What is Wrong with the American System of Education?

Roughly half of the people in the United States reject one or more fundamental tenets of science (most commonly evolution), while a larger percent, perhaps more than 80 percent depending on how we measure, would fail a basic science test. A strong majority of those American citizens who would claim to have strong feelings about one or more science policy issues such as climate change, stem cell research, or nuclear power either know very little about the relevant science or are so badly informed regarding the science that their knowledge is not merely insufficient, but is actually opposite what is generally accepted by experts in the area. Most Americans would prefer to make science related decisions on the basis of political affiliations (while at the same time often claiming to not be affiliated with a particular party, and to be 'independent' 'thinkers') than on the basis of scientifically demonstrable realities. This is true even to the extent that it is possible to predict a person's likely stance on a scientific issue on the basis of their politics than on the basis of their own economic self-interest or concern about personal or family health and safety. Hmmmm.

In other words, when it comes to science, Americans are absurdly stupid.

Here's why. The first paragraph of this essay contained five sentences, some run-on. The second paragraph of this essay was made up of only one sentence. It is my understanding that in many American High schools, this concise, accurate, and very clear one sentence paragraph would not be allowed in any student wiring (in English class or Science class) because it breaks a rule. The rules is that a paragraph has five or more sentences. WTF?.

If find this rule to be profoundly disturbing. While this rule is not only about science education, it does symbolize much of what is wrong about our system of education in general. This rule solves a problem (students not thinking enough about what they are writing) and in the process ruins the teaching of good communication. Similar arbitrary and capricious rule making plagues each area of our educational system. Bleh.

Recently, my daughter wrote an excellent short essay for her English Literature class. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a very logical progression and making excellent points about two novels being compared as part of the assignment. But the first and third paragraph were three sentences long. In order to comply with the rules, she had to move the last sentence of the third paragraph with the first paragraph, split one of the sentences in the first paragraph in two, and tack what was left of the third paragraph on to the middle paragraph. Ouch.

Every iota of effort expended by our students on appeasing teachers and school authorities by following arbitrary rules made up to fix minor problems but in turn causing serious deficits in how we teach thinking, writing, and reasoning, is a wasted iota of effort and should be discouraged, not required, of those students. I. Really. Mean. This.

Well, I've said enough and it is time to break for lunch. Having soup today. Mmm. Mmmm. Good.


More like this

You might expect someone's cultural background to influence their speech, their appearance, their musical tastes, and the foods they like. You'd probably also expect culture to have an impact on values and beliefs, on stories and traditions. But what about their bodies -- not just physical features…
One of the first things that happens when you get a faculty mailbox in a philosophy department is that unsolicited items start appearing in it. There are the late student papers, the book catalogs, the religious tracts -- and occasionally, actual books that, it is hoped, you will like well enough…
Picture in your head one person throwing a ball to another. How were the two people oriented spatially? Was one on the left, and the other on the right? If so, which one was on the left, and which on the right? Chances are, the thrower was on the left, and the catcher was on the right. For some…
One of the more sophisticated theories in embodied cognition is Lawrence Barsalou's perceptual symbol systems theory. It is, in essence, an updated version of the "ideas as images" position of the British empiricists, and the mental imagery theories of the seventies1. The basics of the theory are…

As far as the US public education system goes, I don't think there's enough space on your blog alone to cover the needed conversations about what's wrong with it and what needs to be done.

As for the so-called ‘rules’ about paragraphs, I've always seen them as guidelines. The guidelines were generally made in order to satisfy some perceived need in writing for a specific media as well.

Reading text on a computer monitor is very different from reading text in a book, or in a magazine, or in a newspaper. Write for your audience and media, rules be damned.

My Dad learned to use a slide rule to do all his calculations and later in life he went on to substitute teach Math classes in High School and noticed and interesting phenomenon. Calculator use broke the cognitive association between the question and the answer - so kids would punch buttons and return what the calculator displayed without giving a thought to the appropriateness of the result.
Apparently, the simple act of thinking of the problem in a slide rule appropriate way helped generate acceptable bounds of the answers. He couldn't begin to count how many student's answers were off by orders of magnitude because of button pushing errors, and when it that was pointed out, he had a hard time convincing them that "well, that's what the calculator said" was an insufficient excuse for such a gross error.
I understand that we don't all need to know how to derive Maxwell's theories, the understanding of the REASONS for the rules/formulas that we apply is really the heart and sole of education, to me.


Very nicely done; Great use of an in-line colon. I will be showing your comment to my daughter's English teacher. I will note that you are a published author. I love the fact that your last sentence is two characters long and contains no letters.

I. Really. Mean. This.

I hope you take that conviction and turn it into concrete action. I hope you talk to your daughter's English teacher to let her/him know how these arbitrary rules sometimes harm their students' ability to communicate clearly. I hope that the teacher considers your points carefully and incorporates any good ideas you present. I hope you will let us know how it goes, if you do.

Sorry to sound so needy :-)

By Shawn Smith (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

Our public schools have been going more and more toward teaching minimal competence at the expense of higher level thinking. This direction is mandated by the folks in charge. Thoughtless, rote, rule oriented training is what results. Some of us fight this trend, but the shortage of teachers caused by abysmal working conditions (I think this is more important than the low pay) means there are a lot of very stupid people teaching. (No offense to teachers; I am one, and they will know what I'm talking about.)

"I. Really. Mean. This."

Something they could do today; just eliminate cursive handwriting instruction. Today. I. Really. Mean. This. It's a complete waste of students' time, effort, attention and devotion, in a "please print" world.

I'm sure others can suggest whole subjects that have no purpose and which should just be dropped, today.

noel: Not so simple. I know several teachers that follow the five sentence rule (and it is not a guideline in all classes ... you can get points taken off) that are effective and intelligent teachers. There are a lot of dumb-ass things perfectly smart teachers do. You have to look at teaching as a culture. If you go to some other culture, you will see perfectly nice people doing mean things, the tough-guys crying about kittens, smart people doing dumb things, and dumb people being gurus. In many cases, the observer (you or me visiting the other culture) does not necessarily get what we're seeing. From the perspective of those outside the system, teachers and admins in schools are often doing dumb-ass things and don't even seem to notice it. But you have to look more closely and carefully to really figure out what is dumb and what is not.

But this one thing is dumb, I've decided.

Damn. I was just informed by my daughter that one word sentences are against some other rule they have. Damn. I mean, "Damn them!"

Today. I. Really. Mean. This.

Nicely done! We've gone from five sentences = one paragraph to five words = five sentences.

There are a host of prohibitions in writing style that are arbitrary and based on the predilections of some maven or other. Not starting sentences with a conjunction. Not splitting infinitives. No partial sentences. Etc. And they are all breakable and acceptable.

I was taught that paragraphs should collect sentences that express one topic within the larger essay. This is just someone who liked something imposing their taste on others.

Damn. I was just informed by my daughter that one word sentences are against some other rule they have. Damn. I mean, "Damn them!"

Doh! Nevermind. Oh, wait--now I'm doing it. Maybe it should be, "Doh, nevermind."


Something they could do today; just eliminate cursive handwriting instruction

Yes, we should stop teaching cursive and replace it with typing. That's a skill that will actual be useful to the kids later in life.

I actually didn't have too much of a problem with your first paragraph except that you could have been a lot more concise as you demonstrated with your second. It was a bit difficult to parse. Wow. Five sentences? When I was in High School it was three! And there's always the kid, even in college who is like "How many words does this have to be?" I figure that the difference between bad writing and arty-adult writing are kind of like the difference between your five-year-old and Jackson Pollock. You have to know and master the rules before you can break them. Arbitrary rules seem like they were just made to shut the kids up instead of actually teaching grammar. I had to wait until college where I courses in a dead language before I learned what an adverb or a particle was.

There's always homeschooling. Muahaha.

Then there are students such as myself whose goal it was to pack as much information into the "1500-2000 word" essays as possible to the extent I would use 2000 words with most of these consisting of very precise terminology, carefully chosen, so that I could fit as much information as possible into the paper.

I recall one course which required a "greater than five page" paper resulting in my presenting of a bound report spanning approximately fifty pages complete with figures, book and journal quotations, a few surveys which I conducted, and a few photos. This was for a freshman English course where the professor wanted us to write about a "political topic we feel strongly about."

I thought it was very well done, but I had to clip it down to 7 pages.

(I chose "the science and politics of embryonic stem cell research"--which said professor approved even though he (a WASP) disagreed with my stance)

I know this is a nit-pick, but I have to say it.

not be allowed in any student wiring

When taking shots about the education system in America, be sure to check for typos. It's not fair, but nothing shoots down a good grammar or English comment like a typo.

My most hated english rule is not ending a sentence with a preposition simply because it's a dumb rule to stand by.

Yes, we should stop teaching cursive and replace it with typing. That's a skill that will actual be useful to the kids later in life.

I will have to take it as a sign of getting old that I feel very resentful of the suggestion to stop teaching cursive, for no good reason (though, judging from the way all Americans I know write, they may be taught cursive, but they never actually learn it). On the other hand, being able to write cursive properly meant I had fewer problems with in-class essays in college than other students in my classes, since I was able to write a lot faster without descending into illegible chicken-scratch

"Damn. I was just informed by my daughter that one word sentences are against some other rule they have. Damn. I mean, "Damn them!"

What? Why? Apparently they do not understand speech patterns; which are in part what writing should reflect.

I should find my "Why the five paragraph essay is a terrible idea" essay I wrote back in school (in classic 5 paragraph essay form of course).

Cursive: It's not only a waste of time, it's often damaging. I know I personally went from gloriously accurate and readable printed letter to utter trash chicken scratch as a result of the time spent learning cursive. Which I have not used since the 5th grade. Thanks.

Current reading standards are also built to convince kids that reading sucks. The Scarlett Letter? Really? You think any school child wants to wade through that trash-pile of pay-by-the-word obnoxiousness? There is so much wonderful classic literature they would actually enjoy, why waste their time on something that they could, at most, giggle about in a cocktail party full of early American literature historians?

The core issue with primary education, I think, is a philosophy of simplified testing. It's all about the test. It's all about having the right word or number so you can fill in the right bubble. This is almost exclusively pointed at memorization of 'stuff.' Which is useless. Especially in a world where the ability to just look things up when you vaguely know what you're talking about is becoming a convenience of daily life.

Teach kids to reason, teach kids how to learn new things, and teach them not to be afraid of learning new things or making little mistakes.

It's also possible we are a selected audience who envisions a much higher capacity in the average student and are expecting much to much to be done with the real primary populous. Most likely it's something a mix of the two. Let's stop taking the "it's not my job" route. I know, I know, you'll probably get fired for taking responsibility for educating your students.

Re #17: in this context, tpyos are perfectly acceptable, since he is complaining about overly rigid rules that someon pulled out of their ass.

Greg, @#8: Point well taken. There is a culture and there are reasons for the rule oriented approach. One excuse given is that you have to learn the rules before you can learn how to get away with breaking them. The fact that we are now teaching to standardized tests that will be graded in a standardized way, and that teachers will be judged by how well the students do, means that creativity and original thinking will not be a priority. (I don't mind the standardized tests; just the efforts to teach to them. The tail is wagging the dog.) But some teachers don't even try to do better: they actually discourage students from asking questions.

Do they have a rule about unpaired parenthesis? Jenniver's last sentence could be problematic. (: Fixed! :)

Metrics. Automatable, computable, metrics. That is what is graded. Like lines of code / day, or comment density in code. The semantics cannot be computed (yet) and the system allows for no time to give them human attention. So semantics are virtually ignored, how to recognize and parse and understand them is not computable or rote learnable, and so therefore how to reason about the semantics is not taught either.

I blame No Child Left Behind for our latest woes in this regard. As I predicted when it was passed, the only way its metrics can be satisfied mechanically is to hold all the other kids back to the level of the slowest. yet it is but the latest expression of a trend.

And lost skills. slide rule required the ability to estimate orders of magnitude in your head. Calculators did, as anticipated, effectively kill off the ability to do mental arithmetic. Computers and Word are killing off the ability to use a pen (and the fountain pen is all but extinct already). And spelling. Grammar.

My state ferry system here in Seattle has a Homeland Security mandated announcement that contains at least three major grammatical errors. They have a cast of local communicators reading it, and I can tell from the way they stumble that they are at least aware that something is wrong, the scansion is not working, but AFAICT none of them have spoken up about it.

"Smoking is prohibited on board any Washington State Ferry"*
"Lifejackets may be found .. "**

One would have thought that a critical announcement would have had its grammar fully checked. Not only is it supposedly produced by professionals, it is produced by a critical security entity and its success at communicating its intent has life preserving implications. Whatever one may think of the rules, when followed the intent of the communication can be made precise, or even context free, even to people without deep grammatical skills.

Then of course there are things like the use of the lowly , and : and ; to impart scansion, phrasing, and parsing, clues. As to the more obvious such clues, I would make 5 sentences per paragraph to be a recommended maximum on the basis that a paragraph is a parsing clue that should cover precisely or at most one idea, but not to also mandate it as the minimum. If your idea can be expressed in one word, that is sufficient for the one word to be placed in its own paragraph.

So there.

* There are four ways to write this, of which two are correct and two are not. The two correct ways would be:

"Smoking is prohibited on board ALL WA state ferries"
"Smoking is NOT PERMITTED on board any WA state ferry".

Additionally, this statement is sufficient, there is no need to then go into specific areas in which smoking as not permitted. Waste of time, leads to wandering attention.

** Makes me nervous to know that there is some doubt about if or where I might find a lifejacket.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

If you go to some other culture, you will see perfectly nice people doing mean things, the tough-guys crying about kittens, smart people doing dumb things, and dumb people being gurus. In many cases, the observer (you or me visiting the other culture) does not necessarily get what we're seeing.

Wait!?! Are you still talking about education or a republican convention?

I either blog with typos, or I don't blorg.

Lorax: Good point!

Becca: This post is obviously a trick to get the home schoolers to click on my site. My traffic must be getting low.

I also feel we should eliminate cursing. It's offensive and rude.

Elimination of cursing is to eliminate strong emotions. Welcome to planet Vulcan.

As another professional writer, who writes horribly on blogs, but quite acceptably after sufficient editing. I think those paragraph rules are nuts.
When I write I use paragraphs to space out content, not a set number of sentences. If you have expressed one thing in two sentences and then move on to something different, to bring up a sentence would make no sense to the reader. That is a really dumb rule. Occasionally if I feel it necessary, I have a paragraph containing only one sentence.

I'm still annoyed that I lost an entire letter grade because I had an extra pargraph. I thought one point was sufficiently complex and required two. One apparently was the rule. Dumb rules. Although we didn't have a five sentence rule.

The problem with science education is that it completely divorced from anything real world in the way that it's taught. I spent 1/6 of ninth grade biology disecting a fetal pig and memorizing all the parts. The the final consisted only of 50 questions that asked you to identify what the pin was stuck in.

Disecting the fetal pig was cool, but I think there was way to much emphasis on rote memory rather than how organ systems worked or other things like that. All 9th graders dreaded this test, it was like hazing. I spent hours and hours memoring details of pig anatomy. Then we went on to something that was another set of facts to be memorized. We didn't even get near evolution or anything like it, because no one wanted the controversy.

I can say that in the almost 20 years since 9th grade, I have not been called on to identify any fetal pig parts in 50 seconds. Information about organ systems beyond the most basic understanding or learning how much variation there is in "normal," might have come in handy. Plus, kids might believe that has value.

Physics was page after page of math problems about an inclined plane or a swing and nothing about big ideas in physics or things that actual physicists do.

None of that equips people to make intelligence about climate change, stem cells, or anything else. But I could probably still pass a test on a fetal pig.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

Shorter Gray Gaffer: Greg, you'd better be sure your daughter internalizes these "rules" or some day her computer-graded SAT "essay" will prevent admittance to any "good" college.

Seriously,I found so many instances of having to deal with patent pedagogical absurdity while my kids were in K-12 ed (& a few from their college days as well) that I had to reframe my reaction to one of trying to appreciate the "teaching opportunity" each event presented. Despite the 40 or so hrs a week kids spend in school, parents are still the primary teachers. Get used to telling your children, "while you're in so-and-so's class, you'd better do it his/her way, but be aware that..." and fill in the blank with examples of good literature, journalism, or whatever fills the bill.

(Anyone else about to blow a gasket over the recently entrenched worship of MLA/APA formats?)

Anyone else about to blow a gasket over the recently entrenched worship of MLA/APA formats?

Are these the ones that use first name initials only, e.g. Smith, S. instead of Smith, Susan? How do I search for that author in my library catalog? However, if that means no more endnotes, I'll take it. Footnotes are usable; endnotes mean I gotta carry two bookmarks or squish my finger or flip flip flip all the time.

I am a sucker for this kind of rant; it appeals to something hidebound in me and tickles that old part that thought I was smarter than my classmates. I have read two variations on it. One claims that blind teaching of rules is killing education and making our kids stupid. The other claims that ignorance of rules is ditto ditto. Someday I want to see the two factions duke it out over why I, as an American, am a moron. I will bring popcorn and all the people who stopped understanding physics when they started talking about Einstein can sit with me.

One day, though, I want to read the version that my parents never wrote but should: "I went to school before Sputnik and we knew fuck-all about math and science and the 60s children were smarter than us."

Greg, the simple fact is that Science is not taught in school...

Let me be more precise- I teach in a DC Public Elementary School- the Master Education Plan for DCPS stipulates that Science be taught for 45 minutes three times per week with the [former] Director of Science recommending one lab session per week but most students in the elementary grades do not even get 45 minutes in the year!

Part of the problem is:

1. Only about 5% of DC teachers come into the system with a Science background and so are not inclined to "push" for including a subject with which they are not familiar [read: in which their teaching will be evaluated!];

2. Because the emphasis is on Reading and Math, there seems to be no pressure being applied on the Chancellor or from the Chancellor to Principals that Science (and Social Studies for that matter) be properly monitored;

3. the Director of Science is no longer- all "Content Area" Directors were phased out at the beginning of this school year but even when the Director was in position, he wasn't even allowed to communicate directly with Principals without his emails being routed through three tiers of administration let alone with any mandate or authority to monitor Science instruction (which he would have to do by himself for every single elementary, middle, and high-school because he had no assistant nor any staff)!

4. Brand new textbooks ("A Closer Look" series) and unused FOSS kits were thrown out in the trash over the Summer and because there is no in-school administrator monitoring going on, the fact that kids don't even have the textbooks (with which were a host of direct standards-to-chapter connections and teacher resources) goes unnoticed;

5. Last year an "unofficial" check was made of 2nd through 6th grade classes (note both 3rd and 5th are "benchmark") and a simple tally of content covered indicated that less than 5% of grade-specific content was covered by any grade!

6. There is no science Professional Development for teachers in the District- miscellaneous trainings by some of the local non-profits are often not rated as providing "seat hours" and so are often ignored, certainly never promoted by the Office of Teaching and Learning.

Unfortunately there is no one to go to, certainly not the Chancellor nor the Mayor- they have turned out to be dead-ends and politically dangerous avenues of enquiry- anyone sticking out their neck is quashed, grant funds that are often won by teachers for environmental projects somehow "disappear" or dematerialize, and meaningful Science has to be carried out by a few clandestine teachers in the guise of "clubs" or after-school camps...

By Copernicus (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

However, if that means no more endnotes, I'll take it. Footnotes are usable; endnotes mean I gotta carry two bookmarks or squish my finger or flip flip flip all the time.

Oh, I so agree. :D Thought I was the only one that, uh, anal...(Sokal might take footnotes to a ridiculous degree, however...)

As to the parenthetical citations, I did a brief search & from my skimming, found both styles seemed to be a bit less egregious than I remembered from the days when my now-24-year-old son was struggling with them in HS. At the Math & Science center, no less...Whereas most of the papers I read are from the science literature, which seems to have a fairly universal, intuitive format that at least back in my son's HS day was NOT that of either MLA or APA. Maybe they eventually listened to user outrage...

But from my younger daughter's related experiences, it sounds as if there are still plenty of teachers paying more attention to format than to content in assignments; and I'm not talking about writing classes.

LOL & "hear, hear" to the rest of your comment.

With respect, RJE @17:

I know this is a nit-pick, but I have to say it

The term is "nitpick", unhyphenated...

When taking shots about the education system in America, be sure to check for typos

Surely you mean "taking shots at"?

It's not fair, but nothing shoots down a good grammar or English comment like a typo

"Good grammar" would dictate that you not use the indefinite article "a" when describing grammar because in this context the word "grammar" is a non-count noun where the article is omitted- the indefinite article would only be suitable for your phrase "[a] good English comment" unless of course you were attempting to refer to a good comment about grammar in which case the better grammar should have been: "nothing shoots down a good English comment, or one on grammar, like a typo"...

By Copernicus (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

Becca: This post is obviously a trick to get the home schoolers to click on my site. My traffic must be getting low.

Don't worry, Greg. We're keeping an eye on you.

Nothing about getting old makes me happy. Well, almost nothing.

Being old means either (a) I never learned any of these stupid rules (.e.g., five sentences per paragraph? You're kidding, right?!). OR (b) I'm senile enough to have forgotten them all. Either way is okay by me.


Following the intermission, each person who was previously seated in the theater will return to his or her respective seat.

re 20
Check out Montessori education - when it is done well, it ticks all those boxes.

Cursive is dead? Don't you people ever need to take notes - say, in a lecture, or a meeting? You never need to write things down quickly? Do you all know shorthand or something?

Five sentences per paragraph? That's not a rule, it's plain wrong! Anyone who gives you fewer marks for breaking that 'rule' should be banned from teaching English.

I'll tell you what's wrong with the American system of education: American culture is really fucking stupid.

Those of us who have managed to keep ourselves out of or wrest ourselves out of its horrific, mind-numbing grasp generally see this.

By Katharine (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Jay @41:

when it is done well

One of the problems that I have encountered with inner-city youth (I have been teaching in London and now the last 10 years in DC) is that most have so little consistency or routine in their lives (the foundation for self-discipline) that the Montessori style of emphasising self-directed activity tends to unravel the kids...

in theory (and I have seen a great example of a mixed-grade Montessori class but in a suburban affluent environment) it meets a lot of the expectations we would have for effective education, but in practice, too many are left by the wayside and simply do not amass enough on-task time to learn material or content/develop a knowledge base upon which to scaffold future learning experiences...

By Copernicus (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Current reading standards are also built to convince kids that reading sucks.

I absolutely agree. In high school, I absolutely hated reading. Now, I love it. I can spend an entire Sunday just reading a book. However, the type of books we read in high school are not the kind I would ever choose to read for fun. I respect that certain works are considered "classic", and that plenty of people like them, but it's a matter of personal taste and I shouldn't be taught that I must like those things. For example, I always hated reading Shakespeare. Plays are not novels, and that makes them boring to read. I appreciate that Shakespeare was a great writer; I just don't enjoy reading his stuff.

@46 catgirl

I had a very different experience reading in high school. There were books that sucked (and still do imopo) Ethan Frome comes to mind with The Fountainhead a close second. But there were many others that opened my mind to new things, not the least of which is that words can convey deep meaning. Anthem, 1984, The Crucible, Animal Farm, Exodus, even The Scarlet Letter, which I didnt like but opened my eyes to the fact that the human condition hasnt really changed much. BTW I enjoyed Shakespeare (not Romeo and Juliet) because it also said a great deal about being human and human experiences.

Would appear Copernicus wins the grammar nazi award- nice dissection! :)

I did have one other thought: Despite possibly every generation complaining about the lousiness of the current generation's crappy education, they do still seem to be Flynn Effecting* us out of existence.

We are doomed to be useless codgers. Better get your run in now boys and girls, you'll be furniture before you know it. These new kids grew up on X-box and 4chan cheeseburger cats, they're going to write the new rules. Better brush up on your lolgrammar.

*Yeah, there's plenty of arguments to be made against the flynn effect.

"Every iota of effort expended by our students on appeasing ...authorities by following arbitrary rules made up to fix minor problems...is a wasted iota of effort and should be discouraged, not required, of those students."

I dunno. It may not be education education, but it sounds like good practical training for a job in any corporate/governmental entity.

What percentage of their day do you think a teacher would say they spend "appeasing ...authorities by following arbitrary rules made up to fix minor problems"?

There's your problem right in your title: "System of Education". There's no such thing. There's a system of indoctrination of facts, places, names, dates, which need to be recalled until they're regurgitated in the exam and then they can be forgotten. These exams are "required" to "prove" that our kids are "learning" and that they aren't being left behind, so teachign is geared toward what's need to pass the test rather than what's needed to raise a smart, sensitive, prepared, and we'll-rounded child.

This system is bolsrtered by school sports, which typically carry more weight than any other branch of academic endeavor, and which are even more structured than other learning, as we're taught to fastidiously "execute" plays and follow the rules and adhere to the playbook.

"Our children are our most precious resource" has become a cliche, but the bottom line is that there are precious few resources put into the promotion of the joy of knowledge, of learning, of discovery, of understanding, of insight, of the power of good information.

You need a test and a license to drive a car, but all you need to get a kid is sex. After that, you can do whatever you want with it, including filling its head with mythical nonsense designed to trip up even the "system of edcuation" we suffer through at present.

Greg, you're looking for the school system to teach nuanced writing to its students when its PhD administrators rely on strict adherence to "zero tolerance" policies.

Cognitive dissonance overload.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

Joe M. on getting old - To true!

On Grammer and Rules

I had some pretty good writing teachers in high school and college. We never learned a "five sentence" rule. We were taught to start a new paragraph with a new thought or topic.

I also learned to dissect and structure sentences with all of those labels like gerund, participle, dangling participle, etc. I've forgotten all of it.

To me, the rules are only helpful when you understand why they are rules. The why is what sticks in your head and gives you the ability to use the principles elsewhere, bend or break the rules appropriately.

In art school, I was taught that you should learn and be competent in traditional approaches; still lifes, figure drawing, drafting, composition, etc. One of the reasons is that people who break the rules without learning traditional approaches tend to do so in a very predictable way (without knowing it). A good foundation in the basics and art history often leads people to a more nuanced, thoughtful approach. Of course this is not always true. There are brilliant outsider artists who never learned any of the art school basics.

I was a graphic designer for years. There are definitely certain paragraph lengths, line lengths and sentence length that are more legible for certain media. It's always best not to blind the reader.

One thing I've found is reading is the best entry into writing. The more you reading, the more you will get an instinctive feel for what sounds right.

By micheleinmichigan (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

My son's high school have banned the submission of printed homework (all work must be in the student's handwriting). This is, they say, to curb the explosive growth of 'copy/paste' homework submissions.

My son learned his cursive in Switzerland: it looks like original writing from the middle ages (and not very neat writing at that). He now gets penalized for being unreadable (still a 'straight 'A' student, but it gets harder each week!). I had suggested he include his 'printed' copy (to aid in their reading of his inestimable prose), but his teachers have stated that inclusion of anything 'printed' would result in downgrading. A fabulous catch 22!

The worst part is that this is not only for simple homework but for all submissions: in Honors Biology, in Math, and in every other class (including Lit).

Stupid! Especially when there are already more appropriate and extant responses to 'copying' than forcing kids into wasting additional hours writing (and formatting) papers longhand!

Greg @40: After my initial "good grief! Dangling!" I paused a moment. I saw, not so long ago, a very convincing demonstration that one can successfully extract the correct meaning from text in which the letter sequences within each word have been scrambled. The important feature, it seems, is that all the letters that should be there are there, but their order is only of secondary, and perhaps only aesthetic, importance. For I saw that, as wrong in so many ways as it is grammatically, that sentence you quoted still manages to convey its intended meaning.

@52: There is an old Salvador Dali (or perhaps Picasso?) story, possibly apocryphal, wherein he was approached by a young and aspiring artist for comments on said artist's work. The Great Man said "Come back to me when you can show me you can draw a straight line. Then I might believe there is meaning in your scribbles".

Generally, on reading: I was fortunate; my mother insisted on placing her children on her lap with the story book in front of them for all bedtime stories, from the moment reading us a story became something to do. As a result we were all reading by age 3. By age 7 I was fitted with spectacles. I spent too many hours reading under the blankets by flashlight after lights out.

Later in life, in mid High School, I was rescued from the stultifying and impenetrable Classics as taught conventionally by an exchange teacher of English, who came from New York to teach us in the UK for a year, and who devoted our Friday periods to reading us chapters from "Of Mice and Men". Not because it was required reading - far from it, it may even have been forbidden reading for the language - but simply because he enjoyed it, and communicated that more than anything to us.

In general. I think it was the knowledgeable and passionate teachers who made the real impact on my life. The ones who were allowed to construct their own syllabus, and tests, and graded us on whether what we created for our answers work whether or no we gave the expected answers, so long as we also did well in the O and A levels. Same in University. I would say that all the learning experiences that stayed with me were those accompanied by passion. The only rote learnings that did me any good were the regular morning chanting of the times tables from 1x1 to 20x20, from the age of 5 to 9. From those I have look-up tables embedded in my brain, even now nearly 60 years later, that are still useful in life.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 19 Oct 2009 #permalink

As a European, I can compare the education systems. We always have to make lots of effort to maintain the level at European schools, the competition is sharp.
An american guy told me that he was an exchange student in Finland when he was 17. His host family had a child more or less his age, and a 9 year old . He started to go to school with the older one. He said , laughing that he had to switch over to the class of the nine year old because his US obtained academic level was more or less tha equivalent of a nine year old.
An 18 year old Hungrian boy, the son of theoretical mathematitcian parents who did work for a US company for several years, won gold medal at Mathematics Olympics in Madrid last year. The Hungarian Tv commentator asked him how was it possible with US educational background, when everybody knows how low the educational level is. The boy answered taht though his mother and father were teaching him since early childhood and while living in the US, and made sure attending the best of the best elementary school, when he was 14, they rather did give up their obviously very well paying positions, tu return to Hungary, in order to make sure that the boy can go to a world class high school , we call them "race stables". The effort resulted in thegold medal.

Other than that, a school system, focosung on fun, as ultimate goal, can never be successful.
The debate about cursive writing is ridiculous! Cursive writing is fine coordination of the brain, it is effort, concentration, focusing attempt. Also an esthetical value. A basic part of elementary education from age six!!! Block letters are not for writing. Competive Asian countries, like Japn, China, Korea do have complex writing systems, Japanese students have to learn two sets of phonetic ABC , the so called hiragana and katakana, and 880 characters during six years of basic education! Learning, memorizing, making mental efforts, retaining information expands the brain of young individuals, and does not harm them all!
US students are mortified if they have to retain bigger segments of information.
There is no music education at all, in Hungary and in other countries schools, and or classes specializd in music education from 1. grade elementary school / music classes every day for 8 years/ are better at all other subjects than students in non music specialized schools. It was composer and music educator Zoltan Kodaly, who approached the Ministry of education to implement this type of schools, adding also that " music is sounding mathematics", and he knew his buiness. There are schools specialized in mathematics for talented students, others are in sports again for talented students, not everybody is the same. Others do teach all subjects in a foreign language / English, German, Spanish, French/ during high school years. But the basics are the same for everybody, strong language, writing, descriptive grammar, history, geography,biology, music, art , drawing, hand crafts, physical education, physics , chemistry, foreign languages.
US schools do teach a fraction, at a very low level, not surprising that there is no competitiveness.

By leonora kovacs (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

This might be a bit late but I disagree with your comment about paragraphs with 5 sentences. As an English teacher I think one sentence paragraphs are wonderful. They are concise, to the point and add an interesting flair to writing, but not in the context of essay writing.

When it comes to writing an essay teachers often insist at least five sentence per paragraph in order to ensure that you have fully address the question, point or argument you are making in that paragraph. I find it hard to believe that anyone can make a valid argument, discuss a point, or explain an idea in three sentences.

Simply put, in order to write a well structured paragraph in an essay you need a variety of sentences or types of sentences. In your first sentence you state the main topic or idea to be discussed in the paragraph. In your second sentence you then elaborate on your idea/topic by applying critical thinking. You then provide evidence to support your idea/topic. In a comparative essay like your daughters this might several sentences as she provides quotes or examples from both novels. In your fourth sentence you analyse the evidence and tie it back to your topic. The last sentence is typically called a linking or conjoining sentence where you link the paragraph to the next paragraph.

So really when people say a 5 sentence paragraph they mean that you need to have at least 5 of these types sentences in order to write a well structured paragraph. Having a rule that students can apply to writing a paragraph helps them with structure and expressing their ideas clearly and in a logical fashion.

I do agree that the teacher was definitely wrong in taking sentences here and there from your daughters essay. It sounds like this teacher doesn't know how to teach essay writing. How confusing for your daughter.