From the Washington Post comes this disheartening article on how children are being given stones instead of bread for their educational sustenance:
“…The Washington-based Center on Education Policy reported this year that 27 percent of school systems say they are spending less time on social studies, and nearly 25 percent say they are spending less time on science, art and music. “This tendency results in impoverishing the education of all students, but particularly the education of students who perform less well on the tests,” said Robert G. Smith, Arlington County school superintendent, who said his schools have resisted the trend….”
“…Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the nonprofit group Education Sector and a member of the Virginia state school board, said: “When faced with disappointing achievement in math and reading, the first reaction of too many schools is to just teach those subjects more and consequently squeeze out other subjects. This ‘solution,’ however, ignores one common culprit for low achievement — teaching. Instead of using data to determine if teachers are teaching the material, are able to teach it and what exactly students are struggling with, too often schools decide to just extend the time on these subjects. The problem is, if your instruction is weak for 60 minutes a day, it’s going to be for 90 minutes, too.”
Mary Alice Barksdale, associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Tech, agreed: “There is lots of evidence that the one thing that really makes a difference in the classroom is the teacher and what she knows and does…”
“Is the meaning of education cramming as much knowledge in, to pass a standardized test, or is it meant to include something else — creativity, reflection, synthesis, hypothesizing, daydreaming?” Hedinger [a parent] asked. “What happens to all of that in the process?”
There are some good schools and programs mentioned. The Core Knowledge folks get some positive press, and I do like what they are doing.
I’m not an professional educator, as most of our readers know, I’m a homeschooler. Professional educators and homeschoolers are not really trying to do the same job, and we certainly don’t have the same challenges or limitations. As a sidenote, I don’t want to be a public educator, and while there are some idiotic ones out there, the vast majority of them are putting up with a lot of nonsense and deserve sympathy (don’t believe me? Look at this post by the Education Wonk).
Nevertheless, I do have opinions.=) One of my opinions is that there is too much testing of and requiring of studentoutput in the public school system and too little provision of meaningful input.
I’m not a researcher, either, and I do know the pural of anecdote is not data. Nevertheless, here are two anecdotes that illustrate, I hope, what I mean. Some details are modified to protect the innocent, which means I will be using he generically. He may or may not have been a ‘he’.
Several years ago we found ourselves in a position to provide help, comfort, and tutoring to a child disadvantaged in nearly every sense. The child came from a seriously impoverished background where the most stimulating activity that occurred was to watch The Price Is Right on television. Nutrition was poor, conversation between parent and child was basic or nonexistant, and the child gave every indication of having an auditory processing disorder. The child could not hold a give and take conversation because he had never participated in one. He did not understand how to answer questions, however basic, and did not know, oh, too many things to list. He could not tell which words rhymed in a simple nursery rhyme until sometime after 8. His vocabulary was several years below his age. I hope that is enough to communicate the picture I wish to convey.
For several years different educational approaches were taken (apologies for the passive sentence structure, but it’s the best way I can think of to muddy the identifying details while still communicating the situation), none of them worked very well. Vocabulary, communication, reading, comprehension- all continued to be far below grade level. Far below.
One day I decided this was all very boring and took a leap and read aloud to the child from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book. Since nothing else had worked very well, I figured we had nothing left to lose. We began with The Golden Touch
This child was hooked from the very first paragraph, “ONCE upon a time, there lived a very rich man, and a king besides, whose name was Midas; and he had a little daughter, whom nobody but myself ever heard of, and whose name I either never knew, or have entirely forgotten. So, because I love odd names for little girls, I choose to call her Marygold.”
From there we went onto read together all of the books on this booklist. Then the child read, independently, all the books on this booklist. Last year the young person read all the books on this booklist.
King Midas and the Golden Touch remains a favorite myth.
Vocabulary drills, worksheets, flashcards, textbooks, testing, professional education, and special tutoring all failed where one real story succeeded. That is a simplification, but it remains a central truth as well.
Here is the second anecdote:
Some time ago I had the opportunity to tutor another disadvantaged child. In this case the child was in junior high and did not know how to read. The young person also came from an impoverished environment, with some differences. The single mother in this case was gainfully employed and supported her family, unlike the previous example. The environment was cleaner, the food was somewhat better, there was more conversation. This child was black, whereas the previous child was white. The single mother felt that the school had, at least in part, allowed her child’s education to suffer because of family’s skin color. So I offered to tutor the youngster in reading. It was not easy. The child was very slow- always polite, appreciative, friendly, and eager to please, but slow. Seldom did my student remember what we had done the week before. Until, one day, figuring that I was boring both of us and we had nothing left to lose, I ended our reading lesson early and began reading aloud the story of Midas and the Golden Touch from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book. I read only a page or so, explaining that we would read more the next week. I gave no tests, I asked no questions, I presented no vocabulary lists.
The following week my student returned. The response to the reading lesson seemed about the same, but when I ended it early and pulled out A Wonder Book, my student’s eyes lit up. I asked, “Can you remind me where we were last week?” My young friend, who had never been able to remember a thing from the previous week before, gave me a flawless narration, eagerly reciting all the details and bringing us up to date. I read another page or two to our mutual satisfaction.
We continued this process for a few more short weeks, and for the first time I began to note some improvement in the reading lessons, too. Certainly I noticed new words in my young friend’s vocabulary. The other children in my family would join us after a lesson for tea, cookies and book discussions. We were making progress I felt, for the first time. Certainly, every week the gratitude expressed by the students was more fervent and deeply moving.
Unfortunately, I do not think this story has a happy ending. Faced with some serious financial difficulties largely caused by being cheated by a housing company, the family abruptly moved out of state, leaving no forwarding address. I often wonder where they are and how they are doing, and if anybody else will care to put this young person in touch with great stories.
It has been a popular myth for many years that it doesn’t matter what students learn so long as we teach them how to learn. This is nonsense. If they are not given meaningful material upon which to bend their minds, they have no motivation to apply their minds in the first place.
Charlotte Mason said something about this. She said it was about as sensible as saying it didn’t matter what children ate so long as we taught them how to eat. It does matter.
Is there a daring school administrator somewhere who will throw away the endless sawdust filled textbooks, workbooks, and tests and allow teachers and students at the real stuff of real books?