Thoughts on education

View 764 Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I am apparently in a distinct minority in thinking that the participation of Madam First Lady Michelle Obama in the Oscar ceremony was a partisan political act. It has been pointed out that Hollywood movie exports are important to the American balance of trade, and she made the event more important. Her appearance added to the glamour of the event and she was very right to do that, and if that was also a political advantage, well, having the office of President has its advantages and this was one of them.

I may still have some reservations, particularly about having military personnel participate as background, but I’ll keep them to myself.

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The Los Angeles Times has an important article, “Report: Gaps in learning start early” by Teresa Watanabe in today’s issue, and it presents a number of disturbing facts. I recommend it to your attention because it raises issues that must be dealt with.

It starts with a stark statement:

“African American public school students in Los Angeles County demonstrate significant learning gaps by second grade; those gaps widen with age and lead to the highest school dropout rate among all races, according to a report released Monday.

Black students are far less likely to take the rigorous college preparatory classes required for admission to California universities and miss more school days because of suspensions than their white counterparts, according to the study by The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit advocacy group.

Only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university if current trends continue, according to the report, which compiled data on academic achievement, suspensions and the psychological conditions of 135,000 black students in 81 public school districts in L.A. County.”

The rest of the article is largely a frantic effort to explain these results without bringing up the IQ gap (a gap of means and medians) between African Americans the mean IQ’s of Whites in America, Asians in America, Chinese in China, and other populations that don’t have many people of African origin. Of course we have become so sensitized that even mentions of this well known IQ gap are considered politically untouchable and are generally labeled as crude racism. Any mention of poor performance by African Americans in anything generally must be accompanied by a plethora of explanations without resort to heredity.

“The report, for instance, cited research findings by the Rand Corp. and Children Now that found African American toddlers were less likely than their white peers to have books at home or be read to everyday. The report also cited 2004 Rand findings that only 13% of black children attended preschools with teachers who have degrees in early childhood education, compared to about 41% for whites and Asians.

Nearly 150,000 children under age 6 are on county waiting lists for child care, according to Children Now, a nonprofit advocacy group. And $1.2 billion in cuts to state funding for those services since 2008-09 budget year has reduced the number of child care spots by 110,000, according to Sydney Kamlager, district deputy director for Assemblywoman Holly J. Mitchell (D-Culver City).”

Other cultural factors are invoked. The one thing that can’t be tried is color blindness.

“Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of the nonprofit Community Coalition, was a bit more upbeat, saying that although only 20% of African American students in L.A. County take college prep courses, that percentage has nearly tripled in the last decade.

He said the federal government’s move to provide student-achievement data by race in 2001 was a key factor in raising public awareness about the needs of African American students. Last year, a state Assembly committee held hearings on minority males and the academic, economic and health challenges they face.

"As a rule, things get better when people are willing to fight over it," he said.

He added that his organization would continue to push for lower class sizes, courses linked to careers, better college preparation and more effective discipline policies.”

Now we have known for a very long time that throwing money into classrooms and doing conventional things like reducing class sizes and paying teachers more does not do much to improve schools; while courses linked to careers and better college preparation are generally conflicting goals. As to more effective discipline policies, any attempt to impose discipline in classrooms which results in more black students being punished than their statistical numbers would predict will bring about investigations fo racism. Any intimation that disorder in the classroom is generally due to minority students is likely to get the teacher investigated.

The result of this is not good for minority students. California’s policy of requiring Algebra for high school graduation is not good for any of the students in the lower half of the class, minority or majority, Black or White or Asian or Maori: half the students in the school system are below average, and of those the number who will thrive in studies or careers requiring proficiency in Algebra is not likely to be high.

Any attempt to reform education must start with the facts: most of the students will not profitably go to college, and requiring them to take a college prep curriculum will give them less of importance to their lives than would a curriculum devoted to more practical aspects of life. Learning the addition and multiplication tables by rote is not very exciting but it has more practical value for those not college bound than analytical geometry. (Yes: I know that courses derived from algebra and geometry can be very useful for non-college-bound students; there are lots of practical applications to math, but knowing them generally won’t help with college or university physics.)

It seems to me that the first task of those designing an education system is to have a good appreciation of what can be taught to all, and a better understanding of the needs of those who are and who are not going on to what used to be called “higher education.” As an example, nearly all children can be taught to read. When I see statements like:

“The report found that African American students are doing well in some school districts, particularly those with higher concentrations of other races. In the diverse Culver City Unified School District, more than two-thirds of African Americans are at grade level in reading and math, and 88% graduate. Officials there credited more counseling support, a culture of high expectations and targeted actions to support African American students, such as focus groups and teacher training on diversity.”

it scares me. Only 2/3 read at grade level? This means that at least 30% are illiterate, can’t read, have had English words drilled into them the way the multiplication and addition tables ought to have been drilled into them but probably were not. In a school that understands how to teach reading, well over 90% of the students, Black, White, Asian, Maori, Malay, or Hispanic ought to be able to read English at any grade level including high school senior before they reach fifth grade. Granted, they won’t understand all the words they encounter. Polymorphic and antidisestablishmentarianism are not words most would have encountered outside school and probably not within it; but they ought to be able to read them. I grant you that antidisestablishmentarianism is a tough one, but everyone in Capleville school could read it in fourth grade because the teacher thought it a good joke that we should be able to read it. She even explained it to us, although few of us understood what she was saying about the Reformation and its consequences.

If the Culver City Unified School District took this seriously it would see to it that every student could read, and stop keeping racial statistics. All the students ought be able to read, and that particularly includes those who don’t yet speak English. English is easier to read than all its words are to understand.

I also suspect that treating African American students from others – “focus groups and teacher training on diversity” is no favor in the long run to the students, but it probably earns the teachers more money and thus serves its true purpose. The purpose of schools is to pay teachers, as the purpose of government is to pay government workers; it doesn’t start that way but the Iron Law makes it certain given time.

I stubbornly insist that the best way to help students of any background is to be colorblind. But I have thought that since I was about ten years old in the legally segregated South where I was thought a dangerous radical.

Enough. The way to improve schools is to think what they are for. They are to make good citizens of their pupils and students. To do that some need to be prepared for college, but most ought simply to be prepared for a productive life. To accomplish those goals one must first recognize that trying to stuff a world class university prep education into a kid who is far more qualified to be a carpenter is just cruel no matter what race that kid may be.

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The horror at the sequestration continues. We will spend more money this year after the sequester than we did last year, and we will spend more next year than we do this year. The drastic cut will in fact cut no budgets, only in the planned increases to the budgets. The Bunny Inspectors will continue to go to stage shows to be sure magicians are not using rabbits without killing them, and that kids don’t sell a pet rabbit to their neighbors without a federal license. Pension funds will continue to be funded and pensions will rise. Government workers “laid off” will most likely get the money back for the days they missed and thus will be tortured by paid vacations.

There will be show items, such as TSA agents working to the rules to increase the lines and others will work to make life painful so that we won’t dare do this again.  And all this over $60 Billion in a Trillian dollar budget.

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The drumbeats for increased attention to minority children, particularly black, continues.  It is now well known that Head Start doesn’t work, in the sense that it gives no head start.  Perhaps in all that money there might be found some to look for ways to teach teachers to teach children to read.  We know that some people can do it.  We know that in rural Florida, and Tennessee, in the 30’s all the children, black or white, who got through third grade could read: we have the conscription data. There were both white and black illiterate conscripts, but they hadn’t been to school; those who had been to school read well enough to get past the Army’s literacy tests for conscript soldiers.

What did those teachers of old know that we don’t know now?  (Actually, what they knew was that the kids could learn to read, and since they knew that, they taught it.) If we taught children to read in Head Start that would proof them against the condescending teachers they will get later who think that since they, the teachers, can’t teach the kids to read, then there is something wrong with the kid; it can’t possibly be because the teachers don’t know what they are doing.

We know how to teach kids to read. My wife has been doing it all her life. It’s a matter of assumptions and goals and being systematic about it. Her program has been working for decades.  There is plenty of other evidence, but her experience alone covers students from all backgrounds and of all age and all linguistic abilities, and we can safely say: all children of reasonable intelligence (say from dull normal up) can be taught to read the English language in under a year of systematic instruction.  That includes all races, and children with poor English. The large one’s English vocabulary the less time it will take to learn to read, but once learned then one’s speaking vocabulary and reading vocabulary are connected. There’s no such thing as knowing a word you can read.  But it’s dinner time and I have rambled enough and it’s discouraging to see that after all these years the only “solution” they can think of to a bad education system is to keep doing the same thing but spend more money on it.

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Mike Flynn reminds me

The following quote seems apropos:

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

- John W. Gardner

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