Tuesday, September 30. 2008
After a Spring Semester study of James Joyce's Ulysses, my final senior English project was Finnegans wake.
Like nearly everyone who had been in similar shoes, I read and wrote and worked every night as my impending (and depending) graduation stalked me across the calendar. Was I in mortal fear of my Bachelor degree? No, I was systematically running out of time and my high school diploma was at stake.
I didn't attend a private preparatory school; I attended a pubic high school in central New Jersey. My grades were adequate but far from exemplary. My class-rank was somewhere around the 25% figure, though, by some fluke of standardized testing, I was in the running for a National Merit Scholar award while a National Honor Society membership was running full-tilt away from me.
Three decades past my high school experience, I still remember how to do algebra, some trigonometry and (gasp) even logarithms. Despite not attending a Chemistry class since 1972, I remember Avogadro's number, that a mole of electron charge is a coulomb, and that a coulomb of electron flow per second is an Ampere of electrical current.
I didn't need to be the brightest burning torch in my high school's cave; I just needed to have my torch properly lit. Learning was not about being smart, it was about knowing how to practice, and in order to practice, I had to know the fundamentals of learning. My K-12 experience was all about learning those fundamentals.
The contemporary mantra of learning is Education, but rarely does the mantra of education specify Learning. In one county college in New Jersey, the average enrollment for successful Associate Degree candidates is four years. In reality, the students' first 2 years of study is remedial and all of these students are high school graduates. Has there been no meaningful learning for these students during their high school years? Is the curriculum of the college they attend so poorly crafted that qualified students cannot survive the for-credit curriculum? The answer to both of these questions is, probably, yes.
Per pupil spending in the K-12 sending district referenced above has increased from $7,725 to $12,429 in the past ten years --about 38%. In 1999 the Heritage Foundation published an article: The Folly of an Education Spending Race. The article describes how education spending had become the new "third rail" of political discourse:
If increasing spending doesn't benefit achievement or learning in public school districts, what measures have colleges in general and community colleges, specifically, taken to improve the quality of learning for the modern college-bound high school graduate?
In 1960 about 45% of high school graduates enrolled at a higher-education institution; by 2007, that number had increased to about 68% According to a 2005 published study of community colleges in California, funding for community colleges has outpaced the rate of growth of candidate students and enrollment growth funding has outpaced the total enrollment growth. With an excess of dollars to fund the annual increase of college bound students, there is little financial incentive for community colleges to adapt their core curricula to a surplus of under-qualified student candidates. Community colleges have the money to admit the under-qualified student and enroll them in remedial pre-credit programs and keep those funded candidates until the candidates skills have risen to college standards, or until those students drop out.
The core problem may be that too many students are now automatically considered as candidates for higher education. Unless the students have mastered fundamental learning skills in lower education, there is no reason to expect them to succeed in the advanced levels. Maybe students in today's K-12 schools should be prodded and poked to study James Joyce , Avogadro and Andre' Ampere rather than prepped to study a test that purports to demonstrate the quality of their education. And maybe 35 years past their high school commencement, they will sometimes sit around and puzzle over how a Conic Section can be intercepted by a Plane in order to describe a Parabola.
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You're right insofar as it costs no more to teach a crappy book than it does to teach 'Ulysses' (though Joyce is far from my first choice of good authors to teach in high school). Beyond that, we stray into the vast bog of 'What's Wrong with Education in America?' Fundamentally, there is a deep-rooted tendency to anti-intellectualism in American culture, a suspicion and disdain for 'book-learning'. After several generations we are seeing the fruits of this tendency in the appalling ignorance of the general population. Not a problem to be solved in a week. As Candide said, we must cultivate our garden.
One of the things I acquired in My K-12 experience, was a LifeLong love of learning.
Although I am curious by nature & personality [ie. how does
something/anything actually work, what makes it work & how do I dissect its components to See how it works (& then re-assemble it so that it Still works!), what's beHind how it works (motive/force/propulsion), etc?] & therefore already Eager to learn, our K-12 teachers & environment seemed to have had a talent for fostering the desire to learn. They were the proverbial gardeners, planting new thoughts, ideas, & seeds of learning fundamentals in [all of] our fertile young minds, then carefully tending throughout the year(s) [watering, fertilizing & attempting (at least) to weed them, whenever necessary] as they watched us learn & grow.
I think that maybe more emphasis was placed on all of this in the years of Our K-12 experience in (small-town) Central NJ. Which is not to say that it shouldn't be happening now or even that it always or usually happened then.
When I attended Indian River Community College in the mid-to-late 1970's, [which became Indian River State College, a 4-year institution, within this past year], we also had the remedial, non-credit courses available by necessity--there was just No Comparison between FL schools & NJ [in fact, probably could include the whole of the NorthEast (the only area with which I am familiar)] schools in regard to the caliber of students' learning skills & knowledge obtained in their K-12 experience.
In fact, in my 2nd year at IRCC (& pursuing my AA degree in Math
Education), I was 1 of only 2 Math Assistants &, among other duties [such as tutoring, test-grading & working w/the Print department in acquiring student hand-out notes on assorted Math topics], I helped to teach one of the Programmed Algebra (self-paced) courses.
I am happy to report that IRCC Also stimulated the lifelong love of learning & had, & continues to have, the kinds of instructors & classes "in place" that can enable all students to capitalize on the learning fundamentals already attained or to newly acquire those skills.
Although I didn't actually Need a remedial reading course, I Did need an elective credit, & was directed towards a popular course at that time which featured a book entitled "How to Study in College" by Walter Paulk [still available & in it's 9th edition, by the way ] & was one of the most Valuable courses I took. It is courses like this one combined with learned & caring [about both the impartation of knowledge/learning skills And the students] instructors which potentially [&, in my case, Actually] dressed the stage for success for all students.
I agree wholeheartedly with your Learning Gaps post, but I am Also very Glad that Our K-12 experience was fairly seamless in that learning fundamentals & actual love of learning were taught, instilled & fostered. [In fact, I attribute my initial interest in (& now Love of) Musical Theatre to Richard Wroncy, our 5th through 8th grade music teacher].
I Do have an additional thought for your consideration, though. Is it possibly the case that although being Smart isn't the Primary Function of Learning, that it Is a natural by-product of knowing & regularly
practicing the fundamentals of learning?
I mean that, for me, "learning" [& Love of learning] wasn't Only about acquiring new knowledge, mastering it & incorporating skills/learning fundamentals into my life experience(s), but it was Also [for me] about being Smart, which I equated with being the best that I could be & operating at the top of my potential.
As it so happens, I'm Also a very Good test-taker [standardized or otherwise], a skill which has placed me in higher level classes than I Probably should have been In! And in which I subsequently had to work Very Hard to achieve A's & B's while these marks seemed to come effortlessly [& without much "practice" of homework or studying] to Many of the other students in the same classes. Of course, for me, the challenge of more difficult classes, generally served to fuel the desire to learn even more in order to keep pace with my peers!
Yesterday afternoon I was also discussing learning fundamentals gaps in education with a friend, Heather, [who, coincidentally, was born the same year I graduated high school]. Her sons are enrolled in 7th grade & 3rd grade in the FL school system.
When she attended the 1st Parent-Teacher Open House this year, she was told by her son's 3rd grade teacher that their Only focus for the year would be preparation to pass the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test [FCAT], which Supposedly measures both a school's teaching success [they are "graded" based on statewide results] & a student's readiness for grade level advancement.
No mention was made of course subjects, topics to be covered, Science fairs, writer's fair, book reports, or anything else that may encourage a child's desire to learn & excel. Instead, when Heather asked about these things, she was directed to the school's front office to pick up a booklet with instructions on how to pass the FCAT!
By contrast, her 7th grade son attends Honors classes, where there thankfully Still seeems to be an emphasis in building on the
fundamentals, using those skills to expand their world of knowledge, & encouragement for fostering a love of learning & the desire to excel. These higher level students are granted [by default, because honor students automatically will pass the FCAT] the opportunity & resources to explore many of the things & courses of study that Should be available for Every child's learning experience.
This current trend in education to focus on specific test preparation [not even test-taking Skills, which tend to require a good dose of Creative Thought] actually seems to Foster gaps in learning fundamentals & to Discourage a child's desire to learn.
It certainly would be wonderful to soon see a reversal of this particular trend & a Widespread return towards equipping today's students with the fundamentals of learning, as well as instilling in them a love of learning & the desire to excel.
And though I would like to wrap this up in a Positive manner, I am doubtful of witnessing this kind of reversal in the FL school system in the near future. At least not without a Major overhaul in administrative policies & a healthily increased budget for teacher salaries. Maybe then, the Primary Focus can be back on the students & actual Learning.
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