The US education system didn't get any thanks at our table this year

The US education system didn't get any thanks at our table this year

Summary: It wasn't so long ago that many students and parents considered themselves lucky to have access to public education in the States. I'm afraid, though, that I'm headed into 2013 utterly discouraged by the system.

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TOPICS: IT Priorities
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Thanksgiving Day was rather nice in the Dawson household this year. Local mead and cranberry wine flowed freely. I dispensed with cooking this year and saved myself the stress by just reheating an awesome meal from whole foods. My medicine cabinet was stalked with plenty of Zantac. The kids even sat briefly at the table and my 17-year old happily did some craft project involving leaves and glue that his mom dreamed up with his 3-year old sister. Oh yeah, and our area had been spared the worst of Hurricane Sandy, we were safe and warm, and did I mention there was plenty of wine?

The day before, though, was tougher. I spent a couple of hours helping one of my kids (currently a freshman in college) with his algebra homework. I'd love to say that we were working through advanced linear algebra concepts or some challenging combinatorics. Instead, though, this was homework for his remedial algebra class, designed to help students make up the difference between what they learned in high school and what they need for college. His school offers several sections of this course and they are always full.

A bit of conversation with his older brother (now a junior at another college) revealed that the same situation existed at his school.

Kid #3 (17 and a senior at our local, highly-ranked tech school) was struggling with work for an internship. The work should have been child's play for someone in their fourth year of an information technology program at a modern technical high school.

What was wrong with this picture? All three of them had passed their state standardized tests with at least reasonable marks and kid #3's technical assessments were solid. Most of my college kids' peers had passed the same tests. Massachusetts has some of the most rigorous standardized tests in the nation; they are required for graduation and, in theory, are designed to demonstrate competence in state standards, which, in turn, are alligned with college readiness. Passing the tests should mean that there simply isn't a need for remedial mathematics education when they hit college.

Maybe they won't be ready for college-level calculus or even a statistics and probability course, but they shouldn't need to work on finding the roots of quadratic equations or be introduced to rational expressions. If they haven't mastered these concepts in high school, they shouldn't pass the state exams and appropriate safety nets should be in place to make sure that remediation happens long before they hit post-secondary education. This isn't rocket science. It's sound education to which administrators, politicians, and school boards pay lip service every day.

If everything is working as it should, state colleges and universities should be able to eliminate these remedial courses. If they exist, they certainly shouldn't be filled up with students who have already met state competency requirements in high school. And yet, not just in Massachusetts, but across the country, college students enroll in remedial math and language classes every semester of every year.

Which means that the system has failed. This isn't even saying anything about students who drop out or don't go on to post-secondary education. I'm only talking about the students who have "made it"...the kids who didn't just graduate from high school but actually went to college.

Please don't think this diminishes the work of the many great teachers and high-performing schools out there that have made hard choices, drastic changes, bucked the system, and are doing wonderful work. For these islands of outstanding work, I'm absolutely thankful. What I'm not thankful for is utter lack of preparedness, both for the "real world" and for college-level coursework that far too many of our students display. There is no better evidence for this critical problem than the presence of several sections of remedial math and English that can be found in course catalogs from colleges and universities around the country.

In large part, this is just a blog about education. We're just around the corner from 2013 and it pains me how little progress we've made towards really improving educational and vocational outcomes for students. In part though, this is yet another place where ed tech can make a real difference without imposing any hardship on overextended teachers and schools.

  • Adaptive learning technology is mature and ready for prime time. Whether in a lab or through 1:1 programs, software already exists (and good frameworks exist for extending the technology across the curriculum) that provides real-time data to teachers, helps reinforce scaffolding for students, and manages remediation on the fly.
  • Our ability to analyze, understand, and act on data is growing at an extraordinary pace. There is no reason for us not to build meaningful, deep educational profiles on our students and use these to design "IEPs for everyone" in a largely automated fashion.
  • Digital portfolios and outcomes-based education must replace standardized tests which are obviously failing to pick out students who are not prepared for college and career. Adobe Acrobat, PathBrite, and many other tools allow for students and teachers to easily assemble and reflect upon a variety of work and, again, form a much better picture of a student's performance than yearly, high-stakes, summative assessments.
  • If I hear about one more kid who "just couldn't find any information about [fill in topic here] on the Internet", I'm going to blow a gasket. Our students should be experts on information retrieval, evaluation, analysis, and synthesis. There is no reason why students should ever answer "I don't know" to a question and they need to be given opportunities to develop and hone these skills across curricula for their entire educational careers.

All of this requires system change on a massive scale, though. The technology is ready...Are your schools? Because we don't really have time to wait.

Topic: IT Priorities

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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20 comments
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  • Totally agree.

    I teach at the community college level for a vocational program (hazardous materials chemistry). I am amazed at the students that come to my class without any basic knowledge of science. Also, their ability to communicate in oral and written forms is lacking. I have actually see text-ese in papers handed in by high school graduates. "OMG"
    mjteague@...
    • Students are not focused on the future

      I see the same thing in my classrooms. Students in high school are texting their teachers and uploading homework reviewed by electronic spellcheckers, Excel or online calculators for math. Just paste the problem and poof there's the answer. Give them pencil and paper and a blue book for tests and watch the 100s turn to 40s. Another big issue is the education money going to football and other sports. If Johnny can't read then how will he function in society? Put the money where the benefitis tangible and not fleeting.
      mjfoysr
  • The human (parent) element is probably the most important

    I've been on record on your blog saying how mostly useless technology is in the classroom for anything not related to computer programming or how to use the computer. I think after years of this grand expensive experiment, I was right.

    Most kids aren't looking at High School as the last opportunity to get free tuition and this kind of mindset needs to be taught at an early age. Parents shouldn't assume that getting passing grades or standards exams are sufficient. Heck, I personally tossed out my honor roll bumper sticker I just received in the mail for my 11 yo daughter because the thing is worthless. It's been watered down to the point where anyone with a B average can get on the honor roll. Anything less than a 3.5 average on a class maximized with AP classes and the rest with mandatory college prep classes shouldn't deserve such honors IMO.

    Maybe you're thinking I'm just some crazy Asian parent, but American parents need to seriously examine their own role in education. I'm not saying that kids have to be pushed to the brink of suicide like they do in Japan, but it's way too lax here. Kids need some level of pressure with some reasonably high expectations or else they get bored.

    Humans are naturally lazy on virtually everything. It's in our nature to conserve energy. But this is why I like to workout with groups of people who push me because I know I won't always push myself. Education is the same way and kids need someone to push them.
    georgeou
    • Motivation is first half of succes

      Cause without it there is not following part.

      Best educational system (as in best grades) is usually South Korea.
      Part of it is emphasis of education as basis of Korea. And Korean teachers are the most respected (and supported) in the world.

      On the other hand education is about learning. And I have never seen any course about learning. Education teach how to do any activity. In some areas conducting activity without learning is forbidden by law. And workers who fare best on market are those who can learn.

      Yet, nobody teach kids how to learn.

      I mean come one. LEARNING is most important skill for ANY human. READING come next.
      (as in understanding what you see. NOT as speaking. Teaching via forcing to speak make it harder to read for about 5% of humans).
      So go ask your kids how they memorize. Who teched them memorizing techniques. And which they use for which material.
      So go ask your kids how they read. What techniques they use for which texts..........

      In my opinion that is second half of the success. Kids, parents, teachers should provide motivation necessary for creating "hunger of knowledge" but then kids should have efficients means for learning.
      przemoli
    • Mostly agree......

      Our education system has also gotten away from teaching the required basics. The "politically correct" movement has permeated into the education system so that even textbooks are being rewritten so that someone will not be offended, rather than teaching the facts, not matter how unpleasant that may be.

      Getting back to teaching the basics, such as reading , writing, arithmetic (math), general sciences, and what we called social studies, will do a lot more good than pushing technology in the schools. This was how the education was in the 1950's and 1960's and we put men on the moon, computers, etc.... Kids wanted to be astronauts and scientists. That's pretty much no longer true today.

      Instead of thinking students, we now have button pushers who rely on technology to do their thinking. Cashiers can't even count out your change unless the cash register tells how much to return!

      It's a very sad statement on the quality of the education our students get today.
      linux for me
      • The "back to basics" folks...

        ...are usually the ones lobbying to take arts education out of the schools on the grounds that it's a "frill", but the performing arts are one of the few things in the schools that teach kids how to cooperate without competing (together with a skill that many will use for the rest of their lives). And the visual arts (which I've never excelled at) are an excellent opportunity for creativity.

        Things can be taken to far, but education is a lot more than the 4 R's (reading, writing, arithmetic, and rote memorization).
        John L. Ries
  • Lets talk simple things.

    Did you know that kids with dislexia need special tutoring to learn languages?

    As in: They learn by speaking/using language. (Like Callan method, though there are some more moder and better methods).

    Its basic stuff. EVERY psychologist worth its money should know that.

    No go and ask about it teachers of your kids.

    Just way Education System handle Dyslexia show how out of date and out of reality it is.
    Everybody knows that everybody is different. Jet its hard to find educational system that try to accommodate to all those kinds/way kids prefer to learn by. (We have 5 senses, and there are people who prefer each of them. That also include kids who learn best/fastest/easies if they can WALK during learning).
    And there are myriads of disabilities. Only one that educational system can handle well is simple sight disabilities.

    PS Effects of defects in US educational system are not obvious. Why would they? US is Mecca for anyone with serious education. WHOLE WORLD provide you highly trained staff.
    przemoli
  • I absolutely love math but ...

    ... a huge problem with many basic math classes is the insistence on teaching concepts that most people will never use. The human mind simply hasn't room for information of no value, so learning quadratic equations and learning to speak Klingon are both equated as a waste of time by the person who has no reasonable expectation of using either. One reason our system is failing us is that we try to teach everything in case "we might need it" and don't spend nearly enough time and resources to teaching simple basics to the point where the student is proficient. "Solving for X" is beyond ridiculous for the student who can't do basic math.
    mjlegel
    • :P

      Never been in Polish school. :P
      przemoli
  • Don't worry about that Elephant

    Yet another article stuffing the servers of the internet providing a good moan while carefully avoiding the issue that we all know haunts public education in the Western World, yet its name we dare not speak.
    Two-Wolves
  • The problem is...

    ...that public education has become a political football. Too many Democrats don't want any changes that would reduce the power of teachers unions (a base constituency), and too many Republicans don't want to improve, or even adequately fund, what they would much rather privatize. Combine that with a mania for centralization and sundry battles over curriculum and you get a mess.

    Back when I was in college, I researched the political fight in the U.S. over the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. One of the things I turned up was a political cartoon portraying an elephant and donkey each holding a piece of a torn treaty, pointing at the other, and saying "He did it!". This strikes me as applicable to the battles over public education during the past 20 years or so.
    John L. Ries
    • plenty of funding

      Problem is that our education system wastes funding. We spend more money than most in the world.
      georgeou
      • ...in all the wrong places

        Apparently, a lot is not making it into the classroom.
        John L. Ries
        • Yes it's not making it into the classroom

          Yes it's not making it into the classroom, but that's my point. Money is being wasted. Just google new billion dollar school in LA. So your point that it's the Republican's fault for not funding education is misguided. The funds are there, but they're just not being spent correctly.
          georgeou
        • Yes it's not making it into the classroom

          Yes it's not making it into the classroom, but that's my point. Money is being wasted. Just google new billion dollar school in LA. So your point that it's the Republican's fault for not funding education is misguided. The funds are there, but they're just not being spent correctly.
          georgeou
        • Yes it's not making it into the classroom

          Yes it's not making it into the classroom, but that's my point. Money is being wasted. Just google new billion dollar school in LA. So your point that it's the Republican's fault for not funding education is misguided. The funds are there, but they're just not being spent correctly.
          georgeou
          • Nevertheless

            A large part of the Republican Party appears to have little interest in fixing the system, presumably because it would make it harder to sell the system of publicly subsidized private schools they really want.
            John L. Ries
  • Hardly surprising

    No one is expected to remember anything (as far as I can see) these days. Why? Because in the name of accountability and excellence education is devolving more and more into a checkbox mentality. No one is expected to just know anything anymore just that they get the "correct answer."

    Add to that, it seems people (all the young chavs/dudes(?)) get upset when you tell them they are rubbish at whatever it is they're rubbish at. They don't try and get better at it and fix the problem. They go all moody and it's suddenly your problem that they're less than average at whatever it is.

    Too many of them (more than ducks can count to) don't even know what a screwdriver is, what it is used for or how it is used, in any sense. They also tend not to react well to suggestions about fixing said problem.
    ego.sum.stig
  • Common Core

    I am a public school teacher and I completely agree with most of your assessment on this issue. I am hopeful for the future, at least in small part, because of the Common Core as it marches inevitably into our classrooms. If this new set of national standards is properly implemented, the gap between High School and College will shrink or possibly disappear. These new standards are written in reverse - starting with what a student needs to know in college and working backwards toward Kindergarten.
    JRNorwood
    • Why would a "common core" do anything?

      When it's clear that for the most part the powers that be, the families and even the yoof of today by and large do not care about education. Not that they will admit it, or more correctly even know that they don't care.
      ego.sum.stig