Saturday, March 07, 2009

Wrapup Comments on the Education Factory

March 7, 2009

We leave the topic of the education factory with three very different reader comments.

We begin with Michael Goodfellow, whose musings launched the topic on Thursday. Retooling the Education Factory (March 5, 2009)

As you know, I became paralyzed at age 7, and so I spent most of my school years in a wheelchair. I graduated from high school in 1975, so I wasn't affected by any of the laws passed on this subject. I do seem to remember getting homework assignments from school during some of my longer hospital stays. I also remember my mother being outraged at the idea that I attend a special school for the disabled, so someone in the school must have suggested it.
Once I returned to classes, there were definitely no assistants or anything like that. I was just at a desk with all the other kids, and did the usual. I was a front-row student, so I'm sure I got more of the teacher's time than the ones in the back, but I think that was their choice as well as mine!

I do remember that around 20 years ago, a teacher told me they had plenty of money for disabled kids. She said something like "we buy them all new laptops every year, and it's no problem if they break them." This was back when we were talking $2000 for something decent, and pre-internet, when there would have been limited use for the things. It was just that they had tons of money.

I've also read that the number of disabled kids keeps going up, because some parents are pushing borderline kids into that category. They see the extra attention disabled kids get, the extra facilities, and things like extra time to take tests, and they want that for their kids. So the stigma is completely gone, and has in fact reversed.

I can't imagine a more difficult part of the education budget to reduce though! The schools can just drag out kids in wheelchairs who are performing well and use them to justify the entire budget. And there is no obvious answer with what to do with the kids who just can't perform mentally. Do you just send them home, or put them in special schools where they learn nothing? Even worse are the bright kids with such extreme disabilities that they are disruptive. Then you really are chosing between the disabled kid and the rest of the class.

Of course, if classroom lectures were replaced by digital video on a laptop, and kids proceeded at their own pace (even worked from home and emailled tutors), that would take some of the pressure off teachers in the classroom.

Lloyd L.

This whole set of comments on education is very much on point and thought-provoking. I would like to offer a few personal thoughts on the impacts of "special ed" needs on the provision of primary and secondary education overall.
I have one child, a son now 22 years of age. He has been since age 6 a firmly diagnosed Asperger case, with the "disabilities" that entails: lack of social skills, lack of organizational ability, low self-esteem, fear of the unknown, anger management issues and related. We live in a well-to-do, liberally inclined area of the SF Bay Area just chockablock with "professionals" and their families.

This population not only vigorously supports local schools but impresses upon boards and administrators their own personal view of the required outcomes of local education. Generally these are -- preparation for college, sufficient "socialization" to enable integration into society as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, and the stimulation of ambition. A lot of bright potentially successful kids, and a lot of troubled kids, some of whom, like our son, had such a tough time getting through it all.

David H, "Veteran Teacher" and Kevin M. all brought up the thing I want to mention. This is the observable overblown "accommodation" format that has been forced upon local schools in response to heightened recognition of young people's problems, and by overreaction to racial and socioeconomic problems.

My observation of my son's passage through Middle School and High School included watching the effects on his friends who were not "disabled". There is NO question that current policies being maintained regarding "mainstreaming" kids with problems are resulting in a "dumbing down" of instruction for the remainder. Not only does this reduce the outcomes for those moving into higher education but also those who have been "accommodated".

At this point I have to divert a bit and accord local school personnel high marks with respect to general supportive personal assistance to my son and others like him. He was fortunate to have exposure to most of the dedicated teachers. Unfortunately, the empathy shown by these adults tended to go hand in hand with even less insistence that even those "disabled" get with the program and actually learn something. I observed far too much concern on the part of teachers and admin people to raise school performance statistics, keep kids on the proper graduation path, and so on. No doubt the numerous lawsuits of the past 2 decades making local districts pay for private schools and botched handling of severe individual cases has had an effect.

The sensitivity towards "special ed" promoted within the school resulted in much leeway given to instructors and students as far as learning. My son "cruised" through high school, managed to avoid almost every course that seemed demanding (he is as lazy as many adolescents can be). He was told early on that he would -- one way or another -- be graduated and in his mind, escape an oppressive world.

And I felt all along that -- although -- this hotly disputed by school personnel -- the very provision of special services to the "special ed" kids kept the image of "the troubled students" rather firmly in place. This combined environment unfortunately has hardened his negative attitude toward more education, and after 2 years of a local junior college, I doubt he will ever return to formal instruction.

The net results for us and our son are that he did not receive a "vocational" education (deemed less than desirable in our community), and he did not receive any real encouragement to try higher education. Bless him, he has excellent native intelligence, a very agreeable personality, and is growing more able to function in the outside world each day. He does not feel cheated -- we think he was.

Our local district is very likely one of the "best" in California in terms of administration, performance, reputation and generation of college freshmen. Given our experience with the system I can only feel immense sympathy for parents and students in areas where the atmosphere is far less pleasant generally, and the other failings are also present.

Finally: my son has relatives in Germany, where my wife was born. There are a number of cousins who have emerged from the "European" approach to education. Most are now happily employed in occupations that they were prepared for in "vocational" environments (including many white-collar jobs that are less technical, such as basic accounting). Internships abound for high school-level students (try to find a lot of those around most communities here). My son has been impressed and embarrassed to a degree by the rather sketchy preparation he has received by comparison. He is wise enough to realize how much money is employed for education in our own community, and wonders why the results are so limited. So do I.

Richard D.

would like to chip in as it seems I'm the only person reading your blog that graduated high school after the year 2000 ('03) and finished a 4 year degree in 2007. My middle and high school years were spent in my opinion during the transition between the 80's style education and the new standard of cookie cutter operations across the nation. In 7th grade my district started experimenting with Standardized testing.

The transition was pretty apparent even to myself at that age as 'field trips, science experiments, and hands on activities' became non existent. In fact, I went on two field trips between 6th grade and 12th grade. I believe we dissected frogs for the one hands on experiment. In high school when I prompted an administrator as to why field trips had vanished they simply stated that they had to make sure a certain percentage of students passed the state testing otherwise the school would lose funding and it's 'status.' Luckily I graduated high school the year before the standard testing become mandatory, but you could see the damage done as the teachers adhered to a strict schedule of force feeding the test material and nothing else.

My district was also one of the first in the nation to experiment with giving high school students laptops to facilitate learning or improve our computer skills (word has it the Feds threw my county a bunch of money as a guinea pig, now they issue to all 6-12th grade students). In my opinion it was the dumbest thing ever instituted, and my gpa went down my junior and senior year thanks to those machines that had us connected to high speed internet the moment we stepped through the door.

This was a huge waste of taxpayer money, and after four years the county scrapped the project (Mac book computers) in favor of Dell computers (another waste of tax dollars) and prompted a near catastrophe at the Richmond speedway when they sold the used laptops for $50. There were articles of people getting trampled and rioting, etc. Great PR for my county.

My experience in college was more of the same. Classes I had no idea what I was in there for, other than checking the box on the way to receiving that piece of parchment ultimately worth jack upon entering the real world. I graduated with a marketing degree, which I will probably never use, of which the business classes I took taught me nothing other than:

1. The faculty did not care whether you succeed or learn anything

2. The rules can be bent (I transferred from a 'non accredited' school to one that was and they refused to accept certain credits. After talking to a few high up officials, it took 30 seconds on a computer to approve, only after I spent hours on my own over several days chipping away at the resistance of the officials until they approved the credits for the same classes I had taken elsewhere even though "it is below our bar.") The only 2 classes that I actually learned something was an ancient history class where the teacher forced us to read from classics I had never heard of such as History of the Peloponnesian War etc. and a public speaking class instructed by a graduate student.

In my humble opinion the education system does nothing except turn out mind numbed robots with useless pieces of papers and leaves them indebted for years to come with no hope of paying off that debt. Good luck finding a job in this economy after graduating with $30k+ debt to your name, I wonder how many graduates will start defaulting on these loans when they can't get work.

To sum it up, when you teach the test and check the box students become mind numbed and robotic, innovation and enthusiasm dries up and there is nothing rewarding about learning period. Giving students high speed internet and laptops in every classroom only hurts students and removes critical thinking/research skills… who needs those when you can type what you are looking for into google. Couple these factors with a student populace that has everything given/pampered to them and you have a whole new wave of future welfare style recipients entering the system that feel they are owed a $50k/yr job straight from graduation.

After all, they 'met the standard.' Upon graduation I joined the Army and to this day feel my 'education' was a complete waste of time and money as I have no technical skills other than being a foot soldier. Although this might come in handy a few years down the road when the unemployed really get restless.

Sorry if this was a rant, but I feel that the 'education' system is a dismal failure and that the readers sending in comments are too old far removed from the current situation having graduated in the 80's or earlier.

Thank you, readers, for sharing your experiences of the American educational system. I do not claim to have any answers to these complex issues, but it seems to me there is a lot of wisdom in the three reports above, and "reformers" would do well to ponder the experiences of those who have gone through the system both as students and as parents.

Here are some titles I recently added to Books and Films:
The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling
Learning All The Time
The Great Transformation Karl Polanyi
The Road to Serfdom F. A. Hayek
Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes
Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion
Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life
Hanging On, Or, How to Get Through a Depression and Enjoy Life
Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's
Since Yesterday: The 1930's in America, September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939
The End of Work
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century
First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan
As always, I provide the link to amazon.com so you can read reviews and reader comments about the books; hopefully your local library carries at least a few of the above titles.

New essays and readers' comments in Readers' Journal.

NOTE: The serialization of my new ebook "Survival +" starts March 21. Of Two Minds reader forum (hosted offsite, reader moderated)

What's for dinner at your house?
has been updated with two new recipes:
Quick Easy Vegetable Soup and Pork Butt Stew.

New Operation SERF Installment:
Operation SERF, Part 11
Chris Sullins' "Strategic Action Thriller" is fiction, and on occasion contains graphic combat scenes.

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