Monday, February 10, 2014

What is the Purpose of Education, K-12 and Higher?

Such a question.   I looked into this question when I was asked to speak about public education before a group of young early-leader Dems.  If you go back to the start of our country's history (even before we were a nation), it was about intellectual thought.  Being able to read was the key factor.  (The other key factor in public education?  Local control but that's a subject for another day.)

But, in the early days, it was for the landed gentry and their offspring.  But naturally, as we became a nation, we grew but public education still wasn't for everyone.  (Watch 12 Years a Slave and see the real and present danger of being enslaved and knowing how to read and write.  That said, I wish this film had been more like the book which had a much fuller picture of the hero and what he did AFTER he was able to get away.) 

But business - ever wanting trained workers and that that meant those who could read and write - did want more "educated" workers. 

But my thread is not to argue about what happened in the past but to the central question of today - why do we education our nation's children?  Is it to be able to read and write, add and subtract, read about the issues of the day and understand them to some degree and advocate for changes/additions based on that knowledge?  Is it to understand history and art and the role of both in any society? 

Is it abilities versus skills?  Educating versus training?  (I'm thinking of the Winter Olympics - are most of these different events sports or skills?  Let's take the luge, for example.)

In Europe, many countries track kids starting as early as 4th grade but usually around the 8th/9th grade.  I'm not sure if this is by grades and/or student and parent desire or both.  If you read many of the comments to education stories at the Times, you'll see many people who think this is a good idea.  They think that trying to educate an entire populace to one set of standards is a waste of time and money. 

Should we be trying to educate all children to the same standard?  If not, who decides how to sort them? 

Because honestly, when we turn up our noses at Europe and say, "Every child in America is thought of equally" well, the evidence makes that statement ring a bit hollow.  We don't fund schools evenly, either thru public funds or privately raised funds.  We don't have decent school buildings in every neighborhood in every district.  We certainly don't offer the same kinds of technology and science labs in every high school. 

I've been thinking about this as I ponder the Common Core School Standards (CCSS).   (Again, I'm planning a very long multi-part series on CCSS so this will just touch on it.)  For example, reading will now be about 50% non-fiction and 50% fiction, away from primarily being fiction.  Given that most learning is non-fiction and most of the work done in the world uses non-fiction, this may be the right way to go. 

But is what gets left behind going to be missed?  Will what is left out be backfilled by teacher initiative or will this signal a fundamental shift in our cultural literacy?

I recently read an article in The Atlantic by Andrew Simmons, an LA teacher who teaches low-income high school students, called, "The Danger of Telling Poor Kids that College is the Key to Social Mobility."   It's tag sentence?  Higher education should be promoted to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening, not just increase their earning power.  From the article:

The essay’s core concerned the rhetoric that educators had used to motivate her and her peers—other minority students from low-income communities. She’d been encouraged to think of college foremost as a path to socioeconomic mobility. 

Yet by focusing on this one potential benefit, educators risk distracting them from the others, emphasizing the value of the fruits of their academic labor and skipping past the importance of the labor itself. The message is that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security.

I was reminded of this the other evening at the School Board meeting when the T.E.A.L. team from Rainier Beach High School gave the Board a show of their coding skills.  At least two of them said they were going to have high-paying jobs because they were learning to code. 

My students are understandably preoccupied with money. They don’t have the privilege to not worry about it.

Students hear that being a doctor is great because doctors can make money, enjoy respect, and have a great life. They don’t hear that being a doctor is great because doctors possess the expertise to do great things.

In contrast, at the private school I attended for the last two years of high school, my classmates thought about what they wanted to learn in college, not only what they wanted to become. Some knew medical or law school loomed in the future, but they thought about the work in a different way.  They didn’t talk about it. Instead, a future doctor talked about working at the CDC to fight public health epidemics. A future lawyer envisioned starting a defense firm to provide a service to the hometown community. 

Here's the key issue to me and what I believe is now happening across our country (and, because of charters, escalating):

Studying elementary schools, Anyon looked at how schools can condition kids for positions in life. 

She saw that schools teaching the children of affluent families prepared those kids to take on leadership roles and nurtured their capacity for confident self-expression and argument. 

A middle-class school deemphasized individual expression and in-depth analysis and rewarded the dutiful completion of specified rote tasks. 

Schools teaching children from low-income families focused on keeping students busy and managing behavior. 

In each case, according to Anyon, a “hidden curriculum” has prepared students for a future role in society. Some students learn to take orders and others learn to chart a course of action and delegate responsibility. School can either perpetuate inequity through social reproduction or have a transformative effect and help students transcend it.

What does mean to the choices students make about going to college?

According to ACT’s College Choice Report from November 2013, 32 percent of students pick a college major that doesn’t really interest them. The same study suggests that students are less likely to graduate when they do this. As high school educators know, good students have less trouble getting into selective schools than they do graduating from them – especially first-generation minority college students like Isabella and her classmates.

Yes, I know we need to grow our economy and have an educated workforce.  It's quite the paradox because, on the one hand, we hear STEM, STEM, STEM.  And yet, over the last five years, many employers are finding they need employees who can think creatively and beyond the rote.  Where's that happy medium?  Should we have more "training" colleges and universities simply for those who want to learn a skill (and don't need Psych 101)?

I'll also point out that no matter what direction, the money must follow.  We cannot decry the inability for students to be able to attend a public university if they wish when we don't fund the resources to make that possible.

I want end my thread and start this discussion with a letter that a graduate student from the UW's Computer Science and Engineering wrote to the department.  His name is Anthony Wu.

This story is about a teenager who just badly wants to study computer science at a university that cannot afford to teach computer science to every interested student.

This story is also about politics, opportunity, upward socioeconomic mobility, funding for education and one first-generation immigrant’s attempt to realize the American Dream.

Unfortunately, it is also a cautionary tale of how a simple goal might have easily slipped away from the individual chasing it.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

The CCSS for ELA (English Language Arts) include literacy standards for science and history/social studies, where most nonfiction is read. It does not mean less fiction should be read in LA, or that we move away from fiction. On the whole, across subjects, there is generally more nonfiction than fiction.

http://www.corestandards.org/ela-literacy/rh/6-8

fyi

Melissa Westbrook said...

FYI, well, if you are reading less fiction, you are moving somewhat away from it.

Anonymous said...

Or, are they suggesting students just read more as they move from elementary to middle to high school, so that the amount of fiction does not change so much as the total quantity of reading?

An analogy:

Suppose every day I eat an apple and a banana. 50% of my fruit consumption is apples. I then start eating an apple, a banana, and 2 oranges every day. Now 25% of my fruit consumption is apples. Am I eating fewer apples? No. I just increased my consumption of other fruits.

Tackling the Fiction/Nonfiction Balance in Common Core (Again)

fyi

Melissa Westbrook said...

FYI, I'd have to look into that but I'm pretty sure I read it as a straight-up 50% fiction, 50% non-fiction. But it's a good question and that no one knows for certain means that the messaging may not be as wide-spread/in-depth as it should.

Anonymous said...

From the introduction to the ELA CCSS [bold added]:

NAEP Reading Framework
Grade|Literary(%)|Information(%)
4 50% 50%
8 45% 55%
12 30% 70%

Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

footnote to table:
1 The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.

Intro to CCSS English Language Arts

fyi

Anthony Wu said...

Hi, I'm the UW grad who wrote the letter to the CSE department. Thank you for reading and linking to my post, I hope it can start a productive dialogue about funding for education and how to properly address socioeconomic inequality.

Maybe of interest, I am also an alumni of Eckstein and Roosevelt.

In the discussion that you're proposing regarding my letter to UW CSE, I want to make sure my message is not misinterpreted.

1. Technology and computer science is my childhood passion. I just loved, loved math and science. My cliched goal was to become an astronaut. =) I did not focus on STEM merely because it's currently a financially lucrative career. I would have wanted to study computer science regardless of career outcomes. This is no less valid than someone wanting to pursue Art or Music.

2. My letter should be read in the strict context of a student already opting in to study computer science at UW, but the opportunity to do so is not available to all who wish to apply.

3. I actually have to agree with the statement "Higher education should be promoted to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening, not just increase their earning power". I want to emphasize that for me, intellectual awakening and earning power just happens to intersect, which is a nice to have. That said, I took advantage of all opportunities to take in Humanities electives throughout my UW college career, including economics, sociology, linguistics and art, which are all outside of STEM. It is absolutely important to acknowledge and value STEM as equally "intellectually awakening".

4. Not worrying and reaching for financial security is very much a *privilege*! This privilege is something I still have to compete with even as a professional and entrepreneur. I have to compete with entrepreneurial peers with family wealth, trust funds or previously accumulated wealth to fall back on in the case of their companies failing. I don't begrudge anyone for deploying resources available to them to pursue their passions, but I do not enjoy that sense of security.

5. Learning to code does not guarantee a lucrative career. Software Engineering is a craft to be learned over time as an academic career, one does not simply "learn to code" and land a 6-figure job. I do think the financial opportunity is mis-represented by some boosters of the craft.

6. However, groups who are under-represented in STEM fields should rightly be encouraged to view STEM as a viable career option and should receive encouragement if it aligns with an individual's interests.

I'll leave with a relevant quote by John Adams:

“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. (12 May 1780)”

Melissa Westbrook said...

Oh Anthony, I hope you didn't think I linked your letter and this article believing that you only wanted to make money. It is quite clear that you wanted a career, not just a job.

Thanks for writing.