Friday, November 12, 2010

Fixing it (part 1)

So, there are a lot of things about the U.S. educational system that are broken. What are those things, and how can they be fixed?

I think I'm going to do this as a multi-parter and add on posts as I think of things.

Today, I'm going to talk about underpreparedness. I'm a college prof, so I see students after they've passed through K-12 (and in some cases, after they've earned an Associate's degree somewhere). The level of preparation varies widely.

The best students we get are as good as any students anywhere. They can write college-level papers, they know how to do library research, they know where to go for extra help when needed, they can keep up with math and data analysis. Some of these students are actually "non traditional" students - people who have been in the workforce (or moms who have been in a different "workforce" - stayed at home till their kids were grown). Some are former military. Some were homeschooled. Some just had a really good basic education in grade and high school.

I don't worry too much about them, because they will almost certainly succeed. Also, I know if they have problems or questions, they will come and find me and get help.

The problem is the students who are not prepared. We have some students that aren't reading at a college level - they don't read the textbooks (in some cases, maybe can't understand all that's in the textbook), they don't do outside reading, they balk when asked to do research that requires reading a diversity of sources.

In some cases, there may be learning disabilities involved. But I've known a few people with dyslexia who went on to earn advanced degrees. Yes, it's harder and yes, it takes more work, but having a reading disability doesn't mean you can just throw up your hands and say that it's too hard for you, and you need alternate assignments. (If reading really is that much of a challenge, perhaps an alternative education path to being in college should be considered. But that's a discussion for another time).

In other cases - I just don't think kids read as much. Or that reading instruction is what it used to be. I can't really talk about reading instruction as I learned to read at 4, and I don't remember how I did it, I just remember being able to read. My parents read to me a lot. There were books in the house. We went to the library and got picture books. And I had a big Richard Scarry "Encyclopedia" that had entries for every letter of the alphabet, and I think looking at that actually helped the whole "letters" thing click, and then the reading thing came after.

I do think it's a mistake for parents to rely on the schools to teach their child all of reading. Reading to a kid - well, I don't have kids, but it seems to me that would be one of the most fun parts of parenting. (I know my mom said she missed it when my brother and I got old enough that she couldn't really read to us any more). And I remember my parents pointing stuff out to me, signs and letters and things. And playing games, like "I Spy," where knowing letters and what word starts with what is an important part.

I also think parents should encourage reading. I know that's easy to SAY. But I think in some households stuff has gotten so hectic that people don't take time for it. Or the parents are so wrapped up in tv or video games that their kids never see them reading, and the idea gets fostered that reading is kind of like medicine: it's good for you, you should take it, but it's really not as nice as candy. (Not that there's anything wrong with tv or video games, in moderation, it's just, reading is a lot of fun, too.)

And I hope schools still do SSR (Silent Sustained Reading.) For me, that was one of the favorite parts of the school day - fifteen minutes or so at the end of the day to just pick up a book, be quiet, and read. And it was a bit "freer" - you could sit where you wanted or, I think, even walk around the classroom while reading, provided you didn't disturb anyone else.

I think reading skill comes with reading practice. And reading a lot of different stuff. Both non-fiction and fiction, and a diversity of things. Poetry. Plays. Maybe you don't like everything, but you should at least be exposed to it, and then get to pick later on.

(Thinking of poetry: one of the favorite, and best-remembered, assignments I did in fifth grade reading? The teacher had us make our own chapbooks - find poems we particularly liked, copy them out on paper, illustrate them if we wanted, and then bind the chapbooks. I think we were also encouraged to write some of our own poetry and put what we liked best in there.)

(Also, in high school, when we did Shakespeare and other plays, we did a lot of it read aloud, because my teacher said that's how plays were meant to be experienced - heard as much as read.)

Perhaps part of it is a diversity of assignments. You have to be careful, of course, of not making everything Arts N Crafts time, but the chapbooks really were a lot of fun to prepare, and it did require a lot of looking through anthologies and our textbooks and other sources to find poems that spoke to us. I think always writing essays, or always doing book reports, would get stale after a while.

Another place where I see college students being weak - perhaps weakest - is in writing ability. Not just grammar and word usage and vocabulary, but in being able to structure an argument and give support to it. Or there is weakness in being able to organize a paper. Or write coherent sentences. (One of my most commonly used editor's markings on student paper is "AWK" - meaning the sentence or paragraph is phrased awkwardly. I often tell students to read their writing aloud, because sometimes you can "hear" an awkward passage when you can't "see" it. Though I don't know any more, maybe I am the only person who can do this - read something aloud and tell if it flows well or not.)

Again, I think a good potential cure for this is MORE WRITING. Lots more writing. And I don't mean just the "how do you feel" papers or the essay-talking-about-your-dog (though those have a place, too, and I suppose you can learn style and even perhaps rhetoric from that kind of writing), but also research papers. I remember learning - gosh, it must have been fourth grade - how to find sources in the library, read them, take notes on them, write an outline of my paper, and then, following the outline, write the paper, inserting (in my own words, of course, and with citations) the information from the other sources. When you learn it early, and in a lower-stakes environment, it starts off easily enough. It's difficult and frustrating to be thrown into it for the first (or very nearly first) time at eighteen. (I also think a LOT more instruction on proper citation is necessary; some of the research I've read on student plagiarism suggests that students require a lot of practice and a lot of reminding to be able to eventually internalize the "rules" of proper citation. Again, I learned it so early that I probably didn't realize I was internalizing those rules).

I know that writing is a giant pain to grade. It takes a very long time to do correctly. And students need to pay attention to the feedback from their teachers, and they don't always do it. (And the teacher himself or herself has to be able to write well, and know grammar and the basic mechanics of writing and rhetoric, to be able to be a helpful grader. And if the current crop of teachers were instructed in writing the way some of my students have been...well, it's kind of the blind leading the blind.)

But if you're going to throw a kid into college who has done very little writing before, of course he or she is going to struggle. And he is still going to struggle, if he wrote, but all of his papers were of the mushy, touchy-feely personal essay sort.

(Another good thing about my high school: we had a lot of different assignments. We wrote plays (a friend and I wrote an involved parody of Oedipus when we were studying Greek tragedies in class; somehow we worked in several of the members of Duran Duran and also the Monty Python troupe.) We wrote the dreaded "five paragraph essay" (I know some people like to run it down as formulaic, but it is a useful form sometimes). We wrote in the styles of various authors. We compared different books. We wrote research papers on the lives of different authors. And we had a few "personal essays," but I never felt like my personal essays were as strong as my other writing was.)

And again: if a person just does not like writing, or just cannot write, they probably should be seeking an alternate career path. Many of the college majors prepare people for careers where writing is a big part.

Finally, we get students who are weak in math. Oy, do we get students who are weak in math. Again, I think strong early instruction can help here. When I was in school, we did the dreaded timed-tests. But I really did learn my times tables that way.

Actually, looking back on it, I liked math a lot, in part because I knew there was a right answer and a wrong answer and if you figured out the way to get the right answer for one problem of a type, you could apply the same algorithm to other problems of the same type, and get the right answer with those.

I think a lot of people in our society are math-phobic. Sometimes I get the idea that the "single right answer" concept is uncomfortable for some people.

Part of my comfort with math may have been that we "played with numbers" in my family. Both my parents are scientists, both do a lot of data analysis, so they tend to think about numbers. I remember things like my dad teaching me how to figure out the miles per gallon a car was getting. Or how many more miles there were to go from the map, divided by average speed, to get an estimate of "how much longer 'til we're there." And my mom teaching me fractions while teaching me how to double or halve recipes. And all of that kind of practical math stuff. I grew up at the very beginning of the calculator era, so we rarely relied on calculators for simple things (and in many of my grade school math classes, we were not permitted to use calculators). And I think that developed a comfort with and a facility with numbers that helps with higher-level math.

(I will admit I still struggled with Calculus, and to this day I do not understand it as well as I feel I ought. But most of our students never even take Calculus...)

So I don't know. I know it sounds like a cop-out for the college prof to say, "These kids need to be more rigorously taught in the lower grades" but in many cases, if you don't walk into college with the fundamentals down, you're never going to get them.

I also think we absolutely have to end the practice of "social promotion," at least in grades higher than second or so. Passing a kid along who can't read to grade level or can't do the expected math does them no favors, and winds up making it difficult for their teachers in the future - and can wind up dragging down the rest of the class, if the teacher has to stop and re-teach the student who doesn't know something her peers already know.

I will also say that I'm generally opposed to generalized testing, the whole NCLB thing. I think there should be some standards, but rather than pinning a student's passing (and an entire school's "passing") on a few days of testing, to pass or fail the student based on how he does during his classes. (This of course, presupposes that the teacher is teaching to grade level, and that the important material is being covered.) If a kid can't pass his reading class, he should be kept back. It doesn't matter what some standardized test says. (I think teachers should be given more freedom to tell parents, "Your child is not performing up to expectations." And should be given more freedom to throw out the disruptive kids.)

I also think that maybe we need to end compulsory schooling, but that's another discussion for another time. (And I realize there are a lot of potential problems with that. But I think not requiring older kids to go to school if they have a bad attitude would solve a lot of problems. It would create many, too, of course - including a class of uneducated unemployable people - but at least the kids who wanted to be in school could learn without being distracted by some wannabee thug or slut...)

1 comment:

Kate P said...

Ate up this post with gusto. It is true there are many more things competing with reading for younger people's attention. It seems to be an uphill battle to foster lifelong readers. SSR is practiced in my current school but it's a private K-8 school, so that might make a difference--but I have heard teachers in some public schools try to promote reading across the curriculum.

My current job's predecessor had a 25-book challenge for the 4th grade students (that's 25 books by the end of the school year); I added a mini-challenge to have ten read by Thanksgiving and am pretty happy to see that close to a third of them are hitting that goal.

I really want to get all of them in the habit of reading at least 15 minutes a day outside of school.

What do a lot of the things you mention come down to? Daring to do hard things. I have 6th graders balking at the idea of doing research papers in MLA format. I don't want to see them back down because they're intimidated!

And I could talk a ton about my mixed feelings about compulsory education.