Here is a question many of you would probably consider a bit whimsical, if not heretical; but I assure you, it has a dead serious intent.  If you were education czar, what would YOU require be taught (or not taught) in American schools?

Let me get you started.  Here are three things that I believe SHOULD be taught but AREN’T: metric system; evolution; critical thinking.

And here are three that ARE being taught, but SHOULDN’T: spelling; long division; propaganda.

My full list is much longer; but I would like to hear your thoughts.  If I get responses, I am prepared to vigorously defend my philosophical positions.

Also, what do you think should be the ultimate goals of education?  As a teacher for 36 years, mine were the development of ATTITUDES; specifically - responsibility, self-reliance, creativity, initiative, integrity; and most of all - the value of hard work.  And repeated testing/grading do NOTHING to inculcate these values.  I hate to say it, but most American teachers test and grade in order to avoid the hard work of teaching 40 kids in a classroom.  That’s not entirely their fault, though.  It is the fault of the entire 19th century paradigm under which our education system stuggles, impotently, to succeed. 

By the way: Sal Khan ROCKS!   

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Comment by Becca on October 16, 2012 at 2:12am

The metric system, evolution, and critical thinking are taught in many schools throughout the US. Long division and spelling certainly need to remain in the curriculum, how they are taught needs to  be changed. Alternatives to the standard mathematical algorithms and a better understanding of the whys behind math need to be taught. Phonics needs to become more prevalent or reintroduced into the curriculum, the whole word method is crap and harms students who's academic success is already at risk by nonacademic factors. There have been some teachers known to attempt to propagandize children in school however this is not institutionalized nor is it as common as many like to claim it is.

Testing in the form that it is most often used in schools (standardized testing, fill in the bubble crap) is detrimental to both the students and the teachers. Testing should be a tool to measure student improvement over time and to determine where the future curriculum is going to go. Testing should also take into account the thought processes behind the answers not just whether or not the final answer is right or wrong.

I think the biggest problems with the US education system as it stands are:

- Student to teacher ratios. All classrooms should be smaller than what seems to be the standard of 40 students. Smaller class size = greater student acheivment becuase students get more attention.
- Standardized fill in the bubble tests that neither measure student improvement nor takes into account the student's thought processes.
- Poverty and/or bad parenting situations. Unfortuneatly this is not sometning that even a stellar school system can fix. These are societal issues that the US really sucks at addressing.
- The push for everyone to go to college. College really isn't for everyone. There are many post-highschool paths to success that students need to be aware of.
- Attitudes about education. Thinking education is worthless is a self fulfilling prophecy. A students attitude is huge, the teacher can only do so much (we aren't maricle workers). You can't teach someone who is unwilling to be taught or who is unwilling to make any efffort.
- K-5th grade being taught by non-specialized teachers. Any given 3rd grade teacher is expected to teach every subject to their 3rd grade students. I think grede school need to be run more like middle/highschools and subjects be taught by teachers who are sepcialized in certain subjects.
- Lack of exposure to other languages and cultures. I think second language learning should happen in every school begining in kindergarten. We have the resources and people to begin really teaching spanish to students throughout the USA. Really I don't care what language a school takes on and teaches its students so long as they are learning a second language.
- No tolerance policies. They leave no room for nuance.
- Lack of recess. The younger the kid the more run around non-structured time they need. I think a lot of behavioral issues in kids could be alleviated by giving them apmple time to move their bodies. Also, play is very important to the learning process, the younger they are the more important play is.
- The blame the teacher attitude. There are many problems in the US edcuation system. No system is ever going to be perfcet for everyone subject to it. I'd like to see everyone take a step back and stop blaming teachers for everyting and look at the system teachers work under and look at the societal problems that affect education. I think most educational problems stem from societal problems and problems with the current education system, not with the teachers themselves.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on October 16, 2012 at 12:52pm

Home Economics – that is the basics of food preparation and cooking. Built into this would be facts about nutrition and healthy eating.

Religion –The history of them. It could promote an understanding for and an appreciation of the diversity of them.  However no religion to be given preference over another or taught as a specific subject. This is what Dan Dennett calls the fourth “R”.

Speed reading and study skills – note taking, revision, exam prep etc.

Comment by Tom on October 16, 2012 at 9:02pm

If you live in Texas, you'll have a little opposition on teaching critical thinking.

Comment by Ed on October 16, 2012 at 10:19pm

The fine folks in Texas who were on the school textbook advisory board seemed it was necessary to omit a Mr. T. Jefferson from the textbooks. Seems his deistic stance supporting separation of church and state was a bit too liberal for their agenda.

Norway has one of the top educational systems in the world. They do VERY LITTLE testing. They instead concentrate on developing "life skills" for their students. Heavy vocational studies are emphasized. They concentrate on developing the skills an individual needs to succeed in life from a practical standpoint. They also spend little time supporting religion and it's baggage of unbelievable fantasies.  

So what does everyone think about all the foreign money being invested in America to buy, control, and run the increasing number of charter schools?

Comment by SteveInCO on October 16, 2012 at 11:49pm

Something else that would be useful is money management, so as to give people the tools they need not to overextend themselves in debt.

Kris mentioned vocational schools.  Ideally by the time you get through eighth grade, you'd know enough arithmetic to get by and be able to read at, well, what NOW would be a tenth grade level but was probably a sixth grade level a hundred years ago.  You could then go on either an academic (college prep) or vocational track.  Or leave school entirely and still be somewhat educated.  My high school had vestiges of this system 30 years ago; there were three or four hour classes on electronics, shop, and auto repair that were obviously vocational in nature.  (What I did not agree with was that both sorts of education got identical diplomas; you should be able to tell what someone did.)  Many perfectly bright people just aren't suited for the academic life, but will be very good mechanics, and that is no job for morons; troubleshooting is a difficult skill

Of course with our increasingly technical and complex civilization, college itself is divided into what might as well be considered a vocational and an academic track; engineering and business schools are vocational at the undergraduate level and medical school is vocational at the post grad level.  This is in no way a ding on college for not being purely academic, nor is it a sign they are doing work that high school ought to be doing (though that is unfortunately true), it's a sign that we are more and more technologically advanced and some lines of work need more and more technical training.  You simply aren't ready to start studying engineering with even my ideal 8th grade education;  it's dicey enough starting to teach it when people are still in pre-calc or calculus.

A large part of the problem today is that just about every job, no matter how menial, wants to see a high school diploma.  That puts pressure on high schools to graduate people who, decades ago, wouldn't have *been* in high school.  Likewise the increasing demand for a college degree, because high school diplomas have been devalued.

I disagree that reducing class size will necessarily improve student achievement; I think many methodologies used today are wrong and will remain wrong no matter how few students a teacher has (someone mentioned whole word reading...).  I think we'd see more more improvement with class sizes remaining where they are and better methodology, than leaving the methodology in place and reducing class size.  Either way, it's simply crap that half of a school's budget is spent on administration.  We'd be better off not spending that money at all and giving the taxpayers a break than paying those administrators, and better off not spending that money than simply hiring more teachers and requiring them to continue using the broken methodologies.

The system COULD work smarter with less money... but political pressures from the unions, and educational "fads" pushed by education schools (which, by the way statistically have the least stellar students in college, training to go teach--and as with all statistics there are exceptions) will prevent this from happening.

Comment by Unseen on October 17, 2012 at 8:47am

Okay, I'm intrigued. What is so pernicious about teaching grammar and long division (addition, subtraction, multiplication, trigonometry, and calculus apparently escaping criticism for some reason).

Comment by Unseen on October 17, 2012 at 8:54am

I do believe that a lot of what has changed in the U.S. education system over the last five decades or so has a lot to do with the degradation of the American student's ability to form well-structured sentences, to spell, to think critically, and so on. Let's also add the degradation of the principle of in loco parentis. Gee, whenever a school disciplines a student anymore, it seems they can expect a parent showing up demanding that their perfect little child be immune from any serious school discipline, 

If schools think differently about things than their parents and can enforce standards differently from their parents, this is a good life lesson: different standards apply in different places and later in life their parents won't be there to rescue them. I'm not talking about outright abuse, but if the school has a dress code that doesn't allow kids to wear political slogans or brand name logos, this is an example of the sort of matter parents should stay out of. The school should be immune.

Comment by Reg The Fronkey Farmer on October 17, 2012 at 9:03am

I too was wondering why long division should not be taught. It is used in Statistics all the time which in turn are used in analysis of scientific data in research – i.e. in using the Scientific Method. It would also be useful if the published research was grammatically correct and with as few spelling errors as possible n’est-ce pas?

Comment by Unseen on October 17, 2012 at 12:54pm

You can't depend on your parent's support. The kid learns self-reliance.

Always give in to bullies. No, but if the kid fights back, don't penalize him.

What put hitting children on your mind? I reread what I wrote. It isn't in there.

Comment by Dale Headley on October 17, 2012 at 6:46pm

Thank you all for responding so voluminously to my question.  I wasn’t sure how much it might engage other atheists.

FYI: I didn’t say any anything about not teaching grammar. It should be taught.  

I also see the need for learning basic arithmetic algorithms, though I do believe long division is a special case of one that traditionally requires far more classroom time to teach than is efficacious.  Long division, I believe is headed for the same dustbin of elementary school history as square root (which I was taught but have forgotten), and the slide rule (which I could NEVER master).  The point I am somewhat facetiously making is that pencil & paper algorithms are becoming less and less necessary when you can buy a one dollar hand calculator at Wal-Mart.  It’s not as though the world is about to return to pre-electronic times when memorization of multi-step calculation was necessary.  Business at all levels has already abandoned entirely the laborious, time-consuming process of doing arithmetic on paper; and it will never return to it.  I spent thousands of hours in school learning to manipulate numbers.  Yet, as I sit here at my computer, I am within arm’s length of a one dollar hand calculator.  I could have learned THAT in about a half hour - tops.  Even if Boulder Dam collapses and takes all my electricity with it, I will never again have to do my figuring on paper.   Long division is a nice skill to have; and so is crocheting; but I can live a long, healthy, productive life without either. I often wonder how many really important, valuable, and interesting things I might have learned in the 5th grade, had I not spent almost all of it having Mrs. Charles try to drum  “divide, multiply, subtract, bring down...” into my head. Instead of remembering to always indent one space to the left for each level of multiplication of large numbers, maybe it would be helpful to understand exactly WHY we do that indentation; that would make us more likely to remember to do it.  You would be surprised how many adults don’t.  I didn’t, until I was 23 (the age at which I actually began to learn useful stuff).  And what about rote memorization of such things as the multiplication tables?  To the extent that this is a valuable skill, my contention is that it is best learned by repeated use of a hand calculator in doing real problems - not by taking tests or standing in front of the class reciting the tables. 

That leads me to the biggest boondoggle in elementary schools: the memorization of spelling lists - the favorite subject of lazy teachers.  There are two things to understand about spelling: one is that it is largely a natural skill that is not easily learned by many, if not most people.  The second is that, no matter how many thousands of hours one devotes in school trying to memorize the spelling of selected words, 99% of English words will be left untouched.  What then should teachers teach?  HOW TO USE THE FRIGGIN’ DICTIONARY to correctly spell the actual words that are used in correspondence and exposition.  It is shocking to me how many adults I encounter who almost never use a dictionary; and how many more don’t know how to utilize its full potential.  I recently (and successfully) turtored an adult seeking his GED.  He said NO teacher had ever showed him how to use a dictionary.  He was amazed at how useful it was.   Instead of forcing kids to learn the spelling of 20 words a week from the state-published spelling manuals, they should be taught the use of the dictionary, either in book form or online.  What else?  Require the kids to write, write, and WRITE!  That way, the teacher can focus on the specific words that specific children need to be able to spell for their specific purposes.   A close friend, who entered UCLA at about a 4th grade literacy level, eventually earned a master’s degree.  How? By carrying around a pocket dictionary with him everywhere he went.  Years of struggling with memorizing spelling lists had been wasted; an understanding of how to use a dictionary was his salvation.  When I taught language arts, I NEVER taught spelling.  I did teach a lot of etymology - particularly Latin and Greek - though.  I contend that it proved much more valuable than memorizing spelling words.  When the administrators of my school district tried to get me fired for refusing to use the district guidelines, including the use of the spelling manual, they undertook to prove my incompetence by administering special testing to my class.  To their surprise and chagrin, my kids improved 1.6 years (2.0 in spelling) in one year.  The administrators never again darkened my classroom door.

Incidentally, Becca spelled 11 words incorrectly in her post; yet that doesn’t diminish my respect for the many cogent points she made.  

Which brings me back to grammar.  Of course I believe in teaching grammar, as well as syntax, semantics, punctuation, style, etc.,  but it should be done almost entirely in the context of composition - the writing of stories, poems essays, etc., NOT as separate disciplines to be memorized.  When a child is producing a story she WANTS to tell, she will WANT to learn to do it as well as possible; she will WANT to create a lucid sentence; and that means she WILL LEARN to spell that word, and to construct that sentence properly.  Spelling lists are  a B.S. waste of time.

No, SteveinCO, reducing class sizes, by itself, won’t help much if teachers rigidly cling to the large-class mode of “teaching to the middle.”  But reducing class size WILL help free those creative, motivated teachers who wish to fashion their teaching methods to the specific needs of their individual students.  Sal Khan is vividly demonstrating the fact that real learning can occur between A teacher and A student.  But even he would admit that if he had to face a classroom of 40-50 students who run the gamut of skill levels, attitudes, abilities, cultures, languages, behaviors, etc. he would struggle to succeed. 

One of you - Kris - said that evolution was taught in her (his?) school.  Perhaps, but I taught science in a school district where NONE of the other science teachers taught it, either because of their own religious beliefs, or because of the fear of angry parents.  And that is in California, where it is supposedly required.  Further, a recent national survey concluded that 60% of science teachers spend NO MORE than 5 hours total on evolution.  That is pretty much the same as NOT teaching it at all.  It is the most fundamental fact of all biology; yet I’ve never met anyone who truly understands it beyond the caricatures presented by parents, churches, and poorly prepared teachers.  Most people THINK they understand evolution, but most DON’T.

As a prime example of how what is taught in school is often disconnected from the real world,  I refer to one of you - Becca - who says that the metric system is being taught in “many” schools.  Really?  Then why aren’t we using it in society as a whole?  Until we do, teaching it in school is meaningless.  I do my part.  As a masters T&F athlete, I ONLY talk about distances in terms of meters, kilometers, and such, NOT in feet, inches, and miles.  But most Americans consider the metric system somehow foreign and un-American.  To the extent that some math teachers teach the metric system, it tends to be not unlike teaching square root - something that is intriguing and exotic, but NOT something that America must adopt if it is to keep up with the modern world, scientifically.  It’s true that scientists routinely use it; but how many actual scientists are American schools turning out? Very few!   

Becca also discounts propaganda as a serious problem.  She says that, whereas a few teachers might try to propagandize their students, it isn’t institutionalized.  Au contraire!  It is VERY institutionalized.  If you took U.S. history, you WERE drenched with lies meant to serve the xenophobic, chauvinistic, nationalistic view Americans have of themselves.   American history is taught in school largely as a chronological march through heroic American wars, all of which were started by Americans for economic and political gain.  American history books are pretty much devoted to spreading the myth of  “American exceptionalism.”  One random example: what caused the War of 1812 and who won?  U.S. history books say that the cause was the  impressment of American sailors by the British on the high seas; and that America won that war.  Not true - not by a long shot.  The War of 1812 (or as it is known in Canada, the American War)  was a war of Manifest Destiny.  The U.S. launched three separate invasions of Canada with the intention of conquering and annexing that country.  But all three times, the Canadian militias kicked our butts.  The British, despite the fact that they were at war with France, at the time, sent a few soldiers, not to invade America, but to help protect Canada.  After they captured Washington and the Americans were repulsed by the Canadians, the British left, with Andrew Jackson nipping at their heels.  In other words, we LOST that war, then decided Mexico would be easier to conquer, which it was.  Was that in your history book?  No.  Your history book was propaganda.

In general, I agree with most of what you have all been saying.  It points hopefully to the possibility that more and more, people are beginning to see that there is a lot wrong with the educational system, and that what’s needed to fix it is NOT the B&W, simplistic ravings of uneducated drug addicts like Rush Limbaugh who view education’s sole objective as being to produce automatons for the  military industrial complex.  By the way, I doubt very much that Rush wrote his best selling books himself; he is so obviously illiterate.       


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