Saturday, January 29, 2011

Educational Faddism

I'm a bit disappointed with what I am hearing from Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.  While there are parts of his proposal that make some sense, other parts just strike me as educational fads, such as laptops for every high school student and requiring students to take online classes.

Look, a laptop is a useful tool, but a disturbing number of my students are getting out of high school not having mastered writing skills that do not require a laptop!  Online classes?  Those make sense for highly motivated students prepared to work in an environment that does not have such direct accountability as sitting in a classroom, but I am skeptical that this describes most high school students.

There are a lot of small school districts in Idaho that need consolidation.  These are districts with 300 students, within a few miles of other districts of similar size.  Every district has a superintendent--often pulling down a very impressive salary.  Luna wants to see this done, but as one of the state senators points out:

But will the discussion go from lip service to law?

Probably not, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde said Thursday. He expects consolidation legislation to emerge, then fade without gaining traction.

“Every lawmaker wants to see every district in the state consolidated but his own, so it won’t receive much support,” Goedde said Thursday.

Along with consolidation, which makes a lot of sense, much of Luna's proposal seems like something that you would come up with because no one wants to confront the elephant in the bathtub of why public schools (and many private schools) are doing only a so-so job:

1. A lot of parents who do not regard learning as terribly important--at least, not enough to actually role model it to their children.  I know one teacher (in a private high school) who told me of a discouraging conference with a parent.  The son was not doing well in composition, at least partly because he did not read.  Reading for pleasure is part of developing literacy--but the mother admitted that she has trouble finding energy and time to read.  Magazines were about as deep as she could manage.

2. A lot of kids are coming from homes devastated by divorce.  You think divorce is wrenching on adults?  I know someone who taught at a Christian middle school in California, and the devastation that current and previous divorces were having on her students.  (And yes, at a Christian school in California, most parents are divorced or divorcing.  You expect the parents to be any different from the secular world?)

3. Way too many kids have grown up with enormous wealth and parental indulgence.  This is beginning to decline because of the economic collapse, but I'm afraid we have a lot of kids who simply did not see the need to work terribly hard in school--why should they, when everything they want is given to them?

Yes, I want to blame teacher unions.  They are certainly part of the problem, especially in places like New York.  Yes, there are schools more focused on safe sex than good grammar.  But the core problem is that a lot of kids are getting the wrong message at home about education.


  1. The argument against consolidation is that the larger the school district, the harder it is for parents to influence it for the better. Of course, if the parents aren't interested....

  2. Nicely said. I teach at a rural school in Arkansas, and I am seeing the same solutions that you mentioned being tossed about and the same three major problems keeping kids from being able to articulate a complete sentence, let alone a paragraph or an essay.

  3. Elephant in the room?

    I serve on a school board overseeing an 11,000-student district. Two high schools: One serving an area with families toward the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the other more stable.

    You can guess which high school - with identical funding and support - struggles. We all blame it on "poverty" even though the majority of students from the struggling school are not poor, per se. I pointed out to a fellow board member this week that the struggling school suffers from a parent shortage - they literally have fewer parents, in the homes and in the community as a whole. The educational outcomes are exactly what one would expect, given what we know about at-risk children.

    But we're careful to utter that only in whispers, as we search for the next program to close the "troubling disparity."

  4. When taking computer science classes as an undergraduate, I noticed an interesting trend: those computer classes that were done in traditional classrooms, where the students sat in desks, and the professor wrote on the chalkboard (and occasionally used a computer-screen projector) were far more productive than those classes where I was put in a computer room, and sat in front of a computer.

    It's much more easy to listen and take notes when you aren't distracted by e-mail and web-surfing!

    That, and to this day, I cannot imagine doing mathematics without pencil, paper and erasers.

  5. Also, I concluded a long time ago that the only way for children to succeed, is to be home-schooled. This is true even if you send them to private or public schools!

    As my oldest daughter has gone through kindergarten this year, I couldn't help but have this observation confirmed: it's amazing at what lengths the local school goes to try to convince parents to educate their children.