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:
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.