Monday, November 28, 2011

Educating our Children

I just watched Fareed Zakaria's "Restoring the American Dream: Back to Work". An hour show he put on back on November 6th, 2011. I have been going on about how we need to teach critical and creative thought, for decades. Here is supporting information about that.

He takes as example, a South Korean family and talks about how their son Sung- Do gets up at 6AM every school day. He excercises, jumping rope as the sun comes up, then his mother makes him a "massive" breakfast, saying that a "healthy meal helps his concentration." Then he goes off to school from 8AM to 4PM, on most days. They have about 205 school days on their calendar, twenty-five more than the typical US schedule.

Over their K-12 career, South Korean children will spend two more years in the classroom that US children. After school, Sung-Do studies for hours in the school cubicles, then takes his dinner in the school cafeteria. Then he will sometimes go to a late night cram-school with a teacher and other students. All geared toward the big school exam. The average Korean family spends roughly 20% of their income on private tutoring. Once back home, Sung-Do continues his studies, well after midnight.

Of course all this work for kids means emotional pressures. That translates into suicides, which doubled in 2009, compared to 2003. This is something that has gone all the way up to their President, who has promised to relieve academic pressures and make a more engaging scholastic environment for children. Some of those cram schools can go past midnight and they have now given them a 10PM curfew. Citizens can report misbehaving cram schools to the government for a cash reward.

But there is an attitude in South Korea, that is very pro education, they have just gone over the edge in that direction. Yes, they need to back off a bit, maybe quite a bit, but in their country, they refer to their Teachers as "Nation Builders". We need that kind of a fundemental change in our view of education, both for our nation and for our children. They shouldn't be going through things now like they are, unable to pay their student college loans off, unable to find jobs, having to move back in with parents after college. That is all another kind of pressure, in an opposite direction.

From my American point of view, I do find the Korean paradigm for education all a bit harsh for children. But when you compare it to what we are currently going through in the US, it begs the quesion, what do we think we are doing? Look at how poorly our children have been doing in school, how much crime there is, though it has been going down over recent decades. One does have to consider the disparity between our education and the South Koreans, and other countries who are outranking us, such as India and Germany.
Some interesting states:
  • Almost 50% of America's dropouts come from 12% of the nation's High Schools (source: White House).
  • In New York City in 1970 starting Teachers earned $2,000 less than starting Lawyers. In 2010 starting Teachers earned $115,000 less than starting lawyers (source: McKinsey & Company, "Closing the Talent Gap").
  • Fifteen year olds who read for enjoyment: Shanghai-China, 92%; Brazil, 78%, United States, 58%.
  • Engineering degrees as portion of all degrees (by country): Japan, 20%, Germany, 16%, United States, 6% (source: OECD, 2004).
  • Median annual income by education level: Bachelor's degree, $42,783; High School diploma, $21,569; Some High School but no diploma, $10,996 (source: U.S. Census Bureau).
There must at very least be a lowest common denominator, happy medium between South Korea and our own dysfunctional school system. But more so, our own dysfunctional education attitudes need to change.

In South Korea the per capita income was less than $1700, today it's almost $24,000. Does this mean we need to have our economy literally collapse, to experience severely hard times in order for us to wake up and smell the coffee? To stop being so lazy and focus? Many people look at our kids and blame them. Other's blame the teachers, or our school system. But in considering this Korean family, one has to see how the attitude of the parents, the family, are first and foremost in this consideration, not the outside forces of Government, Schools, or Teachers.

Taking a different slant to this, Finland's students spend less time in school, but their performace is also off the charts. Children start school in Finland at seven years of age. They have less home work and less school hours than even the US. But they score first in the world in science and second in the world in math. You can read about all this in Pasi Sahlberg's book, "Finnish Lessons - what can the world learn from educational change in Finland?"

In Finland they spend less time on rote learning and more focus on creativity. They spend hardly any time preparing for standardized tests. They don't really have a standardized test system. Their focus instead is on having great teachers. Something I've been pushing for years. Build a system of great teachers, treat them appropriately, and the kids will benefit. The Fins highly respect their teachers, on par with Doctors and Lawyers. All Finnish teachers have to have Masters Degrees.

A prerequisite we should adopt immediately. Only one in ten are accepted for a teaching position. It is harder to get into the primary education program in college in Finland than it is for medical or law school. Finnish teachers also seem to stay with their profession. Unlike in America where the turnover is seven times higher. Why?

Almost half of all US teachers graduate in the bottom third of their college class. And then we put those probably very nice people, but academically poor people, in charge of our children's education. Why? Money, I would argue. We're cheap. We run our schools system on an 18th century format. We run them like factories. Kids are grouped by age rather than intellectual levels.

We could have bumped our daughter up two grades (to top of the second level even) when she entered second grade (being homeschooled in first grade) but we only advanced her one grade, concerned about social concerns when she got older. Intellectually, this helped her not be bored in class, just barely. She was also socially advanced for her age. It wasn't until High School that this advancement gave her any grief, for instance, her friends got a driver's license a year before she did. Advancing her two years would have been even harder on her. But that wasn't her issue, it was our eduationcal system's issue that she suffered for.

Rather than take on the theory that putting someone in the presence of greatness, will rub off on them, we prefer to take the lazy route and give our kids the bare minimum for education and put the burdon to learn, upon them. How is that right? How is that expected to work?

I didn't know it, but I was a bright kid in my K-12 years. However, I was repeatedly seen by many of my teachers as being not very bright. Why? Because I couldn't sit still for their boring teaching styles and capabilities. I alwyas had questions beyond the class level. I could see far faster into the lesson and so had to hold back, becoming quickly bored and the even losing my place because it took them so long to get to where I had already been for a while.

And so I suffered all through K-12. I didn't know it, I just knew I was stupid and emotionally down on myself all that time. But I wasn't stupid and so it came out in the classroom as being the class clown, or a smart ass because I was pissed off and didn't know it. Subconsciously, I think I kind of got what was going on, but on the surface, I didn't seem to have a clue. I just knew I was annoyed at something.

It came to a peak in 10th grade one day in English Comp, when the teacher, who was one of the brighter teachers in the school, couldn't go on with the lesson because every thing I said, made the class burst out with laughter. Even she was laughing. Finally she simply asked my permission to go on, saying we really needed to get through our lesson. I felt so pleased that I was being recognized for my talent, that I was ready to follow her anywhere from that moment on. And I never did that in her class again.

It wasn't until I got to college that I started getting straight A's and rose to the top of my classes. Why? Was it really my fault? My family's fault? Or that of my teachers?

I had the odd teacher here and there who saw in my, a bright kid and I excelled in their classes. There were only three in High School I would put in that group. But in the other teacher's classrooms, which were most of my teachers, I was typically in the middle to bottom level. It did get a little better in High School, but it was hit and miss. That inconsistent disparity for twelve years confused and frustrated me all through school until by time I graduated, I never wanted to go to school again. No college for me. It wasn't until after four frustrating years in the USAF, doing rote, repetitive work that I realized I might like going into an enhanced educational environment. And once I did, I loved it. But it was so different from my K-12 years.

Of  course, we are not South Korea, and we are certainly not the homogenous country of Finland. We have more diversity in our classrooms, more poverty. But this does not mean these changes are not needed. I would argue it means we need them even more, because we need smarter teachers and educators who can handle this disparity.

Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who have given billions of dollars to education reform, even says the first the he would do to drastically change education in our country is to hire better teachers. One study indicated that if students had a top teacher for four years straight, the achievement gap between blacks and whites would dissappear.

But all this comes from one ideal. Parents and their families, have got to start thinking about their children and their education, as a primary importance in their lives, not, their jobs. Our focus in America to so much about "Me" and not about our kids. Even when it is about our kids, it is not really, the focus is in the wrong areas, about the wrong concerns.

There is an upside in American eduation. Fareed pointed out that he went through the Asian education system that is getting so much attention and accolades now. But, he said that when he arrived in the US for college, he wasn't prepared for America education, to simply, think. He said that, "American education, at its best, teach you how to solve problems, question authority (oh, we're really good at that one), think for yourself, and be creative. It teaches you to learn what you love and love learning. These are incredibly important values, and why America has been able to maintain an edge in creative industries, entrepreneurship and innovation."

But that does not absolve us of our failures in education. Until we start to rethink our policies and our way of thinking about our children and their education, and the impact that it all has on our entire nation, and on our children as adults, we will continue to falter and fail on front after front in the attempt to reclaim our position as a super power. It is no longer so important that America is a "Military Super Power" but we now have to be an "Intellectual Super Power".

The world has changed. We have not kept up with it and we need to. Recently, Pres. Obama said in a speech, to paraphrase, that America has gotten lazy and the world has passed us by. Republicans have knocked him for that comment. But they tried to say that he meant that American workers are lazy. What he meant was that those in charge have gotten lazy, ironically those who were knocking his comment, as well as corporations, Government.

We HAVE been cruising on our laurels for far too long. It's time to get our act together. Take another look at your children. Don't just see them, see their future, connect that to all of our future, collectively. We have to make changes. So ask yourself, as a parent, as a voter, what is that change you need to make? Now, act on it.

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