Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Educating our children to be useful

Diane Ravitch has written an interesting op-ed column urging reformers to slow down in their bid to remake high school. She points out that most of the failing high school students came in failing; that is, their problems started before high school, so maybe that's where the fixing should be:

When American students arrive as freshmen, nearly 70 percent are reading below grade level. Equally large numbers are ill prepared in mathematics, science and history. It is hardly fair to blame high schools for the poor skills of their entering students. If students start high school without the basic skills needed to read, write and solve mathematics problems, then the governors should focus on strengthening the standards of their states' junior high schools.
She also blames students' failures on the trend to engage in feel good education that avoids tough things like correct answers and approaches (fuzzy math for fuzzy minds). Instead, she thinks we should bring back the concept of intellectual rigor to education:
It makes no sense to blame the high schools for their ill-prepared incoming students. To really get at the problem, we have to make changes across our educational system. The most important is to stress the importance of academic achievement. Sorry to say, we have a long history of reforms by pedagogues to de-emphasize academic achievement and to make school more "relevant," "fun" and like "real life." These efforts have produced whole-language instruction, where phonics, grammar and spelling are abandoned in favor of "creativity," and fuzzy math, where students are supposed to "construct" their own solutions to math problems instead of finding the right answers.
I agree with Ravitch regarding this point. The less we expect of young people, the less they give. It is always easiest to sink to the lowest common denominator. The more we expect, the more they give, and they do it with pride in their achievements. What Ravitch does not suggest, and what I think is missing from her op-ed, is creating options to an academic-based high school. We ought to have trade schools again. All children, up until around 13 or 14, should be given at least the same educational basics. That is, they should learn reading; writing; arithmetic; civics (so they understand their own government and their rights); basic history, shorn of Marxist dogma, so they know the major touchpoints in this country's life; and some science. They should then be given a choice (that is, this should be their choice and not the school's): Do you want to continue with an increasingly intense academic curriculum, or do you want to learn a trade? Frankly, why should we take a kid who is utterly uninterested in academics and keep squeezing him through that mold? He'll become increasingly resentful and, eventually, he'll consider himself stupid and useless. At best, he'll be a drag on his classroom, and his hours in school will be a waste of his time and the taxpayers' money. At worst, he'll get into serious trouble (think drugs and/or crime). At a trade school, this same young person can learn something useful (nobody calls a banker at 1 am with a banking emergency; lots of people call plumbers at 1 am with a plumbing emergency). Gosh, I can think of a million useful things a young person can learn at trade school: auto mechanics, plumbing, carpentry, emergency medical technician skills, firefighting skills, police skills, and on, and on, and on. Imagine the average kid who has taken a car engine apart since the age of 8, cleaned it, and reassembled it -- just for the fun of it. This same kid becomes paralytically bored when faced with Charles Dickens. Now tell me: will this child be more useful and more happy if forced to read Great Expectations or will this child be more useful and happy learning about the finer points of engines? Bottom line in my point of view is that our excessive emphasis on academics is taking a large group of children who are skilled in other areas, and turning them into academic failures. I love reading, I adore reading, reading is my life, but I'd be excessively selfish if I thought that my reading made me a better person or that everyone should be forced to read as much as I do. Academics is not the be it and end all in this world, and we shouldn't pretend it is -- especially at our children's and our taxpayers' expense.