Monday, December 20, 2010
OUR SCHOOLS ARE DOING OKAY
You are not satisfied, but our schools are doing okay. My Chapter 3 on education from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR HUMANITY can be found in this blog from 4September2009. As I have been in education virtually all of my life, this is a field I know well. I was like most of you and felt important adjustments were absolutely essential, However, when I was close to finishing this chapter, I ended up discarding my original attitude and ended up with a message almost exactly the opposite.
I've long felt that teachers were not paid enough and that society did not provide sufficient funds for education. As a result, American students do very poorly in standardized tests compared with most developed nations. In MATH, fourth grade students rank #14 (Singapore is #1, with top four from the Orient), #28 in the 8th grade (Singapore #1, again, top 4 from the Orient) and #19 in grade 12 (Netherlands #1, five of the top 6 are Scandanavinian, with Switzerland as #4--but this is because countries of the Orient were not included). In SCIENCE, 4th grade...hooray, USA #3 (South Korea #1), 8th grade, whoops, U.S. #17 (Singapore #1) and U.S. #16 (Sweden #1, but Oriental countries did not participate).
It actually gets worse. The Program for International Student Assessment reported last year that the USA was #32 in math (Shanghai China #1, first time they participated) #23 in science (Shanghai China #1) and #17 in reading (Shanghai China). There is something about the Chinese, for, have you noticed that math contests in the U.S. tend to be won by students of Chinese extraction? I don't particularly want to be too racial about all this, but others have mentioned that at one time Jewish students tended to do well. Not anymore, apparently.
Why haven't we learned from Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education? Part of the reason has to do with Republican politics. Reagan was not happy that voluntary prayer, tax credits for private school tuition and abolition of the Department of Education were not emphasized.
But you can't blame Republicans for our predicament. Blame yourself! Yes, blame yourself, even if you're a Democrat. This all comes down to priorities. You can change things by influencing your legislators and educational boards, but you don't. It is a simple as that. However, the bottom line is that the above condition might not be all that terrible to the future of our Nation. If our education has been at risk for more than a generation, why are we unchallenged as the supreme nation? It occurred to me that we are doing something right!
But let me digress with purpose. Over time I've travelled the world to discuss education. Singapore is considered to be the role model. The leaders determine what is ideal, and as a kind of benevolent dictatorship, they just go ahead and do it. They excel in math and science. But even their decision-makers are now concerned about a serious flaws in humanitarian virtues and innovation. Finland might have the best educational policy of all. They start very young (but at home) and stress "getting along." Their culture has evolved to the stage where only the best become teachers. In the USA, an argument can be made, with apologies to the 5% who are exceptional, that much of the worst ends up teaching. But part of our success is that we we actually do think creativity is good and rote memory bad. The outstanding students in the Orient have terrific memories, not necessarily an indicator of productivity and success.
As an engineering professor, I once recognized the value of science, technology and math. Yes, they're important, but, if anything, we need more efficient instruction and a balanced focus on computer applications (meaning, less, not more). There is too much reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, and not enough, relevance, rigor, respect and relationship-building. For ultimate progress, we need the teach the full spectrum of the rainbow, the 7 R's of education.
In my view, not only are we poorly teaching the classical R's, but we are hardly doing much about the more important rainbow four R's. But this is because educators also need to optimize, and they feel these latter R's should be a family responsibility. So what is the solution?
We have too many other problems in our society, so show good intent, but don't lose any sleep over our poor K-12 educational system. To quote from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR HUMANITY:
So is the U.S. in trouble? Is the strongest economy ever a generation or two away from mediocrity? Nope. There is one area where we still lead in education: higher education. The total expenditure per student in the U.S. is $18,570, compared to Denmark at #2 with $11,600 and Britain at #3 with $8970. [Adrian Wooldridge, 'The Class of 2006', Economist, (2007)]
o The top three universities (Harvard, Stanford and Cal-Berkeley).
o Eight of the best ten (Cambridge and Oxford were also here).
o Seventeen of the top twenty (add Tokyo University at #20).
o Thirty seven of the best 50 universities.
As a nation, we have, apparently, decided to focus on the few who will lead and produce. Who said there is no gifted children program in the U.S.? We have, it’s just that it is limited to higher education. Something is working, and this could well be the answer.
Our university system, though, can be better. We rank #13 to Sweden (#1) and Finland (#2) in college affordability, and #4 in accessibility to the Netherlands. Plus, our net cost after tax expenditures of $11,283 is next to Japan ($14,040) for developed countries.
It would be callous and careless to say that it might not matter if every citizen is perfectly educated. Certainly, educate to minimize the development of the criminal element. Of course, provide every opportunity to all children. We should, though, initiate the optimization process at the K-12 level with a more progressive program for the potentially gifted. The able should be even more outstanding in college to determine who will rule the corporate world and lead and produce in the public sector, whether it be government or academia. The finest will succeed with greater capability. The Nation and World will benefit. I just hope that the next generation will have a higher appreciation beyond profits and power. We lack a basic humanitarian trait and don’t have sufficient appreciation for the environment. The 4 R’s beyond the classical 3R’s are advocated to insure for this more responsible future.
In any case, this chapter is incomplete. It represents certain thoughts that entered my brain somewhere back in time and remained. However, these are seminal educational opportunities worthy of pursuit that I bequeath to the educational world and humanity at large:
o Initiate formal teaching at the age of 2. However, stress imagination, not civil obedience. A child at that age has an incredible ability to visualize the unimaginable. Human societies extinguish that flame to maintain order and sanity. This inspired impulse rarely returns when quenched. How to teach the student to be a progressive citizen, while nourishing this creativity, will be an important key to the future of our civilization. How to afford this luxury? Well, maybe we can end wars and spend some of these defense savings for education.
o Spend these early years, 2-5, identifying the one and two marshmallow children, so that we design an optimal educational pathway for them. One strategic must would be to work with the village to direct the potential mental case, drug addict or delinquent—and usually all three characteristics are blended in these individuals—towards a more productive life. All the signs might not yet be evident, but this is that influential period when education can, indeed, make that crucial difference.
o Teach the full Rainbow spectrum: Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic, Rigor, Respect, Relevance and Relationship. There seems to be a sense that an American education actually does make our graduates more creative and assertive, and we must nurture the positive aspects of those attributes and improve on them.
o Begin converting all libraries into virtual ones. Go to Bill Gates and Google for help. This will save a lot of trees and make information access much more efficient and cost-effective.
o Double the education budget. Take money away from war.
o Maintain a superior higher education system. As a corollary, recognizing that universities can serve as the economic engine for a community, the business sector and local legislature should recognize the wisdom of partnering and contributing to the greatness of their college campuses.
Science and engineering got a jolt of support nearly half a century ago, thanks to the Soviet Union and Sputnik, leading to landing Neil Armstrong on the Moon. A decade later, in the mid-70’s, the U.S. ranked #3 on percentage of undergraduates in engineering. Today we rank #17. This sounds familiar, but I’ll say it again: it is not that we only need engineers to save the world, but this plunge is symptomatic of a dangerous trend in a world more and more dependent on technology. Sure we need engineers, but clearly with more heart and sense, plus the range of associative specialties to provide balance and imagination.
We react to crises. Peak Oil and Global Warming loom as the next combined peril. Alas, the prevailing attitude seems to be, what crisis? Maybe that’s just the nature of human society today. Thankfully, someone, or a discerning group, some time back in our history, crafted a total educational system that has worked. The World might not this cycle react in time, and the consequences will be dreadful, but I would not be surprised if the USA subsequently rebounds to maintain our dominance.
Thus, the simplest solution to education in the USA is to maintain the course, but, by gosh, strive to do even better, as suggested above. Certainly, don’t unnecessarily anguish, as we are doing fine, in fact, terrific.
The Dow Jones Industrials fell 14 to 11,478, but remained 10% ahead for the year. World markets were mixed, gold increased $9/toz to $1385, and petroleum edged up to $89/barrel. By the way, did all the gold we have on Planet Earth come from outer space?