A Modest Proposal to Fix Everything Wrong with US K-12 Education

After thinking occasionally about it, for months, and talking to a couple of friends and neighbours, by golly, I think I've got it... It is all about the OWL levels, really.

There are three aspects to the problem of US education: the structure, the pedagogy and the content. I will pontificate on some and touch upon all.
Now UPDATED - I concede a major point... - I rather naughtily moved the date up. This originally came out on Jan 4 at 8 am. I want it higher on my page now that SciBlogs frontpaged it.

First of all, the "No Child Left Behind" act must be abolished.
Last time I read it, my understanding of it was that it was mathematically impossible to fulfill the requirements of the act in the long run, and there were nowhere near the resources available to make much progress in the medium term.

Teachers could probably do with being paid better, and they could also probably do with being quality controlled a little better. Teachers in middle and high schools ought to have BA/BSc degrees in their fields, with MEds or equivalent for pedagogy. Most elementary and pre-school teachers are probably better off with BEds.
There is a rule of thumb that teachers ought to have a knowledge level at least one level higher than what they are teaching. So, by that criterion it is desirable to for high school teachers to have college degrees in their subject.
In general I think K-12 teachers ought to have a year of pedagogy, on top of their degree, or an equivalent experience - not so they can learn the latest fads in methodology, but so that they can get hands on supervised experience. A lot of people have no experience being up in front of even a small crowd, and fewer still know how to handle the small crowd.

Home schooling should be abolished or very tightly controlled, and the charter schools knocked back and very tightly regulated and monitored.
I know, I know, some homeschooled kids have good parents and benefit tremendously from home schooling, but... in abandoning the public system those people incrementally undermine it. And, a large fraction of home schooling is near useless in terms of educating the children (and, no, I do not want to hear about spelling bee champions as counter-examples, those prove my point).
This truly is an "aside" for me. I think having cherry picking of the public system by charter schools is the worst combination - either have a public system and a disjoint private system with no cross-subsidy, or, have essentially all schools be charter schools (leaving aside the issue of low density rural areas).
Homeschooling trends are a symptom of public school failure, not a cure. The system should not be based on extremes of experience. Having said that, the outliers must be accommodated - but my contention is that this is distinct from changing the median behaviour of the system, except in so far as moving the bulk changes what and where the outlier problems are.

I am ambivalent about elected school boards, I suspect they do more harm than good. The US system may be heterogenous, if it must, but that implies some parts of the US system will be crap. Generally most districts would benefit from being regulated and standards set from a higher level. Many states would benefit from federal standards.
Oh, and US textbooks suck. I mean they really suck.

Secondly: I don't know what will happen to the US economy, but the US labour force will generally be really good at amateur crafts, and may no doubt be able to do great beading for Vietnamese shoe conglomerates in a couple of decades.
I hate to say it, but some of the craft stuff needs to be dumped in favour of more rote learning.
More math is needed. Fewer modules. More math. More systematic teaching of geography and history. More math. More lab science. More math.
I should note here that I don't mean more math options. I mean more in sequence math, and earlier. It doesn't do any good to have some "pre-College calculus" offered in 11th or 12th grade. It should be available in 8th or 9th grade, for those students who can handle it. More math does not mean option to do calculus. It means those who can do calculus get 3-4 years of it before College.
Similarly, more science means the opportunity to do physics ever year in high school, AND chemistry every year concurrently. That is the sort of preparation above average students ought to be getting from the high schools to be ready for University.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the pedagogical structure needs to be changed.
Start looping - where elementary teachers move with classes between grades and the typical kid keeps the same teacher for two, three, even four or five years. I know this can be bad, if the teacher is bad or interacts badly with particular kids - put in some outs for kids to swap classes. This is important, and for most kids it works well - the teacher tracks the kids, knows them each year, the overhead is reduced at the beginning of the school year, and the syllabus content is much more likely to be consistent from year-to-year. On average with half-decent teachers, the kids learn more.

At higher levels, middle and high school, introduce more streaming.
I hate to say this, because it is a flawed approach which can doom late bloomers to inferior education, and I admire egalitarianism. BUT, trying to keep all the kids at the same pace doesn't just bore the gifted kids to tears, it slows down and grinds down the pretty good kids who need to be challenged.
So stream - break subject classes into physically separated streams that move at different paces, pushing the kids that have the capacity. Have gateways for moving kids between streams if they are struggling or suddenly rise to the challenge.

At the high school level, have more options for vocational education, and separate more the kids headed for university versus those who are not. This is also ruthless, but it is already done to some extent, partly within schools, partly by having "magnet schools" or such like. It is not actually desirable for everyone to get university prep education, for somewhere between 30% and 60% of the population it is a waste of time, let there be more focus on practical skills, and let students to work-study schemes or apprenticeships at 16-18.

I'd recommend killing high school sports, but the nation is not quite ready for that. - I give. Keep sports. Even insanely overcompetitive club sports.

Finally, and most importantly: FIX THE MIDDLE SCHOOLS - provide them with a hard, fast, important goal.

Right now, in US middle schools, there is nothing to work towards. There is no gating at the end of middle school, no hurdle, no goal. Near as I can tell there is no systematic syllabus or coherent pedagogy. Mostly just warehousing while puberty finishes.
This is a time when kids can be driven and, hormones notwithstanding, where rapid learning is possible. But it has to be GOAL ORIENTED.

Yes, this is when hormones fluctuate wildly and the conventional wisdom in the US is to just ride it out. Which is WRONG. As proved by almost all other educational systems in developed nations. This is when you channel the energy and strive into goal oriented behaviour and get the students to study like crazy in insane intense bursts.
The more I look into the US system, the more convinced I am that the lynchpin for reform is to put a major academic goal or gatway into the system, one which is meaningful to the individual student.
And, no, I have NOT heard every Europen be uncompromisingly critical of the middle school system there, which is NOT generally about continuous testing - it is about usually ONE BIG performance assessment, with the other tests irrelevant in the long term - they are "mock exams" in the english colloquialism.
Typically in Europe you do not carry a "GPA" with you - the US is where there is continuous testing, with any one contribution heavily diluted and an incentive to game the system with light loads and easy classes to keep the mean high.
Quite the contrary, the Europeans celebrate their ardour for the system through Great Literature (and I will not accept criticism of Harry Potter from anyone who has not read Tom Brown's Schooldays, or at the very least Flashman).

The simplest solution is the most brutal. Institute OWL levels or the equivalent.
A comprehensive end-of-middle-school assessment exam, one which must be passed to enter high school, and the outcome of which gates what options the students have in high school. eg. to take advanced mathematics in high school, you must have received some meaningful minimum math grade at intermediate level in middle school - if not, you get streamed into "chequebook math" (with an option to pull up with major progress at high school level).
It has to be something important, a goal, and a hard goal that requires weeks of intense focused revision after 2-3 years of coherent systematic study.

This system ought to sound familiar to many, it is gluing aspects of bits of the various European systems into the US system.
These solutions bring new, different problems of their own, they are not perfect, they are not meant to be, they are meant to solve the current bad problems of the US system. The US system is flawed enough at the middle school level that I think this fix is needed.

BTW the 8th grade NCLB assessment does not satisfy this requirement - it measures the statistical progress of the cohorts, biannually I believe, it does not impact the individual students. Which also means the students taking the test have little incentive to do well...
In order to move on, the US system needs a goal driven motivation for individual students to make a sustained effort to learn - that require a meaningful goal for the individual student to aim for, a goal that provides academic reward and opportunities, and punishment for failure.


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Let's step back further. Try two goals instead: make teaching something a well trained, intellectual person would seriously consider as a career, and make school something besides a zero sum social game for the students.

For the first, this means the job must be decently paid (in line with what a professional with similar qualifications can make -- math teachers should be paid roughly the same as engineers), not overloaded with paperwork (teachers I know have to fill out an absolutely ridiculous amount of pointless paperwork), and allowed an intellectual life outside of school (German gymnasium teachers actually did real research, particularly in mathematics). Teachers I have talked to tell me a six month course on how to control a classroom is all that's really needed, particularly for middle school and high school. An MEd is excessive.

I agree elementary education needs different training, and I don't know enough about it to say anything intelligent.

And then there are the students, who are locked in a prison all day, and who naturally develop similar social structures to prisoners. There's a simple way out of this: let them out. Penalize disruptiveness in the school, but pretty much nothing else. Then there's the problem of motivation, but the horrid specter of the OWLs might work quite well here.

Streaming and looping are probably good changes, but I think a cultural change will make more difference.

Yeah, I agree. The two key points you make summarise the root issues well.

By "MEd" I meant a one year post-bachelors course on classroom management, pedagogy and practicum. Given career structures, might as well make it one year, with heave emphasis on practical experience and being in front of an audience. Maybe hook up with schools of theatre... An additional incentive would be to provide very generous tuition scholarships and stipends for teacher trainees, especially in subject areas where there is high demand and low supply - with no strings attached, just take a chance on people.

In terms of experiential process, my (outside) perception is that the big gap in US education is in middle school, and I really have wondered why that is. My memory of the age 12-14 in school was that this was where the pressure to perform really stepped up and there was a sharp increase in the academic level, very much NOT a holding pattern rather a serious drilldown structured in-sequence curriculum.

Then, when reading the 2nd Harry Potter with the kids, I ran into Ron telling Harry about the prospects of the O.W.L.s, and it clicked - in Europe there are typically gateway hurdles that are strong determinants for long term careers prospects around age 14 or 15 and there is a lot of pressure to perform on these in the previous 2-3 years.
The US, near as I can tell, has NO graded outcome from middle school. There is no comprehensive exam or assessment, no gateway hurdles to high school, nothing to challenge the kids to achieve anything.
So they don't.

It is not really that simple, of course, but I genuinely think it is an major aspect of the drop of in achievement in the US system.

Late-blooming geek that I am, I would love to become a high school science teacher. I'm also a woman so I'd aspire to be an inspiration for girls in science.

Unfortunately, teachers in my state (Texas) make half the salary I'm making now in the private sector without a science degree or an advanced degree of any kind, and I'll be paying off the loans for that BA for the next 15 years. Taking out even more loans to become a teacher that makes half as much as I do now is not even subject to "if I win the lottery" daydreams, much less serious consideration.

I have a couple of people in my life who are teachers and whom I admire greatly, one of them was one of my high schoo teachers. When anyone in high school tried to suggest I become a teacher she stepped in and slapped them down mercilessly. "Oh, no, she's destined for much better things!" She'd have KILLED me if I became a teacher 15 years ago.

I'm not the only Caltech Life alumnus who took one pay cut from the aerospace and corporate world to professor, and another pay cut to teach high schoolers. But I agree with much of what you write.

"First of all, the 'No Child Left Behind' act must be abolished.
Last time I read it, my understanding of it was that it was mathematically impossible to fulfill the requirements of the act in the long run, and there were nowhere near the resources available to make much progress in the medium term."

Mathematically, it IS possible to fulfill the requirements of the act. But only by leaving art, literature, critical thinking, and other "frills" behind, ruthlessly "teaching to the test", and then dumbing down the test each year to produce spurious un-normalized "improvements" in test scores.

"Teachers could probably do with being paid better, and they could also probably do with being quality controlled a little better." Denver has a program in place that links teacher pay to results, rather than seniority. Interesting.

Home schooling and charter schools -- different attempted solutions. Your mileage may vary. In my 45 hours of observation of high school teachers in last quarter's College of Ed requirements, I only observed on charter school, and it was somewhat different from what I expected.

"I am ambivalent about elected school boards." Me too. There's one Caltech grad now on the Pasadena Unified School District board, Scott Phelps. He had to face down community outrage and bgus accusations of racism, because he openly stated that there was a problem with black-on-black violence in the high school where he taught, and that authorities were not admitting it nor handling it.

"US textbooks suck" -- remember Feynman's dealings with California textbooks, which he began with high hopes, and abandoned as a lost cause?

"More lab science. More math." You're preaching to the choir here. Damned right!

"the pedagogical structure needs to be changed." Agreed. That's why I'm paying kilobucks to become fully credentialed for California secondary schools, and fight the beast from the inside.

"trying to keep all the kids at the same pace doesn't just bore the gifted kids to tears, it slows down and grinds down the pretty good kids who need to be challenged." True, so true. And it breaks the hearts of those falling behind.

"At the high school level, have more options for vocational education, and separate more the kids headed for university versus those who are not." Standard in many western European nations, right?

"killing high school sports" -- more complicated.

middle schools -- maybe it all falls apart here. But I'm committed for some time to addressing high school issues. It takes different credentials to teach middle school.

These are the 3 "Block 1 Courses" that I am required, permitted, and advised to take in Winter 2008 quarter at Carter College of Education, Cal State L.A., for reoughly $1,500 bargain basement tuition, all classes running from 4:20 to 7:55 p.m., after a full day of teaching:

EDSE 401 Instructional Strategies in Secondary Teaching (4 credits)
Theoretical and practical aspects of instructional design along with
developing skills and understandings required by prospective and
beginning secondary school teachers for effective instructional
planning implementation, assessment, classroom management, and
evaluation of instructions; analysis of special instructional and
curricular problems in secondary schools. [Prerequisite: Completion
of all requirements for formal admission to single subject credential
program. Course restricted to preservice candidates to be taken in
block one of the program.]

EDSE 415 Classroom Management in Secondary Schools (4 credits)
Identification and resolution of classroom management and control
problems in secondary schools; study and application of selected
strategies, teacher control techniques, and related research. [same
prerequisites as above]

EDFN 440 Schooling for a Diverse, Urban Society
Foundational knowledge of education by examination of cultural,
historical, political, philosophical, and sociological perspectives of
schooling; introducing critical, reflective frameworks for analyzing
contemporary American schools; and focusing on issues impacting
diverse, urban families and school communities.

Also: pass U.S. Constitution exam at UCLA Extension.

I strive to be sure to go in there with an open mind and don't assume that I already know the curriculum.

"Everything not forbidden is compulsory"
-- sign at entrance to ant colony in T. H. White's _The Once and Future King_

With streaming, you really have to watch for "streaming for expectations". It's easy to have poor kids, kids with less educated or less supportive parents, or kids going through a bad time of some kind, streamed into a lower level than they're capable of, and then it's hard to catch up if you are in a stream moving more slowly. And it's easy not to expect much effort from kids in a lower stream - everyone has prejudices. Expectations can become reality.

(I went through the Quebec school system, which I quite like for the most part, and now live in Ontario. I'm mostly clueless about the US system, but both systems I know about have streaming, and the one I went through had formal, standardized tests starting at age 14. The streams had many ways to move up, supplemental exams, the option of repeating individual subjects, accelerated and slowed down versions of the same material (more/less semesters between the exams, or more/less class periods per week), and CEGEP "upgrade"/pre-something programs.)

I like a lot of that! Although personally, eating babies sounds like a much more rational behavior than any "modest proposal" that includes forbidding homeschooling. My personal experience is that what is wrong with middle school is that it doesn't offer enough opportunities- and I could see some of your ideas really altering that.

In contrast, I think the problem with high school is that it exists. There's more of a holding pattern situation than middle school, from what I've seen. Most of the things we want high school to do (helping people go into the working world with useful skills, preparing them for further academic study, making education broadly available) are better done at community colleges, where folks are purusing education by choice. Stop making it mandatory and you transform schools (from baby-sitting centers at best and prisons at worst).

A lot of this sounds like "be more European for the sake of being more European". You have not yet convinced me that the Europeans actually do a better job teaching students.

As others have pointed out, things like "streaming" and early career OWL-like exams have the potential to eliminate the few bits of the American education system that work as a meritocracy. The wealthy will take the time and lobby to get their kids into the higher streams, while the children of the poor and immigrants will get down-streamed.

Clearly, US education needs improvement--but I'd like to see the improvements support the whole American Dream concept of anyone who works hard can get ahead. Closing doors to people who do bad on a test at age 14 is not in the spirit of meritocracy and the American Dream.

I like the streaming concept, but don't know about its practicality. In State College, they have tried to have three tracks for all of the major subjects-- an advanced class, a college prep class for the average student, and then a course for students who most likely will not pursue further education. Recently, however, they tried to split advanced into advanced and advanced honors for English and history, which has proven to be a failure. They have no way to prevent unqualified students from taking the honors sections, resulting in honors courses with work identical to the previous advanced sections. Most students who should be in college prep classes also end up in advanced or advanced honors classes for the same reason (plus weighted credits make an B in an advanced class the same as an A in a college prep class) . Parents can override any recommendation the school makes, which greatly decreases the system's effect.

Luckily here the talented students have significant flexibility and the opportunity to take a variety of challenging classes, both at the high school and at Penn State. Afterschool academic activities also provide a means for them to focus their energies.

I have to disagree with the concept of eliminating high school sports. I played volleyball for four years and ran track for three, and I turned out ok (I think). I was exposed to a much different group of people there than in any other activities I did or classes I had; it was my only opportunity to interact with the average student. The problem with eliminating sports is that those who are less academically inclined aren't going to start studying if they don't have sports. High school doesn't give enough homework for sports to interfere with one's capability to complete it. Athletes who are poor students will just spend more time with bad crowds if they don't have sports. This at least gives them a positive way to focus their energy. Sports also lead to good time management skills for college.

If there is no problem in education, then there is nothing to fix.
I started with the premise that there was a problem in need of fixing. This was based on anecdotal evidence, the existence of such things a homeschooling and charter schools (which would have no demand if public education were satisfactory in general), oh and the number of studies showing US students underperform in comparison with international competitors by 8th grade in particular and in math and science in particular. More so, if you correct for US wealth.

I've been in both egalitarian and streamed systems; I saw a classmate crushed by a teacher who discovered she had "read ahead" in math - screaming at a 13 year old girl in front of all her friends that she should not pretend to be better than everyone else is not a good thing to do. I've also seen students dumped into a low stream when they should not have been, and get lost. When I switched schools at one point as a teen I was automatically put in the middle stream and it took a year to be allowed to be moved up - lead to some amusing anecdotal incidents. I don't like streaming, but in educational policy there have to be some tradeoffs, and to improve overall academic performance you need to push the above average performers and shelter them from negative peer pressure. This would be a particularly problematic issue in the US with its egalitarian pretensions and class and race issue history.

My issue with US high school sports is not oppostion to team sports or physical education in general, but that club sports are using educational institutions as junior training facilities, subsidised by tax payers. There are benefits, but there are also serious problems. It provides a poor return on average for the schools and localities.

I agree that letting people leave the education system at, say, 16, for job market, training or vocational education should be an option, BUT, it should not be easy to leave, and it should be easy to return. European failure is mainly in how hard it is to go back into pre-college education if you leave early.

BUT I am serious about my main point: I know what I was doing in school from age 12-14, and it involved serious goal oriented study driven by external motivators.
The US middle schools have no such goals, seem to have no structured coherent in-sequence syllabi, and are mostly in holding pattern.

This is where I think the largest leverage is: put external pressure on coherent academic progress through the middle school years. And the key is a reward/punishment scheme through a consistent, widely applied performance exam - not an assessment exam, but one which ties the future of the individual student to the outcome.

Pretty much everything you proposed would tank education, not improve it.

For instance, education requirements. For instance, I know of two very good science and math teachers. One of them is my mother. She has a degree in biology from Smith. But she substitute teaches, because she can't get a regular job with out training in education. The second teacher is my cousin, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Cornell. He teaches at a small private Christian school for the same reason.

First of all, not only does outlawing Charter schools and homeschooling scream "oppressive tyrannical gov't" (really, I think if we let people have abortions, we can at least let them educate their kids as they see fit) but you'll only make the problem worse. Forcing more kids to receive a poorer education does not make them more educated! In Belgium, ALL the schools are charter schools- and their kids score a LOT higher on standardized tests that ours.

Federal standards for education, huh? And who is going to set those? This only works if they set the standards exactly the way YOU want... and chances are, they won't. Allowing the standards to be set further down the chain doesn't avoid that problem entirely, but it sure does help.

And killing high school sports? C'mon. I was never good at sports, and don't really care about them, but they are necessary. For instance, I was in band- and played for the football team every Friday night. I also was in cross country, and being a total social reject before, got invited to my first birthday party since middle school. I also got a lot healthier.

I hated doing crafts in school, so wouldn't cry if it were abolished, but other kids really enjoyed them. One way to make them useful is to tie them into the other subjects: math, or science, or history, or literature - maybe all of those together. Eg crochet -- the Institute for Figuring created a crochet coral reef, and there's several folks who use crochet to illustrate unusual geometric/mathematical shapes. not sure where those dried pasta mother's day cards will fit in, but surely a creative teacher can think of something. :)

The point is, we've gotten so focused in separating everything out into modules, that we no longer see knowledge as a seamless whole, with everything connected to everything else in some way. And that's a huge detriment, IMHO.

"One of them is my mother. She has a degree in biology from Smith. But she substitute teaches, because she can't get a regular job with out training in education. The second teacher is my cousin, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Cornell. He teaches at a small private Christian school for the same reason."


There used to be a loophole in California education regulations, for "verifiable eminence" -- allowing the super-qualifed (PhD, or very published, or award-winning) teacher to have some credentialing waived. Under Emperor Bush, and the trickle down to revised state regulations, that loophole has been closed in most states. Stupid! Destructive! And the emperor has no exit strategy for this.

I'm a good science teacher and Math teacher, according to many semesters of student evaluations, department chairman observations, and recommendations in writing from past supervisors, the Provost and Vice President and Executive Officer of Math at Caltech.

I've been an adjunct professor of Astronomy, and of mathematics, and have had over 2,000 students.

I have more Math and Science publications that the entire department of each of the last 2 colleges and universities where I taught.

Yet I am not legally a credentialed teacher for primary or secondary schools in California, and am taking 6 quarters of grad school (starting at age 56) for order of magntude $10,000 to be credentialed by people with far less subject matter expertise than I. But they do know more pedagogical theory. And I enjoy these night classes. One of my professors this quarter has an M.S. in Molecular and Cell Biology, and an Ed.D in science education, specializing in teaching Evolution in the face of Creationists and Intelligent Design liars. And many publications.

Steinn is right. There is a problem with US education (not, perhaps, in elite schools). There is much more than anecdotal evidence.

What is wrong is at the level of existential crisis for our nation. It has been in crisis for a long time. Small, incremental band-aid solutions can't dig us out of the mess. Some revolutionary changes are needed.

Hence I agree with Steinn's intent in making "a modest proposal." Whether or not any of his specifics are valid (and I think most are).

The comments here are extremely cogent, and useful.

I do not know enough to make comparisons with European, Japanese, Australian, Canadian and other systems.

My wife has taught Science and Math in the UK, Australia, Nassau (Bahamas), and the USA. She is convinced that US public education is the worst of those 4 countries.

Part of the problems is that US students, when polled, resoundingly declare themselves to be #1 in the world.

The poor deluded ignorant fools... By which, of course, I include the parents, "educators" who've made things so much worse, and politicians.

My son was leaning towards voting for Ron Paul in the Republican primary in California next month. Until his denial of evolution hit YouTube (thanks to ScienceBlogs for pointing this out to us).

Huckabee already denied evolution.

Another anti-science anti-math president would drive the final stake in the heart of American education.

Ok: I don't think crafts ought to be abolished, but my impression is that there is too much of craft, and that it is not particularly effective in teaching fundamentals. Partly that is lack of coherent syllabus, and partly it is the modularity - modular education makes for easier scheduling, but pedagogically it sucks, there is no motivation for retention.

The question of sports is not whether some people enjoyed band or whether sport promotes social interaction, it is whether the enormous resources devoted to the major team sports - specifically football and basketball - are worth it for the education system.
Schools do not exist to provide scouting and low probability training courses for professional club teams, they could run their own junior leagues.
I appreciate the social role of competitive sports in the US, especially away from the large cities, but I question whether it is an educational benefit.

Most State and local education standards are terrible, if overall improvement is desired, then it has to be done large scale, regionally or at the federal level - I have enough faith in the remaining structural integrity of the US federal system to think it could be done still for an overall improvement in the system. It would be a minimal standard, of course, with localities free to have higher standards.

Having an all charter school system ought to work fine (although it'd be a problem in low population density poor areas - which Belgium does not have much of ). What does not work is having charter schools cherry picking students and sucking off local resources, leaving the public system poorer and with a harder task. Unsubsidised private schools are fine, if regulated to the level and standards of public schools (and they should of course aspire to provide additional benefit for the price - be better).
Homeschooling is a terrible idea, classic example of local optimization being globally destructive. It undermines the public system, delivers poor education and reduces social cohesiveness. It is also horribly cost ineffective. Parents so motivated should supplement public education with home instruction, not replace it.

I'm a high school science teacher, and I am active in my community in supporting science education outside of my job, so it really is something of a secular vocation for yours truly. In general, I agree with some of the prescriptions here.

NCLB is burdensome. Social promotion out of lower levels leads to serious problems. The prevalence of homeschooling undermines public school performance in a number of ways. What used to be called 'tracking' should be revived at the high school level, certainly, and there needs to be a reinvention of vocational opportunities within high school.

However, I must take exception to the suggestion that sports in and of themselves are a problem. The counter-intuitive truth is that athletes tend out-perform non-athletes academically in high school, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they are more disciplined. Extracurricular programs are not truly 'extras' but highly motivating additions to the formal curriculum which greatly enrich the high school experience. Sports become a problem for educators when they are emphasized at the expense of the rest of the curriculum, but this could be said of anything. For example, in the lower grades there is at present in many districts an over-emphasis on reading and writing at the expense of science, but I doubt that anyone would suggest that the problem is reading and writing.

Ok, I give - y'all can keep the sports!

But, what is going on in middle school?
Am I correct that this is where the damage is done, and is putting a goal oriented scheme an appropriate solution?

I have to protest the idea that homeschoolers should simply supplement local schools instead. You're saying children should waste eight to ten hours a day of their lives, and submit to mental torture and conditioning besides! I left school in 7th grade to be homeschooled. I did so at the recommendation of the couple of honors teachers in the school. They acknowledged openly, as did the school principal, that there was no way the school system could accommodate me (and I'm not brilliant, but I am peculiar in that I'm almost impossible to condition or indoctrinate, as I later found out when I volunteered for psychology experiments). In Virginia, where I grew up, homeschooling is permitted if you can pass the same set of standardized tests which is given within the schools every couple of years. I believe this is an adequate safeguard.

It still took me four years to recover from the mental damage of eight years of formal schooling (which is the normal estimate -- six months of time to heal for every year spent in school). The idea that I should waste my time in college just healing from school instead of learning something seems ludicrous.

Also, every European I've talked to about their continuous testing and early streaming (which is a lot, since I'm a scientist working in Europe) has been uncompromisingly critical of it. These systems are invariable inflexible and usually operate according to the whims of individuals.

Go read this: The Kafka Shuffle. I think this is a much more accurate description of the problem than any institutional structure.

You have not yet convinced me that the Europeans actually do a better job teaching students.

it's tempting for me to accuse you of simple ignorance of European schooling systems, that you could claim such with a straight face. it's patently obvious that they do. any number of international comparisons prove it, and have done so for many years.

full disclosure: i was born in Finland, and schooled in the Finnish public school system up to university level. i received an excellent education there. i do not need to mention which, or what "kind", of public school i attended, because from a U.S. perspective all Finnish public schools are effectively identical; they are uniformly excellent.

it's not that Finnish school kids are all geniuses --- humans being humans, the right-hand side of that curve is pretty much fixed by biology, i think. it's that nobody gets neglected, nobody slips through the cracks. or "nobody" as compared to a U.S. public school, at any rate. Finnish high schools haven't improved the far top end. they've raised the average, shrunk the standard deviation, and got the bottom end WAY up. Finnish public schools certainly aren't perfect, they just seem like it in contrast.

when i bring that up here, Americans tend to tell me that Finland is so small, that such a large country as the U.S. must needs be different. to me, that always smacks of "but we just can't afford to not let kids fall through the cracks". perhaps the U.S. needs some amount of different standards to deal with the different cultures and subcultures this country is crazy-quilted with, but to allow any of those standards to result in abominable outcomes is irresponsible, antiegalitarian and ultimately antisocial.

i'm sorry that mr. Ross' honors teachers felt that his public school could not possibly accommodate him. i would humbly suggest, however, that that is the entire problem. fix that, and homeschooling would become a superfluous waste of time and resources.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 07 Jan 2008 #permalink

Point by point:

NCLB: No objection to your point.

MEds in pedagogy: Have you TAKEN any pedagogy classes lately? Almost utter nonsense in terms of practical application. Not to mention the cost involved for the teachers in question. Masters degrees are better applied to teachers' given fields.

Homeschooling: Granted that there are some out there -a minority- that can't find their asses with both hands and a compass. But YOU claim in your profile to be against herding. . .and yet are advocating for it in the one of two areas in US education that are WORKING. (The other being private schools. . .but I suspect given your apparent bias that you will dismiss this commentary out-of-hand).

No comment on school boards or the economy, save that more math and science is a good thing (and I'm a humanities guy).

Looping is an EXCELLENT idea. But you need consistently excellent teachers to get the local school community to buy-in.

Streaming is also an excellent idea, but very difficult to manage in the current structure.

AMen to more voc/tech. Bring back the apprenticeship while you're at it.

Not so sure about loss of sports/extracurriculars. For some kids, that is the string keeping them in school.

Amen to the goal for a middle school.

As a charter school executive, I find it troubling that you seem to so easily dismiss charter schools. In the state of Colorado charter schools are under just as much (if not more) scrutiny as other public schools and we do our jobs with less money.

On the subject of teacher pay, there are all sorts of factors that go into paying any position. Simply saying that the pay needs to be equal to (fill in the blank) doesn't work. The pay needs to reflect the value of an individual teacher to that organization. Engineers make different amounts of money depending on the size of their company, how good they are, what position they are in, etc. I could go on about 10 month versus 12 month employees, etc. Another factor is that educational degrees have little impact on the success of a teacher. Experience has little impact on the success of a teacher.

One last thought--Jack Welch guides GE by the principle of eliminating the bottom 10% of their workforce every year. What if we did this in the education industry?

This post seems to lack an actual student viewpoint, so I will add my comments to the lot. As a high school senior, alot of what you're saying resonates with how I felt throughout my education as an American child.

A few things I would like to mention-

Harry Potter is a terrible series. The first three books were worth reading, but I'm not quite sure where J.K. Rowling was headed after that. I'm convinced that she mentally snapped from the stress and made it her singular life goal to make each novel thicker and more pneumatic than it's predecessor. The only other explanation is that she became obsessed with the fame and the money, and those became her driving forces. Oh wait, the latter is more likely. Why else would she come out after the completion of the series and mudsling her own characters?

I agree home-schooling is an evil creation to walk children blindly through life so they can fall on their asses once they're finally pushed out the front door. Whether for religious purposes or social, all the parents are doing is delaying and crippling the development of their child. While home-schooling creates difficult transitions, It's being overwhelmed by an even stronger force- Online Schooling. Recently I have taken a few classes online and become aware of the inane nature of this system. Perhaps it is shocking to assume that it is simple human nature to cheat when able to cheat. Online classes require half the work, a tenth of the testing, and none of the learning that regular courses offer. Normally these students would have to worry: "What will I do after high school when I have to go to college? What if I don't know anything?" Not to worry! We've come up with a solution to that problem as well! Online College! Perhaps if we could only invent jobs where people work at home, and social events where we could date and meet people from home, then we wouldn't need to be burdened with trivial things such as walking or sunlight! Oops...too late.

I disagree that more math and science are necessary in schools. Most high schools offer every math course from Algebra I to Trig to Calculus and College Algebra. And there are more Science electives then any other course including Marine Biology, Anatomy, Science Research, as well as a plethora of Social Sciences(Which are arguably vastly different is form and content, but still).
People don't pay for function. Functionality isn't profitable and a new workforce of right-brained, creative thinkers are emerging. The reason iPods sell above all other portable music players isn't because it's more functionable; it's because it's marketed well and, above all else, has a unique, stylized form.
While I agree science and math are necessary and obviously important you're wrong to state we need so much more math. If math and science are the means, then creativity and design are the ends. You may argue that math and science is necessary for research and growth and development, but who funds that research? Corporations. And how do those corporations get the money to fund your research? By appealing to an interested buying party through design and form.

Your streamlining idea is genius! More intelligent students drop out of school then stupid ones, simply because public facilities are being geared toward the lowest group on the intelligence ladder. If we just dumb down our standards then apparently everyone can win without actually getting any smarter.
Schools attempt to do that with tracks and AP courses and such along with "magnet" schools. Schools in Florida are even moving toward magnetized public schools and bringing in big voc/tech programs. My school is becoming a Performing Arts school next year with a huge arts program.

I always thought that apprenticeship was a good idea, especially for voc. programs where the only way to learn is through hands on experience. One can only learn so much in a classroom.

Middle school is a lost cause. It's impossible to learn in any environment when all you want to focus on is the opposite sex.

I'm going to disagree with Nescio and say that just because all students do well in the public school system doesn't necessarily make them smart.

We live in a capitalist world. Social Darwinism. Find a place for yourself in the world or die out. With streamlined programs as well as strong voc/tech tracks anyone can fit in. The reason there are so many people in america that are struggling simply because they are being forced to conform to a lifestyle they don't want.

"Middle school is a lost cause" -- then the USA is a lost cause!


"... Many kids make it or break it the middle grades -- either they acquire the academic knowledge and skills they need to achieve in high school (and life), or they fall so far behind they drop out or drift through high school with little hope of a successful future."

"Sadly, many students in America's middle schools are adrift. The results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) tell the story. While 4th graders in the United States rank among the top five nations in math and science skills, by the end of 8th grade, the performance of American middle schools ranks below many third-world countries."

"This achievement gap is most acute among our nation's poorest students who attend rural and inner-city schools. Some of these students may be lucky enough to have teachers and principals who care, but those caring educators often fail to push their students to achieve academically."

"In many middle schools that serve large numbers of poor kids, the students' diverse needs simply overwhelm the teaching and learning process. The focus of the school shifts from academic achievement to student support. This is even more likely in schools where the academic mission is unclear, and where standards vary from classroom to classroom. Precisely because the lives of so many kids are dangerous, troubled, and stressful, these middle schools must be challenged to help their students develop high levels of competence...."

PEDIATRICS Vol. 109 No. 6 June 2002, pp. 1136-1142

Enhancing Their Likelihood for a Positive Future: The Perspective of Inner-City Youth

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd*, Penny M. Alexander, MSW�, Jean Hunt, RN�, Maisha Sullivan, MSW�, Huaqing Zhao, MA{ddagger} and Avital Cnaan, PhD{ddagger}

* Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
{ddagger} Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Department of Pediatrics, Children�s Hospital of Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
� Urban Initiative and the Mayor�s Children and Families Cabinet, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Inner-city youth must overcome many environmental challenges as they strive for success. Their outcome is influenced by the interplay of protective forces and risk factors.

Objective. To learn directly from youth what solutions they believe would most influence their likelihood of achieving a positive future.

Design. In-school 8th-, 9th-, and 12th-graders in north Philadelphia generated, prioritized, and explained their own solutions through a 4-stage hierarchical process facilitated by AmeriCorps workers. In Stage 1, 60 randomly selected students participated in 8 focus groups to develop the study question. In Stage 2, youth in Nominal Group Technique sessions generated and prioritized solutions. In Stage 3, a survey for each grade that included their top prioritized ideas was distributed, and youth rated each idea on a Likert scale (5= Definitely would make me more likely to have a positive future to 1 = Would definitely not...). One thousand twenty-two ninth-graders (69% of in-school youth at 5 high schools) returned usable surveys. Ninety-three percent of responders were 14 to 16 years old, 44% were male, 54% were black, and 32% were Latino. Four hundred seventeen 8th-graders and 322 12th-graders returned usable surveys. In Stage 4, youth in 10 focus groups added meaning and context to the ideas.

Results. The highest rated items in all grades were solutions that promoted education or increased job opportunities. Ninth-graders ranked helping youth get into college first by the Marginal Homogeneity Test. The creation of more jobs was ranked second. Third rank was shared by more job training, keeping youth from dropping out of school, and better books for schools. The next tier of items focused mostly on opportunities for youth to spend their free time productively and to have interactions with adults. Many items calling for the reduction of risk behaviors or disruptive surroundings were rated lower. The Kruskal-Wallis test found little variation in rating of the ideas by gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

Conclusions. Youth believe that supportive solutions would do more to enhance their likelihood of reaching a positive future than would attempts to reduce "negative" behaviors or disruptive surroundings. This suggests that research and policies should consider how best to augment the protective influences of education, employment, meaningful use of time, and connection to adults.

Key Words: adolescent � poverty � education � resiliency � focus groups � survey

Abbreviations: NGT, Nominal Group Technique

A lot of this sounds like "be more European for the sake of being more European". You have not yet convinced me that the Europeans actually do a better job teaching students.

1) PISA.
2) General lack of creationists.

Closing doors to people who do bad on a test at age 14

Which countries have that?

First of all, not only does outlawing Charter schools and homeschooling scream "oppressive tyrannical gov't" (really, I think if we let people have abortions, we can at least let them educate their kids as they see fit) but you'll only make the problem worse. Forcing more kids to receive a poorer education does not make them more educated!

It's not that simple. Having the education go ahead faster than the kids can follow will make them learn less than they otherwise could.

In Belgium, ALL the schools are charter schools- and their kids score a LOT higher on standardized tests that ours.

Why, then, is Belgium not on top in the PISA results?

Federal standards for education, huh? And who is going to set those?

The Department of Education, logically?

Allowing the standards to be set further down the chain doesn't avoid that problem entirely, but it sure does help.

Not automatically. The lower the level at which the standards are set, the higher the chance that no experts will take part. This is why every few years there's a school board somewhere in the USA where the board members out of sheer ignorance resolve to teach Intelligent Design creationism. Sure, the USA is a huge country, so you should have a discussion on whether to set the standards at the federal or the state level (Germany has several different school systems in its different "states"), but doing it at the village level like now has been an evident failure.

For example, in the lower grades there is at present in many districts an over-emphasis on reading and writing at the expense of science, but I doubt that anyone would suggest that the problem is reading and writing.

Well, personally I'd say a much-underestimated part of the problem is the unique stupidity of the English orthography. But I digress...

Back to the topic: Isn't a big part of the problem simply money? I get the impression that in the USA, the schools are underfunded to the point that the buildings fall apart, while the (top) universities swim in cash; in Europe, the schools are well-funded, while the universities are underfunded to the point that (depending on the country -- but not on how rich that country is!) the buildings fall apart.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 07 Jan 2008 #permalink

To the person who thought paying teachers for performance was a good idea... It certainly is, if you want teachers to teach to the test and only teach to the test, as well as cheat on the test, and do anything else to raise test scores. If you're getting paid by how well your little cherubs does on a once a year standardized test, you're going to be damn sure you get paid as much as possible, even if the student hasn't actually earned that score.

To Ray who was saying Rowling was 'mudslinging' her own characters after the end the of series.... If you're talking about her revelation that she always thought of Dumbledore as gay, that says more about your mental state than hers.

By Ego, Egoing, Egone (not verified) on 07 Jan 2008 #permalink

A couple suggestions:

Abolish all "new math" programs like Integrated, Core-Plus, and TERC. They are completely undermining math education.

Allow acceleration for gifted students in the subject areas in which they excel. I advocate using ability/proficiency as the sole criterion for admission into an advanced course; no age or class requirements, period.

My second stumble upon your blog, and I now wonder why I don't visit more often.

I enjoyed much of your essay, questioned bits, and disagreed with others, due to my cultural bias for the way I was raised. Let me preface my comments by stating I was raised by an educator (Masters degree in Economics), married an elementary school teacher, and was "privileged" to have a private school education consisting of Math, Hard Sciences, good History, and more Math.

I agree completely with you regarding the need for "O" levels for pre-15 year old students. I was lucky to have good teachers who supported my independent learning in areas not on the "place-holding" curriculum. I agree, to, with the "looping" theory for younger grades - some private schools in the U.S. have instituted this with great results.

While "streaming" would have been wonderful for me and certain other of my peers, I can see where the egalitarian mob would scream bloody murder, especially in this day and age of "EVERYONE MUST GO TO COLLEGE!" Honestly, I wish someone would step back and look at who is earning what money. I know too many contractors who have started turning wrenches or using welding kits since they were in their late teens, who now earn more than many J.D.'s or M.B.A.'s their same age, because they started their own companies.

I cannot believe, however, that you would have thought to eliminate sports. I agree that in many places academics have been reduced to a life-support system for a football team/marching band... but do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As you described above, the raging hormones of youth DO need an outlet. Often my best studying was accomplished while physically exhausted from a track workout, and my "athletic prowess" helped instill some self-confidence that mastering calculus just could not provide.

Something your essay does not mention, but I believe it bears some study - how much has U.C. college/university education suffered due to the woeful preparedness of the U.S. high school student for higher education? I believe the strain on many Universities to provide "remedial" or "catch-up" classes in so many fields siphons energy and resources away from appropriate courses.

By John Rogers (not verified) on 10 Jan 2008 #permalink

I know I'm late to this but better late than never, eh?

"I know, I know, some homeschooled kids have good parents and benefit tremendously from home schooling, but... in abandoning the public system those people incrementally undermine it."

How? I've seen this before but rarely, if ever, heard a good supporting argument for it. In what way does homeschooling undermine public schools?

"And, a large fraction of home schooling is near useless in terms of educating the children (and, no, I do not want to hear about spelling bee champions as counter-examples, those prove my point)."

But you've only got a point and nothing else. What leads you to think a large fraction is near useless? And in what sense is it useless?

If you check out my blog I've actually got a post on how homeschooling benefits public schools (http://daybydayhsing.blogspot.com/2007/12/reaching-out-radicals-and-tea…). I'd be interested in seeing what you think.