Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Pressure to Perform to False Standards?

A lot of you can relate to this blog. I am quoting from writings by one, Alec M. Resnick, a junior majoring in mathematics and ancient and medieval studies at M.I.T. This article in its entirety can be found on or ask to get on Dr. Becker’s email list at jbecker@SIU.EDU. Resnidk writes about an energetic young high school student he tutored. The student was a typical overstressed teenager, who participated in all proper school, social and family obligations; an overachiever. But some of his studies confounded him. So much pressure was on him to make high grades and do all the extra-curricular activities that he would become frustrated when not understanding or with finding correct answers to some of his class subjects.. Dan says he was typical of people who act and react in creative, original and ingenious ways when confronted with real-world problems, but freeze in an academic context, failing to muster high grades.

Dan points out that the difference between the successful and unsuccessful; student is that the successful student has adapted more effectively to the system or playing the game. The more closely, quickly, and cheerily you can follow the lead of the adults around you, the more successful you will become. What matters to these adults? Grades, scores, prestigious colleges, good jobs-in short; success. Youths and adults from all backgrounds know that education is the way to scramble up the socioeconomic ladder.

Dan believes that this is the reason more and more students are becoming professional students earlier and earlier. School is their job. And, so the ethic goes, a productive worker is a good worker. Though exactly what they produce is unclear, there is no question as to what they become: fully credentialed, well-schooled students. They become the modern aristocrat. They are marked by the dean’s list and honor rolls, stellar SAT scores and relentless community service, glowing letters of recommendation and moving personal essays, all those elements stuffed into that oversized envelope sent off to a dream college the winter of their senior year.

Dan questions how much this has to do with learning. He says any measurement founded upon a combination of fear (of failure and the associated bogeymen) and bribery (or cheating, prestige and the trappings of success) cannot reveal anything of import. Yet private professional schools make billions of dollars teaching students how to take tests and training them in the art of appearing to have learned.

Dan continues that when we try to motivate students fear or greed, we inevitably force them to shut away vulnerable instincts of curiosity and trust. Education has become a commodity. Even is that fact remains unarticulated, student of all ages understand that at the end of all their schooling is a valuable degree.

We all know that education is a prudent investment. We know that a high school degree doesn’t mean as much as it used to. More and more people go to college because that’s what it now means to get a good education.

Dan continues that as long as education is a commodity, its rarity, rather than its content, will determine its market value, this vicious circle will continue. We are spending more time studying more narrowly just to remain competitive. How will it end?

A teaching assistant friend of his at M.I.T. said that more than half of the students in his section consistently and flagrantly copied answers on problem sets. Moreover, he said, when he complained of this to his fellow teachers, they cynically acknowledged that they were in the same boat. Worse, the confirmation was laden with apathy. Cheating was a de fato policy among students.

Dan continues that there is a clear dissonance in our society between the interest of those who give grades, those who get the grades, and those who want the grades. Grades are intended to be a byproduct of learning. A measure independent of the process. But for anyone who has been pushed to study those few extra ours to ace the finals, the proposition that grades area merely ancillary to the learning process is ridiculous.

Dan continues “The situation has grown so dire that students at top universities cannot imagine learning without school, motivation without grades, and success without measurement. The nation’s best students have become so tied to the system they have mastered that the system has mastered them. In some ways they are worse off than they were before they began their education. In most cases, all they have gained is a knowledge of facts, and they have lost confidence in their ability to think, learn, analyze and absorb unaided.”

A professional education company (Kaplan) has an ad that says simply, “Higher score. Brighter future.” Dan says it should be, “Smarter kid. Brighter future” or “Harder worker. Brighter future. A higher SAT score.

I couldn’t wait to get out of high school and I couldn’t wait to get out of college. I attended because I knew I had to have these “hunting licenses” or I would not be able to be what I wanted to be. Most of my teachers taught “rote” (they all taught discipline and were backed up by administration and parents, unlike in so many public schools today)and other than reading, writing and basic math, taught me to teach the same way I was taught, rather dull and uninteresting. Yet I considered myself a better than average teacher because I taught kids how to acquire the other tools that would help them succeed in life; namely, what the word work really meant, to communicate, to ask, to tell me in what they were most interested in; that I way I could try to guide them to what they would need to study to fulfill their interests, to listen, to be on time, to be self-disciplined, to complete a task, to follow rules, look after their health, to participate but only in so much participation that they could handle, to compete fairly and not expect that the world owed them a living.

We were all fortunate we were not being taught to tests and did not teach to tests.

Since I was also head coach, I ran into conflict with the FFA teacher. I advised the boys interested in both sports and the FFA at the same after school hours, to make a choice and dedicate themselves to their choice. These were hard decisions they would face later on in life; do not spread yourself too thin and disappoint themselves and those who “count” on your full participation.

We would be far better off in educating our kids today if we had less governmental interference, less pedagogy, less testing for tests, more innovative teachers, more support for these teachers from all levels above, more merit incentive and more self disciplining families, who are the root of the successes and failures of our schools and the product they produce.

As I blogged recently, when I owned my business, we only used an “outside” consultant one time and we really didn’t learn more than what we already knew. We still lacked the finances we needed to make most of the changes recommended. Does this statement sound familiar locally? Unfortunately, I have seen way too many “consultants” with impressive degrees trying to tell us here in Peoria what enough of us if called on and listened to, already know.

And we would provide our services for free.

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