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

September 30, 2011

For years experts in education have been lamenting the decline of the American classroom.  Worldwide, public opinion still believes that America’s colleges and universities are the finest in the world, and American college classes are filled with international students.  But something is fundamentally wrong with achievement in K-12, and that malaise has spread upward.  College professors are reporting that students expect to be spoon fed; they demand unreasonable accommodations or complain about bad grades even when they earned them; they surf the net or text their friends during class, and are generally not engaged.

In this column, the first in a two-part series, we explore issues in culture, family expectations and standardized testing protocols that are impacting our students and our fundamental educational values.  Unlike previous Counterweights columns, our two faculty members will not debate the points.  Rather they will each discuss her take on the abysmal numbers coming out of the latest research.  Joining the discussion are Dr. Carla Moldavan, academic dean of the mathematics division, and Dr. Laura Musselwhite, associate vice president for academic and student affairs.

In way of background, there are some important facts that will help direct the discussion, from the 2008 publication by the College Board titled “Report on the Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in High Education.”

  • “The rate at which American students disappear from school between grades 9 and 12 has tripled in the last 30 years.  The loss of students between grades 9 and 10 is the biggest leak in the educational pipeline.
  • “High-school graduation rates have fallen from 77 percent in 1972 to 67 percent today.
  • “The United States, which led the world in high-school completion rates throughout the 20th century, ranked just 21 out of 27 advanced economies in 2005.  We rank near the bottom of industrialized countries in completion rates after students have enrolled in college.”

In boldface type was the admonition: “Merely to reclaim our position in the front rank of international educational leadership, many experts believe we must establish and reach a goal of ensuring that by the year 2025 fully 55 percent of young Americans are completing their schooling with a community college degree or higher.”

The latest report, released in mid-September, showed SAT scores now at their lowest on record.  Combined math and reading scores were the lowest since 1995.  To what do we attribute this erosion of educational attainment?  What has changed during the last 50 years?

Carla Moldovan

Dr. Carla Moldavan, Academic Dean of the Mathematics Division

Moldavan:  What has changed in the past 50 years is American culture.  Fifty years ago, teachers were some of the most respected members of a community.  Now, for individuals as well as government and other agencies, teacher-bashing and education-bashing seems to be a favorite pastime.  Fifty years ago the president of the United States was not belittled on television.  Commentators spoke calmly instead of interrupting and yelling at each other.  Fifty years ago the most punishable acts most often perpetrated by high-school students were smoking beside the gym and failing to tuck in shirttails.  Now teachers deal with drug babies and gang members.

Laura Musselwhite

Dr. Laura Musselwhite, Associate Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs

Musselwhite:  Well, respect has certainly been eroded, not only in education, but authority in general.  Some historians blame Watergate.  Before that scandal, unethical behavior on the part of presidents wasn’t publicized out of respect for the office.  We all knew that presidents sometimes acted unethically.  After Nixon the prohibitions against open and loud criticism disappeared.  I think that sense of freedom led to the rabid style of reporting commonplace now.  And that contributes to the idea that everyone, no matter at how high a level, is a legitimate target.  Televised media has also evolved in the past 50 years.  As the market becomes more competitive, media outlets have to ramp up their ability to attract viewers, and thus sensationalism grows.  Obviously, I don’t believe anyone should behave unethically, or that he or she shouldn’t be held accountable.  But the new normal is now to show a complete lack of respect for authority or difference.  There seems to be a sense that no one deserves credit for real achievements or the hard work responsible for them.  We seem to have created the great, artificial level playing field where no one has the right to be better than anyone else at a particular skill, hence the belittling of those who are educated, and indeed, education itself.

Moldavan:  No doubt the egalitarian nature of our republic contributes to this sense of a level playing field, no matter how distorted that basic premise has become.  The United States offers a free public education to all its citizens.  In other countries competition is stiff.  Preschoolers are primed and rushed academically so that they can get into the best kindergartens.  Students commit suicide because they are unable to get into high school.  While I don’t advocate that students should feel so pressured they commit suicide, we have gone to the opposite extreme.  Here, peer pressure dictates that being a good student isn’t cool.  While it is true that upper middle-class families in the U.S. groom their children for college and value education, there is a large population in America that doesn’t follow that pattern.  I remember getting on the school bus 44 years ago and having a younger neighbor boy ask me how old I was.  When I told him I was 16, he asked me why I was still in school.  I also remember being told by the stepfather of a rising eighth grader that a diploma was just a piece of paper and didn’t mean anything.  Dropping out at age 15 and working in the carpet mill ever since had been good enough for him, and it evidently would be good enough for his stepdaughter.  I’ve wondered in the last few years what happened to him when the mill closed due to the bad economy.

Musselwhite:  You’ve certainly hit on something I believe to be a crucial element to the current state of affairs.  There have traditionally been such parents.  But more than that, I believe childrearing itself has also changed.  That fact is one of the few reasons I can think of for the different attitudes of students today versus 30 years ago.  Part of the whole is certainly the lack of respect for authority, but there’s also a virulent sense of entitlement that never existed before.  We’ve lived in a gold star era for the last decade or two.  By that I mean there’s a pervasive attitude that we are all great.  We all deserve a gold star.  Speaking as both a teacher and a parent of a teenager, I believe that belief has led to every child feeling set apart as particularly special.  That’s just not reality.  Yes, every person has both strengths and weaknesses and can develop his or her strengths.  But we’re not all equally talented or smart or creative or mechanically adept – or whatever.  As a result, many students feel too special to complete their work, too special to read their textbooks, too special to show respect for their teachers.  I think many of them don’t see their teachers as experts in their fields because everyone is an expert now, simply because he or she has an opinion.  And opinion isn’t the same as knowledge.  If all we need is an opinion, why should we need an education?  Look at what is happening in politics.  You’re right, Dr. Moldavan.  People have very loud opinions, but sometimes they are nowhere in the realm of factual reality.

Moldavan:  Well, we could certainly become extremely depressed following this line of reflection.  Let’s turn our thoughts to remedies.  Since we are in higher education, let’s focus on what we can do at the college level to address some of these problems.  First, I believe there must be a diversity of programs to serve the interests of a wide range of students.  Some need vocational skills such as welding or heating and air-conditioning so they can enter the work force.  Secondly, we need strong learning support programs so that students who were disinterested in high school can get the remediation they need to be successful college students when they realize that’s what they want.  And finally, instruction must provide opportunity for active participation.  A lecture-only classroom doesn’t take into account students who have been turned off by schooling and have grown up experiencing the world and education in other ways.  We need to take advantage of all the research that has proven there are various kinds of learning styles.

Musselwhite:  I agree that we need to take into account a number of differences.  Destructuring the curriculum a bit might help.  We ask students to go through the same core, at least in spirit, that has existed since the medieval trivium and quadrivium.  We function with the notion that taking a bit of this and a bit of that makes for a more well-rounded student.  While I totally agree that this system does make for a fuller education, I wonder if we are holding on to an ideal that just no longer gels with the world in which we live.  I am the first one to assert that I will never stop teaching the Renaissance, whether students want the information or not, because I feel I can explain why it is important.  However, our age-old concept of the core may be in need of revision.  Such changes may be extremely difficult.  The University System of Georgia made a good-faith effort a year or two ago to review the curriculum and make it more relevant.  Still, we ended up with virtually the same system as before.

I recently visited a college in Massachusetts where there was no core curriculum.  There were introductory courses, but if a student could demonstrate in some prescribed and approved way that he had a grasp of the material, he didn’t have to take that particular course.  The goal focused on getting students started in a major sooner, because that’s where their interests lie.  I’m not sure I would take it as far as this school has, but being more learner-centered could be a positive start toward making the college experience more meaningful, and thus more valuable to students.  That being said, learner-centered does not mean a free-for-all.  It simply means having the flexibility in place to meet students where they live intellectually.

Moldavan: That’s not a bad suggestion.  But nothing will work well if students are not better prepared, and while our focus isn’t on secondary education, there are some issues that should be addressed at that level.  We need to eliminate high-stakes testing.  So much debate has taken place on that subject there’s no need for me to recirculate it.  There must be measurements, but not the way they are configured today.  Here are my suggestions:

  • Have administrators deal with student behavior and leave the classroom teacher the job of teaching in a positive learning environment.
  • Don’t try to force everyone into the same mold, as traditional teaching has done.
  • Encourage teachers who are doing the best job they have with what they have.
  • Make learning relevant to life.
  • Expect students to think rather than trying to pour knowledge into their heads.
  • Emphasize why, not just how.

Musselwhite:  I completely agree with you about high-stakes testing.  So here are my couple of suggestions.

  • We need to roll back No Child Left Behind.  Although well-meaning, this law has led to an accountability movement that leaves teachers terrified to fail.  It’s a well-founded fear.  It has not only produced the high-stakes testing that dominates classrooms today, but the cheating scandal that has accompanied it.  Sadly, children learn to the testing standards.  If the students were learning to achieve outcomes flowing naturally from the material, the situation would be more positive.  But they’re not.  They’re learning the test.  They end up with an entire academic career of learning based on reviewing the study guide the day before a test.  The students know it, the parents know it and the teachers know it.  This has nothing to do with teachers being entitled to their jobs – despite the incompetence that no doubt exists within the teaching corps.  If a teacher is not doing the job, get rid of him/her.  No argument there.  But the criteria being used for teacher assessment is skewed.  The results that appear in the media are both simplistic and deceptive.  We can’t judge a system by the one or two data points most commonly espoused (like test scores).  The problems are too complex, and can’t be explained in a sound bite.
  • Make learning relevant.  Teachers should take every opportunity to demonstrate to students why a concept is important.  Then they should give those students the chance to reinforce that information in their own way through a variety of means – experimentation, case study and other methods that work for the student.

Editor’s Note: In our next issue, the conversation on education continues.  It’s an extremely important one for the future of our children and our country’s economic and cultural viability.  Moldavan and Musselwhite will discuss more solutions – how to address problems inside the classroom that come from without, the role of technology for a student body raised on ever-evolving media and smart capabilities, ways to combat the necessity for inordinate amounts of remediation at the college, the lack of math/science/technology/engineering and more.

3 Responses to Counterweights: Education – The Experts Discuss What’s Gone Wrong and What to Do about It

  1. Rick Bombard on September 30, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    My compliments on a thoughtful and insightful discussion. At the risk of engaging in reductionism, I believe our problem is funadmentally cultural. The evidence suggests that the usual targets of bad teachers, monetary investments, and teacher-student ratio are misguided. Sadly, many students view education as a form of torture. Only a small percentage show any driving intellectual curiosity. I suspect that until our country is willing to admit that our problem goes far beyond bad teachers, we will continue to see the U.S “academically adrift.”
    Thanks for such a engaging conversation.

    Rick

  2. Dana Pergrem on October 1, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Thanks for this thought provoking conversation. I experienced a “this is why I have the type of students I do” moment a couple of days ago. A friend’s elementary school uses a system of green, yellow, and red to manage behavior issues. If behavior is acceptable one stays on green for the day. If there is an incident of unacceptable behavior one moves to yellow, and so forth.

    Recently this school felt forced to implement an intermediate step between green and yellow because so many parents complained when their children were removed from the green status (which comes with perks). They felt their children were still entitled to the green perks, regardless of behavior, and were determined to see that “little Johnny” was not diminished in any way. Left unchecked, this attitude will prevail throughout the school years and into college.

    I see the problem not just as an education related complexity, but as a pervasive societal issue. And I cringe when I ponder how little Johnny will ever make it through the real trials and disappointments of life when he has not accumulated a reserve of resolve from which to draw.

  3. Larry Stephens on July 2, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    In spite of the collective efforts of teachers, administrators, the Department of Education, and every other government-related agency that has a stake in our nation’s future–our youth–we should realize by now that the main reason high school graduates are so ill-prepared and unmotivated when it comes to college work is quite simple . . . the foundation for life-long learning was never laid to begin with. Education begins at home. If parents park their children in front of TV and computer screens, get the kids revved up on video games, and buy them everything under the sun (all the while padding their self esteem with phony affirmations over the most trivial accomplishments), then what should we expect from spoiled, arrogant 18-year-olds? There are certain societal problems that government cannot fix, and this is one of them.

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