Sunday, December 11, 2011

When you go to school do you get an education?

People used to say that they were "going to school to get an education." I fear that what you get today when you go through elementary and high school is the ability to take a multiple choice test but somewhere the education part of the process got lost. I can't claim to have made a formal study of the subject, but it seems to me that more and more young people have lost some of the basics of education. They know how to read, but can't think. They can type on a computer and play games, but they cannot write. Their knowledge of history is abysmal. They learn all about being a conservationist and not polluting but can't explain even the simplest geographical principles.

According to the National Assessment Governing Board, 12th grade student performance declined from 1994 to 2010. Only about 1/3 of the 8th grade students could answer the following question correctly:
Do you know eighth-grade geography?
Which of the following is an accurate statement about the American Southwest?
  1. Alternating areas of dense shrubbery and sand dunes often make travel difficult.
  2. Arid conditions make access to water an important public issue.
  3. Generally fair weather means that most people rely on solar energy in their homes and businesses.
  4. Easy access to Mexico has led to a strong manufacturing sector.
Interestingly, apparently even those students living in the Southwest did no better than the national average.

So what does it mean to be educated? The ideal of uniform testing has spread to an unusually high degree across our land, but as the report in the National Report Card from the National Assessment Governing Board shows, the implementation of uniform or standardized testing has had little or no effect in the overall learning of our high school graduates. Does it mean you are "educated" if you can pass the Ames test? Doesn't standardized testing just test standardized information? Didn't the whole school system just get dumbed down because teachers have no time left to teach?

As I said, my observations are just that, observations, but I haven't met too many teenagers who could carry on a coherent conversation about any subject other than TV or computer games and in some cases sporting events. It amazes me also, that their parents, who are losing their jobs have still not gotten the message that education is the key. Very, very few of the people I know who are struggling economically see a connection between their lack of education and their ability to get work in an ever increasingly technical world. It is generally a given today that a student graduating with an average high school education is unemployable except in the most basic of minimum wage jobs.

I have to be careful not to base my opinions on those few students I know who are way above average. But after teaching college for five years, I hadn't seen more than a small handful of such students.

But do you have to rely on the schools to get an education? Fortunately no. One of the advantages of the technological age is the availability of education to anyone willing to spend the time to learn. Two of the most successful computer professionals I know personally, never got degrees in computer science. It is true that a school experience, a highly focused and technical school, rather than a public high school, is still necessary. It is still necessary to go to medical school to become a doctor, but many employment opportunities rely more on what you know rather than where you learned it.

1 comment:

RT and M said...

A couple of weeks ago, while I was in a class I noticed a boy in front of me writing out an outline. He was going back and forth between his outline and a Wikipedia page, and judging by how often he looked at the Wikipedia page and the style of his sentences, I was pretty sure he was copying things almost word for word from Wikipedia. Maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt, but I was ashamed for him. A college student should be able to do much better than that.

I think for many people college has just become the next step after high school. It used to be that you went to college because you wanted to learn a specific trade. Now you go to get "your" education. Maybe that is why it is presented as such a crisis that there is less federal financial aid available--because that means some students won't get "their" education (the one they feel entitled to)--the education that, four years later, doesn't actually make them qualified for a job. What a waste.