvement before it can be fairly called a nutty conspiracy theory.

There is no reason to assume that Republicans meant to do anything by "reforming" public schools except to destroy them.

It is really strange how you insist that NCLB was a completely Republican initiative and how you ignore the fact that it dramatically increased federal funding for education.


Medicare Plan D
Privitizing Social Security
Turning Medicare into a voucher program
Reforming Medicaid by gutting the federal funding under the pretext that transferring the expense to the states was a reform.
Defunding unemployment benefits under the pretext that the system was being reformed by making it a state responsibility.

One of these things is not like the other...one of them expanded the amount of cash going to an entitlement program and the others were all designed to slash funding over time until the programs withered on the vine. You don't destroy a program by giving it more money and expanding its services so that people like it more. That's not how you do destroy things. In case the pattern is not quite clear: please avoid deadly poisons like cyanide, hydro-flouric acid, lye, and jelly beans.

I think that Republicans in Congress had evil intentions in all those cases, but that they had different evil intentions in different cases. For medicare part D, the corrupt desire to give pharmaceutical companies free money while getting a political win for creating a popular entitlement program mattered more to congressional Republicans than destroying an entitlement program.

I think that Ted Kennedy's participation is a very good example of someone trying to make something good out of a bad proposal. I hadn't heard that Ted Kennedy convinced Bush to do this, so a cite would be nice. My understanding was that this was a Republican initiative that Kennedy signed on to. Here's a link about how the NCLB has been funded. If it is the largest increase in federal funding for k-12 education in history, the costs are going to the adminstration of testing regimes. In fact, I believe Kennedy himself later criticized the lack of funding for NCLB.

At any rate, I'm not sure how I'm proposing some 'nutty conspiracy theory'. I'm suggesting that the same pressures that we are seeing with virtually every aspect of domestic policy are emerging in education as well.

For those who are sincerely interested in school reform: the research shows that the most effective instructional programs are the ones carried out by the right person. When the right person leaves, the program falls apart. A failing program becomes successful when carried out by the right person. In other words, staff matters, probably more than anything else.

Right now there's a lot of attention being given to the highly successful Finnish schools. Turns out the most of the applicants to their teacher training programs aren't accepted and quite a few of those accepted don't make the cut. They are very , very selective about who gets to be a teacher. Once trained, however, they just let their teachers teach.

That's probably not the only reason their schools are successful, of course. But they are very different from us in that they don't subject their schools to a constant barrage of backseat driving.

Our school systems are constantly subjected to bandwagons. A new superintendent almost invariably means new curriculum, new training, some bright shiney new method of instruction that is supposed to make miracles happen. Teachers are used to this. In my experience most teacher are pretty willing to go along if the bandwagon isn't too obviously ridiculous. There's been a lot of compliance with No Child because most teachers want kids to succeed and want to do their jobs well. However, every year the standard they are supposed to meet goes up.

And yes, Ted Kennedy has a lot to answer for. I was thinking of him and a few other Democratic Senators when I wrote about uninformed good intentions. The Democrats got played. They got played on the war, too.

The origial No Child provisions were lunatic. One example: the schools in my communnity were assessed on the basis of the scores earned by the kids in the spring even if a praticular kid just came to the school a week before the test was given! A friend of mine taught in a school with a fifty percent yearly turn over in the student body. Her performance as an instructor was based on the performance of kids who had only been in her room for days or weeks.

Since then I think some of the more blatantly ridiculous abuses have been mitigated. However, the bottom line is still that those politicians who wished to promote the privitizing of education had every reason cheer the gullible politicians who thought they could write a federal law that would make schools do the impossible and punish them if they didn't.

If you all recall there were Democrats who almost fell for Bush's scam about "reforming" Social Security, too.

It is really strange how you insist that NCLB was a completely Republican initiative and how you ignore the fact that it dramatically increased federal funding for education.

This is true.

And just to round out the picture, it's also true that virtually every holder of national office who is interested in reducing or eliminating federal involvement in primary education has an (R) in front of his or her name.

Here's a link to some discussion about the growing niche for private Educational Management Organizations (EMO) in the NCLB provisions. Unfortunately, the Harper's article by Jonathan Kozol listed in there is now behind the paywall, but was quite good in pointing out how private companies were eyeing the k-12 market (the title of the piece, 'The Big Enchilada' refers to a comment made by an analyst about that market)

NCLB decrees that 95% of the kds in every school in every state will achieve at the state's standard, which is supposed to be high, by 1214. The politicians who voted for NCLB were either really stupid about issues realting to eduction (but sincere!) or deeply cynical.
If a school fails to do this, the school is officially a school of failure and can be closed, it's staff fired, and the reponsiblity for educating the students can be handed over to a private business. Which will happen to many, many schools unless the state lowers the standards or the school finds a way to cheat.

Congress started cutting back on funding No Child way back at around 2007 or so and the expense has increasingly fallen on state budgets.

My friend's school, the one with the fifty percent turn over, has made Herculean efforts to get the kids up to the standard set by this state. Last I heard, they were not making their mandated yearly increase in test scores, although their scores were increasing. However, it isn't enough to improve score. The scores have to go up untill that 95% is made. We can expect a wave of "schools of failure" to hit shortly. Since the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior we can also expect Republican politicians to capitalize on the wave of failures to excuse underfunding public education and to promote the use of public money to subsidize private education.

It's all working out very nicely for Norquist.

I was trying to find a cite for the claim that the K-12 funding was "the largest increase in federal funding of K-12 education in history" and came across this

Republicans have made even more deceptive claims about federal spending for schools. Since NCLB was enacted, they assert, the Bush Administration has raised school funding to "historic" levels. In fact, the federal government contributed less than 8% of total K-12 education costs in 2006 (a level that's about average for the last 30 years). For 2007 the White House has requested a $2 billion cut and Republicans in Congress are seeking still further reductions.

The piece also faults Democrats for concentrating on funding. The site also has a number of articles about various outbreaks of cronyism, such as this,">http://www.elladvocates.org/media/NCLB/LAT22oct06.html">this, originally from the LATimes about Neill Bush profiting from this and this list of various pieces from various places.

Do you know what all of this reminds me of? The former GDR and its planned economy, esp. in the early stages*. Given that the GOP shows many traits of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Unity_Party_of_Germany>SED that does not actually surprise me. Just replace 'standards' with http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbeitsnorm>Arbeitsnorm. The system is rigged from both sides with one side using the 'standards' as a tool of control (and destruction if need be) while the other tries to weasel out of it (often out of raw necessity). The use of Aktivists to push for more with less also has its parallels (in our case model schools that exceed the standards).

*i.e. the forced 'voluntary' collectivization. Here it is the charterization/privatization.

I'd just suggest, Slart, that you, with your work in the defense industry, you may have experience where some sort of bizarre or contradictory edict has come down and you are asked to do you best (and I'm sure that you do), but the purpose of the edict is not to improve whatever project you have going, but to provide some plausible reason for shelving or cancelling the project.

I'd like to help you, there, lj, but I just can't. I work for a prime contractor, and (IMO) it's always in the prime contractor's best interests to see the possibility of future funding continue, even if it's currently awarded to someone else. So, even though we as a company do absolutely stupid and manifestly self-destructive things sometimes, we hardly ever strike a killing blow against the goose that lays the golden eggs. Which, in a sense, is an existing program.

Stupidities that I run into on a regular basis are less along the lines that you suggest, for the reasons outlined above, than they are things like a) classification guide stupidity, where Z is classified but X and Y aren't, even when everyone knows that Z = sqrt(X^2+Y^2), or b) "innovative" design approaches that ignore (and cannot comply with) some really high-level requirements.

I have been asked to perform work that would result in the de-funding of someone else's contract, but I think that the amateur-hour laughability of the someone else's concept was already something our customer was aware of, even if it took a while for them to see it.

Being mostly not a management type (although my boss is telling me that I'm a "technical leader"), any of the sort of things that lj suggests might be going on would probably tend to happen out of my view, so I can't say they don't happen. I just happen to think that profit motive and ethics might tend to pull in the same direction in that instance.

I support public schools, and I happen to live in an area with reasonably good schools. My beef has always been (both before and since NCLB) that problems which should be easy to solve are ignored. Like any large institution, schools acquire their own culture, and sometimes certain aspects of the culture have a negative effect. And even though everyone knows certain things are ridiculous, it's almost impossible to overcome the inertia. If I were living in an area with lousy schools, I can't even imagine how frustrating things would be.

It seems to be that people in this discussion don't entirely agree on what schools should be accountable for doing, or how to assess their performance (or even whether their performance should be assessed). I feel that, assuming that children aren't learning disabled, they should master a basic curriculum in order to obtain (earn) a high school diploma. I think the curriculum that I linked to, in Virginia, is reasonable. If children aren't doing that in a particular school, someone needs to figure out why. Maybe certain kids truly don't want or need to obtain a high school diploma, and if that's the reason, fine. Barring that, someone needs to try to change schools that don't succeed in providing kids with an education. Otherwise, aren't we always going to excuse bad education for kids in certain communities?

Clearly, lifting people out of poverty is the best remedy for poor communities, and we're going the other way with that one. But in some countries (Ireland, for example), even poor children get good educations. NCLB may not be the answer to this, but we've long faced this problem, not successfully. The testing and accountability aspects of NCLB don't seem to me to be unreasonable. Maybe the funding aspects are misguided (or a Republican conspiracy), but it seems that some kind of incentive needs to exist.

the Bush Administration has raised school funding to "historic" levels

Given the nearly monotonic growth of government (some of which, granted, goes right along with monotonic growth in the population), funding for a GREAT many things is at "historic" levels. This kind of self-medal-pinning doesn't fool very many people, hopefully.

NCLB decrees that 95% of the kds in every school in every state will achieve at the state's standard

I'm familiar with the 95% testing-participation requirement, but this one eludes me. Cite, please?

If a school fails to do this, the school is officially a school of failure and can be closed, it's staff fired, and the reponsiblity for educating the students can be handed over to a private business.

I can't find any language that authorizes, permits or even mentions any of this kind of recourse in the NCLB Act. So, again: cite, please.

From Edweek:States were required to bring all students up to the "proficient" level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year. Individual schools had to meet state "adequate yearly progress" targets toward this goal (based on a formula spelled out in the law) for both their student populations as a whole and for certain demographic subgroups. If a school receiving federal Title I funding failed to meet the target two years in a row, it would be provided technical assistance and its students would be offered a choice of other public schools to attend. Students in schools that failed to make adequate progress three years in a row also were offered supplemental educational services, including private tutoring. For continued failures, a school would be subject to outside corrective measures, including possible governance changes


This is from a professional journal for the teachers of speech and laguage, which uses Pennsyvania as an example:

Accountability and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)
■States must develop a single statewide accountability system that applies to all public schools and all students regardless of participation in the Title 1 program
■AYP is the minimum level of improvement that school districts must achieve every year
■The state will develop a definition of AYP (In PA 45% will achieve proficiency(p) in reading/language arts(r/l), 35% will achieve proficiency(p) in math for the year 2002-2003; 54% p in r/l, 46% p in math 2004-2006; 68% p in r/l, 62% p in math 2007-2009 )
■AYP is reported for each school as a whole and broken out into the following subgroups:
■economically disadvantaged students
■students from major racial or ethnic groups
■students with limited English proficiency
■students with special needs
■Each state will determine the number necessary to qualify as a subgroup(in PA N=40)
■At a minimum, schools must meet two requirements to make AYP. Schools must ensure that 95% of students take the assessments and the school as a whole and each subgroup must meet the measurable objectives established by the state(in PA 45% p in r/l; 35% p in math) and meet one other factor established by the state (in PA attendance rate in elementary and middle; graduation rate in high school)
■Schools and school districts can still make AYP if they achieve safe harbor, reducing by 10% the number of non-proficient students and meeting the threshold for the other indicators ( in PA attendance or graduation rate)
Corrective Action
■Schools that fail to make AYP for 2 consecutive years are identified for corrective action
■The family is offered the option to transfer to another public school of its choice within the district
■The district must pay for transportation
■The lowest achieving students from low-income families must be given first preference
■Lack of capacity does not excuse an LEA from operating a choice program
■Supplemental educational services from an approved list of providers are arranged if the school fails to make AYP for 3 years
■Providers are exempt from certain requirements applicable to schools such as "highly required" requirements
■If a school fails to make AYP for 5 years, the Lea must restructure the school and if the school fails to make AYP for a sixth year, alternative governance must be implemented
Staff Qualifications
■Teachers of core academic subjects must earn state certification or achieve the qualifying score on the appropriate content test
■All public school teachers teaching core subjects must meet these requirements no later than the end of the 2005-2006 school year
■A paraprofessional must have completed 2 years of higher education, earned an associate's degree or passed a formal state or local assessment
■NCLB increases its emphasis on professional development
Parental Involvement
■Families must be given more information about the achievement of their children
■Families must be given more information about the performance of the schools
■Families must be notified when the children are taught for more than 4 weeks by teachers who are not highly qualifies
■The families have the right to demand information about the credentials of the teachers
■Families of LEP children must be promptly notified when their children are recommended for inclusion in language instruction programs
■Families have the right to opt out of language inclusion programs at any time
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This is from wikipedia:


Schools which receive Title I funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 must make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in test scores (e.g. each year, its fifth graders must do better on standardized tests than the previous year's fifth graders).

If the school's results are repeatedly poor, then steps are taken to improve the school.[8]

Schools that miss AYP for a second consecutive year are publicly labeled as being "in need of improvement" and are required to develop a two-year improvement plan for the subject that the school is not teaching well. Students are given the option to transfer to a better school within the school district, if any exists.
Missing AYP in the third year forces the school to offer free tutoring and other supplemental education services to struggling students.
If a school misses its AYP target for a fourth consecutive year, the school is labelled as requiring "corrective action," which might involve wholesale replacement of staff, introduction of a new curriculum, or extending the amount of time students spend in class.
A fifth year of failure results in planning to restructure the entire school; the plan is implemented if the school fails to hit its AYP targets for the sixth year in a row. Common options include closing the school, turning the school into a charter school, hiring a private company to run the school, or asking the state office of education to run the school directly


The federal law lets states set the standard for how many kids meet the proficiecy score, bur the stadard is supposed to be high. Aws the example shows, Pensylvania decided to set their standard low and call it high, which is one of the dodges states have resorted to. My state started out with high standards ad has adjusted them dowward yearly. Ahother dodge is to make the proficiecy test test easy. Our state test in math has been adjusted downward repeatedly, too.

Thanks for the reply, Slarti. I hope you can see how that kind of dynamic might play out. I'm tempted to give a few examples from my experience, but suffice it to say that there have been situations where the dynamic I suggested plays out along those lines.

I might try to write something about an opposite situation that has taken place here, called yutori kyouiku, but real life may put a stop to that.

You asked about the 95% figure, and wikipedia has this for the state of Illinois:

At least 95 percent of all students are tested for reading and mathematics;
At least 95 percent of all students meet the minimum annual target for meeting or exceeding standards for reading and mathematics, and;
At least 95 percent of all students meet the minimum annual target for attendance rate for elementary and middle schools or graduation rate for high schools.

This, from North Carolina,
A State's definition of AYP is based on expectations for growth in student achievement that is continuous and substantial, such that all students are proficient in reading and math no later than 2013-2014.

All this is google-fu and though I've been looking at lot at how reading proficiency is measured, I've never really looked closely at the nuts and bolts of NCLB accreditation, so I may be misunderstanding this, but the goal of have ALL students proficient in reading and math seems a recipe for failure.

As far as language about the kind of recourse mentioned, from the link I gave at 11:45pm, there is this

Under NCLB, schools failing to make AYP and labeled “In Need of Improvement” suffer various penalties under the No Child Left Behind Act — penalties that range from having to pay for vouchers to send students to schools deemed more successful, to the dismissal of principals and staff, and/or to the wholesale surrender of individual schools to be run by private educational management organizations (EMOs). Both Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos, fellows at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, clarify the legal interpretation of the NCLB act in favor of EMOs:
The federal law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires states to “restructure” any school that fails for six years running to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward full proficiency on the part of all students by the year 2014. The law provides a number of restructuring options, including turning over the school’s management to a private for-profit or nonprofit entity (italics mine). Only a few school districts nationwide have sought help from either type of organization in the management of low-performing schools.

Again, the article is one I found thru google and it's a pretty progressive website, so you may take it with a grain of salt, but the quote above is from a Hoover Institute Policy paper. The link is broken, but the paper is here There's also an uncited quote from Mathis, which I found was from here (pdf link) that discusses the possibility.

Also, in the last link I gave at 1:01 pm, the 5th link on the list is to a conference presentation powerpoint by a prof at Florida State about NCLB and it's effect on ELL (English Language Learners) in Florida that might be of interest to you. I point that out because the germ of this thread was the advantages of children learning two languages, but the NCLB seems create a disincentive for children who may have some fluency in a second language but are weak in English.

That doesn't sound exactly like "the school is officially a school of failure and can be closed, it's staff fired, and the reponsiblity for educating the students can be handed over to a private business" to me, Laura. Nor is what you posted a cite, really.

If it was all hyperbole, forget I asked.

Thanks for doing the Google-fu, lj. Obviously I hit post before either your comments or Laura's showed up.

As regards your 11:45pm comment, I'm having some trouble finding the parts of the public law that support Laura's claims, or the claims written in various articles.

The 11:45 link is a bit confusing. I think you might get a better outline from the Mathis pdf here That quotes the DoE description, which is

If a school fails to make adequate yearly progress for a fifth straight year, the school district must initiate plans for restructuring the school. This may include reopening the school as a charter school, replacing all or most of the school staff, or turning over school operations either to the state or a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness.

The 'must' is my emphasis. It may feel like 5 years of failing should be a warning, but from the inside of an educational facility, 5 years to turn something around can seem like the blink of an eye. Mathis goes on to point out:

Because the law requires 100% of all students to attain proficiency on state standards, including those in each of the sub-groups, researchers have illustrated that, eventually, virtually all schools can be expected to reach the fifth and final stage of school restructuring. Even with a 2%-3% safety valve for children with severe disabilities, universal proficiency is practically unattainable. In addition, the sanctions will fall most immediately on schools with high concentrations of poor and minority children, because these children tend to have lower test scores and because the NCLB disaggregation approach effectively penalizes more diverse schools.

Mathis goes thru and points out that cases of takeovers, extreme restructures, selling off to private companies etc have actually been quite rare, though focus by news media may make it seem more common than it is. However, because they are rare, we really don't know if these things actually help a school.

I don't know how this is expressed in the law, but I do think that if you have a law dictating how to deal with school failure, you are already going down the wrong road. I'll try to explain that a bit more if I can get the post up that I mentioned, but until then, it needs to be an IOU.

I'm having some trouble finding the parts of the public law that support Laura's claims, or the claims written in various articles.

I'm not following this thread closely at this point, but I wonder if the reason you can't find what you're looking for is that it's in the rules and not the law. There's a lot to the implementation besides the "NCLB act" as such.

In general, legislatures first set broad policy mandates by passing statutes, then agencies create more detailed regulations through rulemaking.

I should have made it clear that the link text was lifted directly from wikipedia....

I do think that if you have a law dictating how to deal with school failure, you are already going down the wrong road.

So, you're saying that remedies are out? That seems extremely ineffectual.

Mathis goes thru and points out that cases of takeovers, extreme restructures, selling off to private companies etc have actually been quite rare, though focus by news media may make it seem more common than it is. However, because they are rare, we really don't know if these things actually help a school.

I'd caught that part, too. I don't think whether it helps or not is not really as important a question as whether having those cards in hand helps. Probably that, too, is unknown.

I'm not following this thread closely at this point, but I wonder if the reason you can't find what you're looking for is that it's in the rules and not the law.

Thanks, JanieM. I'm wondering: whose rules? Those of the states? That's what it seems like.

Slarti, I don't know much about this, truly, but my guess would be that for something like NCLB there would be both Federal and state rulemaking, and maybe even that the Act and/or the Federal rulemaking would mandate certain kinds of state rulemaking. (Similarly for health care, surely....)

But again, I'm just making it up at this level. I wonder if someone involved in government could enlighten us....

There's probably a ton of stuff like this and this and this.

I got these links by googling "NCLB rulemaking" and "NCLB state rulemaking" but I don't have time to follow any of it up right now, and if I did I'd spend it commenting on education from other directions.

Slarti, one book that I particularly like is Peter Senge's Schools that Learn. The subtitle is A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education. Though people have invoked Senge and Systems Thinking (the 5th discipline) on both sides of the debate, it seems to me that everything he says in that book can take the NCLB as I understand it as a bad example and explains why remedies enforced externally are going to create a negative impact.

It's not really possible to summarize the book, but one point that I think is important is his emphasis that cause and effect in a system is almost always rather distant. The tests objectify knowledge, rather than the relationships between the students and the teachers, which Senge suggests is what an school, or any organization, is about. The NCLB is all about internally monitored (thru achievement testing) progress followed by externally inflicted punishments. The idea is that schools will internally change to avoid those external punishments. The problem is that the internal changes are not done to reach a particular goal of what students can do, but to have the bulk of them reach with externally determined goals. That these are backed up with some sort of sanctions regime is a problem. You want specific language to prove that there is some bad result that can be seen in the law, or, as Janie suggests, in the rules. In fact, Janie's invocation of the health system mirrors a notion that I have, which is that the problems of delivering health care are similar to the problems of delivering education and in both the health care debate and the NCLB, we think that these systems can be changed by invoking particular principles, such as a free market will choose the best solution. I don't think that is the case.

Of course, this is starting to mirror what I want to write as a post, so if you get all this again, you only have yourself to blame. ;^)

I hadn't heard that Ted Kennedy convinced Bush to do this, so a cite would be nice.

From Wikipedia:

Kennedy, however, saw Bush as genuinely interested in a major overhaul of elementary and secondary education, Bush saw Kennedy as a potential major ally in the Senate, and the two partnered together on the legislation...Kennedy soon became disenchanted with the implementation of the act, however, saying for 2003 that it was $9 billion short of the $29 billion authorized. Kennedy said, "The tragedy is that these long overdue reforms are finally in place, but the funds are not."

Kennedy sponsored NCLB in the senate; he worked intensively drafting it. And, as his quote above demonstrates, he thought its reforms were "long overdue".

I'm not sure how I'm proposing some 'nutty conspiracy theory'.

The notion that Ted Kennedy worked so hard to create NCLB in order to drown the government in a bathtub is silly. The idea that the Republican plan for doing said drowning involves spending an extra $20 billion is just insane. As I've explained, people who want to drown government in the bathtub take government programs and find clever ways to underfund them. Dramatically increasing the amount of money going to a government program is not how you do that.

This is why I think your assertion here is not even a nutty conspiracy theory; those at least have to make some kind of sense.

I can't seem to stay away from this, though I know it's hopeless to try to boil down anything I think about education to the size of a blog comment, or even a tome. But I'm going to try for a few headlines -- in separate, probably widely spaced comments -- that weave around in the territory the thread has been mapping.

Context: as a school child, I was the biggest fish in a very small pond for twelve years. Off to college, I was a small and often floundering fish in a very big pond. Understanding the former (especially the twelve years of often-intense boredom) much more clearly than the latter, I got interested in homeschooling several years before I had my first child. When the time came, my ex and I decided to homeschool our kids (another thing I didn't realize at the time was just how different our motivations were). As the parent of homeschooled kids I took the time to read and think about education a lot, and -- for a while -- to talk to other people about it a lot.

I hope to come back to some of that later, but I want to start with an anecdote that takes this topic -- which we have been talking about in relation to legalities, budgets, cultural expectations, politics, and various other impersonal abstractions -- and puts the kids themselves front and center.

Toward the end of my kids' high-school-age years, I met a man who taught at a prep school, and who had once been the president of a different private school. In talking about the possibility that one of my kids might do a couple of years of school in a private high school, he made an observation that went to the heart of a lot of the issues I had been thinking about under the general heading "education."

He said that for discussion purposes, there were two main types of private high school to choose from: the traditional ones and the funky ones. (These are my terms; I don't remember his.) The traditional ones made strong academic demands on students, as well as providing them with a lot of help and support. The funky ones had, perhaps, school farms that the kids worked on, more opportunities in the arts, less of the traditional schools' emphasis on AP courses, but also a lot of help and support.

But, he said, underneath the differences there was one thing that everyone agreed on: No one trusted kids to -- as he put it so memorably -- "just sit under a tree and read." The common unspoken goal in both types of schools was to keep the kids busy every last minute of the day with structured activities supervised by adults.

This relates directly to several comments that have been made, including lj's uncle's notion that kids can learn most of the curriculum in a year or so, russell's vision of how we might do it better, sapient's comments about how we should want citizens to share a certain body of basic knowledge. And, like those comments, it points to something that underlies a lot of the rest of the discussion about education but that almost never gets talked about out loud, and that's the question:

What is school for?

And underneath that one: what, after all, are children for?

"What, after all, are children for?" JanieM asks.

That's a good question. But, with respect, what am I for? What is anybody for? To a certain extent (not to pretend to answer the existential question in a sentence), people are for figuring out who they are and what their relationship to society is, and what they want to do with their life. Then they do it. Then they die. That's if they're lucky, and they come from a position where they're not abused, hated on, neglected, or totally disabled, and they have basic resources to survive.

In the very olden days, children showed up as an inevitable consequence of heterosexual biology. Now there's a lot more choice involved. But it's not such a bad idea to believe that children aren't "our" children, but are collectively our children. Children show up, and they are dependent.

Children are part of the greater society. They're society's future; they're society's promise; they're society's problem. Obviously, as a result of the nuclear family system that our society has, parents (biological or adoptive) have a special role in seeing to the welfare of their "own" children. But we, as a society, have a role in the welfare of children (and each other, but that's too radical for today's politics) generally.

What do we want for our kids? We want them to be healthy, and we want them to learn what we know. And we want them to learn how to know more than we know. And we want them to decide how they, as people, can confront the world with the knowledge (and individual humanity) that they have.

Whether public schools are the best way to do that, I don't know. But public schools are premised on ideals that I believe in: we have a shared responsibility to care for our children, and to teach them what they're capable of learning. The article that lj cites, about the Levy family, highlights the fact that learning is hard. But learning is worth it.

What is school for?

No answer, I'm afraid, but one observation that is made in the Senge (but not by him,I think, the book is interspersed with a lot of block quotations) is that the model we have of school comes from the Industrial Age, where the sub-rosa purpose was to create people who would work in industry. And, as all Industrial Age constructs, it finds itself out of step with the present. Hence, a lot of our approaches to school are predicated on a model that is in many ways, no longer applicable, and is, in some cases, actively harmful. The question is how to replace such a construct in a way that doesn't necessitate ripping everything down to the ground level and starting over.

A book I read as a freshman was Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and it seems to be a popular book among folks I hang out with. However, and I suppose this is a question that I always come back to, not just in teaching but in a lot of other things, is what happens if everyone subverts the system at once? If there were some shared goals, it might be ok, but I don't think there really are.

It also seems like people who have some vested interest in extracting resources out of the system (be it prestige, money, or a misplaced sense of self righteousness) are going to balk when you either try and suggest that certain subversions might ought to be adopted for the system or, alternatively, that you see some problems with the subversions that they want to put forward.

I'd also suggest that there are some aspects that make the US especially problematic. One is the inequality of access, which goes hand in hand with the mythos of pulling oneself up from one's bootstraps. Another is the wide range and variance of local conditions, which used to be a strong point, but is now a handicap. Yet another is the handicapping of teaching certain ideas and concepts because they run counter to particular ideals.

In the Japanese school system, students are actually trusted to do a lot of things themselves with only the slightest of adult supervision. Unfortunately, the reasons that is possible are numerous and a bit Japan (or asian perhaps) centric. Because education takes place in an environment that is relatively homogeneous and very safe, as well as philosophy of government support that would not be possible in the states as well as a perceived hierarchy of merit that is much more stable than anything in the US, it is much easier to devolve trust for carrying out activities on the students, which becomes part of the implicit curriculum.

Of course, Japan is facing a crisis because the birth rate is below replacement and Japan has not shown any willingness to adopt immigration as a potential solution, in part because of the things noted above. So we are in for a rough century as well.

"the model we have of school comes from the Industrial Age"

Well, maybe, but most of the people that I know who lived in the early 20th century either went to school in agricultural communities, in one-room schoolhouses, or in religious schools - with the same ethos that prevailed from several centuries ago. What was taught there were the three r's, then kids (men, anyway, mostly) were ready for college. Or war.

There have certainly been innovations. Maria Montessori is my own favorite innovator.

The fact is that many people (who could afford it) have been sending kids to school (or to learn things) at the age of 7 for a very long time - since the Middle Ages at least. Of course, homeschooling is an option for those who wish to eschew the problems of community altogether.

Of course, homeschooling is an option for those who wish to eschew the problems of community altogether.

Wow. "With respect," you said?

What unadulterated, presumptuous, mind0reading bullshit.

I'm out of here.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Whatnot


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