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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why study what we have been teaching?

When I was at Yale I occasionally did some freshman advising. I once had to advise a student who had just arrived from the LA ghetto as to what courses to take. I said to take what interested him since there were very few requirements. That is not what he wanted to hear.He asked what I had taken as a freshman. I had attended Carnegie Tech 20 years earlier than the date of this advising session. There were no choices. You took Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Western Civ, and English Lit. No exceptions. He said that he would take those courses. I said that was absurd. He said that I was very successful and that had been how I had started so that was what he would do. And that is what he did.

I was reminded of this story when I had my little encounter with the Obama administration last week. They are about to propose spending hundreds of millions of dollars on education to ensure that we do a better job of teaching the curriculum that has been in place since 1892. Re-examining what is taught and why it is taught will not be considered because they are worried about class warfare. They don't want people saying that a new education system will be different than the one that got them to be the successes that they all are.

If Duncan, Obama (and Nick Kristof) got where they are by taking algebra and physics then we can't take that way from the next generation of students.

This argument is so stupid it is hard to know where to begin to counter it. Let me just say that not all my friends from Carnegie Tech nor from Stuyvesant High School for that matter have become great successes. And that those that have succeeded did so in spite of the mind-numbing "study for the test fact retrieval system" still in place in our schools.

I learned to think from my father, not from school. Most successful people fare well because of good parenting and good genetics not good schooling. We will always have winners of any system that is in place. School should help people live happier, more productive lives. School should not be about winning the competition. Of course, that is exactly what school is about now. What is needed desperately is to pour money into an absurd system?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Obama, Kristof, Duncan and the NY Times all agree

I had some hopes for education when Obama was elected. Gone now. Here is what happened:

Nicholas Kristof, an otherwise seemingly intrepid journalist, wrote a column in the NY Times about how he now realizes that education is our most important priority, and that the solution is higher teacher salaries and memorizing math songs like they do at the KIPP schools. This column was so wrong-headed that I decided to try and contact him so that I could help him understand the issues in education better. I asked a friend who could help me do that. This is what he told me:

Both the New York Times and the Obama administration are very concerned with keeping education exactly as it has been. They are afraid that if radical changes occurred they would be criticized by poor people because they will be seen as having kept the kind of education that made them successful away from the poor. The people who run Washington and New York went to the best academic schools, so any attempt to transform high schools into places where learning is fun and where real world skills are taught, has to be stopped because it would be received badly by poor people and this be politically damaging to the folks in power.

In other words, no job training, no life training, but more algebra and Dickens and Chemistry formulas. Despite the fact that those things were put into the curriculum originally by elitists in a very different world who cared not at all for the poorer classes learning these things is perceived by them as on the road to success and that idea will not be fought.

I have always said that everything evil in education starts with P. Politicians and the Press have always been my two favorites. They don't want to fix education, they want to make it look like it has been fixed.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Thank God for Educational Research!

In today's New York Times:

Children who misbehave at school are often punished by being kept inside at recess. But new research shows that recess helps solve behavioral problems in class.

This is how our Department of Education and all those brilliant Education researchers spend our money. What next? 20 years of research to prove that algebra is boring and irrelevant to all of those who drop out of school? How about a research program to determine why children find school stressful?

I went to school ten times one year to suggest to my son's teacher that she stop banning him from recess as a way of punishing his inability to not act up in class. "He can't sit still that long and making him sit still longer will not help," said I. If only I had known the relevant research!