About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The discussion about US education

Recently, there has been a national discussion of education in the US within our media. NBC and the Oprah Winfrey Show both had programs about education in the last two weeks. The final verdict: tenure is the reason our schools are failing and the responsibility of education is in the teachers' hands alone (they must be accountable for failing schools).

I look at part of this as a result of the charter school movement and a movement to break up teachers unions to bring down costs of education. After watching programs on NBC and the Oprah Winfrey school, I think it is important that misinformation that was spouted by such experts as Bill Gates and Mayor Bloomberg (both businessmen first) need to be addressed.

1) Tenure is NOT automatically given to teachers, as both of these men contended on TV. First, tenure requirements vary from state to state and even school district to school district. In New York State, a board of education needs to grant tenure to a teacher. Some school districts won't look at tenure until someone has worked for 4 years. Others will grant tenure after a year. Many of us know of teachers that have not been granted tenure, sometimes even for just political reasons. The purpose of the tenure system is to ensure academic integrity. I find it ironic that Oprah's program discussed with horror the difficulty of firing a teacher who was incompetent (who was eventually fired once she went through a set out process, but that took about a year) while about 10 years ago she had a program about a teacher who was forced to change a failing grade to students who had blatantly plagiarized. The threat of being fired because someone in power has his or her own agenda means that a teacher could be forced to teach something that might be scientifically unbased. This happened to teachers who refused to teach a curriculum they believed was religiously based rather than scientifically based. Because of tenure, these teachers had the ability to keep their jobs and fight a small group of powerful people in their community.

2) Charter schools vary from state to state. I am actually a supporter of charter schools, as long as they must follow the same rules as the public schools and they offer something different to a population that cannot be met in a traditional public school. There is research that some states have a very effective charter school system that has improved the overall state education system (Wisconsin and Oregon). However, I do not believe that ANY company should be profiting from the government (charter schools should be non-for-profit). Also, charter schools should not have a religious or political agenda (they need to follow the same rules as a traditional public school). On Oprah, charter schools were touted as THE cure for education. However, I see this as throwing out the baby with the bath water. There are some good schools and some bad. We need a variety of models that will fit different communities, cultures, resources, and values.

3) The fact is that a smaller class size will result in more effective learning. Likewise, students who do not live in poverty and/or have literate parents do better in school. The current No Child Left Behind "accountability" focus on standardized testing in which a teacher is responsible if a child does not pass a test is an inaccurate measure of effectiveness.

In a report by Al Roker on Elementary Schools, the school that was highlighted had the average class increase from 20 students per class a decade ago to 32 students per class today. I know of a kindergarten teacher (1st year of school in New York State) who is expected to teach 25 5-6 year olds (usually with no previous education such as pre-school or even at home help from parents) how to read by the end of this school year. All without help in the classroom. Last year she was successful as she only had 16 students.

We need to look at student improvement from their starting point to their ending point (rather than measuring them against students from more privileged backgrounds). We need to put resources into the needs of the school based on their community, not a standard formula. And we need to find new ways (besides testing) to measure student performance.

4) We are not China, Switzerland, Japan, or South Africa. What works in their countries might work here in the US, but perhaps not. We need to develop an educational system that works with our communities, culture, and values. To do this, we need to move away from the industrial military complex attitude towards education that we are developing workers. When I went to school, schools were developing citizens that could make informed decisions. However, even as a student that began to change and we were told that education was to prepare us for a job of the future. This streamlining was used in France up until the 60's at which time Europe began to see that education was more than creating workers.

The current focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has wiped out what made the US successful: creativity. A colleague of mine from Hong Kong was disappointed in her University Program in the US because there was no creativity allowed. My daughter's school, which was designed with STEM in mind, ended up being more important as a school that allows students with creative minds to succeed in STEM courses. A project based curriculum based on group work develops communication, problem solving, and creative skills for students that normally would have difficulty in learning math and science. What is interesting is that students that were especially gifted in math and science, in fact left the school or had the hardest time to adapt to this style of learning.

The fact is the US is loosing its place in the world because of lack of innovation. Innovation comes from creativity, not fitting a static mold set out by standards.

5) Finally, education is a joint process between the administrators, teachers, students, community, and parents. All are equally important and responsible. Until we use a model of community education building rather than competitive education, we will not have an effective educational system in the US.

I applaud the media for at least discussing education in the US. I just wish they would present a more informed and balanced discussion. The fact is that in some places, the educational system is working. In others, people are working hard to improve the process (but with mixed results) and in still other places the system has broken down. The biggest mistake we could make is to fix that which is working well, not giving those working on change the time and resources to succeed, and trying the same old policies in those areas where those policies have not worked and probably will never work.

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