On Public Education Today

Memorization, not rationalization. That is the advice of my 13-year-old daughter, Esmee, as I struggle to make sense of a paragraph of notes for an upcoming Earth Science test on minerals. “Minerals have crystal systems which are defined by the # of axis and the length of the axis that intersect the crystal faces.” That’s how the notes start, and they only get murkier after that. When I ask Esmee what this actually means, she gives me her homework credo.

-from “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me,” Karl Taro Greenfeld, in The Atlantic.

Here is the thing. If it’s ridiculous to expect kids to understand this stuff in a wide range of different subjects, it’s equally ridiculous to expect teachers to understand this stuff in a wide range of different subjects and be experts in pedagogy and be up-to-date on research in child development and have time to deal with every individual child’s academic, social and emotional needs and be their own secretaries to boot. Even if you want to argue that eighth-grade teachers usually (but not always!!) teach just one or two subjects, keep in mind that for eighth grade science that means earth science and biology and chemistry and physics; for social studies it means ancient history and the middle ages and the columbian exchange and american history and the history of whatever state they’re living in.

I’m not unfamiliar with “the standards.” And while I think it’s ridiculous to expect every eight-grader to know about the crystalline systems of minerals (who cares?) I believe that most kids are capable of achieving the kinds of depth and excitement that learning about the crystalline systems of minerals is intended to provide. If not in every subject, then certainly in the subjects they’re interested in. Many kids are capable of going beyond those standards, if they’re really into minerals or if they have a teacher who can really help them understand why minerals are fascinating. As someone who is very highly educated, the stuff I see in “the standards” excites me.

But from homeschooling PK, who is very academically capable indeed, I know that trying to teach several different subjects to just one kid is getting pretty close to a full-time job. And I don’t have to give a crap about standardized tests or the bureaucratic paperwork that teachers have to spend so much time on. I don’t have faculty meetings. (I do spend a surprising amount of time printing stuff, though, it turns out.)

Yes. We can have an excellent, exciting system of public education. We can “raise the bar” and give kids fascinating stuff to learn rather than boring the bright ones to tears and teaching the less academically-inclined ones to think of themselves as stupid. But we cannot do this on the cheap, in classes of 40 or 30 or even 20 students at a time. We cannot do it by expecting teachers to have little more than a bachelor’s degree in education while somehow having the understanding and command of facts in multiple fields that comes from a really solid undergraduate degree or even an MA/MS. We cannot do this by simply demanding that kids memorize facts for standardized exams rather than really doing what it takes to provide learning environments and resources that will let truly engaged teachers help kids really get into how cool the crystalline structures of minerals really are:

"Cool," geddit? Haha.

“Cool,” geddit? Haha.

We need to decide. Do we want our education system to be good? or do we want it to be cheap?

And we need to stop sacrificing kids and those who love them by drawing and quartering them between the various fights over which one matters more.


4 responses to “On Public Education Today

  • mytwicebakedpotato

    I have been an elementary teacher for 20+ years. I am a good teacher and I spend my money and my time to benefit other people’s children. I have never had a class less than 20 and usually it is closer to 23-26 kids. In the last 3 years, our District has adopted a new science, reading, phonics, handwriting and writing program and expect us to be masters. It is hard. I love my job, but it is hard.

  • cheri

    Your analysis of the educational “holes” of teachers is one of my main concerns with public school. It seems to me that especially upper school teachers need a masters degree in a subject area in order to be qualified to even teach some of these subjects well enough. The only good teachers, Univ or HS that I ever had were teachers that were both knowledgeable and passionate about their subjects. A teacher who spends most of their degree studying “how to teach” rather than a subject is not going to be passionate or knowledgeable enough to inspire confidence in ONE subject, let alone the 4 or 5 that you are describing. Of course….if we are only paying peanuts to our teachers, who is going to invest all that education in teaching….

    My husband and I, with our various degrees, are much better educated in subject areas than my daughter would ever encounter in public schools. It is so hard to compete with homeschooling when you start looking at issues like this.

    The state of schools is just such a waste. I want more for our kids.

  • Ingi (@ingidefygravity)

    It’s just ridiculous. I was a high school science teacher. The amount of “content” in the syllabus is ridiculous. The vast majority of kids aren’t interested, don’t get it, and aren’t going to remember all the “science” we are trying to teach them. You are right – the bright kids are bored and the less able kids are switched off.

    In my state in Australia, they are trying to make homeschooling MORE prescriptive – to ensure we don’t miss ticking off that content. I don’t want more CONTENT for my bright kids – I want them to love learning. To follow their passions. To think deeply and ask interesting questions.

    Great post!

  • tedra

    I actually had a lot of great teachers in high school who didn’t have master’s degrees, and most of the teachers my son had in elementary school, with “just” BAs, were amazing. I really wanted this post to make clear that it *isn’t* just about academic content–it’s also about how much work it is to understand child development, psychology, and to have the *time* to really treat each kid as an individual–as *well* as “content delivery.” I honestly think that if push comes to shove, the caring matters far, far more than the knowledge, especially for young children.

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