Education Reform – How far are we really willing to go?
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Education Reform – How far are we really willing to go?

Education Reform – How far are we really willing to go?

This morning I found it difficult to keep my fists unclenched as I pounded out a rythym on the treadmill while listening simultaneously to President Obama’s plan for education reform. It certainly was a speech that could appeal to both parties; there was little in there for everyone. But the question that kept popping up over and over in my mind was this… how do we define a successful education?

Comparisons were continually drawn between the United States and Korea, or Singapore, or any other country that “out-performs” the students of the United States. “Out-performs” being defined as a measure achieved by standardized testing. He asked for Congress to approve additional funds to pay teachers more, start more charter schools, and create more early childhood interventions programs. Not that I disagree with fund allocation for any of these ideas, but I question how the value of these programs will be assessed. I predict… standardized testing.

I think most citizens would agree that our current public education system is in need of reform, that it can’t meet the needs of all students, and that education is critical to the success of our nation. But I’m not sure that all citizens are willing to make the necessary paradigm shift in order to achieve true reform.

Let’s look at the “desired outcomes” of a primary student in the education system of Singapore.http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/desired-outcomes/

These students are asked to become well-rounded, reflective, moral, responsible citizens before leaving primary school. It is the core of their curriculum. If you have visited any public elementary school in the last few years, you will notice that this idea is not present in our public schools. As a matter of fact, we stay away from teaching our kids morality. We shy away from curriculum that teaches our kids how to be a better member of society and our nation. We are so affected by the litigous nature of our nation, that we tiptoe around any subject that might offend, and stick solely to the academic. Be careful, don’t put your morality on Johnny or you might end up in court. I believe that if we spend more time teaching our students about community, responsibility, and how to communicate better with the world around us, the buy-in to education will be far greater.

Read further about their goals…

Education is about nurturing the whole child. Indeed, this is the traditional Asian understanding of the term. Education means developing the child morally, intellectually, physically, socially…

The foundation of a person is his values. From these spring his outlook on life and his goals in life. Together with the home, our schools have to work carefully and painstakingly to shape the morals of our children. Our children also have to learn to relate to other people – their elders and their peers, people who are like us and people who are different….. Education teaches him to keep fit and healthy for life. And education teaches him to appreciate the finer things in life and the beauty of the world around him.

As a primary teacher, it was expected that I would help to moderate disagreements, ease hurt feelings, and teach alternatives to inappropriate behaviors. But I can’t tell you how many times, I had to forego circle time or class meetings in order to make sure we finished that textbook page. The pressure on teachers is great to prove their worth and their student’s worth by a test score. If we allowed teachers the opportunity to nuture our students as human beings and less as numbers, perhaps the scores would come more easily

Here’s another philosophical difference…

Education also develops each child’s unique talents and abilities to the full.

There is nothing about the American school system that celebrates the child as uniquely talented. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Success in the American school system is about rising to the top of the system designed by your elders. You will take x, y and z courses and if you work hard you will graduate. Gifted programs are disappearing all across our nation, and special education programs are grossly underfunded. Teachers are expected to modify their currciculum to meet the needs of the variety of learners, but are only provided one textbook to do so. And yes, although textbook companies claim to have modifications written into their core curricula, ultimately they are just another business out to make a buck. I found in ten years of teaching that textbooks were never as valuable as lessons collected through workshops, trainings, trade books, and other subject experts.

Gatto says in Dumbing Us Down...

I teach children not to care to much about anything, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor….But when the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next workstation. They  must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class nor in any class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan.

Next, examine how Singapore categorizes students after their primary education…

Secondary Education places students in the Special, Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) course according to how they perform at the PSLE. The different curricular emphases are designed to match their learning abilities and interests.

After just 6 years of education, students are then routed into specialized programs to guide their educational future. Programs are selected for these students based on their aptitude and interest. We have nothing like this in the United States. Our students receive a general education for 11+ years before they are ever allowed to enter trade programs, or other specialized areas of study. We require students who have no interest in math focused fields to take algebra and geometry. I do not dispute that these disciplines are important, what I dispute is the context in which they are delivered. Don’t you think a child who aspires to be part of Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR pit crew, would learn a lot more about geometry when aligning wheels in the auto shop rather than in metal chair of their local high school?

I’m not going to even go into the fact that in Singapore English (a second language) is taught in primary school, or that that students are required to complete community service, or that families are required to pay for certain aspects of their child’s education. I just don’t have the time or the energy today after the treadmill. But it just frustrates me when we are compared academically to other countries, our educational plans are just not the same. We just don’t compare.

So how far are we really willing to go? Reform always sounds great, but are Americans ready for real change?

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