Many educational experts believe that the present state of the educational system in the USA and abroad is less-than-desirable. Many agree that the realities of life in our current century do not necessarily align with the manner in which we are choosing to educate our children. Many agree that education is outdated and must be redesigned and re-thunk in order to become more meaningful for our children. What experts do not agree on is how we are going to do this.
EDUCATIONAL TRENDS/ FADS
I worry that education is too often driven by fleeting trends. Somehow education is one of those fields that seems to implement first and research later, only finding out years after millions of dollars have been invested that the new method of teaching (insert any subject here… math, science, etc.) was not any better than the original way (in fact, sometimes it was worse!)
I have a few examples for you. I learned math years ago from a textbook series that today is frowned upon and ostracized – it is looked down on by many educational experts – the series??? Saxon Math. It got me through math, it helped me learn what I needed to learn and I scored the second highest score in my school on the math portion of the SAT. Years later, when I needed to review my math skills for the GRE I believe that the math I learned came back quickly and, ultimately, I remembered enough math to get a decent score (not outstanding, but high enough to apply to the doctoral programs I was interested in). I did okay, I actually did well, with (this now considered sub-standard) Saxon Math – in fact, I LOVED math!!! Many of us did okay with Saxon. Believe me, I am NOT wanting to plug their program, just point out a simple fact. Saxon is now considered boring and obsolete, it was just about math problems, there was too much repetition and not enough real world relevance.
This year we had to choose a math series for our high school. Of course, Saxon Math was not even on the table as an option, but what worried the math teacher and me was the quality of the options that were available to us as a school. We were appalled to realize that many math books were missing the point – teaching math skills. One series was so bad that the teacher brought the book to me and said, “Do you see the problem with this one? There are more words than numbers on every page! They are supposed to be learning math, not reading!” She was right – there WERE more words than numbers and the math textbooks were focused on cool “bunny trails” regarding the application of math in real life circumstances, but did not really focus on math today. Hmmmm, it made me wonder how that would really be helpful – and I thought about my daughter who is currently learning to play the piano.
My daughter has a piano book that teaches her music in a logical manner. She started off with simple songs and each week she is challenged to learn new notes and rhythms. She uses an old piano series, in fact, it is the same one I used 30+ years earlier (perhaps the photos are a bit updated). The method is exactly the same: master the basics and then find yourself with increasingly more challenging material. Nothing has changed because in order to learn music, one must practice music. Is math not the same? The math books have changed incredibly – and now instead of doing as many practice problems, our students read about math. I wonder what would happen if my daughter were to read about music, instead of practicing songs in succession – would she learn music faster??? Probably not! Why do we know that in order to master music our students must practice, but we have decided that students do not need as much practice to master math? Calculating is not that different from music – it takes practice to really understand and internalize the skills.
How many of my readers remember the DARE programs in the schools that started in the 80’s??? DARE to keep kids off drugs – remember now? Local policeman came to the schools to teach drug prevention programs. There was no data proving the efficacy of the program, but parents wanted the programs in their children’s schools as word spread. In the end? DARE has been cut from many schools, but it remains today and, with the help of Penn State, has become more relevant with new curriculum. Ironically, I believe that the research did not indicate that the program had any correlation with lower rates of drug use. In fact, if I recall correctly, a few studies proved that participation in DARE increased curiosity and may have been correlated with slightly higher rates of drug experimentation.
Some schools are still engaging in character education, a program that I always appreciated. When character education was the big trend, adults wanted their children’s schools to add this program, which focused on a different character trait each month, with the hopes of infusing these particular traits into our children’s being. I remember one school I worked at spent an entire year (yes AN ENTIRE YEAR) deciding which 10 character traits they would focus on throughout the school year. There was a committee that met for 1-2 hours every month to work on the traits. There were 10 people on the committee – in the end we spent between 150 and 200 hours of staff time (the equivalent of one person working full-time for five weeks) to choose these traits. We then purchased curriculum and we were ready to go. Just two years later we never heard of the traits again – it faded into nowhere – taking all the time and money we had invested into the black hole with it.
I am all for implementing new programs that work – I have taught parenting courses at many of the schools I have worked at and they have all survived since I left. The parents needed support, empowerment, and skill building – the course met a very real need and has had a very positive effect.
The question is – when do we choose new programs for the sake of new programs (or feeling that we are missing something because the marketing is so good…..)
IB and AP Programs
The IB programs – all of them: PYP (Primary Years Program), MYP (Middle Years Program), and the IB (International Baccalaureate Diploma have all come with very mixed feelings and results. Many parents are DEMANDING that their school districts offer the IB diploma, a rigorous diploma that places an incredible amount of pressure on the teens that complete it. Some teens thrive in the program, as they love the challenges of learning. Other teens feel that they are drowning, but will not be able to get into a college without the diploma – so they spend every waking hour during their junior and senior year dedicated to this diploma program, at the expense of their childhood. This often has a backfire effect when they hit college and then let loose and party constantly, at the expense of their schoolwork (after all, they are now in college, nothing left to work towards – and the courses are easier than the high school ones, so they really can afford to party… until partying is too much).
Our schools offer AP classes, but have opted to NOT embrace the IB program at this time. What I have found interesting is that our students are getting into Ivy league schools at the same rate as those schools with IB programs – so why are the IB programs in such demand?
BUCKING THE SYSTEM
Some schools are starting to buck the system – they want to teach their teens to embrace learning and give them a true learning experience – they are leaning towards dropping IB and AP programs. What is in their place? Learning – no more teaching to IB or AP exams and prescriptive curriculum guides – they are now allowed to be more creative in the classrooms and work with students at their level and follow their interests. If a class is more interested in World War II than anticipated and great learning is occurring the teacher can extend that unit and not be pressured that they will not finish the material necessary for a test. The students learn more as they are able to tackle subjects in more thorough ways. And, the beauty of these schools is that they are able to focus more on fostering creativity and adaptability – two of the skills that future employers consistently list as necessary for workplace success.
CHANGING THE SYSTEM???
I do not have the answers when it comes to how we need to change our educational system today, I just know we need to start asking the questions. I am concerned that some subject areas are evolving in ways that seem to teach our students less (such as the aforementioned math textbooks) and some that are teaching more, but only teaching to a test (ie: AP and IB exams). I want to see students engaged in learning that is exciting and relevant – and that is balanced. Too many high school students are overwhelmed with the pressure to succeed in high school for the purpose of college admissions. What happened to the balance? Is there a way for them to succeed without being pushed to their breaking points?
In order to change the system, at least at the high school level, dialogue will need to occur between high school teachers and university admissions professionals, as university entrance requirements are a leading force in the high school education trends for today. In order to change the high school system, we will have to partner with universities to look at the way we judge students for university entrance – perhaps we are doing THAT all wrong too!
Today, 18 days ’til 40, I find myself wondering how we are going to shift our current educational system into something far more meaningful and relevant for our children. They are counting on us to figure it out.