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Three score and ten or more

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Education. Oh woe is us, what can we do?

Yesterday, I was listening to Public Radio, and they were interviewing the Superintendent of one of the Atlanta area school districts, and the questions from the interviewer were, more or less, variations on the title of this post.

The replies were predictable.  Of course it is necessary to upgrade facilities, increase the number of teachers, improve their training, pay them more.  Other conclusions were interesting, and they included changing the school day to start earlier in the morning and go later in the afternoon, make the school year longer, discarding the agrarian tradition that children need to be home during the summer to work in the fields and instead go to school much, or more of the summer.  Emphasize early childhood education with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, and even increasing the length of the day for those children.  I didn't get much more, because I came into the program just before it ended. 

This morning I heard a part of President Obama's question and answer sessions with "the common man" and one of the questions related to education.  His answer mirrored a good part of what the school superintendent had to say, with a significantly larger emphasis on the early childhood education and the inclusion of a thought that there must be a means to create some form of merit pay for teachers that would not necessarily be tied to some form of national mass examination.

Most of what was said was a repetition of material that was given to me in my first education classes in the nineteen fifties, although there was little talk at that time of lengthening the school year, and, in my area kindergarten itself was a rare event, and pre-kindergarten beyond the imagination.

I haven't done any research into these topics, though I have read quite a bit, and most of what I have read has been heavy on broad solutions without much corroborating evidence or else dealt with very narrow concepts for which limited applications make sense.  In both cases the research was okay.  Much of my own Master's thesis dealt with the application of theatre training to high schools, and necessarily ended up with a lot more opinion than fact but what fact there was supported the opinion, but it wouldn't make much of a contribution to real curriculum.  (There was a time when I would have denied that to the death.)

I can't produce solutions, or defeat the propositions  stated by Obama and the nice lady superintendent with hard fact, but I can relate some of my own experiences to their conclusions.

According to most international evaluations, Finland is accepted as one to the most successful educational programs in the world.  I don't have anything that clearly relates to the current world, but I have had some experience with the Finnish system.  When I went to Finland in 1967 courtesy of Mr. Fulbright and the U. S. government, I took my wife and four children with me.  My oldest son had completed the second grade in the U. S. (in Southern Illinois, and though I wasn't completely satisfied with his school experience, he was good enough reader that he read The Hobbit, and Return of the King on the airplane as we flew to Finland.  I investigated the Helsinki school that was provided for the children of diplomats and other American residents in Finland and was not impressed, so we decided that he should, if possible, go to school in a regular public school.  In planning for this, we discovered that in Finland, in 1967, children did not begin school until their seventh year, a year later than in the U.S., so, though He was almost eight, my son was enrolled in the first grade at Puotila elementary school.

He struggled for a couple of months since he had absolutely no Finnish, and though his teacher had a slight command of English she had other students in the class and wasn't able to give him language training.  As a result, we sat together for more than an hour almost every evening while I corrected his reading and translated his assignments, but soon he was brushing me off as un-necessary.  The Elementary school started at 9:00 each morning and was finished at highly irregular times.  One day he would be out of school at one o'clock, and another he would be inclass till four P.M., and he was expected to keep track of his own class schedule.  During school they had time for a period of religion (my Mormon Son had to function in Lutheran, which he did rather well).  They had visual art, singing,  and considerable time for sports.  During the year he had time for running, soccer, and cross country skiing  most of which happened during the regular school day, although we had the occasional soccer game to watch on Saturdays.  He learned to write in Finnish, in Math, they were doing fractions by the end of the year and he had learned some basic skills of algebra as well.  He had learned about the Winter War and knew many of he stories from the Kalevala.  When he started the fourth grade at the laboratory school at the State University of New York at Oneonta, the next fall he was so far ahead of his class that he spend much of his time reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  He made that progress in a school without long hours, but which had  experience in all the arts, religion, and , I guess you would call it PE.  (They had very little time for what we would call recess).  What they DID have in the school was discipline.  Students stood when the teacher entered the room and actually bowed to her and addressed her by name ("Good Morning, Miss Nieminen.")  They were quiet in class except when answering or asking questions (Which involved raising the hand to be recognized, and standing while answering or asking questions.)  And, as far as I could tell, they had none of the politically correct crap that so often substitutes for content matter in our current public schools.  So much for necessary early child education.

I confess that I found it really irritating  that he couldn't speak a word of Finnish less than two years later, but that wouldn't have been true if I had spoken to him and the other children in Finnish as often as I did while we were living there.

I have taught, since then at the University level and I'll confess that for the first twenty years, there seemed to be a consistent improvement in students and their preparation for college, although a constant problem was always those who didn't want to be there and had not prepared for independent study, or who thought of college as a place where they could do whatever in the world they wanted and their parents wouldn't know, but that Place to have fun thing was true when I was an undergraduate as well.  I really wasn't aware of many of my undergraduate colleagues who didn't want to be there, but I didn't know the backgrounds of all my friends.  During the last ten years of my career there was more of a struggle with discipline, with the demand for "rights" (in all the multiple dimensions of that demand), and with the increasing element of "political correctness and political indoctrination" of students.

I have a couple of conclusions about how to solve our education problems, that are not couched in such clear experiential evidence, but it is my impression that many  administrators in the public schools are administrators because they couldn't survive successfully in the classroom.  There is an old saying that went the rounds during my undergraduate life, and probably before that (and after) that says "Them what kin, do. Them what cain't, teach, and them what cain't teach, teach teachers.'"  That used to really irritate me, and though there are clear exceptions, most of the Education Faculty in the universities at which I taught were pretty darn good, if occasionally lost in blue sky thinking.  But I really think that "them which cain't teach become administrators " is pretty close to true.  I think that the solution for many of the problems in the public schools is to require all administrators to teach in the classroom at least three hours each day.  This would eliminate many of those who are incompetent, and benefit the teachers because I think that administrators in general feel a need to prove that they have worth.  They do this by generating paperwork for teachers who have little time for that paperwork. If the administrators had to teach, they would be less likely to assign worthless paperwork which they themselves would have to complete as well.

Well  my age has taken over and I have to quit.  See you all soon.


At 11:02 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

"...the solution for many of the problems in the public schools is to require all administrators to teach in the classroom at least three hours each day..."

Not only in teaching but all areas.


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