The politics of American education.

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As a news junkie, the amount of attention I pay to developments and ‘news’ about education is cursory at best. From what I hear, I am just glad I am no longer in primary or secondary education. I am close to the big 4-0 but I graduated from high school in 1997 and university in 2001. It wasn’t that long ago…And I don’t recall education being so politicized back in the day.

In fact, I don’t think education should involve politics at all except when it has to do with funding. This current trend of comingling politics into our education system makes me very uncomfortable. To allow prayer or not at school: NO – never, it’s not necessary, you can pray at home, to whichever God you like on your own time, in the comforts of your own home. Our children are at school between six to seven hours a day, they can do without prayer, God will understand. School lunch and who gets to eat what based on income: all students should eat the same thing, children whose parents who cannot afford lunch even at the discounted rate or parents who forget to reload their children’s lunch money card should just get to eat what everyone else is eating. There’s no need to single out students by making sure everyone in the cafeteria knows they are from a low income family by giving them a dry hamburger bun with a slice of cheese and a small serving of milk. Lunch food doesn’t cost that much, especially the crap that they feed the kids in school these days. The Common Core: one of the most ridiculous advents in the history of education.

My daughter will be entering full time education soon. She is four years old now, in about two years she’ll be in first grade. Though my husband and I purchased a home in an area with good schools, we always knew we were sending our children to Catholic private school. The good public schools are just a backup should we not be able to afford private education. We are Catholics, most of our families have been to Catholic schools for at least primary education until middle school and later transitioned to public high school and it’s worked out well for them. For all of the problems of the Catholic church, their education and curriculum and its results have been consistent.

Over the years I’ve also come across school teachers who teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and let’s just say the morass that is LAUSD can leave the most enthusiastic and eager of teachers burned out and disillusioned. The teacher’s union is strong and powerful here, the union is racially and ethnically diverse and they try to serve all the people who have an interest in the union. As a result, they end up serving no one. Not even the students, which should be their main priority. Teachers have scant control over their curriculum and how they’d like to present that curriculum. Teachers are stuck in the middle between school administrators to deliver good test results or else the funding of the school can be affected and unreasonable and belligerent parents who challenge teachers when they give out bad grades, never believing their precious snowflakes can get a D in a class.

During the brutal second term of governor Arnold Schwarzenegger  where California faced a huge budget deficit, funding for education was cut. The policy for laying off teachers as dictated by union contracts was by seniority and tenure and not by skill or merit. This angered a lot of younger teachers who have put in good years in teaching but has not yet earned tenure and it discouraged a lot of new people from becoming teachers because of the lack of funding, so the LAUSD was left with a brain drain. I met a teacher where she literally didn’t know if she was going to be laid off from month to month. And she was a fine teacher who loved to teach, who didn’t want to do anything else but teach. The thought that she could be laid off from teaching through no fault of her own but by the state’s finances and her lack of seniority and full tenure made her physically ill, as it should.

Public school teachers, in order to protect their professions have no choice but to enter the political fray, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I looked up to teachers as people who imparted knowledge to the next generation, who were not about politics but about knowledge. Their job was to teach and they left the politics to others. It’s now no longer the case. This fraught political environment, where special interest groups have stuck their tentacles of influence in the public school system have changed the nature of teaching for the worse, in my humble opinion.

I had the unique opportunity and privilege to experience two types of education systems by accident of my birthplace. I was born in Taiwan because my parents lived there and I received my earliest education in the very rigorous and takes-no-prisoners style of public education in Taiwan. Even in the first grade, we were in our classroom seats by 7:30 AM. Our homeroom teacher got there before us and had already filled the chalkboard full of Chinese vocabulary, sentences and and words we are to learn for the day. Before the first lesson is to begin, we had to copy everything on the chalkboard onto our notebooks, our teacher watched us like a hawk to make sure we didn’t cheat and skip sentences or words. We were but six or seven years old but we were not spoken to in soft tones, we were spoken to sternly and we were made very clear what was expected of us. No one cried or complained. It was just the way it was. If people think right now students have too much homework, they have no idea what too much homework looks like. We didn’t have small classrooms sizes either, each classroom had about 50 students but you heard not one peep from us. The teacher had full command of the classroom, no one talked back, no one talked when they weren’t supposed to and we all respected and feared her. What’s worse, our semester and year end final grades are posted on the door of the classroom so everyone and their mothers (literally) knows what your report card grades are. Chinese parents invented the ‘helicopter’ parent and there is a line of mothers standing by the classroom door to see where their child ranked. It was competitive from day one and an early introduction to public humiliation. I remember at the end of first grade, my final average grade from all of my classes (math, history, social studies, Chinese studies, writing composition, abacus – yes, I had to take abacus) was 95.5% and I was ranked only in the top 15. There were kids who had 100%. And there will be no parents berating the teachers for giving their students a bad grade. Taiwanese parents give school teachers a lot of respect and deference as it is the teachers who is imparting knowledge on to their children.

I am forever thankful to my early education in Taiwan. Though not recommended by education experts, their style of rote learning and memorization gave me the skills to get through any class, no matter how difficult and how boring I found it. Because of the rigor and discipline enforced upon me at first and second grade, I can teach myself or force myself to learn and do anything. There was no one in Taiwan then (I don’t know about now) who said they didn’t ‘like’ math or science. Not ‘liking’ a class isn’t an option. In fact, the idea of having a favorite subject is not introduced or allowed. We were expected to do well and take an equal liking to all of the classes.

My aunt was a middle school teacher in Taiwan. She explained to me that the goal of ‘learning by force’ is to bring all students up to a standard that is above their natural ability. To make gifted students more exceptional, to make mediocre students excellent students and indifferent and bad students at least mediocre so that they can advance to the next level of education. In order to advance to the next level of education in Taiwan, very difficult state standardized tests must be taken for admission to high school, university and some vocational schools. I believe recently they’ve abandoned the high school entrance test, so compulsory education has been extended through high school.

Looking back, this style of rote learning by memorization doesn’t emphasize enough on critical thinking and critical analysis and just having a student ‘figure stuff out’ on their own, but each style has its pros and cons. Having the skills of rote learning and memorization can help someone jump start a difficult subject and then later find the time to critically analyze and understand the subject. If I had finished out my education in Taiwan and not the US, I would have been seen a failure and a loser, as I am a critical thinker by nature and not so much with the memorization thing.

When I came to America to finish the rest of my education, I was in for a surprise. A nice surprise at how little homework there was. Due to my early force feeding of math, I was able to stay ahead in math up through 9th grade. But I would be foolish to dismiss American curriculum as not being challenging enough. It’s challenging in different ways. While we are not forced to memorize and do by rote hundreds of pages of homework for just one subject, we are required to think for ourselves. The school science projects and presentations where you had to illustrate and and define your points of view isn’t as easy as it seems if you aren’t taught to do it at an early age. One thing that always baffled me was how so many of my classmates all through elementary, middle school, high school and even college said they hated math and how they refuse to take any more math class that is minimally required. I loved math though I am not genius at it. The right answer never changes. As long as you arrive at the right answer, it will always be the right answer. One plus one will always be two. A squared plus B squared always equals C squared. If you plug in the formula correctly, you get the right answer. It’s one of the few sure things in life.

Educator and Professor P.L. Thomas of Furman University writes an insightful blog called The Becoming Radical, and he talks about how elitism, racism and classism are rife and rampant in public school education. He dispels rumors and falsehoods reported by the media about public education with real data and not urban legend. In all of his writings, what is most concerning to me is, and he proves it with data and facts, education is not the great equalizer, teacher ability only accounts for 10-15% of student achievement and student achievement is more likely than not to depend on factors outside of the classroom, such as poverty, unstable home life, lack of strong role models at home to instill the importance of education.

I left a comment for him asking him for solutions, since in most of his writings he points out problems, all legitimate and true, but no solutions. He scolds politicians and interests groups tainting the education system, taking the power away from teachers. He scolds journalists for not doing their homework when reporting on education as they rarely consult teachers or educators as a source, but he rarely points out solutions. He asserts that allowing parents school choices aren’t good either because it creates segregation. Having a standard of learning such as Common Core doesn’t make sense because the standards are biased. The lack of black history besides the slavery and post slavery era is a problem and contributes to bad feelings for black students in school. All of it true but no solid solutions or a suggestion of solutions. I guess my comment got stuck in ‘moderation’. He failed to post my comment nor responded to my comment.

The task of educating the masses is not an easy proposition. Especially in such a diverse population such as the United States. Public education can’t please everyone and it cannot guarantee the results for every student, but what it must do is to adequately educate a healthy majority of students to a level that is competitive. There must be a uniformity in standards from the most wealthiest of districts to the most disadvantaged but with some flexibility to adjust to the different needs of different students. The idea which everyone learns at their own pace, learns with their own method so therefore they should be allowed to do so sounds good in theory. However, teachers do not have enough hours in the day to accommodate each student’s different style or preference of learning. In this country, the problem began when too many people and interest groups stuck their hands in education. Unqualified know-it-alls proposing avant garde unproven ideas on how to overhaul and improve the schools end up making the situation worse. The single thing a teacher can do, and this is what my first grade teacher did for me in Taiwan, above and beyond their teachings skills, is drill the idea of the inherent importance of having a good education into their student’s heads. And it is important not because you want to go to college and get a good job, not because you want to win academic excellence awards or become famous but because you want knowledge. You want to be in possession of one of the most important things in life, and that is knowledge. The ability to seek knowledge, the thirst for knowledge, not in a creepy Faustian way, but the continual strive for accumulating more knowledge to enrich one’s soul, to make one’s life more meaningful through knowledge and learning. No one can take your knowledge away from you. Once you learn it, you own it. It’s yours. This was the lesson imparted by one of the greatest teachers who ever lived: Confucius.

2 thoughts on “The politics of American education.

  1. A well-written comprehensive post. I’m a decade older than you and was born in Canada and am grateful for the education I received through the public Protestant school system.

    When you said: Looking back, this style of rote learning by memorization doesn’t emphasize enough on critical thinking and critical analysis and just having a student ‘figure stuff out’ on their own, but each style has its pros and cons.

    I could not agree more. For example, math is not emphasized as a subject anymore since technology allows for easy answers via the calculator, but I recall having to learn my “times tables” up to 13. It was pure memorization. Later, I learned higher math, but the rote learning was an essential foundation to critical thinking.

    What I find most appalling about education in the primary system now is that no student fails. Everyone is pushed into the next grade regardless if they ‘passed’ the curriculum. This may satisfy the school’s statistical requirements and make students (and their parents) feel warm and fuzzy, but this will not satisfy the work place.

    It’s topic for another post, but poor students eventually fail or become poor employees, and that sadly leads back to education.

    eden

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eden – Oh my gosh! Do not get me started. This ‘no failing’ and everyone is a winner and these participation awards, they get steamed. Schools are SO afraid to say ‘no, not everyone is a winner’, life can be unfair, or it usually is unfair but you need to find a way through that and make your own way. If you say that, some kid goes home and cries to mommy, the teacher gets written up or worse sued.
      I memorized times tables too…until 12 though 🙂 not 13.
      And I sound like such a nerd for saying this, math is important. I encourage everyone to take as much math class as they can handle, even if you aren’t going to become a mathematician. Doing math on a consistent level can develop your linear logic and linear processing and analytic skills. I observed this from doing calculus since high school through college. I wish more people knew this. And yes, poor students = poor employees but you can’t say that either. Thank you for seeing my point, I know as another fellow Chinese, you’d ‘get’ it. 😀

      Like

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