Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Education from the Industrial Age

Education mandates are odd things, aren't they? Consider this:

SEATTLE — Students across the nation might eventually use the same math and English textbooks and take the same tests if states adopt new rigorous standards proposed Wednesday by governors and education leaders.

The standards are meant to replace a patchwork of systems across the country in hopes of raising student achievement nationwide.

But it won't be an easy task to implement the standards on such a large scale. Two states — Texas and Alaska — have already refused to join the project, and everyone from state legislatures to the nation's 10,000 local school boards and 3 million teachers could chime in with their opinions.

The public is invited to comment on the proposed new standards until April 2, and the developers hope to publish final education goals for K-12 math and English in May.

The state-led effort was coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Experts were called in to do the writing and research, but state education officials and teachers from around the nation were actively involved.

Here's the thing: as a homeschooling parent, I can say with certainty that there have been times when I've used three different programs or textbooks for math or for English for my three students. There are plenty of good reasons for this: one child might thrive with a very hands-on, manipulatives-based math course, while another might need a more abstract one; two children might do well with a writing-intensive grammar course, while the third might be a natural writer who needs more drilling in the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

And if this is true for three children being taught at home, how much more is it true for a whole school full of children, or a whole nation full of classrooms? Students who are extremely good at math or in English will inevitably be bored by a book tailored to meet the needs of the average students, while students who struggle with either will likely be left far behind as the class progresses through the text. The burden to tailor the course so that neither the A students nor the D- students are hopelessly disengaged falls solely to the already overworked teacher; add to this the pressure to produce consistent test scores, and you have a recipe for endless frustration among the ranks of educators.

I think what we're witnessing here is the slow breakdown of a way of "doing school" which began, fittingly enough, in the Industrial Age. There remains the stubborn insistence that a good school is like a good assembly line, the teacher a foreman of the process, the students the workers, the raw materials such things as uniform textbooks and government mandates--and the product is supposed to be the educated, docile, citizen, who is fully ready to take his place among the ranks of the employed or, if he is able, among the ranks of those pursuing higher education.

But we no longer live in a world where a mechanized education leads to a mechanized career. This is the Information Age, and students ought to be learning amidst a whole panoply of informational and educational resources that go far beyond the static textbook--itself a kind of monument to the older Age, since a textbook is expensive to produce and must be completely re-issued whenever new information or new teaching techniques makes a new edition necessary. At the very least, a wide diversity in textbooks and programs for such courses as math and English would make it possible for teachers to choose those materials most likely to suit their own classes--yet we've seen the exact opposite, as school boards and state education boards and national education mandates make it harder and harder for teachers to treat their students like individuals, each with unique challenges and talents.

But perhaps the education model of the Industrial Age is inherently unfriendly to the idea that children are individuals, instead of interchangeable cogs in a machine designed to churn out roughly identical citizens. If that's the case, then more than the present mandates would have to disappear before any real improvement might be seen.


Anonymous said...

It would be too expensive for the schools to allow teachers to buy their own texts for their classrooms, etc although I agree - it would be ideal.
There is a lot on the teacher (add extra to challenge or modify for the slower kids)
What irks me though is in college, I have purchased a book and never had to use it. The professor had notes that we were tested on. And the course wasn't bad but it seemed like you HAD to purchase a book. Go figure. If you have a teacher with 30 years under their belt, it would make sense they would be able to teach without a textbook necessarily and still get the information across.

If the teachers in the public school were experienced, could you imagine the money saved by ditching textbooks for the year?

Magister Christianus said...

You nailed it! Your comparison with the Industrial Age is right on the money. I have remarked on countless instances that the one cannot assemble a child's intellect the way one assembles a Chevy.

JimmyV said...


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I'm generally opposed to standardized laws. If we are going to make all the laws uniform, why do we have fifty different states? My state has a stronger Family Medical Leave Act than the federal minimum, and that's worked well for me and many other employees.

We should have as wide a variety of schools as possible in each state, much less between all states. I definitely hope all states opt out of this one. It is good to have a wide variety of text books competing for schools' attention -- never mind the economies of scale of doing one book for the whole country. Text books are always wrong about something. If I were teaching, I wouldn't use text books at all. I'd give everyone a series of research projects to take to the library and report to the class on. I'd fill in, from library sources, whatever nobody in class took on.