Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Speaks Out on Education in America

The other night I was watching an episode of the show 20/20, in which John Stossell was exposing the dreadful situation of education in the American schools. In this episode, the host made a comparison between our schools and those in Belgium. For this comparison a test was administered to both American and Belgian students of the same age. To wit, the Belgian students clocked the Americans on this test. What stung even more for the American cause was that the American kids were from a rather decent school. Wow! How dreadful. Yet this state within American schools is something I witnessed firsthand.

You see, I was a substitute teacher for several years in several different American schools and I was also a full-time high school teacher of mathematics for two years. This experience gave me a real hard inside look at the American school system. In fact, I was an award winning teacher, former teacher of college mathematics, published author, and yet I didn't make the high school cut for the third year. In short, I didn't make tenure. Why? Gee, I still don't know the answer to that. The only thing I can think of was that I tried to do things a little differently: I tried to teach in novel ways so that students might have a chance to understand mathematics; I tried to keep the endless administrative tasks of discipline, meetings, paperwork, etc. from interfering with my basic approach to teaching; and I tried to give love and understanding to all my students regardless of such issues as race, behavior, or intelligence. In essence, I tried to bring an approach toward learning that might effect student progress rivaled by the situation in the Belgian school system. I wanted my students to be as competent as those in other European countries.

As a result of this approach, I was extremely popular with practically the entire student body. Students from other classes would come to me for extra help and often I would get greeted in the hall by students who were not in my class, but who knew me because of positive things said to them by others. I was acknowledged as an expert in my field and was even lauded for my diverse knowledge in other areas as well. I showed eclectic interests and tried to make such contagious to my students. As much as I tried to keep a low profile, I could not stem the flow of love and praise that I got from the students. Knowing how politics within an organization can work, I was a bit concerned about all the positive press I was getting in such a short time. During the end of the second year, my concerns proved well founded. Even though I did everything I could to be a dedicated teacher, in the end I still came up short, and only have the dozens of letters, cards, and well wishes to ease the pain of having been cut.

So is this the basis of the American tenure system? I was never in favor of such a system and I was willing to work on my merits from year to year. So where did I go wrong, or should I say, where did the school system go wrong? Furthermore, is mediocrity--or worse--sub par performance the standard of excellence in the American school system? Well the episode of 20/20 sort of gave me an answer to that question. From the episode it appears that this is the best case scenario. From my experience, I know this to be true. In Belgium, excellence is expected both from teachers and from students. Here we settle on mediocrity all the time. Heaven forfend should an outstanding teacher come along! All of a sudden, many tenured pros or administrators feel threatened. This is much like the situation in corporate America.

As business writer and speaker Harvey MacKay put it in his book, Beware of the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt, "It pays to be good but sometimes it pays a lot more to be bad." In other countries, excellence is sought after. In Belgium students learn to speak four of five languages. I always tried to be competent in at least four or five as well. As humans, we rise to the level of our expectations; therefore, in Belgium, the kids are brought up expected to speak several languages. If you go there and tell a local that you speak five languages, you receive no special acknowledgment. Do that here, and an American will look at you like you have two heads or something.

During another part of the show, the host takes us through several areas of the country where the educational standards are let us say, less than good. One emphasis of the show is to stress that where there is no competition in the school system, there is no excellence--just mediocrity. Charter schools don't have this problem because they sink or swim according to how well the students do and how well the students achieve. Why should public schools not be held to the same standards and be more accountable for the results they put forth? Why should great teachers be axed because they dared to be exceptional?

There are great teachers out there--both tenured and non-tenured. We need to give more praise to the great ones and see that competition weeds out the bad ones. We need to see that the non-tenured great ones are protected so that they can stay within the system...otherwise mediocrity will be the standard and excellence that rare gem you find only once in awhile. After all, when excellence becomes the standard then neither teachers nor students have anything to feel insecure about, for both are assured their proper place.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Education: How Summer Vacations Reinforce Performance Failure Conditioning

Even though the American economy has not been agrian based for at least 75 years, American children are still benefiting (?) from an agrian school structure. Young children still have summers off and spend on average 180 to 185 days in school. FACT: Many of these days are not full instructional days and today's students spend less time in the classroom than students of 50 or 100 years ago.

Schools are facing mandates to offer academic remediation during the summer and some parents are quite upset. This intrusion into summer vacation is viewed as denying a "right." Unfortunately, this outdated practice is only reinforcing performance failure conditioning.

When the U.S. was an agrian-based economy, being out of school during the summer was to assist the family farms. Children helped from plowing the fields to canning the produce. Summer break was a break from school and not a break from work.

Technology improvements from equipment to biochemistry has made farming far more efficient and additional manual child labor was no longer needed. Yet, summer break still remained through the industrial revolution and into the technology revolution. Children and families became conditioned to expect this time off from school and more importantly from learning.

Since information is doubling every year, today's young people need to know and learn more, not less. Losing 2.5 to 3 months each year for 12 years is only reinforcing performance failure conditioning. Educational psychologists know that students who are cognitively behind do not lose just 2.5 months each summer, but rather the loss multiplies or is exponential. This loss helps to explain why our students are not making the literacy gains necessary to be knowledge workers.

Additionally, there are several other factors why summer vacation reinforces performance failure. As a former teacher, I can personally attest that many young people begin to "shut down" after Easter or spring break because they have been conditioned to view summer vacation on the horizon. Given that our children need every minute to be engaged in the learning process, losing 4 to 6 weeks is not acceptable.

Also, with some parents not having the ability to take summer vacations due to their work commitments, these parents remove children from school for 1 to 2 weeks. In the mid-20th century, many parents would not even think about removing their children for a non-summer vacation. Even though the children are completing assignments during this time, they are losing the value of informal learning. Research suggests that up to 70% of all learning is gained informally - learning from one another.

The extended break from summer vacation also harms long term cognitive retention. Concepts that are taught shortly before the end of school may need to be re-taught in the fall because students lack the opportunities necessary for reinforcement and application. One direct outcome is the "teach to the test" behavior. Teachers must now hurriedly re-teach these previously learned objectives because these are the foundation for new concepts.

Learning is very much like a brick wall. Each row of bricks supports the next layer. When a row is missing just one or even several bricks, the entire wall is weakened and may eventually collapse. Again, our national results regarding educational performance demonstrate that we have many falling walls.

The American public education system needs to be restructured to face the 21st century. No one looks good in a bad system. We must face the reality that learning for our children must be more than 180 days and must be structured to support known cognitive research such as shorter and more frequent breaks. The archaic practice of summer vacation will only continue to reinforce performance failure conditioning and leave all of our children and our country behind.

Leanne Hoagland-Smith, President of ADVANCED SYSTEMS, works with large urban to private schools, certified staff, support staff, students and parents to improve performance in 30 to 180 days. Using proven tools, we can quickly and affordably identify the gaps in YOUR organization, provide you with an Action Plan that you can easily implement along with developmental programs from executive leadership to student leadership.