Sunday, July 18, 2010

5 Steps to Better Education in America (and why all of them will be rejected)
by David Gilfix

For those who want more information, notes are provided after the main article.

Most approaches to our educational challenges are fads supported by opinions that are confused for studies.  The fads – like “No Child Left Behind” – shift with the wind; sometimes even former supporters admit that their programs were flawed.   My 5 Steps to Better Education are different: they are definitely not fads, they are supported by common sense and experience, and they will all be rejected.

1. Smaller classes
The easiest and simplest way to guarantee more learning in school is to have small classes.  In fact, it is a no-brainer – an ironic term given the topic.  When there are fewer students there is more teacher time per student.  When there is more teacher time per student, the students are better engaged, which means fewer behavioral challenges, which means less down time and more participating in exciting projects, which means the students have more fun and learn more.

However, smaller classes are a pipe dream: they require more teachers which require more money, and there’s that new high definition television that most people would prefer to buy.

2. Enrichment for bright and gifted students in the elementary schools

Students on special education plans (SPED) get extra services, as they should.  Bright and gifted students get few special services and are placed in inclusive classrooms with less advanced students, where their learning speed is compromised in order not to leave other students too far behind.   Particularly in the elementary schools where there are few advanced courses, bright-but-bored students sometimes flounder and can end up in home or private school.

However, inclusive learning, through which students develop important social skills, should not be eliminated.  Rather, there needs to be a balance between inclusive activities for social development, and abilities-based learning for academic development.

Unfortunately, expanding enrichment programs is a pipe dream: the prevailing sentiment is that bright and gifted students do fine as things are.   Further, enrichment programs require money, and there’s that new high definition television that most people would prefer to buy.

3. Bring back shop classes.
How society defines education is at least as important as how well society implements it.  Today schools emphasize book learning almost exclusively, as if no other pursuit requires planning, analyzing, prioritizing and creating.   Yet, as many a mechanically challenged college professor knows, intelligence comes in different flavors.  There are many mechanically gifted students who will not become college professors, yet could flourish in school, and later professionally, if their particular skills were valued.

Sadly, our present academic model seems to cultivate managers over builders.  Is it possible that, without the builders, eventually there will be nothing to manage?

Alas, implementing more shop classes is a pipe dream: it requires more teachers and more equipment, which requires more money, and there’s that new high definition television that most people would prefer to buy.  Besides, everyone knows that book learning is more important.

4.  More time in traditional parenting during the early years
Many people blame students’ learning issues on inadequate teaching and curriculum, and therefore assume the remedy is to improve teaching and curriculum – which is an example of using one assumption (the cause) to support another assumption (the fix, in case you are taking notes).  In fact, most students on Individual Education Plans (“IEP”s) were diagnosed with learning challenges early, often in kindergarten and first grade, well before they could have been damaged by inadequate teaching.   These children began their school career behind, and this suggests that neither teaching nor curriculum is the cause of their learning issues.

So what is?  Only two possibilities:  nature or nurture (or both).  All students are born with certain talents and learning challenges and often both are evident at an early age.  At the same time, all students benefit from early parenting, and we should seriously question whether any daycare worker in charge of 5-to-10 toddlers or infants can match a good parent in providing the love and one-to-one attention that best promotes learning and behavioral development during a child’s important formative years.  

Unfortunately, any hope of increasing parenting time is a pipe dream.  Many parents have no choice and must work to make ends meet.  As for the rest of us, is it possible that we have bought-in to a fad (backed by opinions that are mistaken for studies) because it conveniently fits with our two-working-parent lifestyle: that quantity of parenting is superfluous to learning and behavioral development during the most critical period in a child’s life?

Besides, how else can we pay for all those new high definition televisions?

5. Turn off the television and computer screens
Like Step 4, this topic can only be approached after an honest discussion about the nature of learning, cognitive development, and behavioral development.  If real learning takes place only at school in a classroom in front of a teacher then it is superfluous whether a child spends most of his critical early years one-on-one with a loving, attentive, devoted parent or one-on-10 with a day care worker; and it is superfluous whether the child spends most of her time singing, dancing, climbing, talking, asking questions, listening to stories from a real live adult and playing with sand, clay, paint, blocks, puzzles or whether she spend most of her time staring at a television or computer.

Most children spend most of their time staring at a screen.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation research, average television viewing among all ages in childhood is 3 hours per day, which means that children spend more time, annually, watching television than in school (1095 hours on television, 1080 hours in school – assuming no days absent).  Further, average overall time in front of a screen (such as TV, computer, WII, Nintendo DS, or Cell Phone) for children age 8-18, according to a 2010 study, is 7½ hours per day.

Indeed, numerous academic and medical studies suggest a strong correlation between excessive time in front of a screen and a host of cognitive behavioral issues, even at an early age, including these:  Aggressive behavior, memory issues, delayed literacy, issues of focus and attention including ADHD, sleep problems, vitamin D deficiency (from staying inside), and obesity. 

Unfortunately, any possibility that children will spend less time in front of a screen is a pipe dream.  Children love screens, which makes lots of parents happy because it keeps them occupied and costs less than a baby sitter.   Further, most children have a persuasive screen-viewing role model - their own parents.

And there is no way we are going to stop watching our high definition televisions!

Parents, politicians, and so-called educational experts will consider none of these 5 steps seriously.   Instead, in their quest for better education in America they will continue to focus almost exclusively on teachers and curriculum, and they will achieve only marginal results.

Thank you for reading "5 Steps to Better Education in America (and why all of them will be rejected)."  The notes below provide a little more information about each of the 5 steps.  However, if you are really busy, stop reading here - none of these steps will be implemented anyway!  (To make a comment, scroll to the bottom)

 1  About smaller class size:  Tennessee's Project STAR, 1985 to 1989, conducted in 79 elementary classrooms. This is considered the only large-scale, controlled study of the effects of reduced class size.  Conclusions: Teachers of small classes spent significantly more time on task and significantly less time on discipline or organizational matters compared with teachers of regular-size classes. Moreover, Project Star provided “compelling evidence that small classes in the primary grades are academically superior to regular-size classes. The findings were confirmed for every school subject tested.”

2  About enrichment for bright students:  A 2006 St. Petersburg Times (Florida) poll indicated that more than half of the teachers believed that bright students in their classes were being shortchanged because they had to focus more on lower-performing students.
   A Fordham Institute Study concludes that the No Child Left Behind act has provided no benefits to the top 10 percent of students, according to the St. Petersburg Times (Florida). Commenting on the study, Fordham president Chester E. Finn Jr. said, …"In a time of fierce international competition, can we afford to let the strongest languish?"

3  About bringing back shop classes:  Educators love to quote Howard Gardner's theories of multiple intelligences, but the reality is that the No Child Left Behind fad has led to an educational approach that is antithetical to multiple intelligence learning; school systems have emphasized students' testing success above all other areas of learning, including music, art, and shop.  For an excellent book about the influence of No Child Left Behind, I recommend, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” by Diane Ravitch.

4   About parenting:  In private discussion, some friends who sent their children to full-time daycare or full-time before-school/after-school programs have protested my assertion that the amount of parenting time should have any affect on children’s learning or behavior. They point out that their own children are smart and well behaved, which is often true but beside the point (many people who smoke never develop health problems).

     My point is this: if parents have no effect on children’s cognitive and behavioral development, then why do we believe the opposite about teachers or day care workers? Why do we assume that everything a daycare worker is supposed to accomplish with 5 to 10 children, or a teacher with 25 children, parents are less capable of doing with 1 child who they love? Logically, it doesn’t make sense, and sadly, as more children spend more of their critical formative time with daycare workers instead of parents, kindergarten teachers are noticing way more behavioral and cognitive issues among incoming students.  

5  About staring at television and other screens: Two previous Counter Rhythm articles offer in-depth, but personal, discussions about television and screens:  Old Yeller and the Rabbi (and the television), and Smart Boards and Smart Students
     In a recent article in the NY Times, Randall Stross discusses the influence of computers and television on students' education:  Stross asserts that economists, using widely different methods, have made similar conclusions - that home computers in low-income households not only provided “little or no educational benefit,” but often had a negative effect.  Ross provides the following examples:
  • Oter Malamud, assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago says that a program in Romania in which the government helped low-income families in Romania purchase computers produced a “negative effect on academic achievement.”
  • Duke University professors Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd report on the effects on middle school students of introducing broadband services in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005: Lower math scores initially, and then “significantly lower reading scores when the number of broadband providers passed four.”
  • A four-year “technology immersion” experiment in Texas, in which federal money provided laptops to students in 21 middle schools, showed “mixed results,” and students who received the laptops actually produced lower scores for writing than students in the control group.


the common man said...

You post illuminates quite clearly some common sense improvements to the education system that are very worthwhile. I suppose it is likely that your approach would lead to a better functioning society that might even make that high def TV more affordable in the long run. But I was hoping to get one fairly soon. So, being a product of this society and its educational system, I can't evaluate but fear the short term risk, so I can't support your ideas. At least you can feel vindicated that you knew I wouldn't.

Musing Wolf said...

Right on, David!

adena said...

Hi, David,
Very interesting post, as always. I like some of your points. I must say, though, that as a researcher, "common sense" isn't always the truth. I don't think you can blame all the learning disabilities and such on poor or less parenting. Studies show that parents are actually spending more time parenting their children than they ever did in the 50s or 60s when there were lots of stay at home moms. Also, I took a quick look at the literature on day care and its impact on children, and it shows that high quality day care has good effects on kids, while poor quality day care, doesn't. I believe it's the same for parenting: if you are happy at home playing with the kids -- go for it -- but if you aren't happy, that isn't going to translate into anything good for the kids. Anyway, just a few thoughts...

Anonymous said...

David, as always interesting reading. Check out this week's Newsweek article about the connections between creativity and accomplishments as adults, and how to teach creativity in the classroom.

David Gilfix said...

Thanks Adena, I completely agree! It is presumptuous to assume we know the specific causes of any individual's learning challenges. Not only should we not blame any person's learning challenges on daycare or parenting, but also we should not blame those challenges on excessive screen viewing, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate services for the bright and gifted, narrow academic focus which fails to value people with mechanical, artistic and musical intelligences, or a host of other causes. In short, we should not be in the blame game at all.

But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore any of these factors, either.

Yes, our national educational challenges have many causes, but to leave parenting out of the discussion is folly. We live in an era in which an increasing number of infants and toddlers spend most of their day in daycare, and (coincidentally?) an increasing number of children enter kindergarten with emotional and learning challenges. (In a 2005 Washington state survey, for example, kindergarten teachers indicated that only 44 percent of incoming students were adequately prepared in areas of emotional, cognitive, and social development). Yes, some of these challenges are due to nature, and yes, some of them are due to nurture.

Way more to say about this, but it would take another article!

Anonymous said...

I "vote" for #3. OK so this is not a voting proposition, but I feel that hands-on training is something that we as a society have been losing for a long time. Manufacturing is the backbone of a successful society, education seems to have forgotten that.

In any case, the question is "what is the purpose" of education? To create smart unemployable people?

I think that we are putting the cart before the horse if we can't answer the question of purpose.