13 April 2005

Number Crunching

Seems like every few days, more surveys and data are released about how well the public education system in America is preparing students for the future. Here is another:

"As many as 40 percent of the nation's high school graduates say they are inadequately prepared to deal with the demands of employment and postsecondary education, according to a recently released national survey of nearly 1,500 recent high school graduates, 400 employers and 300 college instructors. The survey is the basis for the report "Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?" The survey was commissioned by Achieve, Inc. in Washington, D.C., and conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies of Washington, D.C.

Among the findings:
  • More than 80% of high school graduates say they would work harder and take tougher courses if they could do high school over again.
  • Eight in 10 recent graduates say that they would have worked harder if their high school had demanded more of them.
  • A majority of graduates who took Algebra 2 in high school say they feel more prepared for the math they need in college or on the job.
  • Employers estimate that 39% of recent high school graduates are unprepared for the expectations they face in entry-level jobs. Employers also estimate that an even larger proportion (45%) of recent workforce entrants is not adequately prepared to advance beyond entry-level jobs.

To view the entire report or a PowerPoint Summary, go to www.achieve.org."

These sorts of things could be depressing. Or, you could go have a look at this post over at Pratie Place regarding how America has nearly always bemoaned the poor state its youngsters are in.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) turns 40 years old this week. We've known for a long time that "Johnny can't read." Recent renewals of this Act (a/k/a "No Child Left Behind") have been aimed at ensuring that Johnny---regardless of what gender, colour of skin, or socioeconomic status s/he may be---has an opportunity to acquire the basics and be challenged.

Want more to think about?

The New York Times published a story today about the "Northwest Evaluation Association study involving a 'broad but not nationally representative' sample of pupils in 23 states, student math and reading scores have improved somewhat under NCLB, but within grades, over the course of the school year, students made less academic progress than they did before the law was implemented. Researchers found minority students' growth lagged behind that of whites, a troubling trend which, they said, could widen the achievement gap."

Huh?

Makes me wonder that no matter what we do in public ed, we can't really get every Johnny reading (even when Johnny has center stage). What's the answer then? We've tried for decades to have an "educated" populace. Will there ever be a time when we achieve this?

I can't imagine that we'll quit trying. After all, we're not allowed to or the feds will give us even less support than they do now. But perhaps we need to be realistic. We can't just point fingers at the schools, tell them the source of ill, and that they'd better shape up. We'll have to take on some other larger societal issues, like poverty and universal healthcare. How is a kid who doesn't come from a home where there's money to buy food or provide medical aid supposed to concentrate on reading, writing, math, and science?

Schools will continue to plug along, just as we always have. In a moral sense, it is unacceptable to determine that 100% of kids will acquire basic skills (and then some). Which kids would you choose to leave uneducated? Who decides? And yet, the reality is simply that some kids will not get what they need, in spite of our efforts. Schools don't need more numbers...we need more solutions.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Well, Goddess, I'm just a yokel and only qualified to have an opinion by the fact that I paid thousands of dollars in taxes to fund education last year.

I think the whole system is broken beyond repair and has been for a long time. We're just now seeing the first effects and the real decline has yet to really set in.

I see two problems, neither of which is easy to solve. The first problem, which I think is probably worst, is with our society as a whole. We've completely lost sight of the value of an education. When I was growing up in the 1960's it was a completely accepted fact that you would never make it in life without a good education. The better your education, the better chance you had to "make something of yourself". Somehow, between the Sputnik generation and the present, we lost that. I'll bet not one high school kid in four would answer "get a good education" to the question, "what does it take to be sucessful in America?" Not even if they got three answers.

The second problem is that we have defined "education" as "what happens when you're in school" - at least implicity. Increasingly, what happens in school isn't education and worse, the definition limits us to thinking of education as something you're done with as a kid.

The world has changed and the biggest change is change itself. We compete globally now, which means that the challenge is ongoing. I figure that to keep my high-tech job, I have to completely re-train myself into a new niche every four to six years. Often, this means certification tests and other proof that I've done the work. Anything else risks unemployment or underemployment. My wife is a nurse and faces the same challenge. The job is always changing and those who don't keep up don't prosper.

Before long, all jobs will be like this. Global competition will drive faster and faster cycles of change. Those willing and equipped to keep up will prosper and the rest will be working in service jobs. It's not that I necessarily LIKE this, it's a royal pain in the rear end, but it's reality.

We need to be teaching kids that education is a life-long activity. They need to learn to love learning. We need to be giving them more tools and fewer facts that will just go out of date anyway. If I need to know something about the Battle of Britain, I can have it on my screen in five minutes. The real skill is in knowing how to find the information, how to evaluate it for truthfulness and accuracy and how to integrate it with other facts and form a useful synthesis. The facts themselves are the least important of the lot. Not all facts, of course, students have to know that minimum that gives them a framework upon which to hang new knowledge, but the dusty, trivial details.

We have to start thinking of education as a central part of our lives. We can't teach it and not practice it. Kids should see their parents and their teachers constantly learning and enjoying it.

I don't see that happening. I wish I did and I'm certainly on a life-long quest to reach the point where I can call myself "well-educated" (and, I know, I'll probably never get there, sigh), but it's not happening in our society. Oh, there are a top few percent who read and learn and expand themselves constantly, but that's barely enough to offset the hordes who last picked up a book when Nixon was president.

The haves and have-nots in our society are the ones who constantly experience the pure joy of finding things out versus those who don't. It's a huge divide.