Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Inadequacies of K-12 Teaching

There is, to use the words of Pat Smith in an op-ed piece in the Columbus Dispatch a couple of days ago a "disconnect" between high school teachers and college professors as to how well prepared the students they train are for college work. Citing The American College Testing Program which assessed the attitudes of high school teachers and college professors, she writes:
The disconnect is substantial in all subjects: Seventy-six percent of high-school English teachers think their students are well-prepared for college work, whereas only 33 percent of professors think so. In reading, the gap is 72 percent to 36 percent; in math, 79 percent vs. 42 percent; and in science, 67 percent vs. 32 percent. In other words, students appear to be no better prepared than those in previous years, despite all the attempts to improve their performance.
I can reasonably be charged with bias on this question because I was a college professor for many years and never have been a high school teacher but the fact is that the people who are best qualified to assess how well college students are prepared for college work is the professors who are actually teaching them. High school teachers may have gone to college but that in itself does not qualify them to evaluate how well they are preparing their students for college level work.

It is worth asking why our teachers are failing to prepare kids for college work. The first answer that came to my mind was that the problem lies in the fact that our teachers are not particularly good and that that itself is due to the fact that the kids who gravitate toward K-12 teaching are not the brightest bulbs in our university chandeliers. However, in an effort to find research on the intellectual abilities of our teachers using Google Scholar, what I found is that there seems to be little correlation between teacher intelligence (in an IQ sense) and their ability to teach effectively. So, I will reluctantly abandon that thesis.

The single most important problem our teachers face is that they are caught between a rock and a hard place that has resulted from our "one size fits all" approach to education. The rock is holding back kids who do failing work and the hard place is "socially promoting" kids who do failing work. In regard to this problem, reading specialist, Debra Johnson, in a report prepared for the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory writes:
Extensive research indicates that neither holding students back a grade nor promoting them unprepared fosters achievement. Studies indicate that retention negatively impacts students' behavior, attitude, and attendance. Social promotion undermines students' futures when they fail to develop critical study and job-related skills.
President Clinton argued in a State of the Union address that schools systems must stop the practice of social promotion. Some apparently did. However, many have not. But as noted, simply holding kids back is no solution.

The reality is that we are born in this world with different abilities and we develop different interests. If we want our schools to succeed, it is imperative that we match kids up with programs of study that match their abilities and interests. According to The Onion
If you work hard, believe in yourself, and never lose sight of your dreams, you can achieve anything you want, the make-believe children's-book character Chipper Chipmunk said Tuesday.
This theme that kids can be whatever they want to be seems to be common in children's books. It is, of course, total crap. Moreover, it is dangerous crap for it sets kids up for huge disappointments. Until we match students up with appropriate programs of study teachers will always be between the rock and hard places mentioned above.

It pains me to cite "Fair and Balanced" Fox news but it has a useful story titled "Flunking Out of School? Get a Lawyer" which started out "Some parents have slapped lawsuits on teachers, saying their kids deserved better marks and should be allowed to graduate from high school despite their grades." How it is that parents believe that they are in a better position to judge the academic work of their kids than teachers are is a complete mystery to me. Maybe these parents believe that their kids can be anything they want to be, thanks to reading children's books to them.

Teachers appear to vary a great deal in their ability to teach. A very interesting web page on teacher quality cites Stanford University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond as showing that "teacher ability is a stronger determinant of student achievement than poverty, race, or parents' educational attainment." Unfortunately, teachers associations have resisted formal evaluations of the abilities of teachers. Teachers give exams but they don't want to take them. However, George Bush managed to do an end run around the teachers' associations by getting his "No Child Left Behind" bill passed. There have been a lot of legitimate complaints about this bill, the worst of which may be that it has led teachers, perhaps at the direction of administrators, to teach kids to pass the standardized tests rather than teach their subject matter. The wonderful HBO show, The Wire, had a very nice program featuring this practice last season. Even so, what these tests are proving is that our schools are no damn good, which is, more or less, what professors are saying when they claim that high schools as failing to prepare students for college.

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Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Good to see this brought up. I personally hated high school, where teachers seemed largely incompetent in their subjects, and grades depended largely on the completion of busy-work —and loved the university, where avoidance of nonsense seemed to be enough to get good grades and earn the respect of teachers. In high school, I had a history course where the teacher never opened his mouth for an entire semester, and an English class where the typical activity was “word search” puzzles. On the other hand, the teachers weren’t entirely at fault: most students weren’t interested at all in learning, and those who where, hated the incompetent teachers and the busy-work.

The fairy-tale optimism as regards work opportunities was also present in my household and I don’t think it is limited to children’s books. This is an American form of optimism that comes in many flavors, for example, the American dream of assured upward mobility through hard work. A friend of mine who participates in competitive swimming said that American competitors go into a race with a completely different mindset than Germans: the former are sure (convince themselves) that they are going to win, the latter prepare themselves for defeat. I hope that the parents who tell their children they can do anything sympathize when their children avoid the job market as best they can.

1:35 PM

Blogger Tappet said...

Perhaps the difficulty is that we have an unreasonable expectation that all students should go to college. I teach World History to tenth-grade students, and it is abundantly clear to me that only about twenty of the 150-or-so students I get each year belong in higher education. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the socio-economic level of my students, and the fact that our district offers a myriad of programs for the best-and-the-brightest, leaving "mainstream" teachers like myself with whoever is left. Whatever the reasons may be, the fact remains that I teach about 130 students each year who will not succeed in college, no matter what. Yet the last survey of students in our school indicated that 87% intended to attend college.

I certainly agree that we can do better in the public schools, and we definitely need to establish a better sense of which students are ready for college, and which are not. However, it might be wise to reconsider our cultural expectations for students, and re-design the educational system accordingly.

2:09 PM

Blogger Der Sankt said...

I agree with the High school teacher here about not every student will not succeed in higher education--not even most of them. Tragically, that is true. The pressures of having a degree from college to get a decent paying job (just barely above poverty) is crazy.

I'm a 23 year old boy who dropped out of college four years ago. Seriously, to live decently, I've come to the conclusion that I have to go back to school. For as long as there is a stigma against not having a degree from college in the workplace, I think colleges across the world are going to see a continuing trend of not so bright bulbs out there.

In fact, the better your education, the more respect you get. Most kids go to college trying to gain respect, to earn their living. Not to further their knowledge, to be enlightened. Once we get out of the mindset that college is a necessity to a better life, I believe things will improve.

Der Sankt

8:32 PM

Blogger s tsui said...

LG, I hope that you were aware of the satirical nature of the Onion when you quoted from it... since whether you were is not apparent in the tone of your discourse.

Nonetheless, blind optimism does seem to be becoming a hallmark of the American dream, whatever that is. Although I do not live in the States, I have seen enough references to The Secret to learn that it has attained massive influence in the mainstream media. To me, this kind of "media sensation" seems to be possible only in the US...

2:06 PM

Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Thanks for the comments. Yes, S Tsui, I am aware that it is satirical. I have heard all sorts of nonsense about boosting kids' and self-esteem with methods that suggest that all should feel high self-esteem. The problem is that some people are not talented enough to succeed at much of anything requiring rational thought and a good deal of intelligence and to tell them they are somehow great as they are gives them an unwarranted self-confidence that might be fatal to their self-esteem. This sort of nonsense and the nonsense mentioned in the Onion need to be replaced by careful testing and channeling kids into fields where they can succeed. Had I decided to be a painter nothing good could have come from it. And, I'm not sure theoretical physics would have been my cup of tea. I needed to be a scientific field of a humanist nature. I found it in linguistics. I have good intuitions about human capabilities in the linguistic domain that have served me well. They would have been of no use in physics.

One problem with my very non-PC approach is that we would have to be very careful to somehow see past limitations of kids due to their environment -- things that could be changed.

8:09 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Hi! (it's just me L>T).
What a coincidence! I was reading this post & one of our daughters walked in who is graduating from her Masters program in a week & will be teaching 4th grade. She has gotten her whole K-12 education in this little town of 4,000+.
I showed her this post & She said, that she totally agreed that she was NOT prepared for college, that her high school years were about excelling in sports & her parents (us, uneducated hillbillies)also concentrated on the excel factor.
One thing I find interesting & disturbing, is she still comes to me(a person who has a 8th grade education) for advice on matters relating to the most fundamental concepts.(do you know what I mean by that?)
I agree that it's not an IQ thing & I'll go out on a limb here...I think the problem is a philosophical one, not so much environment as you think.

1:16 PM

Blogger BethL said...

As a current college student in America, I'd like to weigh-in on the topic.

Was I prepared for college? Yes and no. Yes, I was ready for the majority of my courses, but for some subjects (in which I had very weak instruction during high school) I was not at all prepared (history, this means you!). Thinking of my classmates, though, in a fairly poor rural town in upstate NY, I know that some of them were not meant for college. I support the idea that education should be accessible and available to everyone, not just based on grades or income or social status. Still, it doesn't take a fancy degree to mop the floors, and we need custodial staffs just as much as (if not much more than!) physicists and philosophers. So, if I am a future supermarket clerk, why do I need a college degree? Why should I be prepared for college? A degree does not make a person more valuable or even more intelligent - it only makes him or her more educated.

I think of a saying (I don't know who from): "What do you call the person who graduates last (i.e. bottom of the class) from West Point? A West Point Graduate." My point is, a degree, when all is said and done, is just another slip of paper to hang on the wall. I think we give too much weight to the titles and degrees, and not enough to the education itself. As I have already mentioned, I am in college myself. I go to college to learn, not so much for the diploma I'll be handed when I'm done. I know several students in my classes who will struggle through courses, and on graduation day, even if they've barely passed, they'll get the same piece of paper as the best students in the class.

What would happen if we did not allow all everyone to go to college? What if we had a system like Germany, which limits children's opportunities based on their abilities in elementary school? I spent a year in Germany, and I have seen first hand the kind of stress placed on a 9-year old girl so that she could go to the gymnasium, the top of the three education tracks. If she had gone into either of the other two tracks, it would have been nearly impossible for her to go to the university a decade later. So which is the worse evil? Planting false hope, or preparing for disappointment?

One more semi-related comment: Why is it that teachers must have a degree in teaching, but professors do not? Who is teaching the professors to teach? (And is that why I have so many professors who know so much but can adequately explain so very little?)

7:27 AM

Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

I have never believed that people with college degrees are necessarily well-educated. In fact, I suspect that very many of them are not.

I agree that there are professors who can't teach but they, based on my experience of looking at teacher evaluations, most do pretty well. Many if not most college professors learn to teach serving as TAs. At least no one gets through our program without doing a fair amount of supervised teaching.

11:42 AM


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