Counterweights: Education – The Experts Discuss What’s Gone Wrong and What to Do about It. Part II

December 19, 2011

In our fall issue of Counterweights, Dr. Laura Musselwhite, associate vice president for academic and student services, and Carla Moldovan, dean of the mathematics division, discussed the very complex issues facing American education today.  The subject is in the forefront of public conversations more than ever.  Both women had such instructive musings about the challenges, problems and solutions to the many issues in both American culture and in secondary and higher education that the piece has been broken into two parts.  This issue presents the second part of their discussion.

Musselwhite and Moldavan wrapped up their conversation last time by pondering the impact that high-stakes testing and our American culture with its intense consumerism and short attention span have on the in-depth exploration of ideas and knowledge. Each offered some sensible suggestions for improving outcomes in the secondary school environment.  For example, they both strongly agreed with the need to eliminate high-stakes, stressful testing that seems to require all the energy in the classroom, with little left over for creative or analytical thinking.  Musselwhite recommended making the subject matter relevant to students’ lives.  Moldavan said to respect and teach to the differences in the way people learn.

All of which leaves us with the next challenging question.  What are the most critical problems and/or needs facing U.S. classrooms today?

Carla Moldavan

Carla Moldavan

Moldavan: In my opinion, the most critical factors hindering success in education are poverty and inequity in our society; finger-pointing in a quest to lay blame somewhere, anywhere; high-stakes testing and the stressful, mechanical environment it creates; and the practice of hurrying students.  There is so much information to learn by rote for these standardized tests that there is no time to teach anything of interest outside the narrow confines of what one can pencil in from one of four choices.  I’d say that’s not the way to spark someone’s imagination.  We must allow for that creative thinking if we’re going to be successful.

Musselwhite:  I would go even further.  Not only do students need time for their minds to wander and to look at problems, ideas and concepts from unusual points of view, they may also need an entirely different kind of program from the one offered.  And right now, systems – secondary, technical and college – are working in isolation, not as a unit.  The blame game must become irrelevant.  We should all be in the solutions business as a team.

As for testing, if we are going to continue with the amount of testing we currently administer, that testing at least need to be constructed differently to allow for more varied instruction and evaluation methods.  We can’t keep trying to fit all students into a narrow channel of learning.

Moldavan:  And beyond responding effectively to different learning styles, we also need to stay abreast of the emerging developments and research in pedagogy, technology and other instructional aids.  Look at the differences in the classroom that technology alone has made in the last 20 years. The impact of technology has been both negative and positive.  In mathematics, technology has served as a tool to use real world data and to explore creatively.  No longer are numbers used in exercises restricted to text books that work out neatly.  Now they can have real world implications, and that increases the opportunity to see relevance in applications.

On the other hand, anyone can post anything on the Web whether true or not.  Sure, one can get an international conversation going fairly easily, but such conversations are often incendiary and inaccurate.  They can distract and become a negative force in the learning community.

Laura Musselwhite

Laura Musselwhite

Musselwhite: There’s an additional negative impact as well.  We see students all the time with deficiencies in information literacy skills.  They see all information as equal.  Many are completely shocked to learn that Wikipedia isn’t always correct because anyone can add to the information there.  This belief that all information is valid and factual leads to indiscriminate use of information, which in turn, leads to poor research protocols and papers that aren’t academically sound.  Look, the sheer volume of information today can be overwhelming.  This leveling of the playing field in terms of information is part of what leads to the thinking that everyone is now an expert in everything.

On the positive side, however, students have access to so much more information than ever before.  When you consider what was available to them even 20 years ago, it’s just astonishing.  They can hear the London Philharmonic and see Michelangelo’s Pieta in their homes.  They can see the Mona Lisa, frankly, more clearly than if they were standing in front of her Plexiglas-covered visage in Paris.  Plus, research material is plentiful – excellent quality research material.  Research could almost become a job now rather than drudgery.

Moldavan:  Yes, and you’d think that with so many wonderful resources for information at their fingertips students would be more prepared when they get to college.  Yet they seem to be much less prepared.  It’s worrisome that 60 percent of our students need some form of learning support or remediation before they are ready for college-level courses.  That being said, however, teachers at any level take the students where they are and try to facilitate learning.  If a seventh-grade student can’t count how many decimal places there are to the right of the decimal point in a given decimal numeral, it isn’t likely the teacher is going to make enough progress in one year to have him exceed expectations on the Criterion Referenced Competency Test.  If a tenth-grader in business math is trying to add or subtract the check number in doing a bank reconciliation statement, there are still likely to be deficiencies three years later.  Students face all kinds of difficulties – fathers fighting in a war in another country, a parent in prison for manufacturing amphetamines, depression and many others.  Anyone who thinks he/she has an answer to cure the ills of lack of preparation needs to spend one week in a middle school or high school with 75 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch.

At the college level, students who were not motivated in middle or secondary school are given another chance.  While we know from hard data that the success rate of students who are required in all three learning support areas (math, reading and English) is low some of those students do finish college.  And even if they don’t complete all their learning support courses, surely there was still benefit in their work completed.  The fact that 60 percent of GHC students need some learning support doesn’t concern me as much as the possibility that in the future many of those students might not have the opportunity to receive help at Georgia Highlands.

Musselwhite:  We all know that the majority of our students need remediation, but we must also remember that we are an access institution.  This is our charge.  We are the avenue to a better future for so many students.  We can hope that all high-schoolers will be able to do college-level work, but we know that isn’t true.  Why can’t they do the work?  There are many reasons.  Some may relate to poor teaching, but as you said, many are socio-economic.  A student can’t concentrate very well when he or she is hungry.  If he can’t study because he works a part-time job after school to help the family get by, he may not succeed, either.  Some families just don’t value education, and thus don’t respect their child’s need for study time.  If education isn’t an important value at home, it won’t be at school either, at least for that student.  Students tend to become ashamed of their poor performance, then defensive.  They are the ones who are likely to drop out.

Because of the current emphasis on adequate yearly progress, schools feel the pressure to show improvement.  As a result, we have seen rampant grade inflation.  Many students have averages that are more than 100.  They are given extra credit, quizzes and homework grades at a dizzying pace – anything to provide the chance to raise the grade.  I see this first-hand.  When they arrive at GHC and need remediation, they can’t believe it.  If we could achieve systemic change across K-16, we might break out of this cycle.  But until we do, access colleges should feel compelled to help students catch up.  De-stigmatizing learning support would help.  Restructuring the way we conduct remediation may also work better.  We are currently working to make those courses more learner-centered, with emphasis on tutoring and learning at an individually appropriate pace.  And we expect to see higher success rates as a result of such changes.

Moldavan: I think we’ll see positive results, too.  And speaking of results, talking about solutions is much more optimistic than dwelling on problems.  So let’s do that for a few moments.  Let me share my top three priorities for addressing the downward trends in American education:

  • Eliminate poverty.  I know.  It’s a very tall order.
  • Change American culture.  Another huge challenge, but I’d love to see it become unacceptable to say, for example, “I never could do math.”
  • Send people who think they have all the answers into public schools for two weeks and let them try teaching all day.  When they return to the legislature or wherever they came from, they will understand why children are being left behind.  They’ll also start to appreciate the teachers in the trenches.
  • Stop propagating negative press about public education.  (OK, so I had four priorities.)  Acknowledge the many students from other countries who come to the United
    States for a college education and know that they are their countries’ finest.  Yet they chose our country for the best education they could find.

Musselwhite: Mine aren’t as sweeping as yours, perhaps, but they are similar in some ways.

  • Change the current culture.  Being educated is an advantage, not a disadvantage.  Until we get back to a place where being smart and knowledgeable is valued, we won’t see real change.
  • Eliminate the funding tie to test results.  It’s not real accountability, and it has led to a nightmare scenario in most of our schools.
  • Change current culture, take two.  Let teachers teach.  The fact the the public at large and politicians in general don’t trust teacher to do their jobs has completely hijacked the educational system.

My question to you, Dr. Moldavan, is this.  Do you think we can reach Obama’s goal of having 55 percent of the population obtain an associate degree or higher by 2025?

Moldavan:  If all students are proficient by 2013-2014, as No Child Left Behind called for, the 55 percent can have at least an associate degree by 2025.  I’m being ironic here, of course.  The American culture won’t change that fast.  In the mid-1970s there was an attempt to legislate use of the metric system.  Americans couldn’t handle that, so 40 years later we are still using inches, feet, yards, miles, pounds, etc.

Musselwhite:  Agreed.  I doubt it, too.  Unfortunately, although many students start their higher educational careers, many also never finish.  I definitely wish we could attain that goal.  But until higher education is seen as a value to be cherished rather than something viewed with suspicion, I fear we won’t see that goal come to fruition.

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