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Crisis in Education?

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I keep hearing about how horrible today's schools are.  But my personal experience is that they're not that much worse than they've ever been.

I moved from Marion, IA to Richardson, TX in 1973, between fifth and sixth grades.   The Richardson Independant School District, RISD, was reputed to be one of the best in the US.  Students from that distict consistently scored high on various nationwide scholastic aptitude tests, including the SAT.  Apparently, that's a testament to the power of living in an affluent nieghborhood.  Because the majority of the teachers I had were paricularly ineffective.

The clearest example of the difference in teaching techniques was in spelling.

In Iowa, they had a classroom's-worth of specially-built tape players.  The tape would say a word, use it in a sentance, then say the word, again.  Then there would be a beep and the player would pause.  The student would write down the word, then push a button on the player to continue to the next word.  There were twenty words per tape.  I could usually write the word down while the tape was using it in a sentance and get the button pushed before the tape had even paused.  Thus, I could blow through the twenty words in just a few minutes.  I would take my paper to the teacher's assitants, they'd grade it, and if I scored higher than 80% they'd give me the next tape.  I only scored below 80% one time.  I think we did this a few times per week.  Assume time in the hour for five tapes per session and that means I was practicing spelling on about 300 words per week.

Contrast that with Texas schools.  "Spelling" was a bizarre combination of spelling and vocabulary.  Our spelling book had twenty words per chapter.  On Monday we'd take the first seven words and copy their definitions from dictionary.   Tuesday the second seven and Wednesday the final six.  On Thursday we'd take a "practice test" and on Friday the actual spelling test.  Therefore, I was practicing spelling only twenty words per week.

Isn't the best way to learn spelling probably to try spelling lots and lots of words and get graded on them?

Not only does the Texas method sound completely inadequate for teaching spelling.   But it's a particularly poor vocabulary curriculum, too.  You see, we weren't allowed to write down what we thought the word meant so that we could be graded on our actual vocabulary.  Instead, we were required to copy the definitions out of the dictionary, verbatim.  I don't know if you've ever done that, but I find that I actually have trouble retaining any of the information I'm copying with pen and paper.

These exercises seem to be designed quite specifically to impede both spelling practice and vocabulary growth.  Not only did the Texas system do a poorer job than Iowa, but it appears to me to be detrimental.

So, spelling is the worst case that I recall.  But there are many other examples, too.  In fifth grade in Iowa we studied how newspapers work.  It was a 20-station self-paced section that lasted a few weeks, topped off by a field trip to the local paper.  At the end of the year we even printed our own four-page edition.   In sixth grade in Texas, we also studied the newspaper.  It lasted about one or two weeks, everyone moving at the pace of the slowest class member, leaving out most of the material I had learned in Iowa the previous year.  There was no field trip, nor did we produce our own paper.  I also vaguely remember studying the geography of Africa in sixth grade in Texas much more superficially than I had already learned in fourth grade in Iowa.

And this was supposed to be one of the top school districts in the country.

What does appear to be true is that we're spending a great deal more money with little improvement.  We're probably not any worse, but we're certainly not getting our money's worth.  I'd like to see that extra money used to hire the best teachers, but it appears that it's being eaten by the bureaucracy, instead.

My experience is that the schools have been largely ineffective for at least 30 years.  And this Scientific American article leads me to believe that this same Chicken Little tale is forced onto the headlines every decade or two.  People have been saying the same thing, nearly using the same words, for the entire previous century.  While education might not be as good as we'd like, I don't think there's any sort of impending crisis.

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Last modified: January 25, 2003
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