Pharyngula

What is a diploma worth?

Larry Moran thinks we need more rigorous admission requirements, and Donald Kennedy is not very happy with the state of creationist textbooks.

Kennedy is currently serving as an expert witness for the University of California Regents, who are being sued by a group of Christian schools, students and parents for refusing to allow high school courses taught with creationist textbooks to fulfill the laboratory science requirement for UC admission. After reading several creationist biology texts, Kennedy said he found “few instances in which students are being introduced to science as a process?that is, the way in which scientists work or carry out experiments, or the way in which they analyze and interpret the results of their investigations.”

Kennedy said that the textbooks use “ridicule and inappropriately drawn metaphors” concerning evolution to discourage students from formulating independent opinions. “Even with respect to the hypothesis that dominates them?namely, that biological complexity and organic diversity are the result of special creation?critical thinking is absent,” he added.

I’ve never quite understood the mentality that has allowed public schools to slip into such disarray, or the parents who insist that their child must be allowed into the college of their choice, no matter how deficient their background. A state college is going to set them back about $20,000 per year; a private college is going to be double that, easily. Yet here come these poorly prepared kids who are going to be paying all that money for instruction in basic algebra, remedial English, and with heads full of unscientific garbage that we need to spend a year draining. It’s such a waste of time and effort on our part and theirs, and these students are going to struggle and suffer and in many cases fail.

In my perfect world where colleges are not facing a painful lack of support from their state governments and were we aren’t scrabbling for students to keep our funding up, I’d tighten up admission standards across the board: you don’t get into any college unless you can read and write grammatically correct English, unless you know the elements of trigonometry, unless you’ve had at least a year’s instruction in a foreign language, and you’ve been exposed to at least algebra-based physics and have had a good lab course in chemistry. We currently use placement tests for math and foreign languages; I think it would be reasonable to do the same for students who propose to major in the sciences or history or literature. That’s not a lot to ask, actually. Students who don’t know the difference between stoichiometry and a sine should be advised to steer clear of the science buildings until they do; if they’ve never heard of the Magna Carta or think Afghanistan is in Africa, they don’t belong in the humanities, either.

I’m pushing the blame on the public school system, I’m afraid. Primary and secondary teachers are the most important figures in our kids’ educations, and they aren’t getting the support to do their job well.

Prior to Kennedy’s speech, university President John Hennessy introduced the audience to the Stanford Initiative on K-12 Education?a multidisciplinary, cross-campus effort to find novel ways of improving primary and secondary school education in the United States. The $125 million initiative is part of The Stanford Challenge, the university campaign dedicated to finding solutions to the most pressing challenges facing society.

Hennessy said that during a tour of the United States last year, he observed a “crisis of K-12 education in every city.” Noting that science and math education seemed most in need of reform, he pointed to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that less than 25 percent of American 12th-graders tested proficient in math, and only 18 percent were proficient in science.

Every time a school levy fails, every time some anti-education bozo gets elected to the school board, I want to grab the parents responsible and explain to them that that decision is going to personally cost them tens of thousands of dollars when they send their son or daughter off to a college to teach them the stuff they should have learned in 10th grade, that even if their kid is a well-prepared genius it means he will get less advancement in his classes because the instructors are struggling to bring the kids who don’t know algebra up to speed, and that they’ve increased the odds that their child will be one of the wash-outs at the college level. What I see instead is community pressure everywhere to lower the standards at the high school level to get graduation rates up to 100%—they all graduate, sure, but they get a diploma that is becoming increasingly meaningless. To counter the pressure from the people holding the pursestrings that is driving secondary education down into an exercise in babysitting, maybe the colleges need to get tough and specify what a meaningful high school education must contain.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Haubrich
    April 27, 2007

    School levy defeat campaigns are often led by groups whose hidden agenda is to wipe out the public school system altogether for religious reasons. They use the anti-tax rhetoric to build their support base, but they don’t really care about the future of the school district in which they are doing their dirt deeds. It is a pseudo-libertarian push against government run schools.

  2. #2 Lettuce
    April 27, 2007

    In my perfect world where colleges are not facing a painful lack of support from their state governments and were we aren’t scrabbling for students to keep our funding up, I’d tighten up admission standards across the board: you don’t get into any college unless you can read and write grammatically correct English

    I don’t know about that… If the colleges are not “facing a painful lack of support” you’d think a part, maybe a large part, of their undergraduate mission could be, would be, remediation, as it once was in many places.

    I know my own alma mater, Wisconsin, used to do a lot of this. Only they didn’t call it that. They called it beginning English and beginning Math. But those courses no longer carry a 100 label because… Most people don’t need them anymore.

    I’m as old a fart as anyone around here, but it’s always been the same: The golden age was also just a little back over the horizon compared to taody’s louts.

    It ain’t so.

  3. #3 David Wilford
    April 27, 2007

    Public high schools are not in the college prep business, nor should they be. They should offer the opportunity to those students who intend to go on the university to learn what PZ suggests. Otherwise, high schools only need to ensure they graduate students who can read and write, do arithmetic, and have a clue about the history of their country and its place in the world.

  4. #4 Ron Martinkosky
    April 27, 2007

    My humble opinion is the following: the 15% of the kids at the top you have no worry.Same with the 15% at the bottom. The 70% left is where we need to concentrate our efforts. K thru 3 need to have their classes cut to 10-12 max. Double the quota of teachers if necessary.Limit time on all the distractions that take away from basic reading, writing,language & math. A child can accomplish whatever he-she desires with a good foundation. I saw a poster in a professor’s office at Carnegie-Mellon U in 1986. It was YODA saying ” Read and the force will be with you”. He let me take it home to put in my son’s room. I’ve been thanking him ever since.

  5. #5 maditude
    April 27, 2007

    Where’d you get “$20,000 / year at a state college” from? Damned near gave me a heart attack, PZ!

    google “mn college tuition” reassured me significantly:

    MPR: St. Paul, Minn. — Starting this fall, a year of courses at the U of M Twin Cities will cost undergraduates about $7,500; that’s a 14-percent increase in tuition and fees over last fall.

    My city (Hastings MN) barely passed a school funding referendum last fall. I couldn’t believe all the complaining I heard about taxes, even from parents with kids in school here. Didn’t care about class sizes, didn’t care about kids having text books that weren’t falling apart. Didn’t see any point in investing in the future. Kinda depressing, really.

  6. #6 TheBrummell
    April 27, 2007

    I want to grab the parents responsible and explain to them that that decision is going to personally cost them tens of thousands of dollars when they send their son or daughter off to a college

    What fraction of US high-school graduates apply to college or university? How many parents don’t worry about paying for college because their child is not going anywhere near such a place?

  7. #7 Ginger Yellow
    April 27, 2007

    Even with respect to the hypothesis that dominates them–namely, that biological complexity and organic diversity are the result of special creation — critical thinking is absent.

    I think you’ll find that’s a feature, not a bug.

  8. #8 Monkey
    April 27, 2007

    PZ,
    As a highschool science teacher, I…um…well…agree with every syllable you wrote here. Thank you for doing so. However, my perspective comes from Canada. But there is no significant difference except for the fact that we are not yet feeling the pverwhelming wrath of creationist text and ID reform. If you can call it that. Much of the curriculum in highschool is good, most, not all, but there is a significant portion of children who simply ‘miss it’ and the fault must lay in the hands and mouths of my collegues (and myseloft, of course). The required material is good, the teachers are good, but there is too much to cover and the support is not there to make it a plausible situation. In terms of religion, we reside in a semi-christian dominated ideological society; not most are christian, but most relegate themselves to abiding by it in blind … faith. Anyway, it reaches to the school, and the children have a difficult time understanding certain topics because it simply doesnt mesh with that which they learned at home and in elementary school. Yesterday I had a student remark that (while discussing the ‘new planet’ found some 20mill ly away) “well, wouldnt god know it was there because he made it, so we could have just asked him where it was and saved some time looking for it”.
    Flabbergasted, I said what all true thinkers would have said: “Well, there is no god.” and some further admitions of atheism and the true aspect of biology…

    She was in shock the rest of the class because I ‘didnt believe in god’ and believed in evolution. They were, to her, the only two topics of discussion in the area, but whatever, that is aside from the main point here.

    That is all. Just some perspective.

  9. #9 Tea
    April 27, 2007

    David said: “high schools only need to ensure they graduate students who can read and write, do arithmetic, and have a clue about the history of their country and its place in the world.”

    Funny, that. In much of the world, this is the kind of stuff you need to know in order to get to high school in the first place. What the hell do you propose kids do before they get there? Watch cartoons, play tag, and finger-paint for the first 13-14 years of their lives? And, since not everyone finishes high-school, those people (if your standards were aceepted) could do absolutely nothing. No jobs for them.

  10. #10 Scott Hatfield, OM
    April 27, 2007

    PZ: I agree with Mike, and I would add that they often supplement their anti-tax rhetoric with an appeal to ‘standards-based reform’ after the model of NCLB, which essentially punishes school districts that fail to bring their performance on standardized tests up to the level of Lake Wobegon.

    As a consequence, the emphasis on preparing students to take standardized tests has been ramped way up, to the point that it is affecting our ability to do real reform. In my district we are now sacrificing five days of instruction to benchmark tests that are intended to simulate the state tests which both the state and the fed will use to evaluate our district. Perceived failures to meet the benchmarks are then used to put the screws on classroom teachers who are judged ‘low-performing’. I was called into my principal’s office back in November, for example, to explain why the scores from three of my five classes on two of six standards tested in the first quarter were below the ‘school average.’ Never mind that they had lumped GATE classes in with the regular Biology classes in forming that average, or that one of the periods I taught was a remedial extra period of instruction for kids that had previously failed state tests!

    The point of this anecdote is that vague appeals to schools having insufficiently high standards (presumably for graduation) is easily turned into grist for the mill of ‘standards-based reform’, which is less concerned about whether students are prepared for higher education, but with increasingly arbitrary and unrealistic levels of performance on standardized tests! The agenda of those who promote the latter is often not so much to improve public school performance, but to develop a case for public school “failure”, thus “justifying” alternative means of education (read: vouchers and homeschooling).

    Frustrated…SH

  11. #11 G. Tingey
    April 27, 2007

    And I thought the UK education system was halfway down the pan!

    At least we spend money, and it IS directed at education.
    But, do you know, the one thing you ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO is select for academic ability ……

    ( Because a majority of University applicants are “middle-class” ) – like err… intelligent parents tend to get better-paid jobs, and intelligent parents tend to have intelligent children – taken over large numbers.
    The political idiots are trying to defeat Darwin (which can’t be done) though they don’t realise this.

  12. #12 Scott Hatfield, OM
    April 27, 2007

    Monkey wrote: “Flabbergasted, I said what all true thinkers would have said: “Well, there is no god.” and some further admitions of atheism and the true aspect of biology…”

    Let me be blunt. It that’s actually the way you handled the situation, you missed an opportunity to teach the student how science actually works (“Why couldn’t we ask God?”) and instead substituted your considered opinion on theism for legitimate science instruction. You lost that student, and probably other students as well with that intemperate remark. They will not even bother listening to the evidence for evolution because of the implication of bias that will now be attached to your instruction, because you used the bully pulpit of a science classroom to promote your personal beliefs, and attached the imprimatur of science as justification for same.

    Disappointed…SH

  13. #13 Lettuce
    April 27, 2007

    I’m all for higher standards.

    And when we put them in place, the kids who get washed out while we wait for High Schools and Elementary Schools to get serious and improve, well… too bad, eh?

    Victims? Those kids could have voted for better schools when they started in them!

  14. #14 Allen
    April 27, 2007

    I am married to a public school teacher and I agree with most of what you say PZ, but not so much the following: I’d tighten up admission standards across the board: you don’t get into any college unless you can read and write grammatically correct English, unless you know the elements of trigonometry, unless you’ve had at least a year’s instruction in a foreign language, and you’ve been exposed to at least algebra-based physics and have had a good lab course in chemistry.

    That would be too strict and would deny students the opportunity to move into a new atmosphere and excel. After an undergraduate degree and brief career in economics, I am sure that I barely made it into graduate school in biology. Any such rules (at that stage) would have stopped me in my tracks. And being a professional biologist who every day marvels that he actually gets paid to do what he does, the idea of having strict roadblocks between high school and college (or at any other point) seems sad and misguided. As an aside, I worked for a couple of years in Germany. There, the students marveled at my background and were absolutely certain that my career path could not have happened in the German system.

  15. #15 Ray S
    April 27, 2007

    Although there are a few of us that think otherwise, the majority of the American public uses diplomas as a measurement of time, not of knowledge. They see a high school diploma and a college degree as a right, not as a demonstration of learned accomplishment. Some colleges accommodate this by being businesses more than institutions of higher learning and research. They are similar to an airline in that their primary business measure is butts in seats.

    Also note that the group of schools suing the California Board of Regents are private Christian schools and not public schools. Public schools do have many problems, but in the US do not legally teach creationism.

  16. #16 DaveX
    April 27, 2007

    Fact of the matter is that for the most part, college is just a big corral to put the future workforce in– gotta slow them down a bit until the boomers retire. Besides, most jobs are just going to train you anyway– the sad reality is that college is just one of the latter hoops society has people jumping through in their pursuit of some elusive greener pasture.

  17. #17 Kristine
    April 27, 2007

    People in America get their “education” from television, no matter how much they deny this.

    My evidence for this is that people repeatedly cite something that they saw on television as the source for their facts, even while simultaneously disparaging television. I blame television mostly; but really I blame the fact that we have created a whole culture of escapism, not just escapism through “entertainment” (I don’t “enjoy” a lot of the crap that’s out there for enjoyment), but escapism through denial. Nobody in America needs to know that Libya is not in Iran in order to make a buck, and making a buck is what it’s all about.

    We have created a whole frigging intellectual ecosystem of reality-denial populated by incurious creatures. This is why “critical thinking” is mistaken as callow, revisionist sneering at evolution by disinterested, lazy thinkers. This is why young earth creationist baraminology, which lacks basic statistical rigor, is seen as “scientific” by twits who post on creationist blogs. American has created a reality of unreality and then tried to foist it on Iraq, so is it any surprise that creationists have created a whole subculture of “peers” who “investigate scientific evidence” in an attempt to rewrite the scientific method to expand their cult?

    Incidentally, in light of the Regent University scandal, it seems to be escaping people’s notice that Bush sent all these little graduates from Patriot U to the green zone in Iraq in what one military general derisively called “heroic amateurism.” That is what our educational system has been undermined by – breathless, true-believing amateurs who want to impose private religious schools on everyone, so that they can finally teach the utter garbage that they want everyone to believe.

    Creationism and intelligent design are not really about the past, but the future – a future that they want to impose upon everyone. Small wonder that the evangelical right wing learned to become as broadcast media savvy as they did. They knew what they were doing. First, TV – then the textbooks.

  18. #18 Humbert Dinglepencker
    April 27, 2007

    I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Wilford: high schools most assuredly should be in the business of college prep. Indeed, many years ago, many high schools did exactly that. In my own humble H S, there were three divisions of education offered: Academic, General, and Applied. The Applied prepared students who had no interest or aptitude for higher education with skills that would allow them to graduate and become functioning members of the community. The General courses were also for kids who held no illusions of college, let alone graduate school, but who had better and brighter chances in entering the workforce. The Academic courses were considerably more difficult, required much more work on the part of the student, more independent thinking, much broader skills in many more areas, i.e., college preparation. Even such seemingly useless studies as Latin or Greek were included. I am still proud of the fact that when I entered undergraduate work in my college freshman year, the text used in freshman biology was the same text used in my high school’s Academic senior year.

    A difference I note today, aside from the loss of these educational levels, is a lack of intense interest from students. I recall being vitally interested in my classes, in learning something, and this desire being fostered and supported by truly committed teachers. Today it seems to be all about The Grade; all else is forgotten, or ignored. By the way, lest one gets the impression we were just a bunch of nerds, we ‘Academics’ were also heavily into extra curricular activities, band, chorus, theatre, football, basketball, etc. We were what nerds were before Hollywood put pocket protectors on our shirts, and tape on the broken hinges of our glasses: we were what other students wanted to be. Not anymore, sadly. Today, a heavy pall of anti-intellectualism hangs on HS campuses.

    Another thing changed during the years after my HS graduation: Vietnam. That war had subtle influences on education in this country that will not be redressed (if ever) until the current crop of educators retires. Now, before anyone screams…I am NOT condemning all teachers, far from it. I come from a whole family of teachers (I am currently the only surviving member of my immediate family who left the educational field). However, this did happen: many of the young teachers from the Vietnam era went into the field because it was an automatic talisman against the draft (remember the draft?). Unfortunately, many of these teachers were not interested in teaching at all, and they weren’t very good at it. Many others skipped teaching entirely and became Administrators. Still others steeped themselves in Educational Theory. Couple that with low pay, interference in educational matters by non-educators and well-meaning but misdirected parents, and the stage for decline was set.

    Now, none of this is entirely bad in and of itself. However, the damage to education in America has been profound. My mother, who taught advanced history and world cultures in HS, was informed by a curriculum advisor (a young fellow whose father she had once taught…) that as far as he was concerned, nothing of any value or interest happened before the end of WW II. She “retired” within the month.

    Colleges, as a result of both this academic in-excellence and the concomitant anti-intellectualism, have been forced into chasing the spiral down the educational drain, both by being forced to take whatever paying students they can get, and by often ‘dumbing down’ the academic courses (by the time I was in graduate school, the school I attended had revised the orientation manual to a 9th grade reading level). Until such time as education and knowledge are returned to a proper place, teaching is made respectable and well paid, and independent exercise, we will be forced to watch as the rest of world sweeps by us on the way to better things.

  19. #19 Clare
    April 27, 2007

    I agree that a: we tend to overidealize the educational systems of the past and b: we should be concerned that schools aren’t doing more to prepare students for college. Contradiction? Let me put it this way: A British newspaper once published a sample of O-levels (exams taken at age 16) from the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1990s. The point they wanted to make was that the exam had been horribly diluted, that schools were producing a generation of idiots, civilization was at an end etc. etc. After a few minutes wondering how many kids took these exams at each date, and how many passed, I reflected on the fact that while a few, privileged kids were doing really, really hard tests in the 1930s, at that very same time my father was being fobbed off with the three Rs, expected to leave school at 14, and to quietly take up his appointed place in life towards the bottom of the social scale.

    Granted the UK isn’t the US, but the same debates about standards and college prep are going on there as here. In both countries, more and more high school students are going on to further education (in a wide range of institutions) as more jobs demand higher qualifications. Increasingly, faculty at these institutions complain about unprepared students. It is right and proper that more people have a chance to pursue goals that were out of reach of their parents and grandparents, and that they have a chance to experience higher education; but true fairness demands that students know and understand what is required of them if these goals are to be at all realistic.

  20. #20 Arianna
    April 27, 2007

    I’m a long time lurker and first time poster, but this topic particularly struck a nerve with me. This is a perspective from Canada, so your mileage may vary, but I agree wholeheartedly that we need higher standards for university admission, and I’m really glad to see PZ include the humanities in this. I’m utterly shocked by the sheer incompetence of a number of my classmates. We’re talking about English majors who don’t know what words like “staunch” mean, and I’m at a pretty decent (though certainly not elite) University.

    Lettuce, I don’t think anyone here is advocating for sudden, overnight tightening of university admission requirements without restructuring education from JK up. PZ pointed out that the root of the problem is the lack of support that teachers are receiving to do their jobs properly.

    Personally, I think one of the major failings, at least here, has been the cuts sustained by special education programs. Cutting special education programs as my school board did back when I was in elementary school created huge problems that even I noticed as a child. It’s completely unfair to the teachers, who were already teaching classes of roughly 30 students, to dump all the special-needs kids, both those with learning disabilities, behavioural disorders and gifted kids into the class with the ‘average’ learners, and it’s completely unfair to the students as well, at the same time as cutting back on EAs. It leaves the gifted kids languishing, and largely ended up washed-out and bored, the kids with learning disabilities not receiving the attention they need, and the kids in the middle plugging along on their own. I’m not opposed to integration – I think it’s important for people, especially children, to be socially integrated and for the most part at my school they were – the spec ed classes were half day, and then they were half day with the regular classroom, until they got cut.

    Anyway, that’s my opinion on what happened here, but I know you’re facing an entirely different set of problems there, batting the creationists, “teaching to the test”, etc.

  21. #21 RedMolly
    April 27, 2007

    Where’d you get “$20,000 / year at a state college” from?

    Alas, it costs money to feed and house (and over-extravagantly clothe) college kids, too. At my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, it now costs $11,253 per year to live in a double room and eat in the dining hall every day. Add that to the $7962 it costs just to show up at class, and you’re darned close to $20K already, even without the American Eagle wardrobe.

    Also: while I agree with you in principle, PZ, the fact remains that many (many MANY) high schools, especially in low-income or inner-city areas, are simply not equipped to teach kids to the standards you suggest. I don’t know about the U of M, but I know the UC system has a list of a couple hundred high schools (mine among them!) whose graduates get extra points on their applications precisely because they’re such low-performing schools and so few students graduate from them having met UC’s admissions requirements. If we suddenly require college applicants to know trigonometry and have passed a chem lab, those kids who graduated from a high school where there may have been one–or no–trig class offered and no lab space available will be even more disadvantaged than they already are.

    What I’d like to see is a big push for community colleges (California’s CC system could be a great nationwide model, I think). These institutions can help prepare the less-ready students for a four-year school; they provide an excellent community service by offering both academic and vocational classes; their low barriers to entry are a great equalizer for people from all different economic and cultural backgrounds. Unfortunately, they suffer from student body attrition because so many CC students have to juggle heavy work and family responsibilities along with their courseloads–maybe a more robust financial aid system is the answer.

    (Also also: Scott Hatfield, I totally agree with you. As I often do.)

  22. #22 arensb
    April 27, 2007

    or think Afghanistan is in Africa

    It’s not? I guess that explains why bin Laden was able to hide in a cave, then. Everybody knows there are no caves in Africa.

  23. #23 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    April 27, 2007

    Unfortunately, they suffer from student body attrition because so many CC students have to juggle heavy work and family responsibilities along with their courseloads–maybe a more robust financial aid system is the answer.

    It seems that the push right now is actually away from the two-year schools. At least, that’s what I see enrollment figures saying.

    I’d certainly agree that financial aid overhaul would be nice. Right now, the deck is really stacked against adult learners who need to work to support families. (I can’t tell you how many students I’ve seen who try to juggle full-time student status for financial aid with full-time work and end up failing out.)

  24. #24 Pierce R. Butler
    April 27, 2007

    Here in Florida, eight years under Jeb! Bush’s fat-headed bureaucratic overlordship have twisted the public schools into a year-round monomania for statewide testing, on which school budgets and teachers’ jobs explicitly depend. It’s very frustrating to see good reform groups such as Fla Citizens for Science forced to waste their energies on pushing for more science questions on the state tests as the primary lever for changing curricula, while hopes for in-depth educational improvements languish indefinitely.

    Way back when, in high school, I observed that the typical school board has five members, and that it seemed one of those sought office to make sure that students learned nothing about evolution; another to ban everything possibly pertaining to socialism; and a third to protect the curriculum from anything connected with sex. Ergo, boards lived with a permanent majority for a pro-ignorance platform.

    Then and later, I saw how school administrators spend much of their time groveling, before board members, other officials and politicians, and parents. As this process is quite visible, it appears that no one hoping to maintain integrity would choose to enter such a career, never mind retaining individual principles once in the system.

    Likewise, the abuse heaped on teachers from all directions tends to filter out the more observant, independent-minded, and un-optimistic potential candidates. That so many good, thinking, and dedicated teachers remain in the classrooms is a testimony to their social commitment (&/or masochism).

  25. #25 Miguel Garcia-Blanco
    April 27, 2007

    I’m completely baffled as to why these students want to enter a university that considers creationism to be a load of junk. It makes me think of the following silly scenario:

    Atheist: I’d like to join your church.
    Priest: Great! We’re always looking for new members. But we do have some entry requirements.
    Atheist: Okay, shoot.
    Priest: Well, do you accept that God created the universe and all creatures great and small?
    Atheist: Actually, no. I’m an atheist and I know evolution to be a fact.
    Priest: Uh-huh. In that case, are you willing to renounce your belief in evolution and accept God into your heart?
    Atheist: No.
    Priest: Um, maybe our church is not for you. There is, however, a nice library down the road.
    Atheist: But I want to join your church! (Starts looking distressed)
    Priest: Okay. (Scratches head) Can I ask why you want to join our church?
    Atheist: … (Looks confused)

  26. #26 David Wilford
    April 27, 2007

    Funny, that. In much of the world, this is the kind of stuff you need to know in order to get to high school in the first place. What the hell do you propose kids do before they get there? Watch cartoons, play tag, and finger-paint for the first 13-14 years of their lives? And, since not everyone finishes high-school, those people (if your standards were aceepted) could do absolutely nothing. No jobs for them.

    Tea, that’s why once upon a time basic education ended at grade 8. Much of high school as it’s taught in the U.S. is a reiteration of what’s been taught before, unless you take classes geared towards college prep.

    If I had my way, I’d end secondary education at age 16 and enlarge the role of community colleges to either A) teach technical skills or B) get them up to speed for university-level study.

  27. #27 Albatrossity
    April 27, 2007

    The UC system got itself a hell of an expert witness in Don Kennedy; the judge and jury who get to hear him are in for a treat.

    Don was the department head at Stanford when I was a graduate student (as well as a member of our successful Palo Alto city-league volleyball team), and I have never met a more articulate and insightful scientist. When he asked a question at the departmental seminars, it was inevitably the question which penetrated to the kernel of the issues involved. The question, if answered by the speaker, seemed to lift a fog for many of the other listeners. And if the guy didn’t answer the question, he/she soon got another even more penetrating question or comment.

    It will be fun to follow this story. I have a couple of those Bob Jones University “textbooks”, and posted my review of them in comment #240 of this comment thread on Thoughts from Kansas last year. I don’t think my review is as pithy as what Don Kennedy will say in court, however!

  28. #28 Ruth
    April 27, 2007

    The most important component is parents who demand that the kids study and perform to high levels, and demand high standards from the schools. When we moved to Missouri, we found the best district that we can (barely ) afford. Two of my kids are in a demanding gifted program. My autistic child is getting advanced instruction in math, as well as needed remedial help with language and social skills. We are willing to make the sacrifices in time and money that this demands. If we wanted a hot tub, BMW car and trips to Aruba, the kids would be dumped in a low performing school. We’re Catholic and don’t want religion in the public schools. We take our children to church to learn that. (But if the Pope cracks down on evolution, we will leave the Church-I guess we’re not good Catholics.)

  29. #29 Arianna
    April 27, 2007

    David Wilford:
    I think the model you’re suggesting is fairly similar to the Cgep system in Qubec. Seems to work pretty well for them, though I’ve never lived there so I’m not sure of any attendant issues. Ontario used to have something somewhat similar – until about 4-5 years ago, our high schools went to grade 13. Those wanting a high school diploma or to attend college only had to go to grade 12 for their OSSD, but those wanting to go to university did a fifth year (grade 13, though these courses could be integrated into a four year program, known as ‘fast tracking’) of 6 OAC (basically first year university level) courses, which were required for university admission. I was the last year to do these before they were phased out and since I waited a couple of years to go to university, I’m in with a mix kids who did and didn’t do OACs, and the difference is staggering.

    Ruth:

    It’s well and good to say that the parents bear responsibility, but if we just write off a larger societal responsibility and allow schools to continue deteriorating, we’re punishing children for the crime of being born into low income, unstable, or non-education oriented families, and that just isn’t fair to the children.

  30. #30 Lee Harrison
    April 27, 2007

    Totally agree, PZ.

    Lowered entry standards don’t do anyone any favours because the standards don’t stay low. The kids who shouldn’t be in Uni end up discovering that they have wasted a year or two of their wage-earning lives, and the kids who should be there get less attention in their early years thanks to the excess of those who’ll be dropping out soon.

    Here in Australia I think (based, admittedly, on half remembered figures from a year or three ago) that more than half of uni entrants drop out by the end of their first year. Why are they there in the first place? Because they have been deceived by an education system that tries very hard, for the best reasons, to have everybody ‘succeed’ – without recognising that there are different types and levels of success.

    Meanwhile, the curricula have been dumbed down meaning that the first year of Uni, especially in a science subject, tends to be a lightening recap of the last two years of your supposed education just to make sure that those who stick around are up to speed…

  31. #31 dorid
    April 27, 2007

    Let’s put the blame where it belongs. That ISN’T on parents, or at least not in that they don’t get involved with what the schools are doing. Schools tell parents all the time about the importance of reading and writing, and it isn’t unusual for the schools to take time away from the science and social studies classes to teach kids language arts.

    The problem is no matter how many studies are done on how to teach kids, districts would rather follow fads. Why bother training teachers at all when districts come in and try to tell teachers HOW to teach? Some southern schools are moving to totally scripted classrooms. We have “curriculum specialists” some of whom aren’t trained in their field or have absolutely NO classroom experience deciding what supplies to get and what techniques teachers will use. We are throwing money at a problem that was created by throwing money at it. We’ve created a whole bureaucratic mess that only sops up school funding, delays getting materials in the classroom, and interferes with lesson planning.

    I’m not surprised Johnny can’t read.

    As for tightening admissions, I’d like to see more community or junior colleges taking up some of the slack… if kids can’t get into a choice school, let them go a couple years to a community college and undo some of the damage of their earlier education, or do some catching up.

    One of the BIG problems I have with what you are saying is that there are students out there with learning disabilities who may well be able to succeed in college with minimal accommodation… Yes, I know life doesn’t always accommodate you, but also that some students take extra time or extra attention to give them that little jump start they need. But I DON’T think that students should be going into fields or careers that they are intellectually unsuited for.

  32. #32 Stuart Coleman
    April 27, 2007

    Damn it PZ, you beat me to my scoop. I thought that not too many people would be seeing Stanford’s newsletter and I’d get to talk about insightful commentary on the state of public education before all of you paid bloggers.

  33. #33 Tea
    April 27, 2007

    David Wilford,

    I apologize; I suppose I need to learn a bit more about American educational system, then 🙂

    Where I come from, basic education lasts from ages 6-14. That’s where you learn to read and write, grammar, math, basic of physics, chemistry, history, geography and biology. After that, you can either enter 4 years of high school that prepares you for college, or, alternatively, join a specific area oriented school that teaches you how to be a car mechanic or an electrician or an accountant or a hairdresser (etc.), while still keeping up with and adding extra knowledge and understanding of other subjects I’ve mentioned above. The latter is also considered high school, though, which is why it sounds really strange to me to say that all that high school needs to teach is reading and writing and algebra. One should still know all of this by the age of 12, in my opinion. And by “one” I mean “everyone”, even those that plan to pursue no high school education whatsoever.

  34. #34 dorid
    April 27, 2007

    Arianna, I bet my special ed kids who were “dumped” into classrooms can out perform just about any of your “normal” kids.

    BTW, my first one is finishing up her Masters in Marine Biology, and some of her earlier work was published this fall.

    One of the problems of special education has been that it lumps all kids with disabilities in the same classes and educational tracks… often with EXTREMELY lowered expectations. I expect MORE from my kids than the school does… and I get it.

    …and whoever was earlier talking about parents and sacrifice? well, not everyone can AFFORD to get their kids in the right public schools, whether or NOT they have spent money on hot tubs and BMWs. Kids with disabilities sometimes take up a LOT of money in medical care, disabled parents and parents in industries where jobs have been lost due to factory shut downs (like some of our auto workers) simply can’t afford private schools, sometimes even have difficulty keeping roofs over their heads.

    Not all college bound kids come from (or should come from)upper middle class families. I find a whole lot of classism in these kind of assumptions.

    If you don’t allow kids a college education because they came from a poor (or an educationally poor) environment and DON’T consider their potential, you might as well quit fooling yourselves and just institute a caste system here in the US.

  35. #35 Scholar
    April 27, 2007

    Well, they can just go straight from home-schooling to Patrick Henry college and get their degree. Like many of Bush’s interns…
    http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0421-09.htm

  36. #36 PZ Myers
    April 27, 2007

    I agree completely that we can’t just slam a sudden increase in standards into place — it’s a disservice to all the innocent students currently in the system. We have to start by recruiting the parents to demand higher standards.

    Really, I didn’t just invent the $20,000 figure. I’ve got kids in college right now, and I well remember the light-headed feeling I got when talking with the financial aid counselor (we’re also solidly middle-class, so we got almost no aid. You may be counting on your currently moth-eaten pocketbook as justification for healthy financial aid down the road, but nuh-uh — you’ve got to be pretty well beat down to get substantial assistance, and just being average middle-class in GW Bush’s America isn’t enough.)

    This is how to put it. If your kids aren’t getting the background in high school, you are going to have to put out $20,000 for just the first year, when he or she is getting remedial class work in 10th grade algebra. That kid is going to be behind in everything — instead of finishing in 4 years, they’re going to take 5 or 6, bleeding you dry at $20K/year. And if they are that far behind, they are going to be struggling and frustrated, and may not even finish that degree — we do not give out bachelor’s degrees for good attendance.

    Now…have you talked to your child’s teachers to make sure that he or she is on a college-bound track? Do they even have recommendations for college-bound students? Does your principal even give a damn about college admissions, or does he just want to set painless, minimal requirements to keep his graduation rates high? Are those essential core courses in basic math and writing adequately staffed? What are the parents doing to make sure the schools are preparing their kids for a difficult and expensive career in college?

  37. #37 Arianna
    April 27, 2007

    Dorid:

    My apologies for my horrid phrasing, I really didn’t mean to make it sound like I was against integrated education, because I’m not. The biggest problem with cutting special ed is that, here anyway, they cut funding for EAs in the classroom at the same time, so kids with learning disabilities were the ones that ended up really suffering because they weren’t getting the attention they needed. I know damn well that learning disability does not equal learning incapable, but they need the support to achieve. Your daughter is lucky she had your support at home, but just like you pointed out (as I did in a different post above) that not all kids are going to come from families who can financially support them in moving to a good school district/attending a private school, not all kids with learning disabilities come from families that invest time and energy in their academic advancement, and they’re the ones getting absolutely screwed over by the lack of extra help at school.

    I think some of the misunderstanding might come from different interpretation of ‘special ed’ though – until the cutbacks, in my district, ‘special ed’ was more of a one-on-one or very small group focused on whatever the specific subject the difficulty was in, with the rest of the time spent in the ‘regular’ (I really dislike the words regular, normal, and average, but I can’t seem to find an alternative at present) classroom environment, not complete removal from it.

  38. #38 David Marjanovi?
    April 27, 2007

    From comment 17:

    we have created a whole culture of escapism

    Created? Some say the whole country is founded on escapism. I’m not sure if that’s fair — not all Americans are 1st-generation immigrants! –, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, as a cultural influence, it turned out to explain something.

  39. #39 David Marjanovi?
    April 27, 2007

    From comment 17:

    we have created a whole culture of escapism

    Created? Some say the whole country is founded on escapism. I’m not sure if that’s fair — not all Americans are 1st-generation immigrants! –, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, as a cultural influence, it turned out to explain something.

  40. #40 Mooser
    April 27, 2007

    As a 54 year old man who must work for a few more years before retirement, I have a vested interest in making sure the coming generation is as stupid as possible. They have all the energy of youth, and they should be smart, too? How’m I supposed to compete with that?

  41. #41 David Marjanovi?
    April 27, 2007

    Tea not only speaks for Slovenia here (comment 33), but also for Austria, Germany, France, and AFAIK most or all of Europe, Russia included. The only differences I know of are in when the basic education common to all stops and the split happens.

    In the USA the universities are financed; in Europe the schools are.

  42. #42 David Marjanovi?
    April 27, 2007

    Tea not only speaks for Slovenia here (comment 33), but also for Austria, Germany, France, and AFAIK most or all of Europe, Russia included. The only differences I know of are in when the basic education common to all stops and the split happens.

    In the USA the universities are financed; in Europe the schools are.

  43. #43 Nathan Parker
    April 27, 2007

    I’ve never quite understood the mentality that has allowed public schools to slip into such disarray, or the parents who insist that their child must be allowed into the college of their choice, no matter how deficient their background.

    My observation is that many parents aren’t really after an education for their children, they’re after the social status that accrues when they graduate from an institution, particularly a prestigious one.

    My parents paid for a private education all the way through college, yet they’re upset that I accept evolution. What a surpise to pay for an education and actually get one!

  44. #44 Zeno
    April 27, 2007

    As a community college faculty member in California, I’m proud that we provide open admission to anyone who wants to enroll. You don’t even have to be a high school graduate (though you do need to be of age). We give a second chance (or perhaps even a third or fourth chance) to millions of people who have deficiencies in their earlier education. In my math department, we teach everything from arithmetic on up through differential equations, so on the one hand we’re training students who will transfer to four-year institutions (my students have gone to just about every UC and Cal State campus, as well as Caltech) and on the other hand we’re teaching people who didn’t learn a single thing in grammar school (or maybe never went in the first place).

    I do often wonder about how egregiously unprepared my students are to do the least little thing in basic algebra sometimes, as when my introductory algebra students grab for their calculators to find out that 28 is 4 times 7. That’s dismaying. Who’s to blame?

    Well, the poor public school teacher is beset on all sides by goverment interference as well as support. They’re almost forced to teach to the test, where “the test” consists of various high-stakes exams that determine a student’s fate — such as whether he or she will graduate. While I like standards in theory (and espouse high standards myself; some that we have now are way too low), in practice I dislike having them established by legislators and bureaucrats who almost certainly couldn’t pass the exams that they themselves ordain.

    I have a sibling who is really down in the trenches as a third-grade teacher in a public school that was taken over by the state for poor performance. Some things have stabilized under state administration, but she is loaded down with rules and requirements and paperwork. I think that accountability for the use of public funds in our schools could be achieved without drowning our teachers in reporting requirements. Our teachers aren’t really treated as professionals. Rather, they are lackeys who are supposed to jump to do the bidding of whatever fad has been enacted into state law (or adopted by a local board of education).

    There’s also a vicious circle at work: (a) we don’t respect teachers much; (b) so we don’t pay them much; (c) so we can’t adequately staff our school with qualified instructors (hello, emergency credential!); (d) many of our teachers (esp. the emergency hires) have trouble doing an adequate job; (e) many students get poor education. (f) Go back to (a).

    It’s not all the teachers’ fault, I know (boy, do I know!), because students are responsible for their own learning and parents ought to play a larger role in the education of their children, but teachers are always in the cross hairs. After the vicious circle comes the chicken and the egg: Which comes first: Better pay or higher qualifications? The pay scale is a factor, even if it’s not determinative, because people who could be really great teachers usually have other options if the education system gets too unattractive.

    Oh, look. I wrote a long rant and didn’t manage to voice even a single new idea. It’s all been said before and it continues to be a stubborn tangle. I wish I knew where we could find the leadership that will move us toward a genuine improvement. (And how do we get the fanatics with their Bibles and creationism tracts to get out of the way?) [Sigh] I have papers to grade now.

  45. #45 Chaoswes
    April 27, 2007

    As a former middle school teacher I found that neither the inclusion nor exclusion methods work. No method that we have or can conceive of, within fiscal reason, will ever work. The desire to learn, to expand your understanding of the world begins at home. A child is far more likely to succeed if they are raised in a home that values education. We all know this. However, higher standards will not fix this issue. The reason we are getting our educational asses handed to us internationally is that the people in these places value/respect teachers and education. We in America obviously deem teaching (outside of college)a secondary profession. Gaining respect is the first hurdle that must be leaped.

  46. #46 dorid
    April 27, 2007

    Agreed that there are various levels of disability. As a teacher AND a mother of special ed kids, I know the problems associated with all of it. BUT, two of my four kids (my autistic honor student who was accepted into the science magnet school and my schizophrenic son who was enrolled in community college before our move and will be going back to school next fall to study geology and paleontology) were “supposed” to not be able to function outside of an institution and required EXTREMELY high levels of care. I eventually pulled my son out of school, he got his GED at 15 (I blackmailed the school district into letting him test that early by reminding them what it would cost THEM if I insisted on FAPE) and scored in the 99th percentile in math, science and social studies… and 91 percentile in Language Arts (a severe blow to me, as I was teaching Language Arts at the time in that district)

    Teachers who are flexible and well trained can handle a diverse classroom make-up, IF they are allowed to teach using styles that are appropriate to the students, including a lot of hands on learning. The problem comes in when teachers DON’T teach to the students, but teach according to administrative standards. NOTE I AM NOT SAYING that they teach easier topics or dumb down the work, only that they present it in a way that is most easily digested by the students (egads, am I talking about framing?)

    Yes, My kids have a ton of experience different than most special ed kids… but there are a LOT of kids out there who could do well IF GIVEN THE CHANCE. My feeling is that they shouldn’t be deprived of that chance, no matter how late in life they can get it.

    Now, I don’t think we should be having to teach remedial reading in high level universities, and I totally support having kids who aren’t ready for that level of education going to a community college. Yes, I also know how expensive college education is, and that it’s better to know what you should have learned in middle school BEFORE you have to start paying for it. Personally I’ve had my kids in AP and IB courses in HS (having done the same myself) BECAUSE it saves money.

    BUT there are a lot of times you get what you can get when you can get it when it comes to education.

  47. #47 Millimeter Wave
    April 27, 2007

    “well, wouldnt god know it was there because he made it, so we could have just asked him where it was and saved some time looking for it”

    I think the appropriate response would be:

    “Indeed it would have saved a lot of time. So why don’t you ask him if there are any more we should be looking for? It’s much easier to confirm the existence of such planets than to find them without knowing where to look. You’d be saving humankind a great deal of time and effort if you could be so kind as to ask…”

    People seem to have no problem believing in such ludicrous superstitions right up to the point at which the effects cease to be abstract and indefinite. Nothing diminishes such superstitions better than the immediate need to run away from an actual test.

  48. #48 Pete Dunkelberg
    April 27, 2007

    What I see instead is community pressure everywhere to lower the standards at the high school level to get graduation rates up to 100%–….

    No, the trick is to raise graduation standards, via the No Child Left Behind method and also various state tests. The kids who see that they aren’t going to graduate drop out and the graduation percentage goes up.

  49. #49 Mike B
    April 27, 2007

    PZ.

    Entry standards have their place, but trying to bootstrap the public education system into doing their job by raising standards at the college level beyond their current curriculums seems to me to only signal the creation of an arbitrary barrier to admission for many. What is the bright inner-city kid going to do when his local school will not give him the education he or she needs to advance, and his parents are unable to fund alternate educational resources for them?

    Aptitude and education are not correlated measures, and the goal should be to create a system whereby those that can – get to. I’m not saying that standards have no place in evaluating placements, but I have also been on the other side of the fence where rigid standards caused an issue.

    I left home at 17. I never finished high school. When, a decade later, I smartened up – I did not meet admissions standards for the faculty of science at the university. So, I engineered a back way in – getting a mature student exception into the faculty of business, and then specializing in their Management Information Systems Co-op program. Basically a major in business with a minor in computer science. And all along the way I collected electives and extra coursework towards upgrading the minor to a major in comupter science.

    When I graduated – with the University Award of Excellence for placing first in class and with an unbroken string of A+’s in all of my math and science classes – I was two courses shy of completing the requirements for my undergraduate computer science degree. So I went to apply to the department so I could finish it up over the summer.

    What did I get told?

    “You don’t meet our admissions guidelines and, as such, we do not find you to be a suitable candidate. Go back, finish high school, and try again at such a time when we could have confidence in your ability to complete the program.”

    Despite having a higher GPA on their own core subjects than any of their graduating class that year – I was unwelcome within their faculty.

    And no, I never bothered going back to try and meet their requirements. Screw ’em if they can’t look past a rigid set of checkboxes to see the actual student.

  50. #50 CalGeorge
    April 27, 2007

    “well, wouldnt god know it was there because he made it, so we could have just asked him where it was and saved some time looking for it”.

    Arrest her parents and throw them in jail for child abuse. [kidding]

    Impose a tax on religious people. [not kidding]

    Arrrrggghhhh!

  51. #51 dorid
    April 27, 2007

    Pete, and that’s exactly the way it works too. Do you know in Pinellas county FL you can’t ENROLL in high school if you’ll graduate after your 20th birthday? You need SPECIAL PERMISSION. That means kids who fail twice automatically don’t get a shot at High School…

    That means that elementary school kids with disabilities waiting for an IEP, ESOL students moved back in grades since they don’t have the English to read at levels required in higher grades, and even some young screw ups who may grow out of their lack of interest in education are AS A MATTER OF PROCEDURE discluded from public education. Yeah, it inflates the graduation rates IF you can keep the ones who have difficulty from getting into High School in the FIRST place, but it also cuts out a lot of students who are motivated and would do well.

    Gotta love that No Child Left Behind Act, huh?

  52. #52 RedMolly
    April 27, 2007

    As a community college faculty member in California, I’m proud that we provide open admission to anyone who wants to enroll.

    Zeno, I was hoping to see you weighing in on this thread. I can’t heap enough praises on the California CC system; I think it does an excellent job not only preparing under-prepared high school students for a four-year school, but of offering a solid second chance to people who, for whatever reason, weren’t ready or able to start college immediately after high school.

    (And I wish I coulda taken one of your math classes. I am the most thoroughgoing math idiot in the world, and the trig teacher I had (for a 7 a.m. class! ouch!) at Ventura College considered writing equations on the board, then standing back and saying “there” to be teaching. A brilliant career in the sciences, destroyed before it had even begun.)

  53. #53 Reality Czech
    April 27, 2007

    Instead of using peremptory commands to tell schools what and how to teach, why not use shame?  Give all students a battery of tests before graduation, covering all the essentials (including science and the 3 R’s) plus any optional areas (languages & arts) where the student wants to claim accomplishment.

    Now print the scores on each student’s diploma and publish the ratings for the entire school (averages and bar chart) correlated with letter grades.  A school which hands out A’s for substandard achievement will be easily distinguished from one which takes achievement seriously.

    Being able to shame a school to stop giving A’s for 7th-grade skills in an 11th grade class wouldn’t be a cure-all, but it wouldn’t have any of the liabilities of trying to dictate a curriculum.

  54. #54 Zeno
    April 27, 2007

    Thanks for the kind word, RedMolly, although you can’t be “the most thoroughgoing math idiot in the world” (I think tha person is in my introductory algebra class this semester) if you made it all the way to a trig class. Ventura’s a pretty good school, so I’m sorry the luck of the draw dealt you a loser.

    As a glimmer of hope for the future, our community college system is working with the Cal State and UC systems to identify and train more teachers. It would be nice if supply met demand, which certainly is not true right now. My campus has a teacher training program that is getting off the ground with on-site training opportunities. That should be good. (And, yes, I do certainly know that “training” is not a currently in-vogue word, but I don’t balk at it.) My sister went through something like it in her central California location — a cooperative venture between her city’s community college and Fresno State.

  55. #55 Older
    April 27, 2007

    It’s too bad what’s happened to “Christian.” Back when I was teaching, the best science text I found for the early grades was called something like “Science for Christian Children.” What I liked about it was that, instead of the section headings that usually appear, you know, “The Earth,” “The Oceans,” “The Atmosphere,” the headings were “Observing,” “Measuring,” “Comparing,” “Recording,” etc. I said “Wow, wouldja look at that! A science text that actually involves science!” There was a moral lesson attached to each lesson, but it was easily removed, and never actually very objectionable anyway.

  56. #56 Ruth
    April 27, 2007

    I know we are lucky to have the education options we do, and that many don’t have access to. I also grew up in a poor rural area, and succeded because my parents pushed us to teach ourselves despite poor schools. I see many in our comfortable suburb who let their kids drift. We need a society that values education, is willing to pay to make it available to all.

  57. #57 Christian Burnham
    April 27, 2007

    I have no idea what stoichiometry is. Should I know that sort of thing as a physical chemist?

    The only things you need to know are the basics of are physics, mathematics and grammar. The rest you can Google as needed.

    Also- remember to bring a pen to work.

  58. #58 Pygmy Loris
    April 27, 2007

    At least we spend money, and it IS directed at education.
    But, do you know, the one thing you ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO is select for academic ability ……

    ( Because a majority of University applicants are “middle-class” ) – like err… intelligent parents tend to get better-paid jobs, and intelligent parents tend to have intelligent children – taken over large numbers.
    The political idiots are trying to defeat Darwin (which can’t be done) though they don’t realise this.

    Posted by: G. Tingey | April 27, 2007 10:27 AM

    I sincerely hope this is some sort of satire/humor. Otherwise you’re being an @ss.

    My mother has an M.Ed. and neither of her parents went to high school. They were dirt poor sharecroppers who had to drop out of school to do little things like make extra money so the family could eat.

  59. #59 dkew
    April 27, 2007

    This is a wonderful thread: a range of perspectives and experiences from students, parents and educators. We all agree that education is good thing, and the question is how to get it. There is disagreement, but it’s polite. No screaming or flaming, and the nutters haven’t hijacked it.
    Maybe, if society in general could reach a consensus on goals, we could experiment with rational tactics to meet them. Maybe pigs will learn to fly.

  60. #60 stogoe
    April 27, 2007

    Honestly, I think we need to institute an Office Worker’s Diploma an option. One extra year of school to learn how to work a computer and do menial, repetetive tasks, and then we throw you into the workforce. Sure, it’d drop admissions at universities by about half, but we could also incinerate thousands of Business Schools and steal their budgets to use for the students who view university educaiton as more than a four-year alcoholic haze between High School and a career at OfficeCorp.

  61. #61 j
    April 27, 2007

    #4:

    My humble opinion is the following: the 15% of the kids at the top you have no worry.Same with the 15% at the bottom. The 70% left is where we need to concentrate our efforts.

    I unhumbly disagree. Gifted students in this country get the shaft. They have little to no support from a school district because there is the perception that they can fend for themselves. If it is important to provide a challenging education to average students, what justification is there for ignoring the need to provide a challenging education to gifted students? For more information, please read Genius Denied by Jan and Bob Davidson.

  62. #62 eyelessgame
    April 27, 2007

    just wanted to add my experience: the schools here in suburban Northern California rock on toast. I live in a fairly affluent suburb of Sacramento and the schools – primary grades anyway, where my kids have spent their time so far – exceed my expectations. My kids are learning real science, substantial math, reading and writing — reading whole Dr. Seuss books in kindergarten, proficiency with long division in third grade, basic algebra in fifth. I’ve reviewed the science texts for the local high school, and frankly they’re quite good (on evolution as well as on other matters).

    Schools in the US aren’t uniformly bad. They’re bimodal. College towns (e.g. Palo Alto, Davis) and affluent communities (e.g. Palo Alto, Roseville) have excellent schools, because the people can easily afford to pay for good schools, or are willing to stretch to get the resources to pay for good schools.

    The problem is that too much of the country isn’t like this.

  63. #63 Pygmy Loris
    April 27, 2007

    j,

    I agree. Many gifted kids get the shaft in our educational system (at all levels). I’ve experienced this myself. I think the idea that they can fend for themselves is part of the argument. Also, in districts with limited funding, the extra tends to go to children who need help just learning the basics. The gifted kids don’t necessarily have that problem (i.e. they perform on the test), so they get the shaft.

    Just as a note, some special needs children are also gifted. They also get the shaft when school districts consolidate LD, BD and developmentally disabled students into one classroom or program. These are very different problems that require different kinds of intervention.

  64. #64 Kagehi
    April 27, 2007

    My perspective.. Sorry, community colleges are junk as is. Repeating stuff from highschool isn’t going to help that. I tend to more or less agree with PZ. In the short term, to fix things, we need “someone else” to deal with the people that are not getting there, or at minimum, a clear and distinct split without having high paid teachers waste time they could be teaching college courses, instead teaching college prep. I.e, instead of saying, “Oh, you don’t meet the standard? We have classes for that taught by the same professors that will be teaching you X later.”, we need to be sending the message, “Oh, you don’t meet the standard? Its too bad your school failed you so badly, maybe someone should do something about that. In the mean time, X down the street has a program that covers learning what you need to match our entry standards.” That would be the **best** solution. The second best one is to specifically hire less qualified teachers than full professors, pay them slightly more than what a highschool teacher would get, set of specific classes and buildings for them, then tall the student coming there **very clearly**, that you can offer them a way in, but that until they pass *those* classes, at a reduced cost from the normal courses, like say half, they *can’t* get into *any* of the real ones.

    In other words, compromise, in the short term, by filling in the gap a bit, but **don’t** compromise by making these people think they are actually “in” college. Make it real clear that this is something colleges had to do to solve the issue of lower schools failing, that the “solutions” some like our current administration are implementing are *not* fixing it, and that when someone says they studied as some place like UC, etc. for 2 years, but didn’t ever meet the entry requirements or take “any” classes in the actual university, that it was UCR (University of California Remedial), or some such. Don’t let people claim credentials, or even attendance in classes that they never took.

    In other words, toughen the standards, and if you have to, as a partial solution, provide the remedial system in a distinct, separate, and less costly side system. Community colleges won’t cut it. They are a) not interested in providing such things and b) usually are interested in providing “work related”, “artistic”, or other kinds of courses that cater to specific subsets of people that want the basics, but not the expense of going all the way. Make them into remedial solutions, and all you do is create a need for something to replace them. That just means high schools and grade schools keep failing to provide good standards and education, while you generate yet another gap that needs to be filled, without ever “fixing” anything.

    PZ is right. While some short term stop gaps are needed, someone has to cry “bullshit!” to all the idiots that keep lowering the standards and expecting the colleges to do the same thing to fill in the widening gap. Make it clear that you “are” filling a gap and that even if you do, its not going to be college professors that do it, never mind under any name that someone can then use to claim that they “attended” the real thing. Draw a line in the sand, and make it clear that, even if you are going to help fix the problem, *the colleges* are the only people that get to determine where the line gets drawn in the first place, or **if** its ever moved, not some ass in some high school some place that wants 100% of his students to graduate.

  65. #65 nu physics
    April 27, 2007

    Okay, this attitude always burns me up:

    I do often wonder about how egregiously unprepared my students are to do the least little thing in basic algebra sometimes, as when my introductory algebra students grab for their calculators to find out that 28 is 4 times 7. That’s dismaying. Who’s to blame?

    Can we someday give up the idea that being able to multiply numbers is somehow related to ability to do algebra (or other higher level manipulations). It wasn’t until I turned 42 that I finally learned to instinctively “know” that 6 times 7 was 42; for years I been getting the answer by knowing that 6 time 6 was 36 and then adding another 6. Okay, perhaps not grabbing the calculator but then back when I was learning algebra they didn’t exist. But by age 42 I had a PhD in physics and had been working in the field of High Energy Particle Physics for 20 years. Now, perhaps many of those students aren’t prepared to do either basic calculations nor algebra, but this scornful attitude just ticks me off.

    On the positive side, let me also put in a cheer for Community Colleges. I didn’t attend one (except for a few classes in HS and college summers to get a head start), but my wife did the 2yr then transfer (to Berkeley, where we met). Given the costs I think this is a route that should be promoted more vigorously. On the down side, teachers at CCs generally get the shaft — at least those that aren’t tenured, and Master degrees in Physics and Engineering and 15+ years of experience aren’t enough to get tenure. Many/most are “adjunct” which means they get, on an hourly basis, less than half what the (few) tenured profs do, essentially no benefits and get jerked around during scheduling of class assignments. I know this because my wife has taught at CCs in Michigan, Indiana, California, and Illinois. So the incentive for continuing to teach at a CC isn’t all that great.

    On the topic of learning disabled/ gifted I’m conflicted. My son suffers from some learning disabilities and ADHD and is in a special class. In third grade he reads at an early 2nd grade level; on the other hand, I’m told that his math is at the 6th grade level and science at the 5th grade. I’m not sure the teacher is capable of giving him the instruction he could use in those subjects. But I’m so extremely thankful that this district (actually a cooperative of three local districts) have this special program where kids like him (mostly ADHD/Autistic spectrum) can be put in a class room with a teacher and two aides for 8-12 kids, because they would all just fail in a, ah, “normal” classroom with one teacher for 25 kids. I do worry that he doesn’t get sufficient interaction with “regular” kids though. There is no perfect solution.

  66. #66 George
    April 27, 2007

    “if they’ve never heard of the Magna Carta or think Afghanistan is in Africa, they don’t belong in the humanities, either.”

    That would undoubtedly have prevented George Bush from getting into college and joining “Skull and Boneheads” where he made all those powerful connections that would one day get him where he is today — and for that reason alone, I’m all for such a restriction.

  67. #67 Kagehi
    April 27, 2007

    Special programs can be useful to high level IQ kids too. I would have been 2 grade “behind” had they not put me into one such class, which **allowed** me to accelerate my study by a huge margin to catch up on paper. I say one paper, since my obstinacy in lower grades at refusing to repeat work I had done 12 times over, because the slowest kid in the class didn’t “get it”, led me to school psychiatrists and a mess of other far poorer programs to try to “fix” a disability I didn’t have. When they tested my reading skills, they had to send off to a college university to get a test that could accurately assess me, since the high school assessment tests I ripped through without stopping. I left high school exactly one math class “under” where I should have been, simple because that was the one area I had gotten the most irritated in and refused to repeat all the work over and over.

    A year after I left grade school, they closed down the program that had helped me. I presume that they probably eventually replaced it with the same sort of garbage, useless, low expectation junk classes, which just try to help the truly poor students come “close” to everyone else, instead. That would have cost them **far** less money.

    The problem isn’t imho, “fads”, as one person pointed out. Its the fact that the people running those fads don’t objectively examine why they succeed or fail, don’t implement them consistently between schools, refuse to find ways to integrate them in a useful fashion with existing systems, and never publish useful enough information on items 1 and 2, that other people can use to figure out a better way. They are literally amazingly bad or successful in one place, fail in a dozen other places they are tried, because they don’t take into account other factors, or they give marginal results to begin with and are based on wishful thinking. The result is that, when all is said and done, everyone falls bacon on a mix of bad testing, bad teaching methods, rote learning and other “programs” we have been using for years, and ***know*** don’t work well for more than maybe 20% of the students that are dead in the middle, in a system where the information we are trying to provide is 10 times more complicated that 200 years ago, when it *did* work.

  68. #68 Zeno
    April 27, 2007

    Can we someday give up the idea that being able to multiply numbers is somehow related to ability to do algebra (or other higher level manipulations). It wasn’t until I turned 42 that I finally learned to instinctively “know” that 6 times 7 was 42; for years I been getting the answer by knowing that 6 time 6 was 36 and then adding another 6. Okay, perhaps not grabbing the calculator but then back when I was learning algebra they didn’t exist. But by age 42 I had a PhD in physics and had been working in the field of High Energy Particle Physics for 20 years. Now, perhaps many of those students aren’t prepared to do either basic calculations nor algebra, but this scornful attitude just ticks me off.

    Adding 6 to 6 times 6 is a perfectly good way to remember that 6 times 7 is 42, you know. Why would I complain if that’s how a student does it?

    I’m sorry I ticked you off, nu physics, but ignorance of the multiplication table is a severe handicap in algebra. It drastically slows people down when they’re trying to factor a polynomial, create a least common denominator, or distribute a product. Since the times table can generally be mastered by simple rote learning, people who don’t know it are most often people who have spent very little time with numerical quantities (or at least very little successful time). That’s why I wonder how such students made it to algebra, since basic math does not seem to be their friend. (One can argue about the utility of algebra elsewhere, but arithmetic is a reasonable prerequisite for it.) I’m impressed at your degree of success despite a persistent multiplication blind spot, but do you think your example is at all typical among those who succeed in math and science? In my own experience as a math teacher, it’s not.

  69. #69 nu physics
    April 27, 2007

    Adding 6 to 6 times 6 is a perfectly good way to remember that 6 times 7 is 42, you know. Why would I complain if that’s how a student does it?

    Because I’ve also been known to grab to calculator for things just as “simple” — and you did just complain at how the student did it. I’ve gotten tired over the years of all those who are (vocally) agast and scornful that I’m so “dumb”, “lazy” or whatever. Because it isn’t “remembering”, it’s an actual time consuming calculation (at least for me) that introduces a pause of about the same length as it would be to punch it into the calculator. And you were derisive towards the calculator grabber … who could have been me.

    And perhaps it does slow things down when factoring a polynomial, etc. — but I would argue, not dramatically because real life isn’t easily factorized, the world doesn’t have nice numbers that easily work out. Also, in real life that extra time is such a small factor in the overall scheme of things. I still assert that the two, numerical computation vs. algebra, are essentially orthogonal in the grand scheme of things. So if they can’t do the algebra, fine, slam them for that … but don’t use the inability to perform mental calculations quickly in the ” they can’t even do X, how are they going to ever do Y” complaint I’ve heard so often in my life. Even here you’re using loaded words: “ignorance”, “blind spot”… I’m asking that you not be so quick to generalize. Some people are capable of rote learning (certainly not I), and some work from concepts. Those that learn from concepts can often work out the rote, but are sneared at for being “slow” (because they’re not using rote memorization). Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, but I see this attitude time and again and I’d like to have people think a little deeper about it and not jump so quickly to the generalization.

    I don’t think one can argue against the general utility of algebra. I just see that people who could be helped by using it in various circumstances don’t realize that what they need is algebra. Part of this is that algebra is too often seen as simply the manipulation of an equation. But that’s because the important step is understanding how to setup the initial equation. This is what a great deal of physics is all about: transforming a real life (okay, most of the solvable problems are pretty artificial) situation into some equations. And most kids aren’t taught that skill. Personally, I loved “story problems” as a kid … but most kids hate them and I’m sure nowadays with the over-emphasis on standardized testing and rote work there just isn’t time for that. Rather the emphasis is on rote learning of equation manipulation, with no ties back to why.

    And no, perhaps I’m not typical. I’m surrounded by super-bright people who can remember their telephone numbers (takes me years) and do multi-digit calculations in their heads, learn languages at the drop of the hat (another rote memorization subject).
    And they don’t cancel 2 over 2 to get 4 on the midterm in Quantum Electrodynamics and get 1/4 on the final. On the other hand, half of them can’t write logical computer code worth beans — a skill that takes both a creative and logical approach, but doesn’t
    depend on muliplying 4 times 7 without a calculator. So my weak calculation skill did introduce an impediment, made all the harder by those who were conteptuous at my use of a calculator, but it can be overcome … so why not concentrate on the important issues.

    Okay, I’ve probably ranted enough…

  70. #70 Interrobang
    April 27, 2007

    Arianna, you must be exactly the same age as I am — I did Grade XIII as well. My high school, as one commenter above said, “rocked on toast.” Several of the teachers there were helping to write the provincial standards for teaching in art, music and history. (Those are the ones I know about, because my subject areas of concentration were English literature, music, art, history, and modern languages. Yes, I’m one of those.)

    One of the biggest problems I find with the current Ontario school system is “destreaming,” where they changed the Applied, General, and Advanced course levels into one course. They claimed this was “fairer” to more of the students, but I did a combined programme of Advanced and General courses (Advanced in my areas of concentration, General in math), and found the General math much more suited to my abilities, such as they are, since I’m actually the world’s worst math idiot. I absolutely guarantee Zeno’s student has nothing on me, because I’m dyscalculic, and you can teach me the rudiments of anything mathematical in 20 minutes, but by the next class I won’t even understand my own notes. It’s like someone pulls a plug behind my ear and all the math drains out of my head. (That’s also why I don’t agree with standardised admissions tests. Why does the GRE have a math component that I’d have to do, and do relatively well on, to be admitted to a US graduate school when I have no intention of doing any courses that have anything to do with the kind of math that’s on the test? Standardised tests are iffy from that perspective, too, because you wind up with teachers teaching to the test, and letting a lot of the really enriching stuff go by the wayside. Don’t even get me started on “make-or-break” standardised tests.)

    I’m also a big supporter of IEPs, since I had one and I thought it was great. I only wish I’d been able to continue that sort of thing in university; I had really wanted to major in minors, but mostly due to social pressure I wound up doing English literature instead and hating it. (In hindsight, I should have done linguistics.)

    One of the things that made my high school so great was that my teachers mostly actually loved to teach high school, and that makes a big, big difference.

    I did a stint not too long ago teaching in the local community college, and if that’s the midpoint of the current high school graduating class, Mike Harris well and truly broke the system here.

  71. #71 Keith Douglas
    April 27, 2007

    I wonder sometimes whether the solution is to somehow find a way to equitably funnel people into various streams. There is a lot of use for skilled labour, at least in principle, but the system doesn’t work well for some of that. Here at least there is some distinction at the CEGEPs (mandatory junior college like things) but even there students are often underprepared by high schools, it seems.

    maditude: Don’t forget the other costs, especially books, which are now horrendous as well.

    Arianna: I live in Quebec (again, after being out of province for 4.5 years) and went to CEGEP. Alas many of the problems with universities elsewhere (and here, I might, though less so) occur in the CEGEPs. Part of the confusion comes out of the sheer number of options. If one is interested in computing, for example, there are at least three main routes: one can earn an AEC, which is a purely technical qualification earnable in about 1.5-2 years after 11 years of secondary/primary school. Then there’s a DEC, which is 3 years after such. Then there are university undergraduate programs in computer science which are 2 years of CEGEP and 3 years of university. (You’ll note that works out the same as most places.) Of course, all these are ideal times; many students take longer.

    dorid: The difficulty lies in (a) social factors, such as poverty, being in a remote area etc. get in the way and (b) psychological factors not directly to do with some cognitive capacities. Autism was mentioned – that’s one possibility.

    RedMolly: 7 AM?? And I thought the 8 and 8:30 AM classes I took were bad enough.

  72. #72 dorid
    April 27, 2007

    Keith, I worry when we talk about “Funneling” and “streams” I also worry when we start assuming that “at risk” kids won’t do as well as kids from upper middle class two parent families. One of the MAJOR problems is that a HUGE percentage of our nation’s school children fall into one risk category or another. We need to evaluate what it MEANS to be “at risk”.

    One thing I DON’T think we should be doing is assuming that kids have certain limitations, regardless of their diagnosis.

    Taking a child at an early age and saying “this child has a lower IQ, he’s not college material, let’s put him in a vocational program” is just plain prejudicial. How do you know that child will not work harder than his more intelligent peer, or that his more intelligent peer won’t do well in school because he doesn’t want to go to college, he wants to work with his uncle on NASCAR engines?

    Until primary and secondary schools can get their act together (which, considering the level of politics being played in public education I doubt will happen in any of OUR CHILDRENS’ lifetimes) I think that community and city colleges can play a vital role in preparing students for (what I would call) REAL college education. I don’t think that colleges and universities should be lowering expectations, dumbing down materials, etc.

  73. #73 Kris Shanks
    April 27, 2007

    I think the the community college system in California actually does a good job doing just what PZ suggests needs to happen – preparing students for serious academic classes. I’m not denying that many k-12 schools are inadequate, but sometimes it takes someone a few years in the workforce to realize that an education is worth the effort, and the community college system makes it possible for that to happen. Of course, most community colleges are staying afloat by hiring adjuncts like myself at low wages instead of full time faculty, but teaching part time gives me time to explore the mysteries of paint.

  74. #74 dorid
    April 27, 2007

    I also have to disagree about there being a teacher shortage. There are two problems with teacher distribution: First, a lot of teachers for some reason don’t leave the area they were born and raised in. In Western NY there were 5 accredited teaching programs near my college. Most of my peers thought I was crazy to leave Erie County to teach. They just couldn’t conceive of leaving. A lot of them ended up driving city busses and working behind the counter at the local Rite Aid.

    The other problem is that schools often choose not to hire qualified teachers to save money. A lot of districts have programs to “train teachers” which means that they can hire people out of industry or retirement from industry to teach without any education background. These teachers take a few after school courses and are handed their certification. Some have to take some classes in their local community colleges, but the upshot of all this is that these people don’t COST as much as real teachers do.

    The problem often isn’t in the number of qualified candidates, but in politics being played in the school systems, and the tendency to put money into administration and not into teachers and materials.

  75. #75 eg
    April 28, 2007

    Just to clear up some errors about the current Ontario system, Interrobang:

    De-streaming is gone, gone, gone. We are back to basically 3 levels again (Academic, Applied, Essential in grades 9+10; University, College, Workplace in grades 11+12).

    Many Universities and Colleges in Ontario now will continue to honour your high-school IEP provided it is up to date and valid as of your graduating year.

    On a completely different note, it is with considerable amusement that I note the angst about the struggle between “sensible atheism and ridiculous Christianity” in American schools. Listen up people, science needs religion like a fish needs a bicycle. Anybody who complains about fish that don’t roll or bikes that can’t swim is missing the point entirely. The two have nothing whatsoever to do with one another, and unlike peanut butter and chocolate, the combination is not a happy one. Science is for what is knowable, testable (not sure this is a word), and repeatable; Religion is for mystery. Wishing away either is a form of madness that fails to recognize our own limitations.

  76. #76 David Marjanovi?
    April 28, 2007

    Also, in real life that extra time is such a small factor in the overall scheme of things.

    I agree. Sure, it helps if you can do things fast, but no one will ever ask you again to solve a certain number of problems within 50 or 110 or 165 or 225 minutes.

    learn languages at the drop of the hat (another rote memorization subject)

    I disagree. Try a little linguistics first. 🙂

    The other problem is that schools often choose not to hire qualified teachers to save money.

    See, that can’t happen over here, because all public-school teachers are employed by the government. Teachers are civil servants.

    (Never mind the thoroughly silly complication that some are employed by the federal government and some by the “state” government in Austria.)

    testable (not sure this is a word)

    Google is the answer.

  77. #77 David Marjanovi?
    April 28, 2007

    Also, in real life that extra time is such a small factor in the overall scheme of things.

    I agree. Sure, it helps if you can do things fast, but no one will ever ask you again to solve a certain number of problems within 50 or 110 or 165 or 225 minutes.

    learn languages at the drop of the hat (another rote memorization subject)

    I disagree. Try a little linguistics first. 🙂

    The other problem is that schools often choose not to hire qualified teachers to save money.

    See, that can’t happen over here, because all public-school teachers are employed by the government. Teachers are civil servants.

    (Never mind the thoroughly silly complication that some are employed by the federal government and some by the “state” government in Austria.)

    testable (not sure this is a word)

    Google is the answer.

  78. #78 nu physics
    April 28, 2007

    learn languages at the drop of the hat (another rote memorization subject)

    I disagree. Try a little linguistics first. 🙂

    Perhaps. Yes, to work in a language it probably isn’t all mere memorization. But would linguistics help me with the basic memorization of the vocabulary, and things like “is the chair male or female?” If I can’t remember the basic words and genders (that one always gets me), then knowing the rules of conjugation, etc don’t seem to help much.

    On the question of teacher certification… My wife took a few semesters in the Education school (after getting the Masters degrees in Physics & Engineering) and I don’t think she was that impressed by the curriculum and a bit of irony in having professors of Ed that seemed to ignore the methods they were teaching in their own approach to the material. I seem to remember complaints about the methods taught being fuzzy and confliciting. I’d rather have teachers that know the material and are not quite up to snuff on teaching technique than the reverse. Of course the truly atrocious teacher who knows the material but can’t relate it to the student isn’t of much use either. One needs some balance. Perhaps it is a matter of different styles and any given style is going to work for some portion of the student population, as all students learn in different ways and one can’t use all approaches simultaneously. Tailoring it to the individual can only work outside the mass production approach that seem to be our under-staffed schools.

    Oh, an another thing. Education is wasted on the youth. My wife says her best CC students are the older ones because they’re (generally) the ones who really want to be there. They’re taking time away from work/family to learn the material while lots of the younger students are coasting (aimlessly?). This is why there needs to be some flexibility in admissions. But not basic standards — getting back to the original topic — creationism is simply incompatible with science and can’t in any sense “satisfy” a science requirement.

  79. #79 Larry Moran
    April 28, 2007

    Interrobang writes,

    I did a combined programme of Advanced and General courses (Advanced in my areas of concentration, General in math), and found the General math much more suited to my abilities, such as they are, since I’m actually the world’s worst math idiot. I absolutely guarantee Zeno’s student has nothing on me, because I’m dyscalculic, and you can teach me the rudiments of anything mathematical in 20 minutes, but by the next class I won’t even understand my own notes. It’s like someone pulls a plug behind my ear and all the math drains out of my head. (That’s also why I don’t agree with standardised admissions tests. Why does the GRE have a math component that I’d have to do, and do relatively well on, to be admitted to a US graduate school when I have no intention of doing any courses that have anything to do with the kind of math that’s on the test?

    Substitute “English” for “math” in those sentences. Do you think that someone who is hopeless in English should be admitted to university? How about someone who claimed to be the “world’s worst history idiot”?

    I can’t speak for PZ but my stance is that math and science literacy are every bit as importance as all those other subjects. I don’t think it’s acceptable to brag about being illiterate in math any more than it’s acceptable to brag about being illiterate in English or history. You shouldn’t be able to get into university unless you have demonstrated competence in both sciences and humanities.

    You clearly don’t agree. Perhaps you could explain why competence in only one of these is sufficient in today’s society?

  80. #80 David Marjanovi?
    April 28, 2007

    But would linguistics help me with the basic memorization of the vocabulary,

    Partially. I’ve read a blog comment by a guy who routinely got through Latin and Greek exams by reverse-engineering unknown words to their Proto-Indo-European roots and then working forward from that to a word in a language he knew (often his native English). Sure, an amazing and unusual case of high geekery, but it worked.

    and things like “is the chair male or female?”

    Unlikely. But few languages have that, and many of those that have it are closely related to many of the others, so you only need to learn the gender once for one word in several languages, except exceptions. Plus, in many of those languages (say, Spanish) you can (except exceptions) tell the gender of a word by looking at it, because the ending depends on the gender.

    Besides, you have mastered the English orthography, which is for the most part an affair of rote memorization. 🙂

  81. #81 David Marjanovi?
    April 28, 2007

    But would linguistics help me with the basic memorization of the vocabulary,

    Partially. I’ve read a blog comment by a guy who routinely got through Latin and Greek exams by reverse-engineering unknown words to their Proto-Indo-European roots and then working forward from that to a word in a language he knew (often his native English). Sure, an amazing and unusual case of high geekery, but it worked.

    and things like “is the chair male or female?”

    Unlikely. But few languages have that, and many of those that have it are closely related to many of the others, so you only need to learn the gender once for one word in several languages, except exceptions. Plus, in many of those languages (say, Spanish) you can (except exceptions) tell the gender of a word by looking at it, because the ending depends on the gender.

    Besides, you have mastered the English orthography, which is for the most part an affair of rote memorization. 🙂

  82. #82 dkew
    April 28, 2007

    dorid:
    I’m trying to switch to teaching school from industry, and find that it’s difficult to get get hired. That’s partly because, by the bureaucracy’s rules, given my education and work history, I’d be getting the pay of a senior teacher. They could hire almost 2 young faces just out school, with no experience at anything, but teaching credentials, for the same price. This is in Mass., and its rules may not be general.

  83. #83 RedMolly
    April 28, 2007

    I don’t think it’s acceptable to brag about being illiterate in math any more than it’s acceptable to brag about being illiterate in English or history. You shouldn’t be able to get into university unless you have demonstrated competence in both sciences and humanities.

    Larry, I agree with you that it’s not acceptable to brag about illiteracy in any subject. But sometimes people have real, even insurmountable cognitive problems with a specific academic area–should they really not be allowed a chance at higher education because of those difficulties?

    I’m not proud of my personal difficulties with math. I took second-year algebra three times (!) in high school before passing with a sympathy C, and I’m sure I would fail miserably if tested on any of that material today. I passed the trig class with a low C that I’m sure had some element of sympathy to it as well–or maybe the instructor was just tired of me showing up to his office hours twice a week begging for help that never seemed to be particularly helpful. I went to the tutoring center over and over, stayed up ’til all hours staring at my homework; those sessions more often than not ended up with me sobbing over my textbook.

    I’m not suggesting I should’ve been given sympathy passing grades that would’ve allowed me to complete a major in math or physics or anything like that; actually, the degree in medieval studies and archaeology suits me just fine. I figured out what I was good at and adjusted my major accordingly, giving up the potential career in environmental biology with only a few twinges of regret. Should I have been kicked out of college altogether because the relationship of sine to cosine just proved too damn insurmountable? Should the legions of engineering students who couldn’t construct a readable paragraph to save their lives not be allowed to graduate until they can demonstrate an appropriate mastery of the subjunctive tense and the subtleties of Joycean imagery?

    (But somehow, I managed to get As in statistics, accounting and first-semester chemistry. Maybe it just had something to do with being able to figure out how what I was learning applied to something I was likely to want to do in the real world. Of course, I’ve since forgotten 94% of what I learned in the statistics class as well.)

  84. #84 Zeno
    April 28, 2007

    RedMolly: Should the legions of engineering students who couldn’t construct a readable paragraph to save their lives not be allowed to graduate until they can demonstrate an appropriate mastery of the subjunctive tense and the subtleties of Joycean imagery?

    No, RedMolly, those engineering students shouldn’t be barred from graduation because they don’t appreciate the subjective (you did mean “mood” rather than “tense,” didn’t you?), but I would block them if they couldn’t construct a readable paragraph. A college degree should indicate some mastery of the basics, after all.

  85. #85 RedMolly
    April 28, 2007

    Mood, sorry… my bad. Must’ve been all those damned French classes.

    To be clearer: yes, we should expect a certain level of general competence across subjects from graduating students, and even from incoming students. (I used to have to read admissions essays for the college where I worked. We would read excerpts from the worst ones at staff meetings… hoo, boy. The one where the student kept referring to his girlfriend as “the pulchritudinous female” was the best by far, and an excellent argument for the banning of the thesaurus.) But if someone is highly competent in his specific area of study, I don’t think it benefits anyone to expect him to perform above a basic level in areas in which he demonstrates neither interest nor aptitude.

  86. #86 kaleberg
    April 28, 2007

    “Listen up people, science needs religion like a fish needs a bicycle. Anybody who complains about fish that don’t roll or bikes that can’t swim is missing the point entirely.” – eg #73

    Yeah, but there’s a cute tee shirt you can get at

    http://catandgirl.com/store/attic.php

    with a happy fish getting a bicycle and two beaming parent fish.

    As much as I’d like to speak out for tougher standards, I recognize that the issue of standards doesn’t address the societal problem. Workers are getting more and more productive, and fewer and fewer of them will be doing any real work. Sure, the declining number of real jobs has resulted in longer work hours showing face time, but if we tried to put everyone of age into the workforce, we’d have a ridiculous unemployment rate. (France and the US have the same percentage of working age people working, but France counts “discouraged” workers, so they have twice our unemployment rate).

    High school helped in the 1930s when manufacturing was registering productivity increases of 2 – 3 orders of magnitude. College kept more people from entering the workforce in the 1960s. I can’t really imagine what the future will offer. Will we have post-doctorates in finger painting? Should Social Security offer retirees a Second Chance at High School scholarship? Maybe we should just give each fish a bicycle?

  87. #87 Mazareth
    April 29, 2007

    Hi PZ. As a freshly reelected School Board Member, let me say thank you for supporting public education.

    Thankfully, we have no fundies on our Board. We have only one conservative on the Board and he’s pretty moderate. All 9 of us believe in science!!

    There’s something to be said for living in one of the bluest counties in Wisconsin!

    M

  88. #88 Keith Douglas
    April 30, 2007

    dorid: I agree. We don’t know what makes for suitable aptitude for various things. I’m certainly intellectually capable to learn a lot of things, but I’m not disciplined enough – I like thinking about anything and everything, which is why I studied philosophy. I guess we need some sort of genuine aptitude test – and, somehow, lots of flexibility to change.

    All of this prompted a question I have had: In most (all?) of Canada, teachers in high school and elementary school (at least if the school gets any public money) have to have licensed teachers who have not only education degrees, but the right certification and that. Is that true in the US?

  89. #89 Carlie
    April 30, 2007

    Keith – Yes and no. There is a required certification in each state, and it’s a bear going from state to state because some states accept the certifications of certain other states, and some don’t. The requirements to meet certification are equally variable. In some states you have to have an education degree, some have “provisional” certification that can be renewed a few times without the ed degree, some take a specific amount of coursework in lieu of an ed degree, and the specifications even within one state can vary depending on if it’s elementary, middle school, or high school certification. The latest brouhaha is emergency certification, in which districts/states struggling for teachers will certify just about anyone with any kind of degree after one crash course class in teaching. It’s a real mess.

  90. #90 Lucy, school teacher
    August 17, 2007

    What I see instead is community pressure everywhere to lower the standards at the high school level to get graduation rates up to 100%–they all graduate, sure, but they get a diploma that is becoming increasingly meaningless
    Exactly! Despite introducing some valuabel programs, such as No Child Left Behind, people still yell about high standards and difficulties on one’s way to graduation. I absolutely agree with you that such complaints are meaningless – not only do they threaten the education system, they are not much helpful for those who are able to graduate with lower standards as they won’t resist the competition when they get a job.

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