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 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.

  2. #2 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.

  3. #3 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.

  4. #4 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.

  5. #5 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.

  6. #6 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.

  7. #7 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. :-)

  8. #8 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. :-)

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