Monday, November 22, 2010

Obsessing Over Education

Today, Monday November 22 (in under the wire) "has been declared a national Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform. It is a grassroots effort to bring together educators (including parents) to offer their ideas on how to improve America’s public schools" so I wanted to add my voice.  The full list is here.

I'm not sure if it's because I'm pondering taking up a new career in teaching, I'm spurred on by my son's cries of hating school, or it's simply my dad's (he's there to the right) influence, but lately I've become extremely interested in education. My dad keeps handing me excellent books about the state of education in America and ideas for improvement, not to mention making proclamations such as "I'm boycotting Waiting For Superman."

I've been pretty lax about my kids' education.   I stood in a line at 6am to get them into a public Spanish Immersion school, volunteer in class and somehow winded up as a PTA co-Secretary, and figure that's pretty good. I'm lucky, we have the makings for children who will likely do pretty well (whatever that means) - with parents and grandparents with advanced degrees and highly involved in their lives and education. My boys are smart, but seemingly not so "gifted" they act out, they just become bored.

So what's a parent to do? There's been a big hubbub over a certain documentary, but thanks to my father, I've joined the opposite camp, "NOT Waiting for Superman" and in fact recently saw another (non-Hollywood) documentary, "Race to Nowhere," which addressed the high pressure kids are put under to achieve, to get into a top school, get a top job and make a lot of money.  I highly recommend seeing this movie, although I was disappointed by the panel that followed, where one woman said programs that work in wealthy areas like Palo Alto, won't work in poor areas like East Palo Alto.  Ugh!

There was a recent blog post from one of my favorite bloggers about how she wants her children to be more than "just happy" - she wants them to live up to their potential. I'm at the point where I really do want my babies to simply be happy, and while I suspect success and achievement is what will make them happy, it may not be "success" by current standards. Struggling artists, the athletes who barely make a living wage, writers facing their umpteenth rejection letter, I'm betting they may be happier than a cubicle dweller making a decent wage with good benefits. I want my children to take risks, to try new things and fail a lot. They can always go to law school at 40 if they decide money is really what they want (disclaimer, I know not all lawyers make a lot of money.)

Speaking of failure, this is what Neil Postman (currently reading The End of Education) believed is one of the areas missing from today's eduction. Not so much failure itself that is missing, but being rewarded for failure. In an editorial today Tom Friedman spoke about what kids needed in their education "the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate." Neil Postman believes kids also need to learn to argue, to be skeptical and to to be "error detectors" (boy did I get in trouble for that). 

Speaking as the kid always picked last for the debate team (2nd to last for sports, hallelujah), I could not agree more.  I have a hard time arguing my points at work and usually give up, but at least I try, something I would never have done after high school, when the way to a good grade was to agree with the teacher.  In 5th grade I was pissed off when I got a question wrong that began "What do you think...?"  In High School we groaned when our teacher sent a friend who dared argue against the accepted symbolism of Lord of the Rings to the dean.  Who were the "smart" kids?  The one's who knew how to get a good grade or the ones who really understood the book and refused to cave.  I ended up with better grades and at MIT and my friend became a teacher of all things, with the goal of making learning fun, something we rarely experienced.  I hope she hasn't been crushed by the "system."

Tonight I asked the kids if a teacher ever said anything they didn't believe. The answer was no, but I asked what they would do. "Get past it" was their answer, and when I spurred them on to an argument (by proclaiming that Landon Donovan is a better player than Pele ever was) I got an excellent argument and told them so. The boys then laughed and called themselves bullies. Turns out being mean and arguing are lumped together as bullying behavior and that certainly has to stop.  I know for a fact my sons' current teachers would completely accept a challenge to something they said, and be open to a lively discussion.  I just hope that continues.  I've found high school teachers can have much bigger egos than elementary school ones.

Back to the changes...we need to stop concentrating solely on engineering changes, as both Postman and John Taylor Gotto have said.  Smaller class sizes, better technology, Singapore vs Chicago math, longer school years and more money are not going to work without more massive reforms.  If I had a magic wand I'd get rid of testing and boring textbooks and instead help kids find and pursue their passions, or, as Postman writes, "instill our children with a sense of global citizenship, healthy intellectual skepticism, respect of America's traditions, and appreciation of its diversity."  I'd also change the goal of education from getting all kids into college or beating the Chinese to creating "good people, good citizens, and good lives" as Gotto writes. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully thoughtful post. I could write a book on my kids' education; they've been to so many different types of schools and I wish I had been able to have your casual attitude about it; I agonized over every decision on where to send them and felt relieved when they were old enough to make their own choices. I am really sad about the educational system in this country. And though I enjoyed "Waiting for Superman" I'll take your advice and also see "Race to Nowhere" which sounds great. Thanks.