Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Our Values and Culture Shape Our Schools

As I mentioned in my last entry, money is not the only problem facing our schools, the real problems are teaching style, culture, and values. According to the TIMSS results on schools, “In fourth grade, American kids do above average internationally. By eighth grade, they slip a bit, and by 12th-grade, they’ve slipped a lot.” The U.S. is the only country that slides down that much from 4th to 12th grade, so what is the problem?
Now of course there are many reasons why schools fall behind, but I believe that besides teaching style, which I explained previously, the problem is our culture’s values. There has been a change in both students and parents mentalities that is creating students, who are not motivated to learn, or who do not see the point. Many students no longer consider studying, planning for college, and learning as priorities and instead are consumed by fads, celebrities, fashion, being thin, and most importantly being popular. Since our media and environment is covered in useless information about these things, children do not see the point is researching the mass genocide in Darfur, or our countries involvement in the middle east. While living abroad, I was shocked to find out that in other countries the national and international news is actually news and not celebrity gossip, or diet fads. Improving the actual schools and teachers is not going to go very far, if our culture’s values do not change. We must create an environment for learning and growth outside the classroom that motivates children to pay attention and understand the world around them. In other countries, teenagers discuss politics and world events over dinner, or while shopping, while in the U.S. teens gossip about Britney Spears, or how fat the girl they just passed was. I’m not saying that preteens and teens in other countries do not care about celebrity gossip, what I am saying is that they understand at the end of the day what really matters in the world. The reason why student performance drops so much more from 4th grade to 12th grade in the U.S., is because of our culture and its values. If we change the way we think and what we value, everything from our schools to our foreign relations will improve. Contrary to popular belief in this country, ignorance is not measured in how well you scored on a test, it is measured in how you go about your daily life, the decisions you make, and how you react to the world around you. More than anything, these are cultural, social, and environmental problems, not problems related to what U.S. children are currently learning in school, although they should be. The only way U.S. children are going to catch up with international students, is if we rewrite the values that are promoted in our country and make sure that those values are emphasized in all areas of our cultural environment.

Money is NOT the SOLUTION

While researching this blog, I keep coming across articles that blame every problem with public schools on lack of funds. As much as I would love to share their simple solution, WAKE UP AMERICANS’ money is only a fraction of the problem. If you don’t believe me look at Washington D.C, which ranks third in spending per student and yet is arguably the worst school district in the country. According to the Washington Post, “ More than half of the District of Columbia's kids spend their days in "persistently dangerous" schools, with an average of nine violent incidents a day in a system with 135 schools. "Principals reporting dangerous conditions or urgently needed repairs in their buildings wait, on average, 379 days.” WOW, I’ll remember never to send my kids to our National Capital, although it’s probably not that much worse than the majority of public schools in big cities in the U.S. So I’ve touched on a lot of specific things in this blog concerning why the U.S public school system is so bad, but I want to explain a few broader facts. Most importantly, it’s the teaching system and the cultures and values of the people that make up the foundations of every education system.
In this entry, I’m going to focus on the teaching style and then in my next post I will explain how our values and culture shape the school system. There are some fundamental things wrong with teachers in the U.S. compared to teachers in countries that rank higher than us. Now this is not a problem of individual teachers, this is a problem in how and what teachers are being forced to teach students. According to the Washington Post, which I highly agree with,
“The United States focuses more on procedure, and we try to teach many topics fast. Other countries tend to break topics up and go much more in-depth. They work on the concept, not just the procedure...Countries that did well in rankings focused on teaching the ideas and taught a few topics a year. Kids will learn what a fraction really is, not just how to add or subtract them.”
This is a great point, U.S. schools try to condense topics to the point of students only memorizing a few key facts that they then forget ten minutes later, which is basically a waste of time. If we really want students to learn, teachers must focus on a single subject and actually explain the who, what, how, where, when, and even how it relates to the world around them. Although it may seem like less can never mean more in education, but teaching the actual concepts behind a subject will enable students to easily understand the many other topics that somehow relate. This should be common sense, since it was discovered years ago that the brain stores information based on how many connections it can make to already stored information and also the significance of those connections. Our brains are not designed to store random facts and statistics that have no real significance to our past, or present situation. When teachers just recite facts and procedures, as most U.S. schools do, students just memorize, but create no real connections to why the information is significant. As Matias Sueldo, an Argentinean who is now a sophomore at a U.S college explained, “Kids here learn to pass a test, but they don’t learn the concepts. In Argentina, you either know it or you don’t.” Another student pointed out, “Because the only way we measure how well students do is through testing, teachers end up teaching how to take the test, and not necessarily the subject matter...Great, students can take a test, but they don’t know anything.” This is exactly my point, the U.S. teaches students how to get good grades, but not why the information is significant, or how to use the information in the real world. We must change the way teachers are expected to teach, as well as change how teachers grade students in order for our school system to stop falling so far behind.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Presdient Bush's Scare-Tactics Remind Me of Someone else

I was recently writing a short essay on fascism for my world history class and I was reminded of how President Bush has used scare tactics similar to those used by Hitler and Mussolini during World War II. Now I’m not putting Hitler and Bush on the same level, as the death and destruction that Hitler created should always stand on its own and should never be grouped, but I am comparing the actual tactics each leader used in order to gain and maintain power. After WWI, Germany faced one of the worst economic situations in its history, which resulted in worry and unrest amongst citizens.
Hitler used his country’s vulnerability in order to strengthen his own power, by escalating people’s already developing fear. By using scare-tactics, Hitler created citizens that were terrified of communism and willing to do anything to regain their country’s glory and power. This brought about a surge in ultranationalism that allowed Hitler to have authoritative rule over his people and develop extremist economic and social policies. The brainwashed citizens welcomed fascism and totalitarian rule, as they believed it was for the good of their country. They also allowed their dictators to initiate violent foreign policies and invade territories in Eastern Europe, which completely violated the Versailles Treaty, but they had no idea.

Fast-forward to 9/11 and remember how President Bush reacted to the situation by using terror alerts, threats, heightened danger levels, which the media then plastered over everything. In fear, Americans allowed the government to take away some of their liberties and impose extreme policies at home and abroad in order to protect against terrorists, or Al-Qaeda, or maybe it was Hassam Hussein. Everywhere you went you were reminded of how dangerous it was in the United States and how inhumane and evil the ‘terrorists’ were. Of course it got a little confusing to who we were actually fighting against and at one point the majority of Americans somehow believed Hassam Hussein was behind 9/11, but who cares Iraq was in the Middle East and thus was threatening our freedom and safety, right? As more ‘threats’ were announced, there was a huge surge in patriotism and nationalism as Americans joined together, willing to do anything to protect our glorious country, even if it meant invading Iraq, which of course had nothing to do with 9/11. Hmm, sounds familiar, the congressman, Keith Ellison explained last year, “It’s almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that..After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it, and it put the leader [Hitler] of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.”
Now I would never make a statement saying that President Bush planned 9/11, but I do believe he used our vulnerability in order to brainwash us into thinking that we needed to give up some of our freedoms and invest over $500 billion into an unwinnable war. This is similar to how Hitler convinced the people of Germany that violating the Treaty of Versailles was for their own protection and well-being.
When researching this entry, I came across a startling quote from President Bush that compared Congress' Democratic leaders with people who ignored the rise of Lenin and Hitler, saying "The world paid a terrible price then and risks similar consequences for inaction today." REALLY...I’m sorry, writing this blog has really made me ashamed to be an American, which I don’t believe any citizen should ever have to feel. Isn't a democracy supposed to be a government for the people, by the people? No wonder the entire world hates us, I really feel bad for the next president, who is going to have to restore our reputation and hopefully our economy.

California Schools Some of the Worst

Since I graduated high school four years ago, I’ve noticed some major changes taking place in public schools, especially those in California. I would love to say that those changes have been for the better, but sadly I would be lying. Instead I’ve observed, more overcrowding, programs being cut, less parent involvement, more non-English speaking students, and overall poor achievement in almost all subjects, or at least the subjects that still exist. Since California schools used to be ranked towards the top of the list nationally, I decided to do some outside research and find out how they compare now. I figured that California would still be towards the top, especially since it is the only state included in the top 10 largest economies worldwide, but I was mistaken. Instead I found:

1. Per-pupil funding is consistently below national average
2. Teacher pay falls below national averages when adjusted for cost of living
3. California’s fourth and fifth graders have consistently scored lower on reading and mathematics tests, currently ranking only above Mississippi and Louisiana
4. Teachers lacking full credentials account for 15% of California public school teachers
5. The most inexperienced teachers teach in the neediest school districts
6. California has the second highest teacher-to-student ratio in the nation
7. California is below the national average in spending per pupil on school construction
8. California’s Latino and African American students are on average amongst the lowest achieving in the country

Now, a lot of people may argue that the decline of California public schools is due to the increase of non-English speaking students and that they are the reason for lower test scores. Personally, I do not feel I’m enough of an expert on the subject to state my opinion on non-English speakers, although I will say that there is evidence that in many schools, especially in Southern California, English speaking students are often ignored because teachers have to spend more time teaching them. The real problem here is that California schools are underfunded, face the same problems as all public schools, and many of its teachers are not trained to handle both non-English speaking students and English speaking students, but really who blames them? On top of having non-English speaking students, California teachers on average have 50% more students than teachers across the nation and since on average there is only one counselor for every 556 high school students in California, teachers are also expected to handle those problems. Hmm, so California is one of the wealthiest economies in the world and yet its schools are some of the worst. Something is definitely wrong here and like schools in other parts of the country, things must change or our country will continue to slip behind. It’s time for the U.S. to understand that we no longer rule this planet and we must determine why the schools and economies in other countries are passing us up. I know it’s crazy, but maybe we could even study the school systems in countries like Japan, Belgium, Finland, or the other 20+ nations whose schools rank higher than us, but it’s just a thought.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Intercity Busing Does Not Mean Equal Opportunity

My last two points have been about equal opportunity and Americans’ misconceptions about what it is. I listed a few examples in my last posting about how schools are incorrectly interpreting the meaning behind equality and actually doing more harm than good, with programs that level the playing field. There is one more program that I believe I have to touch on, as it is a perfect illustration of why schools will not be improved until we change the way we think, which in turn will change the way we act. Busing children from failing intercity schools to better schools in order to create equality, doesn’t solve anything and is completely counter productive as it doesn't address any of the real problems. Similar to the majority of U.S. solutions over the past few years, “busing” students was instituted because of Americans’ desire for instant gratification and results in all aspects of life. The real problems lie in the actual structure of all U.S. public schools, with everything from teachers to the curriculum and even the grading system needing to change. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we must also change the way we think and view human existence. Specifically, for the school system we must understand a few underlying principles, including there is no single quick solution for schools, just as there is no quick solutions for the environment, or any other major problem. We must also realize that the world functions as a machine, with every change to an individual part affecting the entire mechanism, which means we must individually operate for the good of all humankind, not just for our own personal gain. This may seem off topic, but it is actually the foundation of all change that must occur in order for our species to survive. Until we recognize that all individuals are fundamentally equal as members of humankind and that we are also a part of the animal kingdom and not superior to it, we will continue to destroy not only our schools, but the entire world.
Busing underprivileged minority students to the suburbs, only addresses the visible surface of the education problem, just as driving a few thousand hybrids, or protecting a few forests, does not solve our dire environmental problems, although both problems require the same fundamental solution. When attempting to explain this point, I like to visualize an iceberg and how 75% of its body is below the surface and not visible to those unwilling to look beyond its perceptible appearance. When humans are able to think and act in relation to the iceberg and also the world as a machine, we will be able to not only save ourselves, but also the entire ecosphere of the earth.

The Real Definition of Equal Opportunity

As I touched on in my last post, the concept of equality is very complex and although it appears to have a straightforward definition, it is actually quite dynamic and interpretive. With that, the most difficult part of transforming our school system and providing equal opportunity is having Americans realize that these problems cannot be fixed solely by money. In order to see progress, we must change the way we think and view the world, as well as what we believe is the purpose of our existence. I’m still not sure whether equal opportunity is attainable, or at least not in the way that most people interpret it. Included in changing the way we think, is understanding that pure equality does not exist with humans and if it did, it would only result in uniformity and restrictions. In that way, we must accept that each human is unique and thus variations will always exist in every aspect of society, including education, wealth, religion, and political policy. Creating equal opportunity does not mean leveling, or producing identical students and schools, it means establishing equal concern and preventing actions that exclude persons from equal membership in a shared community. The school system must be designed in a way that provides students with options and offers equal access to different programs based on interest and skill level, rather than location, income and social status. When equality is allowed to be interpreted in a simple and standard way, it normally results in counter productiveness, which is what is occurring in many different areas of our education system. Listed below are a few examples of how the misinterpretation of equality has resulted in a move backwards instead of forwards for our schools.

1. Title IX and the inequality in men's and women's intercollegiate athletics often limits athletic options, instead of improving them. For instance, at Brown University they proposed the solution of cutting the number of opportunities available to male athletes until they reached parity with the lower number of opportunities for female athletes, which has also occurred in colleges all over the country. Glorious

2. After losing an equal protection challenge to its males-only admissions policy, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) threatened to become private and very expensive in order to remedy the problem instead of admitting women.

3. In response to the successful challenging of inequality in public school funding, the former Governor of New Jersey, Christine Whitman, proposed a plan to level down spending in wealthier school districts in order to reach equality with poorer districts. This has occurred all over the nation and although it improves under privileged schools, it also punishes schools that are able to raise money within the community, which completely defeats the purpose of improving schools.

4. Many of the school districts that have been charged with discriminating against gay and lesbian student groups in violation of the federal Equal Access Act have responded by banning, or threatening to ban, all extracurricular student clubs.


The list goes on and on, but I think you get the point that if we continue to have such a literal interpretation of equal opportunity, we will actually create more problems than we solve. Before we can even attempt to outline a plan for equal opportunity, we must first make it plausible, which requires a complete rearrangement of the public schools that gives all students more freedom in choosing their own path based on their individual wants and needs. This of course requires every aspect of the school to be changed, which most Americans do not believe is possible without a huge tax increase. I’m not going to go in depth about this point, as I’ve already touched on it before, but just remember that ever-growing number in the upper right corner of the page. I bet a lot could be done to our school system with $512 BILLION, especially if the community is able to work together towards a single goal.

Bill Gates is Right About Schools

I recently read Bill Gates speech from the 2005 National Governors Association Education Summit and I must admit I completely agreed with him. Being a college drop out himself, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how passionate he is about improving the public school system. Although I am familiar with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its generosity towards schools, I was unaware of the actual programs and initiatives he has created in order to transform the school system. Unlike the majority of charitable public figures, who just give money and supplies to schools, Gates goes above and beyond and has dedicated time and money to researching every intricate detail of the public school system. Based on his findings, he has created special initiatives and become an activist for equal and better public education. I was delighted to hear him say, "The key problem is political will," when discussing the public schools resistance to change and also that it is, “Morally wrong to offer more advanced levels of coursework to high-income students compared with that offered many minority and low-income scholars.” Now as much as I applaud him for bringing this up, especially considering it goes against the stereotypical view of people with wealth and power being spoiled and insensitive to the lower class, I was saddened to find out his own children go to a small private school. At first I was extremely irritated, especially since only a few minutes prior to my findings, I had considered Bill Gates an inspiration, a glimpse of hope in a seemingly failing system, where people talk big, but barely ever deliver results. After I really considered the situation, I no longer blamed him for preaching about equal opportunity and then sending his own kids to private schools; personally I would probably do the same, although I’m not sure that makes it right. This is when I too faced a dilemma and wondered how are we going to achieve equal opportunity in education when the people that have the ability to make it happen and want it to happen are unwilling to actually send their own children to public schools, or is it even possible in the first place? This is when I realized that until all Americans have faith in the public school system and believe that a form of equal opportunity is conceivable, the achievement gap will continue to grow. Of course, the public schools must also be completely revamped and reorganized in a way that actually produces intelligent graduates, who are motivated to learn. Basically, every component of the school system must be changed, including the curriculum, the grading system, the teachers, the rules, and just about everything else, in order for there to be any chance of saving our schools. The actual changes are not going to be black and white, or at all simple, instead the transformation will require in-depth consideration and participation in the community.