Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Grading the Schools

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Last night, while I was driving home, I heard the Hugh Hewitt show on the radio. I think HH has a morning slot in California, so that would mean the station, as it does at times, had tape-delayed the show. Anyway, after the expected run through the popular topics of the day, Hugh turned his attention to Education standards, just as I was turning into the daycare parking lot to pick up my daughter. I mention this detail, because I want to be fair to Hugh and may have misunderstood his opinion on a point, but it appeared the debate was about the value of High School GPAs for students taking accelerated classes, against basing instead a heavy trust on class rank within each school, as a reasonable value on the student’s actual academic accomplishment. It started me thinking again, on the matter of educational measures and goals.

Jay Mathews wrote against the practice of awarding bonus grade points to students who take advanced and challenging courses, instead of riding easy courses.

Hugh Hewitt was clear in his opinion, asking “why not reward students for taking hard courses? If you don't, they won't. They are rational beings. Elevate mediocrity to the same level of achievement as excellence and you get more mediocrity. Period.”

Betsy Newmark went further, linking to both Jay and Hugh, and explained the matter directly and succinctly: “Taking away the honors point seems like a solution attacking the wrong problem. If the poorer schools don't offer such courses - they should. If they are college preparatory schools, the best way to prepare kids for college is to give them AP classes and prepare them at the lower grades for taking the AP classes by getting them ready to read and understand difficult readings and to write analytical essays. Why punish the kids who are working hard in their classes by taking away the bonus?”

Well said as usual, Betsy. Betsy also recognizes the real-world implications or removing rewards from hard work: “Hugh worries about kids not taking the class if they don't get the bonus point. As well he should. Apparently, the California researchers don't understand basic economics. People respond to incentives. Take away the incentive and fewer kids will take the class. Is that the result they are aiming for?”

I will leave off this specific point, because Jay, Hugh, and Betsy have all addressed it better than I could (interesting, how the print media, radio, and a real-world teacher have all jumped onto this one), and my comments would simply echo their existing thoughts.

But I do wonder a bit about where we are going with education in this country. I think it comes down to the special interests, and the plain unhappy fact is, we aren’t going to abolish those interests, so we have to work with them, like sailing in a storm. Try to work with Mother Nature without getting smacked too hard. As I see it, the special interest groups (SIG’s) are:

Students as a whole,
Teachers as a whole,
Educator Unions and Associations (e,g, the NEA),
Liberals as a whole,
Conservatives as a whole,
Colleges and Universities in general, and
Businesses in general


The resulting melee is a real mess, and has been for most of the past century.

Americans take education for granted, in the main. Our nation includes the myth of the frontier towns always setting up a church and school before anything else was built. In point of fact, that just does not play out. As recently as World War 2, it was no sure thing for someone to graduate High School, and College was a true distinction. Ever since, all sorts of planners and idealists have tried to create the way by which every student would graduate, be successful and happy. Education, we seem to forget, serves specific needs. It may be enjoyable for those intellectually inclined, and it may be teach skills which people will find useful later in life, but in the main, education was simply a means to prepare for life. Thus, early schools taught fundamental skills, and most young men quickly found assignment into guilds and apprenticeships in Europe and Asia. Even in America, the notion of school was essentially for basic skills, reading/writing/simple math. As the 20th Century began, reforms were developed to develop a more-or-less standardized curriculum of academic virtues. History, Civics, Literature, and Sciences were added, along with the “electives” where possible. Public schools followed the lead of successful colleges, and introduced sports and arts to create interest, and the now-ubiquitous letter-grade system came into vogue. With the creation of the G.I. Bill after World War 2, colleges suddenly found themselves with more applications than they knew what to do with, and Admissions offices suddenly found it necessary to develop a screening method to sort out qualified students. And along the way, each of the groups I noted found themselves adjusting to the new realities, facing new challenges and opportunities as the nation grew and changed. It should not be surprising, therefore, to see that we have, once again, outgrown the old system.

So, what to do with all this? I think we should begin, by considering the short- and long-term priorities of each group, sinec we'll have to face them anyway. To start, Students as a whole are not likely to express a clear short-term goal, other than the desire to be acknowledged as the key players in this issue, but long-term, I suspect many students are worried about using their school skills in the real world. There is no purpose to putting in twelve years, just to find out most of it was a waste of time. Regarding Teachers as a whole, I would say that in their case the short- and long-term goals are simple but vital, to be able to do their jobs without bureacracy or censorship, and to be better rewarded for their devotion to our children. During the years kids are in school, the simple fact is that teachers will see more of the children than their own parents will, and that will have an indisputable effect, which we should all consider carefully. regarding Educator Unions and Associations, they are largely obsolete (grabbing advantages for themselves and far too seldom for the best teachers) and interfere for no purpose beyond political influence. However, some version of them will continue, so parents, teachers, and legislators need to consider the dialogue to accomplish common ground and positive effect. I will address Liberals as a whole & Conservatives as a whole in the next section, and will set aside Colleges and Universities in general, and Businesses in general for after that.

It seems to be that the tug-of-war between Liberals and Conservatives on Education comes from worthy differences of opinion. Liberals generally are concerned with Public Education overall, correctly understanding that not everyone can afford Private Schools (even though leading Liberals always seem to send their own children to Private Schools), and so they focus on the needs of the poorest and slowest children. Conservatives, for their part, are concerned with Academic standards and taking away false images of success from schools with serious issues. Conservatives demand accountability from those who teach our nation's children, and are not willing to sacrifice our brightest and most gifted students, simply because others cannot keep up. It would appear that Vouchers are a good option, but the matter has been so politicized, that it will be difficult to sort out substance from hyperbole in the results. I would call myself an essentialist on the matter of courses taught: Focus on basic skills early, and keep politics and religion out of it. It's fine to talk about the controversies of a political party or leader, but no teacher should be allowed to use the classroom to teach any opinion as truth. Facts should not be hidden or altered, nor should theories ever be presented as anything but heories. Personal faith should be allowed to be expressed, but no advocacy in the classroom for a personal belief, including atheism, should be advanced. The tripwires for students, teachers, and administrators, I would say, would be personal attacks and/or hostility. These must be prohibited. Make the schools a place to teach concepts and exchange ideas, not suppress free thought or create ideological factories. And above all, establish the use of Logic as a discipline, and separate fact-based courses from subjective discussions.

This brings me to the Colleges and the Business World . Colleges became a rather big business industry in the last couple generations, and they know it. With the baby boom over, however, colleges now have to compete not only with each other for a smaller consumer market, they also find themselves facing the new Remote Campus Universities, which are providing convenience and accredited education to thousands of adults who need their degree while working full-time. Slow to respond as first, a number of old-school Colleges are realizing they need this demographic. The economic force is working against many old mandarins and presumptions of privelege. But there are still many schools whose image and legacy have allowed them to remain aloof from this measure.

Universities rightly consider and revisit the sticky question of how to tell one student he is in, while another is out. Racial quotas may not be used, unless you are the University of Michigan and can hide your racism in the pretense of multiculturalism. But what about the SAT or ACT? How should grades or class rank be considered? What about additional qualities? A school enters a minefield by accepting or rejecting any of these elements, and the student left out can be certain to be unhappy. Where in the past, a rejected student would cry to his parents, a modern student may retain a lawyer. And after that, there remains the question about the quality of education one really gets at a school. If public schools are variable in their quality up through Grade 12, should it surprise us to find that there are colleges with incompetent and prejudiced faculties, or who go through the motions but do not insure that their students truly know their work?

And that brings me to Business. While I would be opposed to letting Corporations dictate the Humanities selections at a University, or have a compelling influence in the schools' ethical codes, there is a basic and undeniable need, for schools to do a much better job or preparing their charges for the world which comes next. Far too many students are left with the vague impression that their education has automatically prepared them for a position with a good company, which will promote them and dovetail perfectly with the academic halls they leave at graduation. This is one reason why so many 22- and 23-year-olds walk around in the fall with a vaguely stunned expression on their faces: No one prepares them for what's really out there. As a businessman, I have found myself mistrusting applicants with really high GPAs; thy never seem to accept that they still know next to nothing of the things they really need to pick up, they too often believe common sense is inferior to showing off what they heard in the lecture hall last year, and they simply have a hard time adjusting to the environment of the office. Sit 'em down with a pencil and a math test, and they're fine, but ask them to spend a couple hours doing account reconciliation and they freak.

A number of schools have started to address this, and none too soon. They have started asking the companies which recruit at their campuses, to also come ahead of that season to advise potential employees about what they are really looking for, while there is still time for students to work on those attributes. Also, companies are discovering the need to orient graduates for the transition between the theoretical world to the physical world, and to respect the employees they will encounter, whose degree may be missing but whose experience and ability are proven.

I'm not saying schools should be just about getting ready for work, but far too many schools forget that this is a necessity. Being able to create your own webpage is cool, but having a skill that will pay the rent is much cooler.

I'm still working through this issue, but those are my thoughts for now.

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