The year is 2015 and America is fighting a war that has nothing to do with WMDs, drug-lords, or crazy religious fundamentalists in some remote country. Nope. The war is at home and we’re fighting it for and against ourselves to win and lose even though we’re doing everything we can to lose it (to win it) while fighting to win it (to lose it). Confusing isn’t it?

Just like any war, the battles we’re fighting each and every day leave collateral damage behind, only this time the victims are not enemy combatants, or traitors, but our children. Our what? Yup, kids. But even more importantly what our children represent- the future.

If this sounds drab, dark and slightly apocalyptic, is because it kind of is. I might be a bit melodramatic, that at least is true, but that’s only for effect. But we can at least agree on one thing, that the education system in America is failing from the bottom up and soon this war that our politicians, our corporations, our religious institutions, ourselves and each other are fighting will set us on a path that eventually will lead us to one of many eventual demises.

So, sit back and relax, and let’s explore how the war on education is rotting the core of what America is. A war that is unnecessary and easily winnable, but a war that we seem determined to keep fighting for better and for worse.

 

First Steps

 

Think for a moment about how you raise your children, or if you don’t have any children just daydream for a second about how you would raise kids if you had any. It’s a scary thought, I agree. After all, going to any Chuck-E-Cheese anywhere in America will make you think twice about having kids if you don’t have them, or make you re-think your choices if you do. And although making kids is probably the most fun you will ever have, raising them is no picnic- at least not a sunny one. Each stage of raising a child has a different level of difficulty that no one expects. Life is uncaring as to your early baby-planning or your college fund, and it’s something that not even the wealthiest parents in the world can prepare for. Remember that having money doesn’t exactly mean that they will turn out to be the best people in the world- in fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. It’s then that the old adage fits perfectly: No one is ever truly prepared for kids. That’s just one of those inescapable universal truths that every parent learns one way or another.

But think about how you were raised. You turned out fine, right? Kinda? Don’t feel too bad if you still live with your parents, or if you’ve been to juvie, or at 30 you don’t have a stable job, or haven’t gone to college yet or blah blah blah. All you have to do is turn on the news and you’ll immediately feel better and realize that “kinda” maybe isn’t all that bad. Agreed, it’s a half-assed way to live life, but in context, “kinda” is just the space between good and bad and nothing else. You are at the center of the balance and only you have the power to tip it one way or the other.

But what got you there? Sure, a lot of people talk about genes and outside influence. But if you pay close attention, you will notice that while DNA plays a huge role in who you are, for the most part, what you do is closely related to how you were raised. And this is where we start.

You’ve probably heard the saying “education begins at home.” People don’t just say it for nothing, the path to education begins from the moment you come out of the womb and continues throughout those first fragile formative years. By the time formal education begins (meaning school), kids are already walking and talking, and like it or not they have also adopted some of their parents’ ways of thinking including basic forms of thinking and prejudice. And you can’t really blame the way they are- at least not during the first few years of school- on their schoolmates, seeing as how they spend most of their time behind school walls, because the behavior had to have come from somewhere in the first place. So being totally frank, if your kid is an asshole in school it’s mostly not his/her fault. Then again, it’s not mostly your fault either- although you did raise them. No excuses to be had here Biebs.

But that really is an interesting question to ask, whose fault is it for children’s bad behavior? Is it the parents’ fault; is it the schools’ fault? Is it no one’s fault (genetics)? Environmental? Chemicals in the food? Media content? Someone has to bear that responsibility, but who? In my non-expert opinion I believe the problem to be an unequal combination of all of these factors with two being the main culprits- the parents and the education system. “Why me?!” I can hear parents and teachers yelling in unison. Well, again, child-rearing begins at home. It’s simple, if your kid watches Jersey Shore and acts like the douchebags in it, it’s only because you allowed them to. If your kid curses it’s not her fault, she probably doesn’t even know what it means. If your kid punches some other kid, it will inevitably be part of his genes to be prone to anger, but it’s learned behavior that dictates how he will behave in the future given the appropriate instruction and/or punishment. In other words, morality is instilled at home. Technical instruction is given at school.

Consider this, conventional wisdom- and science- tells us that the perfect age to have kids is in your 20s. Too young (20s-) might mean an unstable financial situation and too old (30s+) could mean more of a burden on your body.  Of course there are more things to consider than just a good job and a good uterus, but for the most part you’d want both to be in good condition. But the thing that no one really thinks about is that no matter at what age you get pregnant, the thought of becoming a first-time parent can be a daunting and scary thing to prepare for. It’s only logical that you would need help with that responsibility, not only from other parents but also from experts in child-rearing and education. After all, you want to give your child the best possible start.

This 2008 report by statesmanjournal.com, details how 95% of funds going towards education are allocated only for formal education, which means that what the state spends on education is only relevant until after children have already been acclimated to their parents’ way of thinking. Forget sponges,  during those formative years children’s brains are more like powerful (and fragile) machines that react to nurturing just as much as they do to nature-ing. In fact, there’s research to suggest that due to neural interactions, a child learns much faster than you do.

What this is all saying is that between the age of 0 and 5, a child’s brain develops faster and stronger than it will ever do in that child’s life; during those years the information it acquires is essential for his/her psychological development and it is crucial in establishing a well cemented base for future learning. And yet- at least in the U.S.- less than 5% of the educational resources are going towards this age-group. Why?

I’m not sure exactly (or maybe I’m too incompetent to find out why- thanks school!) but it seems that those in charge of the money do not consider this to be a priority even though amounting research suggests that more money should be put to good use in this area. It appears the government trusts YOU too much with your own child not to offer much help.

In my opinion, more resources should be allocated to implement government-subsidized child-rearing classes that continually evolve with new research, to help young parents and/or first-time parents raise their children better until they start school. I’m sure there is something like that already, but is it enough? It’ll take a whole generation to find out.

Of course, education has changed in the classroom. If we read into that history and compare educational methods, say, from 100 years ago, then even the poorest of nations has a lot more information to impart in the classroom than they did before- and hopefully better methods also. That they don’t want to or don’t care to is another matter. That also varies by country, by region and even by school.

 

Resources: Substance and Style

 

But education is dependent on more than one factor, not only on what we know. For example, children who live in poor nations, in conflict-ridden areas, and girls more than boys are much more at risk of missing out on the kind of education that children are afforded elsewhere. This is something we know, but still not enough resources are available to help with children’s educations besides a few charitable organizations and UN programs. Food availability, distance,  parent’s marital and social status, social conflict, etc. These are all factors, among many more, that can greatly affect the chances of a child going to school.

But what about here in America? Surely we don’t run into issues like those. Do we?

If you’re naive enough to think so, you are dead wrong. Recent studies show that the link between poverty and children’s educational development is strong stateside. And with poverty come a whole slew of other problems: family instability, domestic violence in some cases, and behavioral problems.

For example the Bible Belt, which is the Southernmost area of the United States, is the poorest clump of states in the nation. Not coincidentally it is also where students K-12 are the least educated. This interesting report by the Huffington Post finds the connection between what each state spends on education and children’s education ranking by state, among other criteria.

But lack of money is not the whole problem. Ironically, having it and not using it properly can be just as detrimental.

Look around you. Most people now have more than three devices to use to watch their favorite shows, download music, read stuff on the internet, watch cat videos, blog, vlog, etc. Just now I’m sitting at my desk watching Netflix on an iPad. My laptop is sitting right in front of me, my phone is in my pocket, my TV five feet away from me, and my roommate’s TV ten feet away. Each and every one of these devices capable of doing all of those things I mentioned and more. So in a fifteen feet radius I have more computing power at my disposal than all of the computers in the world combined during the 60s. You see where I’m going with this?

Somehow we haven’t realized that the future so many sci-fi writers wrote about in past decades is now! We are not making use of the technology that we have at our fingertips precisely for the most noble purpose there is: the advancement of education. Or at least, we’re not doing it enough. Any parent should walk into a classroom and see their tax-dollars at work (or at least a bigger chunk of it) in the form of a personalized computer for their kids. We have enough resources to provide every child in America with an iPad to use and to learn from.

Schools should prioritize what they teach our kids. Cursive writing is not a priority, computer science is. For the sake of our future generations, it is imperative that we get rid or minimize non-essential subjects and replace them with advanced sciences and skills that they will need in the future.

This very day, most countries are sitting on endless mines of information and we simply do not use the tools at our disposal to get to the treasure. Like the likable character Roman on the film Ocean’s 13 once said, we are “…analogue players in a digital world.” The children in our classrooms are still using notepads and pencils when they should be using iPads and stylus pens. And even poor nations have these capabilities, if they spent more on education that is.

The internet came at a time of vast technological advancement and that advancement doesn’t seem to be slowing down but rather speeding up. Not only has technology caught up with the power of the internet itself, but it’s now helping it grow faster and stronger. That’s something to exploit to the maximum.

The perfect analogy to use here is a dam. We are like fish, living in a little puddle of information while water trickles down from a wall. On the other side of the wall is a vast lake that we just can’t get to. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that what any of this represents.

This knowledge that I talk about is universally beneficial. But is knowledge even enough? With the amount of information that we now have at our disposal, it is more than just an excuse not to impart it correctly. We have come far from when used the abacus to make simple calculations, now we use calculators. Perhaps it’s time we upgrade, and not just what new technology we have available, but also in our right to use it. Teachers should encourage children to use the technology at hand to acquire as much information as possible; but we as parents also need to learn Information in bulk is not necessarily education. Another problem I see today with the way schooling (institutionally and at home) is done is that we are too preoccupied teaching children what to think, and not necessarily how to think.

 

Making the Grades: The Evolution of Teaching Methods
Image source: www.topeducationdegrees.org

 

Scoresheet

 

Considering that the United States is still a technological, military, and economic superpower it’s only logical that we should also reign as an educational giant as well. And yet, in terms of primary and secondary education we’re not in even in the top 10 in two of the most important areas!- science and math. By now it’s probably been drilled into your head from several different sources how education in America is lagging behind other countries in K-12 education, especially in the mentioned disciplines.

This research by pewresearch.org, with data from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), shows that improvement in areas like math and science for American students has been a slow one, and we still shadow many countries, including most industrialized nations.

The average scores indicate that for all 15-year-olds from various nationalities who participated since the triennial survey was last taken in 2012, the United States scored in 27th place in mathematics, just above Sweden and Hungary but lower than any of the major industrialized nations in the world with Singapore taking the top spot. As far as science goes Americans fared a little better in 20th place, scoring well ahead of Italy, Norway, and Russia.

It’s encouraging to know that we are doing better than we did a couple of decades ago, but let’s not pat each other’s backs just yet, we’re not that well off. If we take into account our massive budget, we should be spending much more on education that we give ourselves credit for. There is no excuse why these scores shouldn’t be much higher.

The 2014 federal budget  provided $71 billion in funds to the Department of Education, or 4.6% of national spending. Yeah this is a huge number, but it’s nothing compared to the gigantic $526 billion allocated to the Department of Defense.  That’s seven times more than what the DoE gets! You would think that those 71 billion dollars would put us ahead of little Singapore in something as small as math and science education, a country with a relatively small GDP of $298 billion compared to America’s $16 trillion, but somehow something just doesn’t fit. Of course, Singapore doesn’t have nearly as many enemies as the U.S. and their budget doesn’t allow for much international expenditures as our does, but… come on! 71 billion dollars! If Singapore can subsidize its entire education system and pay its teachers better than we do ours, then surely we can move some money around and give the DoE a couple more billion dollars and do the same or something similar here. It would not only make sense, it’s the right thing to do.

This is a noble competition in which every country should strive to take the top spot. Education is nothing to compete over, except when we’re doing it against ignorance and the countries that can afford to do so are helping themselves by coming to the aid of those at the bottom and helping them rise.

 

Put To the Test

 

We talked about outdated technology. Now let’s talk about outdated methods. In the post-internet era, we are still teaching children with the same methodology that schools used from before even the fall of the Soviet Union, despite psychiatry, psychology and neuroimaging making new important discoveries every year, including child rearing and child behavior. And unfortunately one of those areas in which we don’t seem to be advancing but rather regressing, is standardized testing.

Children today in the United States get tested on as if they were all about to colonize Mars! You might be thinking “what’s the big deal? So they get a few tests here and there.” But they don’t just get a few tests here and there. While testing is an important part of learning, just like everything else, in excess is counterproductive. Kids today get tested on English, Math, Science, Physical Education, History (one of the few subjects that actually evolves merely for its content, or rather by its content). They get tested two, three, five, sometimes even ten times per trimester. They get federal testing, state testing, school testing and on top of that, they get regular periodic tests. Dozens of hours are spent on just testing these kids; and you as a parent are left thinking, “What the hell are they teaching them that they have to test them so much?” Mars huh?

Many parents- perhaps even you yourself- are now wondering if we are overtesting kids. A lot of them are wondering if all this testing is actually leading us somewhere or if we’re just walking to the edge of a cliff. And many are starting to push back.

Well, it didn’t take long for the issue to become political. Now Congress is also starting to ask the same questions parents around the nation are asking- “Is there a benefit?

To get to the root of the problem we have to observe our own kids. When they get ready to take a test, are they doing everything they can to learn the information and use it on the test, or are they doing everything they can to pass the test no matter how they do it? And if it’s the former, is the information even being retained?

Where I’m going with this is that if school is supposed to be beneficial in the sense that it’s meant to be a knowledge machine, why are we throwing nuts and bolts into it thinking it’s helping when it’s just breaking everything inside?

But don’t be too quick to blame teachers. Many of them also think that testing- or rather administering tests the wrong way- is bad for our students; psychologists have taken careful notice of what goes on when we overtest and have arrived at the same conclusion- when it comes to testing, or more importantly, to learning, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

 

Homework? So 1900s

 

“Oh no, don’t mess with the homework dude! That’s my off time.” Some parents are undoubtedly thinking this. Kudos to you if you actually help out your kid with her homework, or with that science project that we all know will turn out to be a papier-mâché volcano.

Well while it will help you bond better with your kids, making them bury their noses in a notebook for three or four hours a day will not necessarily do anything.

Just like exercising the muscles, working out the mind also has a resistance limit after which there is no beneficial gain to keep pushing. Well, it turns out that contrary to what you may believe (possibly arrogantly about yourself), humans have a rather short attention span of just minutes. For adults it happens to be between 15 and 20 minutes while children have much shorter attention spans.

What does this tell you about homework? Yes, you might be walking by their rooms and they’ll be pretending to read the book. Hell, they might even actually be trying. But I- and more importantly, psychologists- assure you that while their eyes are scanning the words, their brains are flying far far away.

Like over-testing, spending too much time doing homework seems to have a negligible result in standardized testing, and in more cases than not, it directly hurts the chances of a better score. This study from researcher Jose Muñiz from the university of Oviedo in Spain says as much- while effort, parent aid, and [daily] frequency of homework helps a lot, spending more than two hours a day on homework doesn’t.

The alternative is much simpler- school should make learning much more accessible by allowing students free expression and help mold the young mind into something desirable to pursue. While parents need to devote the time to fine-tune that learning at home, and not necessarily doing homework.

Let’s not kid ourselves (pun not intended), homework will not go away anytime soon- although it should. However, the way in which homework is done can have a great impact in how well your kid advances not in class, but in understanding. Psychologists and sociologists have concluded that the manner in which you as a parent help your kid with homework makes more of a difference than you taking direct control. This just plays into the whole idea that kids need to be allowed free rein and explore imaginatively, rather than being dictated to and limited.

 

Invisible Roadblocks

 

If you thought I wasn’t going to mention religion in this one, you are dead wrong.

Already too many states in the United States (guess which ones) teach creationism along with evolutionary biology by local political mandate, despite the 2005 landmark Supreme Court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the court ruled against the teaching of creationism, or the word-savvy intelligent design, in public schools.

In the first link provided (in the hook “too many states”) you will find an interactive map of all the states that have, in some form, a creationist curriculum that openly challenge evolution science as something more of a fable and not completely testable. The fucking irony.

As if it wasn’t enough to have kids recite a Pledge of Allegiance (something bordering on creepy and Big Brother-y), and one created in part to sell flags, Eisenhower added the word “god” to counter the godless Communist threat back in 1954. As if being godless was actually what inspired Stalin to kill 100 million of his countrymen… or as if adding the word “god” to the pledge actually helped.

The point is that since the pledge and even before it, schools still have the nerve to question hundreds of years of data without base. These people are more than eager to teach their absolutely unverified and untestable version of the “truth” to all children alike, without regard or consideration for children’s backgrounds, something which puts everyone behind. And on top of that, the children of secular parents are being punished for something which they have little control over.

If you know this blog then you must know that my feelings towards religion are ones of suspicion and contempt. I, along with millions of others, feel that religion is in its most intrusive,  most harmful, and most illogical form when it is taught in the classroom.

Personally, I see no useful purpose for religion in today’s world, not even- and especially- as a moral yardstick. Contrary to popular belief, science can now explain morality thoroughly without the need of superstitious rituals. Yet, a lot of people don’t see it that way. They hold on to the old beliefs and what’s worse, the religious are playing the last card they have to play, children. Because they are innocent and thus impressionable, it is easier to manipulate a child to believe in abnormal things.

I would be understating the issue if I said that religion has absolutely no place in public schools, not just legally but also in terms of relevant information. And before we get into a theological debate, you should note that I said religion, meaning all religions. What is especially troublesome about an imposition of religious rituals or religious teaching in school is that you can’t possibly accommodate the thousands of religions that exist in the world in a place that intends to make use of the most down-to-Earth (pun intended), verifiable, and impartial information there is. Which is why science is there to save the day.

While religious fundamentalists argue about whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or 10,000 years old based on nothing else than Bible interpretation, the core of science has gone out and researched endlessly and compiled all known data into verifiable textbooks that kids now use in the classroom. It is unfair, not to mention arrogant, for religious parents and teachers to force distorted views of the world as they see it to kids who will very much grow up believing this stuff. What they fail to realize is that everything has a connection to something else. For example, teaching a kid that the Earth is younger than some known tree species we know might not make much of a difference if the child grows up to be a musician or an actor. But if that kid wants to become a biologist, or anything science-related actually, he or she will be the laughing-stock of academia a la Waterboy. 

I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to believe in whatever you want to believe, just not in a public taxpayer-funded school. The Constitution of the United States expressly prohibits the teaching of religion in places funded on the taxpayer’s dime, so in the interest of fairness, or at the very least for the sake of your child’s future, keep the Bible at home or at church where they belong, not in the classroom.

 

Okay, Einstein, what’s the best thing to do?

 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

The concept of school is an ancient one. For thousands of years people have been teaching each other what they know about the world. It hasn’t always worked the way it should, but it has worked- case in point, we know a lot about a lot today. So it would only make sense that school should be an institution where knowledge is born and not merely cascaded down. However, it seems that’s actually the way it is. The institution has come to a point where individuality is repressed in favor of mass instruction. Something especially apparent in testing- which we mentioned before.

Do you remember that part on Forest Gump where Sally Fields’s character tells young Forest that he’s the same as everyone else, but then when the principal tells her that her son is different she comes back with, “Well, everyone’s different…” Of course it sounds way funnier in the movie, but it’s true, we’re all different and we’re all the same in different contexts obviously. Yet, school seems to want to make us all the same. At least in the way that we learn.

Like I mentioned before, now we know with proof what we’ve always known subconsciously, that kids learn at different rates and with different techniques. Some kids learn best by reading, others by looking at pictures, others are better at math than they are at history. The point is to instill in students a sense of comfort. To play their strengths and work their weaknesses, but what tests do is assume that every student is the same. Again, benchmarking is important because there definitely needs to be a basic average level that every student needs to be in every subject, but it seems that we’re only stopping there. Where’s the individuality? Where’s the push for greater knowledge?

You might infer from what’s being said that exclusion will lead to kids becoming territorial- even more so- but what we’re trying to achieve is just the opposite- inclusion. And inclusion is key. Due to many factors, some kids will learn faster than others. That’s just one of those things not even a teacher can control. However, taking into account those earlier things I mentioned about psychology, psychiatry, and technology, surely we can devise ways to measure kids’ performances without having to burden them with endless homework assignments, stressful rounds of testing, and outdated teaching techniques that don’t do much more than make kids loathe school, and as a consequence possibly even learning. They have enough to worry about in the recess yard to make them worry about what goes on inside the classroom.

 

Graduation

 

Let me conclude by saying that I am no education professional, medical professional, or an expert in any of the fields mentioned here, so do read this with a grain of salt. I merely offer my personal opinion on an issue that I consider to be one of the most important ones in our time, but more importantly for the future.

Of course there are many more things that can affect child behavior and learning capabilities: nutrition, bullying, outside influence, etc. I will probably touch on these subjects later on in other blogposts. But for now I just wanted to go a bit more in-depth about how education is not being given absolute priority in our country and elsewhere in the world.

The question to you is, do we really want to stress our kids out? School is undoubtedly necessary for our children, it’s not only a right of passage, it will prepare them at least in an academic level for the things they will need to know in the future. In the courtyard they will get a taste of what’s to come in life in terms of social connections; while the classroom is supposed to make them wonder about the bigger things. Children are supposed to go in to school with a hunger for learning, not to be afraid to do so. We need to demand, as well as help forge the better way to make the former happen and avoid the latter. Is stressing them out more important, or teaching them? Is showing them more important, or letting them discover? Is it more important to tell them which problem to solve or teaching them how to solve it? Are we hoping to build robots, or thinkers? Do we want them to come out of high school reading about the future or writing it? It all starts with learning. But learning is also a process. I guess the most important question of all is: are we doing it right?

 

fascinating book

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In part two I’ll be talking about college and the roadblocks students encounter while trying to continue their education at the next level in America and abroad, the consequences of these limitations, and what we can all do to help each other and ourselves.

And please leave a comment, a question, or curse me out if you want to if I missed something you believe is important or if any of my information is wrong. I welcome all feedback! And if you’re a teacher or a parent, I don’t mean to step on any toes, I welcome your thoughts as well.

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/07/09/36jouriles.h33.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/spending-too-much-time-homework-linked-lower-test-scores-180954814/?no-ist

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/15/cutting-through-the-stupid-on-annual-standardized-testing/

http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/21-things-that-will-become-obsolete-in-education-by-2020-474.php

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