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Monday, April 14, 2014

The State of Education

I read a very interesting book over the last week. The Smartest Kids in the World took a critical look at education, not just in the US but in Finland, Korea, and Poland, mostly through the eyes of three foreign exchange students. I expected it to be dry and more of a chore to wade through than a pleasurable read, like most of the non-fiction books I've been reading for class. I was very pleasantly surprised, not by the topic but by the readability of the book. The narrative flowed easily and the concepts were presented clearly. One idea led to the next in a logical, easy to follow manner.

The author's findings left me more than a little agitated, not because she's wrong but very, very right, in my opinion. Our school systems have major issues and the trends I see trouble me deeply, one of the reasons I'm pursuing a graduate degree in educational design.

SPOILER ALERT - If you want to discover her findings yourself, go read the book. It's easy to read, but it will leave you unsettled and unsatisfied, especially if you have children in the public schools in the US. We could do so much better. Change will hurt, mostly because it's change, but a few smaller changes can renew our entire system for the better. Other countries have shown it can be done and that change can happen fairly rapidly. But it will take work and commitment to make it happen.


First, change the teachers. Education is only as good as the teachers. If they don't understand math and science, or worse, are afraid of it, their students will also not understand and be afraid. But instead of punishing current teachers by shoving requirements onto them, start where teachers start: at college admissions. Make teacher education more rigorous. Raise the requirements to be admitted to a good teaching college. Create a national teaching license that actually means something and requires a solid understanding of the subject matter, not just teaching but the subject being taught. We do this type of licensing with lawyers and doctors and even electricians, why should teachers be something less?

But no one will want to teach if we do that, will they? All that hard work for no respect and low pay. So pay teachers a salary more in line with a college graduate salary instead of a fast food manager. The respect will fix itself if we require more from our prospective teachers.

With smart, hard-working, well-trained teachers in the classroom, we just need to get out of their way and let them teach. The Common Core is a good idea, maybe not in its current form, but it's at least a start towards accountability for the students. Let the teachers teach in the way that works. Good teachers will find a way if we let them.

Second, change the schools. Make the graduation test an actual measure of real-world skills. I recently took the GRE to get admitted to graduate school. It would work fine for high school. If a student can't do pre-algebra, pass a basic English exam, and write three persuasive essays, they aren't ready for the world. Really. Think about it. The GRE wasn't that hard.

One point in the book that stuck with me was the focus of schools on sports. The one area US schools excel in rigor and quality is the sports program, particularly football and basketball. Schools focus on sports more than anything else, to the detriment of education as a whole. I'm not saying take out sports entirely, kids need play-time and exercise and recess. Kids learn good things from playing sports, but not everything they need to know in order to succeed in today's world. I'm saying make the focus on schools on teaching not coaching. Let the after-school sports programs be that and only that.

Whatever we choose to do to fix our educational system, it's going to be painful for everyone involved. It will take people with vision. It will take flexibility. But it won't take long. If we take the steps necessary.

But we can't be tentative. It will take boldness. It will take commitment to a higher ideal of what education can and should be.

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