Sunday, May 15, 2011

Your Child Left Behind

Magazines make great travel companions when on the road, providing thought food or diversion, whatever your appetite. Last winter I picked up the December 2010 edition of The Atlantic and found a whole compendium of thought provoking content. One article that I've been intending to write about, beginning on page 100, was titled "Your Child Left Behind." As the name suggests, it's yet another somewhat scathing indictment of the quality of U.S. education.

Amanda Ripley's report is accompanied by a really informative illustration, a bar chart made of pencils getting shorter and shorter. The chart shows the percentage of students performing at the advanced level in math proficiency. The unique feature of this article, and accompanying chart, is that it breaks down the countries of the world and compares against the individual states within the U.S.

Worldwide, Taiwan is tops, at the 28.2 percentile. Hong Kong, Korea, Finland and Switzerland follow, in that order. Fifteenth on the list is Germany. It isn't till you reach the seventeenth pencil in the graph that we find Massachusetts. Three pencils later stands Minnesota. The good ol' U.S.A. ranks 31st against the nations of the world, which means plenty of states are performing abominably worse by this measure.

That our education is fluffy happens to be nothing new. When I was in college I took a fourth year Native American anthropology class in which one student built a teepee and got an A for the semester. O.K., I aced the class, too, but I at least read the material. O.K., full disclosure. It was a "grade yourself" class. (I took five in college, and got four A's.)

Ripley states that there's an attitude afoot that says, "Smart kids can make it on their own." Other countries see the smart kids as a worthy investment as future leaders and necessary for critical functions within society.

What brought this article to mind was another article which I saw posted on a friend's Facebook wall a few days ago. He himself is a math teacher and has noted America's woeful lack in this area. Titled "The 'Education' Mantra," Thomas Sowell introduces his theme in this manner...

One of the sad and dangerous signs of our times is how many people are enthralled by words, without bothering to look at the realities behind those words.

One of those words that many people seldom look behind is "education." But education can cover anything from courses on nuclear physics to courses on baton twirling.

Unfortunately, an increasing proportion of American education, whether in the schools or in the colleges and universities, is closer to the baton twirling end of the spectrum than toward the nuclear physics end. Even reputable colleges are increasingly teaching things that students should have learned in high school.

When I was in school I found it frustrating to learn that a football player with a four year scholarship could get college credits for taking the same math that I took in junior high school.

It's safe to say that not all learning is in the classroom. Nor does our personal education and development end upon graduation. According to one study at Buffalo State University, a commitment to lifelong learning is a critical component in personal and career success. But someone needs to light the fuse to get young people believing that study has value.

Citing examples from history, the Sowell article goes on to describe the problems our warm fuzzy course studies and meaningless degrees can lead to. It's a worthy read.

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