In Which Detox Ends (Pt 2)

13 09 2009

The simple truth that is that as they grow older most people will happily compartmentalize, and indeed people are very good at it. However, on it’s moderately worse than average days, school takes it to such an extreme of cutting up segments of your day into different modes of thought that it really is difficult to handle.

On top of that, in high school work quantity per class climbs higher and higher, and this is on top of the enormous load of extracurricular that many have piled on for the college admissions game (I won’t even get started on what I think of that). The workload for many students is beyond excessive, and if anything it continues to grow, not shrink.

By the time summer vacation comes, kids are worn out. I don’t mean this metaphorically. It’s the literal truth. By the end of a school year, a lot of high school kids are truly, physically and mentally exhausted. If school lasted much longer, a lot of us simply wouldn’t make it through the year. As it is, more than a few people don’t quite make it through finals. There’s a reason I had a grand total of one half of one substantial post in June.

And of course in the often hilarious, always over the top world that is high school drama, a few thousand exhausted, worn out, teenagers makes for a cycle of fights wearing people out even more, so they get into more fights with friends, so they’re more worn out, etc. And in the middle of this, the SATs and finals. All around, not a very good thing.

The point being, summer vacation comes just in time. For various reasons, keeping school going much longer just would not work. If it were extended, either kids would simply stop being able to handle it, or they would manage at a very real detriment to their health. Again, it sounds silly, but I say this completely seriously. High work load high schools especially leave kids utterly worn out by the end of the school year. There are arguments against the long summer vacation, but I think that it requires a very fundamental shift in how American schools operate in several different ways before it could be changed without very serious repercussions for the schools (not to mention losing things that can only be done with the long summer vacation). Give me that massive shift in American education and I’ll consider the arguments again. Until then, summer needs to stay.


In Which Detox Ends (Pt 1)

7 09 2009

Yes, summer has come to an end and with it the nearly 3 months a year in which children may detoxify from their educations. Let’s talk a little about that toxicity, and why the long break is important (I know that there are legitimate arguments for shorter, more frequent breaks for reasons such as how much progress is lost in many low achieving students, but for these posts t I’m dealing with average and above average kids).

Firstly, I guess I should at least a stab at showing that my premise (school wears kids down and is, in some ways, detrimental) is the case. All right, here goes.

Most American schools, or at least the public ones, are set up to foster uniformity. Yes, there is token “diversity,” encouraging diversity of race and background, gender and sexual preference. There’s even (supposedly) a push to creativity (hah. More on that later). But there isn’t a true encouragement toward diversity of thought. You are taught that you do math this way, and any other way is wrong, even if it works. You will write your essay such that it adheres perfectly to these thirty seven guidelines, and touches for exactly three sentences on 3 of these 5 topics, no fewer and no more. Your thoughts on those topics will fall within these parameters, and these boundaries. You will reach them by prewriting in exactly this manner. Have a science lab? Here are the instructions. Figure out things for yourself? That would waste valuable class time! We’re here to get you through the tests, not to teach you to think scientifically! Like music? Well then, you may do choral music, play chamber music, marching band, or jazz. What’s that, you like rock? Well, that’s just too bad.

And about that English paper, I hope you didn’t say anything that might offend anyone? After all, it’s much more important that you’re meek and inoffensive than that you’re cogent, or that you drive to the center of the issue. If that issue might offend someone, then school time should not be spent dealing with it, and you will be disciplined! And heaven forbid it wasn’t one of the five thoughts that the teacher anticipated, that would make grading it take an actual look at its merits rather than a look at the teacher’s outline of how they’ve graded the same thoughts for 20 years!

Creativity? Hah! You amuse me! We are here to learn facts! We do not learn to understand the beauty and elegance of an atom! We do not waste valuable test time to delve into its depths in order to learn the way to think to truly understand it, and how it was discovered, and why it is the way it is! We most certainly do not have free write time in English which might be used in writing a metaphorical story of an atom! And as for writing about atoms in science class, well!

Creativity in history? No, we will not spend time to read and discuss satirists! They are irrelevant to history! They did not shape it! Only the Great Politicians shaped history, not some lowly comedian! Use George Carlin to learn about the issues surrounding censorship? But he’s offensive! Read Mark Twain’s essays? But he’s for English class! And taking the time to learn about what satire is, and perhaps even attempt it ourselves? Positively absurd! That is not how it is done.

Subject integration is of course impossible. We could not possibly learn rhetoric in English and study historical examples in History. We cannot waste our time learning the history of Science, and how it began and developed. Learning about computer science and its impact on World War Two would be silly, of course. Alan Turing did nothing for the War!

Point made, I think. School is about compartmentalizing, and fitting our thoughts in approved boxes. The number of approved boxes has increased, but that is a far cry from removing the boxes and giving children the chance to swim in the ocean that is independent thought.

APs yet again!

27 08 2009

School’s starting around the country once again, and that means that all the AP pushing College Board minio…er, educators with an eye on college prep are back to pushing students into AP classes. The goal is, of course, to force students to Rise To Meet The Challenge and Unlock Their Hidden Potential. Excuse me for a moment while I go burn Micky Mouse in effigy.

All right, Micky Mouse is dead. Now, on to the question, why do so many educators suffer from Acute Disney Syndrome? Do teachers spend their summers strapped to a chair somewhere in a dark room watching Miracle?

The problem would be easily explained if we were talking only about elementary school teachers (the sort of teachers who want to teach elementary school kids are the same people as the ones who love the happy feel good underdog stories), but the one’s to whom I’m referring are neither in elementary schools nor teachers. They are a diverse group, ranging from education columnists to principals and department supervisors. They are in districts as different as the DC schools and upper middle class suburban districts.

Self interest (“My school is higher in Newsweek than theirs!”) really doesn’t adequately explain it, either. It appears to be a strange mix of self interest, delusion (they actually believe that the average kid just needs a challenge to turn into a wonderful scholar), and the truly bizarre educational culture in the United States (“I believe that evwywon is gifted!”) coming together in a sort of perfect storm of bad educational theory.


Here to illustrate the complexities of the situation, I give you the Perpetual Dissent Abridged Sock Puppet Company in their second performance.

Perpetual Dissent puppet: So what makes you think that pushing underachieving students into college level classes will make them perform better?

Administrator puppet #1: You’ve said it yourself! Putting gifted students in college classes helps them learn better!

PD: But most students aren’t gifted stude…

Puppet #1: EVERYONE is gifted! Everyone is unique and special and wonderful and amazing and important and significant!

PD: …do you even know what “gifted” means?

Puppet #1: It means that they deserve decent treatment!

PD: Yeah, um, no. Are you sure you got a degree in education?

Puppet #1: Yep,  that’s where I learned all this!

PD: Oh god why?

Administrator puppet #2: He’s dumb. But I’m smart, so here’s why everyone should do APs! See, if everyone does APs, then we get higher in Newsweek. And if we’re higher in Newsweek, then more people move here and pay taxes, and I get a pay raise. And if I get a pay raise, then I can go out to Vegas and…wait, what were we talking about?

PD: *blinks*

Administrator puppet #3: Admit it, Disney is true! Everyone just needs a push to unlock their hidden potential! Everyone’s just waiting to rise to meet The Challenge!

PD: Was the lobotomy painful?

*At this point the Puppet Theater was interrupted as Disney Commandos (Donald Duck knows how to use an M16, who would have guessed?) swung in through the windows and dragged puppet #3 from the room for violating their trademarks on “unlocking hidden potential” and “rise to meet the challenge.” We will mourn his loss. He was a good puppet.*

No fun for you!

27 02 2009

Ok, so my high school’s a little “different” sometimes. A conga line was being organized during lunch, and it was to happen today. What happened? Well, you see, the organizers were called down to the main office when lunch started. They were informed that if they in fact followed through on their plan to have a conga line (let me repeat, at lunch, not during class), they would receive five day out of school suspensions.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that this seems just a tad excessive. I mean really, 5 days for organizing a conga line? Minilove anyone? What, were they going to gather a legion of conga minions and storm the principal’s office?

Of course, this is perhaps the best way to ensure that it happens. Without this, I doubt more than 5 or 6 people would have been bored enough to do it. But since there are subversive elements (not even just me!) who think our administration are full of it, they can now expect a huge event that will eventually happen threats or no.

And really, what was the point? I mean, OK, I can see not allowing it (the reasons are mostly bad, but I could at least see it) but five day suspensions? I just don’t get the reasoning behind it. It doesn’t surprise me greatly that they overreacted (“our administration are full of it”), but this is beyond even what I would expect of overly uptight school administrators.

I’ll be curious to see what silliness happens next in this little bit of high school drama. And since I’m narcissistic enough to have a blog, I’ll post it for your entertainment (you do enjoy my ramblings, I assume, or you wouldn’t be reading this). I strongly suspect that hilarity will ensue (*pointed look at seniors*), so it should be interesting.

Science Education in America

16 10 2008

American science education is a mess right now. Part of that is caused by the same factors that are hurting the education system as a whole, but there are also science-specific issues that need to be addressed.

First, the good: despite a few states where it has been a fight, most of the US does teach evolution pretty well. It doesn’t seem like much. It is definitely unfortunate that it seems like a plus to teach it well in most of the country, but it is. After all, if evolution were being attacked in more places, science education could be in a much worse state than it is.

Now, the rather longer bit: the bad.

The first bad bit is that evolution has to fight to be taught without creationism along side it at all. This is a fight that shouldn’t have to be fought at all, because evolution is one of the most well supported and solid theories in science. The forces of ignorance (well intentioned, sure, but that’s no excuse) have sought to stop evolution from being taught because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. They are outside the mainstream of the religious, but not nearly as far outside the mainstream as they should be.

This is made worse because the attack on evolution decreases understanding of evolution (or at the very least impedes it), thereby further perpetuating attacks on evolution. As the quality of biology teaching goes down, fewer kids learn evolution well and accept it. As fewer accept it, more attack it, and so on ad infinitum. This can still be reversed, and is probably the easiest to change because here at least the causes of bad education are fairly clear. In other areas, they are harder to discern.

For example, a second issue: most kids graduating from high school don’t really understand the scientific method. We have a science teacher at some point in school make us memorize the steps, but the reasons behind each step, how it really works, the messiness of the process, and the importance of it are never explained. I know about peer review from my own, independent learning. Nothing is taught about it in school even though peer review is a core part of the scientific method. Most of the kids I know think that the scientific method is a rigid, clean, neat process. As I’m sure any scientist could explain better than I, the process is far from neat or clean, and is rigid only in its demand for transparent methods and evidence.

Why is the scientific method not taught? Honestly, I don’t know. There are no obvious culprits like there are with regard to evolution. This is something I’m still trying to figure out, and since this blog is supposed to be about critical thinking, I guess I should just leave it at that until I find out more. Unfounded speculation would be rather hypocritical, I think.

The third is a more general problem: teacher quality. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of very good teachers in America. Unfortunately, they are rarely rewarded, and poor teachers have no incentive to improve. Whenever a district considers merit based pay, the teachers’ unions fight it. After all, at least as many teachers would lose out from it as would get more. In many places, it is actually cheaper to keep a tenured teacher “working” in a so-called rubber room, being payed to do sit there doing nothing, than it is to go through the legal proceedings to have them removed. On the one hand, tenure exists for a very good reason, but on the other, there is such thing as going overboard.

In addition to the problems with current teachers, we as a society do not encourage people to go into education. Teachers do not command very much respect, and few make much money, especially in public schools. For most intelligent people, it is much better to go into something else even if they like teaching because there are so many benefits to choosing something other than teaching.  How can we get quality teachers like this? We pay the people in whom we place the minds of America’s children less than we pay a retail store manager. Are children’s minds worth so little?

Again, I really don’t know why this has happened. I wish I did.

The case is by no means hopeless, but it is becoming more and more serious. For evolution, all I can really say is that people who care about science need to keep fighting creationism when it tries to pop up in schools. For the rest, all I can say is that we need to try to convince schools to focus more on the scientific method and try to convince school boards and teachers to accept merit bases systems. Those treat the symptoms, though, and really what needs to be done is treat the cause. If we do this, we can still avoid the path we seem to have started down. If we fail to change course, however, the damage to understanding of science in America will be great.