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Friday, March 20, 2009

Lamar Alexander fails to save the day (again)

I happened on C-SPAN yesterday and there was Lamar Alexander, former Secretary of Education and now a US Senator, speaking in the Senate on restoring teaching history to it "rightful place" and making sure that history was part of the NCLB act. Since he says this same stuff all the time, here is a quote from him from 2006 taken from what was pretty much the same speech:

"Just one example of how far we are from helping our children learn what they need to know. The fourth grade national report card test asked students to identify the following passage, quote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Students were given four choices: Constitution, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation. Less than half the students answered correctly that that came from the Declaration of Independence. Another question said, "Imagine that you landed in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. Describe an important event that is happening there." Nearly half the students couldn't answer the question correctly that the Declaration of Independence was being signed."

Of course, since science and math is so very important as we all know, one wonders what history being restored to its importance does to STEM. When something comes in, something has to go out, in education. But this is not my point.

My point is that politicians never seem to get it about education. What history do students "need to know?" None actually, unless they plan on being historians or maybe senators. Now I realize this is a radical point of view, but just like math and science, history is not something anyone needs to know.

Why not?

Because knowing what happened in Philadelphia in 1776 does not in fact make you a better citizen, no matter what Alexander says. A good citizen would be one who carefully considered the issues when voting. That would mean being able to think critically and ask hard questions of politicians.

In 1776 we had a bunch of politicians who, if the present is any example, were surely voting for their own special interests. The fact that we, as a country, feel the need to make them into folk heroes does not make it one bit more likely they they were any better or worse than the current people who govern us. What Alexander is really arguing for is more indoctrination - more informing students what to think instead of teaching them how to think.

Students don't need to know any official facts. They need to know how to live their lives intelligently. It is quite obvious that schools and school reform movements do not have this as an item on their agenda. Just more cramming for tests.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The phone rings... its Milo

"I was wondering if you would like to play grandparent games with me..." says the small voice on the other end of the line.

Milo is 3 years and 4 months old. We read words for 30 minutes. You want to know how to educate children? Make it fun.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What were your test scores Mr. Obama?

“It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable,” Mr. Obama said. “Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement."

Really? Is that how professionals are treated these days? Do we measure other professionals by how those they mentor do on standardized tests? Would you, Mr. Obama, like to be measured by how your staff does on standardized tests?

Treating teachers like professionals might include letting them actually teach to a student's interest and concerns rather than helping them raise their math scores.

And, while we are at it Mr. Obama, what were your scores on the SAT? Did anyone ask you that while you were campaigning? Would you have thought it was stupid if they had?

Tell me the quadratic formula Mr. Obama. Can't? Might that be because it doesn't matter in any way to know it? Stop making kids memorize nonsense and you will be treating teachers like professionals.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More College Graduates? Say it ain't so Mr. President.

Mr. Obama has promised that by 2020, America will "once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Can we think about that for a minute? Why does this matter? We Americans so believe in college that we rarely ask why. I asked my students at Yale and later at Northwestern why they were in college. I heard a lot about parties, a four year vacation, going because their parents made them come, and a lot about how you need a college degree to get ahead.

I never once had anyone say they were there to learn. Never.

College offers diplomas. Education, not so much. And to the extent that colleges do offer education, a Yale English major is typically considered well educated by modern standards, what difference does it make to the country? Those English majors don't easily find careers and in bad economic times even a Yale degree may not buy you much.

I am sure what Mr. Obama meant to say was that by 2020 our population will be able to reason effectively, work well with others, and communicate well. At least that is something he quoted from me while he was campaigning. But alas, now it all about making sure those 3000 colleges we have survive regardless of whether they are turning out more productive and reasoning citizens.