Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What's Wrong With The Schools?

For those who read my FB entry, this is the entry I despaired of.

My stepfather was an intelligent man - came out of North Have, CT to graduate from Duke in 1939 with a degree in business, and held a series of increasingly-responsible jobs throughout his career, culminating in being CEO of a successful mutual fund. He didn't think of himself as particularly intelligent, maybe a little above average.  He knew people much smarter than himself, including a college roommate, and believed he had gotten where he had by perseverance, judgement, and planning for the long term.

That is certainly not untrue.  He planned, judged, and persevered better than anyone I have known. Yet it wasn't quite true, either. He had quite a bit of candlepower.  If I were to put a number on it, I would estimate an IQ from 125-130. 95th-97th percentile.

This strongly influenced his beliefs.  He thought that with prudence and hard work, most people could have gotten to where he did. He didn't think all could, recognising that some folks just didn't seem to have jacks or better to open.  He also had respect for people who had made different career choices because it was what they loved, or allowed them to live in a certain area, or keep up a family tradition or whatever, even if they didn't make much money. If money was his measuring stick at all, it certainly wasn't his only one. And he gave some credit to just plain luck, having diseases or reverses come out of the blue or good things land in your lap undeserved. He thought it was a rarer, lesser category, but he acknowledged it.

To take a grades analogy, he thought he was a C+ student who got A's because he worked hard.  He was actually an A- student who got A's because he worked hard. (I am ignoring whatever the actual grading practices were at Duke in the 30's. Strenuous, most likely.  It was UVA that reportedly invented the "Gentleman's C.")

So you tell a lot of boys who are 5-4 that they could dunk if they just tried harder.  This is supposed to encourage them somehow. That's one of the conservative myths of education. So now the kid is forced to the conclusion "I'm not only short, I'm morally inferior to boot.  Screw you."

Let's look at another group of people, those who believe that what kids are missing is that they don't dream big enough. Frequently, these folks come from one of two groups: smart kids who aspired to more than what was common in their town or neighborhood, or kids from families which had already done that and taught that aspiration was the key ( parents or grandparents).  Like my stepfather, what they believe about themselves is not untrue.  They did dream bigger, they did "believe in themselves," they did raise their eyes to the horizon.  But their self-perception is also inaccurate. There were plenty of other kids who dreamed of being famous singers, or athletes, or inventors.  It wasn't because they didn't dream big enough that they never got out of Middletown.

In fact, the ground is littered with the damage this causes. I recall reading years ago about a high school principal who had some blazing athletic prospect come out of his school a few years before. The journalist wanted him to say nice things about encouraging talent, and good examples for hard work and all those cliches to be gotten in a row.  The principal was having none of it. "I have a kid who doesn't pass his classes because he thinks he's going to be a major league catcher.  He works hard at baseball. He was second-team all-county catcher last year, and this year he might be first team, maybe not. And that is as far as he is going to go.  He might get a year or two in the minors, but even that is doubtful.  There are 3000 counties in America, after all.  I've got a hundred kids who won't do what they could, because they've got dreams of doing things they have no chance of doing."

That's one of the main liberal myths of education, though it comes in many disguised forms - that if some single barrier like racism or bullying or stereotyping were eliminated, the power of these individuals would be unleashed, for example.

We live out our days between these two destructive arguments in education, and I see no hope of anyone giving up their narrative.  I just went into a rant at Maggie's on the topic and the subsequent comments (from a mostly conservative POV) were untouched: it's the teachers' unions, it's core curriculum, it's discipline, it's school choice...

I do not know know what the solution is. That African-American scores are one full standard deviation lower, and Hispanic/Native scores 0.7SD, regardless of all intervention, seems insurmountable, impossible to solve.  It will be the destruction of us, because we can't acknowledge it and adapt our education, but we can't fix it either.

(None of this to imply that teaching is useless.  It has a use different from what is usually assigned to it.)


Unknown said...

"We live out our days between these two destructive arguments in education, and I see no hope of anyone giving up their narrative."

So much world-weary wisdom in this post, AVI.

My wife and I are bringing up our daughter in Hong Kong (she's just turned 11).

The education mythos here is typically Asian, but then amplified up to the supersonic. This mythos is simple: education is everything, and you succeed in education by working hard.

That's it. No concessions are made to native ability. Ability is the product of labor, to the extent that many people here seriously believe I'm as tall as I am because I must have played basketball so much when I was young, thereby training my body to be taller.

So what you find here is parents in near-riot mode if their kids' schools fail to assign enough homework. Many schools here have teachers who've been exposed to progressive education theory, and who try to implement this, e.g. by doing more 'discovery' learning, projects, whatever -- you know the drill -- but they are regularly swamped by popular demand to get the hell back to the red meat.

So we're out here on another extreme -- maybe your continuum is a triangle. The Asian view is like the US progressive position in that all children are assumed to be capable of excellence. The difference is that they're expected to 'earn' their ability via unrelenting work, not to have it magically unleashed via educational voodoo plus hugs.

On the whole, I prefer the Asian mode to the progressive mode, but I do feel sad for many kids here whose parents pound them relentlessly into studying subjects and pursuing careers for which they're entirely unsuited.

Mr Tall

james said...

It's easy to recite "I'm a genius" but it's a bit hard to sustain that attitude when you hit real-world problems.(*) If you try to do anything outside the sandbox you'll hit limits, and start to feel kind of stupid, and feel a bit envious of the folks who make it look easy. The more candlepower you have, the wider the scope, but you still hit those limits. So anybody with an ego smaller than Rhode Island is going to feel, if not stupid, at least "ordinary."

I think this is a useful attitude, cultivating humility and keeping your eyes on what's ahead. But, as you note, it makes for a lousy foundation for creating educational policy.

There are two kinds of problems in math: very hard and trivial. The very hard ones are the ones you haven't solved, and the trivial ones are the ones you have.

(*)Although you probably meet many exceptions professionally, and we elect quite a few.

gcochran said...

I find it hard to understand how anyone could actually believe either the standard liberal or conservative take on education. Seems to me that both directly conflict with typical life experience. Do people not really remember their own school experiences?

Sam L. said...

My problem with the standard deviation is that the individual is not standardized; may fall into the right tail, the left tail, or between. Can't tell by looking at them. Might be oneathem "Tell me I can't? I'll show you!" kids. Might not. Working at something will likely help them improve.

Kurt said...

Sam L wrote: My problem with the standard deviation is that the individual is not standardized; may fall into the right tail, the left tail, or between. Can't tell by looking at them.

I'd agree with that, but I'd also say that that's why the twin curses of a). grade inflation, and b) "liberal racism" (or what George W. Bush memorably called "the soft bigotry of low expectations") are so destructive. Rather than letting things fall out as they do or could or should on a normal distributive curve, everyone is told they're o.k. and they can do it, when many aren't and/or can't.

There was a post at Maggie's Farm a few months (or maybe even a year) ago about studying math where it was pointed out it was a good indicator of intellectual ability and study habits up to a point, but beyond that, it required a high degree of aptitude and understanding which most don't possess. The politically correct theories of education, though, don't want to admit that there's a real limit to what some people can actually do, and so they keep simplifying things and lowering expectations.