Wednesday, April 8, 2009

U.S. Education Chief Wants More Schooling

The following in italics is an AP article written about Arne Duncan's visit to the Denver (CO) School District:

DENVER—American schoolchildren need to be in class more—six days a week, at least 11 months a year—if they are to compete with students abroad, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.
"Go ahead and boo me," Duncan told about 400 middle and high school students at a public school in northeast Denver. "I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short."

"You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; eleven, twelve months a year," he said.

Instead of boos, Duncan's remark drew an unsurprising response from the teenage assembly: bored stares.

The former Chicago schools superintendent praised Denver schools for allowing schools to apply for almost complete autonomy, which allows them to waive union contracts so teachers can stay for after-school tutoring or Saturday school.

He also applauded Denver's pay-for-performace teacher pay system, which some Democrats and teachers' groups oppose.

"Talent matters tremendously. ... It's important that great teachers get paid more," Duncan said.

He visited at the invitation of Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was Denver's schools superintendent from 2005 until his appointment to Congress this year. The city's pay-for-performance plan was one of Bennet's chief accomplishments while in charge of the 75,000-student system.

During visits to two schools Tuesday, Duncan promoted education reforms proposed by the Obama administration. But he hasn't shied away from challenging Democratic positions on education since joining the Cabinet.

Last month, he said poor children who receive vouchers to attend private schools in the District of Columbia should be allowed to stay there, putting the Obama administration at odds with Democrats trying to end the program. Duncan talked up school choice during his Denver visit, though he didn't mention vouchers.

"I'm a big believer that students and parents should have a choice what school they want to go to," he said.

Bennet, greeted by hugs from teachers lining the hallways of the two schools, sided with Duncan. He told reporters he wanted to help steer any education reform proposals from the White House through the Senate.

"A change needs to come, especially in urban school districts, and it's not going to be easy," Bennet said. "I will do absolutely everything to get myself in the middle of that conversation."

Colorado, along with other states, is preparing to apply for some $5 billion in federal education grants from the economic stimulus package. Duncan said details of how that money will be awarded haven't been decided.

The U.S. Department of Education already has released $44 billion to the states. According to Colorado estimates, the state is due about $487 million for K-12 education.

Okay, now maybe it's just me, but do we really need extended school weeks and years just to learn enough to keep us from falling further down the list for best educated countries?

Years ago, we were, if not THE top dogs in education, at least in the running. Then something happened, and now we see our selves ranked somewhere in the 20s. Pretty sad for the "Free-est Nation on Earth", or "The lone Superpower" to be seeing herself in such sad shape educationally speaking.

The problem I don't think is in the amount of school we keep our kids going to, so much as it is the amount of education we are actually giving our kids. In our "feel good" society we have gone from being fierce and competitive to the "everybody's a winner" mantra. Sure, we want our kids to feel good about themselves, but at what cost? when our kids hit the real world after school, they're going to be hit hard in the face with the fact that not everybody is the winner they were taught happened automatically back in their school days.

When I was growing up, if you didn't hack it, you were held back to repeat your grade with the younger kids coming up. You went to summer school if need be, or found yourself in the Special Needs classes if your learning style warranted it. Now, the Special Needs kids were often the target of the mean "normal" kids. A stigma was attached to these classes, and God forbid we give our kids any chance to be stigmatized or harassed. These days, I see whole classes advancing, without exception, including kids who can't/don't comprehend what they need in order to continue their learning in the next grade. My son, had difficulty with a few subjects early on. He ended up spending time in the Special Needs classes for math and reading. He just needed some additional help with a little more personal attention, until he could grasp the basic concepts upon which he could build his education. Now, I am informed he is at the top of his class as far as his reading levels go. And while I applaud the effort of his school to recognize that he needed the help and got it to him early enough that he was not stifled in subsequent years and falling further behind, I can't help but notice the pace at which they teach overall.

The standard curriculum, at least in the math department is at least 1 full year behind where I was when I was growing up. As he is in the final run of his 4th grade year, his class is at the point where my class was around the end of the first semester of 3rd grade. I don't fault the kids, and I don't know that I fault the teachers, or even the specific school.

I could look to fault the Department of Education, or maybe The "No Child Left Behind" act so proudly touted as educational reform by the previous Bush administration. If we make it all so easy that all the kids look better, then the school keeps getting money, and maybe even a better share of what other districts lose for poor performance? Seems a lousy way to go to me. But then again, America has become a Band-Aid society...shore up the short term mess and look the other way, rather than look at the whole problem and decide th best way for overall longterm success. ("What? He died of a sucking chest wound? But we put a bandaid on his poor little sliced finger. What happened?")

I see us, as not falling behind other countries in our quest for educational excellence based on amount of hours spent in school, but on the amount of quality education being drilled into our kids heads while they are there. It's as though, in order to de-stigmatize the Special Needs kids, we have just decelerated our progress to match theirs, in order to make sure everyone is a winner and on the same page no matter what. We once we're on top of the world, and then I guess we just sat down in the old La-Z-boy, kicked up the foot rest and relaxed in a nice reclined position. And then we woke up from our "well-deserved, pat-ourselves-on-the-back" nap, and realized that we were slowing falling back in the pack of educational marathoners. So the slow learners may benefit, and that's great, it really is. But what about slowing down the smart ones who subsequently get bored with having to keep learning material they already know, and not advancing as quickly as they could/should be? Is that a sacrifice we are willing to make? People always argue about what's best for the kids? But is uniformity a compliment or a detriment to our children?

Now, I don't know a whole lot about Arne Duncan, other than he was the superintendent of the Chicago (IL) School District before taking this post in the Obama Administration. I've heard he's a smart, and all around nice guy..but these comments of his, to me, ring of ignorance. But then again, the government's idea of anything failing just requires more money thrown at it to make it all better. Maybe the idea of a failing educational system (or at least one thats not up to par with other countries' performances), in the government's eyes is just to make the kids go longer in the system that is obviously lacking.

I hate to say it, but exposing kids to more of a bad thing, doesnt change the bad thing into something good.


Anonymous said...

Luckily I'm in a school district that is very good, with public schools that could rival most private schools in quality. However, even when the education is good, the fact is that in Europe and Asia they do have six day weeks, and ten months in class. Their standards are higher. European students that go on to college are usually head and shoulders above American students in knowledge and skills. Those American students who do as well have had their education augmented by their parents.

So, my view is: a) let kids play! Too much education and schooling is to deny them a chunk of their childhood, which is a chance to learn about the world by being in nature, through play (and limited computer time). b) make up for deficiencies in time or quality by parent augmentation of education. Don't leave it up to the school!

Mookie said...


Thanks for checking in! I agree,the parents NEED to be involved in educating their kids.
My point is more to the effect that we have downgraded the speed/amount of what we put in the kids heads (at least in my experience/opinion). We already have longer school years now than when I was growing up. When I went to school, the idea of starting before Labor Day (at least here in Iowa, was almost unheard of, save the couple years in which we started 2 days ahead of that weekend, and if we went past Memorial day, it was due to weather cancellations earlier in the year. Now, we start as much as 2 weeks or more ahead of labor day, and go a couple weeks past Memorial Day as the regular schedule, BEFORE counting the weather days. And yet we're still falling behind?

I don't think our kids are any dumber than we were by any means. but I sometimes wonder if our educational system makes that assumption that they can't learn as fast as we did back then. I think we can learn just as much as anyone else in this world in our 9 months as they do in 10 or 11, but we don't give our kids the benefit of the doubt.

I say, let the kids be kids. And when they are in school MAKE them be students

All In said...

Wait a minute, are you saying that the government is once again not very good at a program they administer.

My solution for better or worse.
1. End no child left behind. It holds back you high achievers by redirecting the funding of programs to bringing up the bottom as opposed to allowing the truely gifted to excell.

2. Privatize the system. Vouchers? Fine. But, there must be at least some incentive for parents to have an active interest in their children. The pocket book always seems to do it.

I know you are going to say that poor children are going to suffer. I get that. However, we live in the most wealthy and generous country on the planet. Scholarships (from private donors) would be available to those with the desire and no means.

Anonymous said...

My oldest is in Kindergarten, so I may be getting a warped view, but he goes all day and he's reading. I did not read when I was in Kindergarten. I went a half day, and it was play and arts and crafts. I hear from colleagues that homework in first and second grade is too much. I don't recall much in the way of homework in those early years, I've gotten the impression kids are expected to do much more now.

But I'm older than you. Perhaps when I was in school things were less intense. I have the impression that, especially with No Child Left Behind, the problem may be too much, especially early on.

As far as privatization, well, education is too important to risk it. Look what happened to the investment banking industry. Privatization means a desire for profits; in some cases it could lead to something better, but especially for the poor or lower middle class, it could be harmful. I think that would be too risky, an experiment based on an ideological bet. (And, all those countries who rank above us have a more centralized governmental form of education -- we still are local with limited federal involvement).

Mookie said...

Well, to compromise on the privatization theory of education:

We start the lean toward privatization with test markets in schools of all sizes and different sectors of the country. However, we add some regulation to costs, to keep things fair in that area.

If competition is the driving force (as its supposed to be in the free market), the desired result is higher levels of education. If we have more teachers pumping out higher educated students in more numbers, I don't see any real downside to this.

In education money isn't everything. Take Washington DC for example. One of the highest outputs of money per student than almost anywhere else known to man, and yet, it isn't exactly what you'd call a great school system. And I personally don't think that making them attend an extra month or two is going to change that either. All it will accomplish is tying up the kids in the school system longer, and even greater amounts of money being spent to do so.

Anonymous said...

I personally believe that this "no child left behind" act is a major factor in the dumbing down of our children. That combined with all the extra-curricular activities these kids are pushed to participate in, the the curricular the teachers are pushed to teach. Education isn't what it used to be.

I grew up in NYC and we went to school from right after labor day until about the 3rd week in June. We had mandatory physical education, and very little in the way of extra-curricular activities.

There were also no special interests pushing that classes incorporate their propaganda into the classrooms.

You made the grade or you didn't. IF you didn't, you weren't allowed to move forward until you did. I fail to see what is wrong with this. I don't even see that as a competition as much as I see it preparing a child for the real world.

My son was born without any arms and legs. He attended regular school and regular classes. There were some (as few as possible) considerations made for him (at my insistance). When he was in the 2nd grade, my bi-annual meeting with the school about his curriculum involved a discussion about him using a calculator in math lessons. They wanted to allow him to use a calculator since they allowed the other students to count on their fingers and toes (which he didn't have). I forbid it. I told them that he needed to be able to do simple math in his head or he'd never know if he was getting the right change back or had been overcharged for something.

My reasoning stemmed from my experience working in a department store. While being the front end (cashiers) supervisor one night, the register systems went down. The registers still worked, but the cashier then had to figure out how much change to give back to the customer as the register couldn't tell them. These were high school seniors manning the registers this night and not one of the 5 on duty were able to count back change. I was appalled that they were about to graduate and had NO idea how to count back change. I had to train each and every one of them. This was back in the mid 1980's no less.

I told my son's school that he would not be allowed to use a calculator in class until the math got into more complex problems. THEN I would allow it, but not for the simple adding, subtracting and multiplication they were still learning.

I am proud to say I made the right decision..........much to my son's displeasure with me and later to the school's amazement. And I would make the same choice today.

Kids seem to being dumbed down and I sometimes wonder if it's not on purpose. Our standard of education seems to have been lowered. The thinking seems to be that these kids need to be socializing more and learning less; that they need to be drilled with "special interest" messages more than basic reading, writing and math.

When I went to school, IF a teacher couldn't read what you wrote, you were failed. Penmanship even counted back then.

But all this is just my biased opinion....*smiles*

Mookie said...


Aside from my compromising factor on the privatization, I'm pretty much with you, buddy!


High school seniors unable to count back change??? I used to go to my mom's work when the babysitter was sick. She worked in a second hand store, and many times I manned the counter while she went through inventory or cleaned. She made sure I could count back, and refused me use of the calculator at the desk until I was able to do it all in my head first. She figured I had better know how things worked before I used the machine that did the work for me.


You didn't read and write in kindergarten??? I could make a comment about age here, ya know! ;P
we had to be able to read and write simple things in Kindergarten when I was there in the mid 80s.
As for higher grades, I'm still not sure what knowing the difference is for, or identifying transitive and intransitive verbs, but I'm definitely all about increased focus on readin, ritin, and rithmetic, as well as a larger focus on science. Not to belittle things like art and music, but for most people, it is the other fundamental education subjects that wil get them further in the world. I've considered that maybe the university-like lecture style, that encourages ideas and conversation on subjects might be better than the way many schools operate now, at least after teh first few grades where basics are drilled into you daily. It almost seems as though the school system (the public side anyways) is more designed to make good workers out of us, rather than increase the value production capabilities that our kids need these days...your thoughts on that?

Anonymous said...

I am generally upset by how little students know about anything international. This includes history (people all learn about Hitler's holocaust, but not about Stalin's purges which actually killed more, Mao's famines, and other things) and current events. Since I teach international relations, I end up having to start with an historical background I think they should get in high school! (Though some come really well prepared, usually thanks to a good teacher).

When I was in school it was much like what "swfreedom" describes -- you did the work or you failed. I'll be curious to see how things are for my sons as they work through the system. Again, I hear very good things about the district I happen to live in, so I'm not particularly worried.

But yeah, it gets really frustrating as a college teacher to have to deal with writing abilities and knowledge levels that should be much higher after high school. They catch up or fail (and in college they learn quickly that failure IS an option!)

Also, there seems to be a desire for a clear set of things to do to get the grade -- hoops to jump through. I don't just mean basic assignment structure, but detail 'how many sources do I need to cite to get an 'A', etc.' I have taken to actually giving LESS detail (sometimes I won't even give them page numbers except 'well, I think you'll need at least five to do OK, probably more to get an A unless the five pages are really good.' I want independent thinking, not people looking to jump through hoops for a treat at the end!

Oh, I couldn't read in Kindergarten, but I could tell time (and there were no digital watches in those ancient times). I couldn't tie my shoes though (no velcro either)

Mookie said...

A basic understanding of history..yes very much understandable. Although we didn't learn much about the goings on in Soviet Russia or China beyond any basics, I'm pretty sure at one point I could have read Houghton-Mifflin's historical account of everything from Columbus to just after the Civil War, since we had to start over EVERY SINGLE FRIGGIN YEAR....and yet...some people still didn't get half of it. Either dumb, or lack of applying themselves, who knows? Guess it depended on the person, as harsh as that sounds.

Anonymous said...

I think the most importat part of education is to get kids (or young adults) to WANT to learn. Once they want it, they find the capacity and motivation. Not all will be A students, but they'll move ahead. The real problem is so many don't really care -- and that starts with school and the parents.