Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cultural Sacred Cows of American Education

As long as comparative studies show so many other countries outperforming American students, there will be those who dismiss the findings because of comparability concerns. The samples from other countries are more academically proficient, or societies in those countries value education more, or those education systems emphasize rote learning or.... The critics pull out the list anytime American students fare poorly, comparatively speaking. American students have been ranking low for a very long time now, so the list is pretty well memorized. The list has been repeated so often without dissent that its points are assumed to be true, whether they are or not.

The fact is there are comparability problems. In 1993, David C. Berliner tackled the topic in an article published by Phi Kappa Phi in their journal, National Forum. Significantly, he subtitled his article, “A False Guide for Reform.” Old stuff can be good stuff. Although Dr. Berliner wrote almost twenty years ago, he could have written yesterday.

To blame school failures on poor teachers, inadequate administrators, inappropriate curriculum, or uncaring parents is misleading. When children are poor, when they lack health care, when they come from dysfunctional families and dysfunctional neighborhoods, schools fail. When public schools do fail, it is because society has failed (bold added by S. Goya)....

International comparisons of achievement always will reveal differences because the economic support for schools in each nation, their curricula, the quality of the teachers, the health of their students, their administrative systems, the support for school by parents in each nation, the value of education in each nation, and job markets each nation prepares its children for all differ. Such variation in the national systems of education leads inexorably to variation in the performance of students in each nation.

In 1994, I wrote a short article, also published in the National Forum, addressing two differences between Japanese and American education that Americans generally accept as true. It is human nature to put superficially true statements through our cultural filters and end up with mistaken conclusions. First, because public schools do most of the educating in America, we automatically credit Japanese public schools for Japanese school achievement. If international studies intend to compare public school outcomes, then researchers will have a difficulty finding a comparable sample in Japan. Virtually every student in Japan has received substantial education from the ubiquitous private after-school schools (juku).

Second, we hear that the Japanese school calendar has 240 days. Our own American schooling leads us to assume Japanese students are “on-task” for 240 days. However, 100 days are only half days for one reason or another. Japanese annual public school instructional time measured in hours is actually quite similar to American instructional time, but because nearly all Japanese students also attend juku, they receive substantially more academic instruction than American students. Furthermore, there are some fundamental unquestioned cultural paradigms that influence the American view of what is possible and what is untouchable when it comes to education reform.

Attention Seeking

In America, there is an axiom that children of all ages crave attention. Therefore, Americans have unconsciously socialized their children to crave attention, similar to the unwitting differential treatment of boys and girls. Adults are generally unaware of the many ways they encourage even middle school and high school students to be attention seekers. Consequently, no one questions that part of every teacher's job is to give attention to every student. In fact, the main argument for reducing class size is smaller class sizes make it easier for teachers to give individual attention in an environment where the misbehavior of children is often interpreted as a bid for more attention from the teacher.

I did not question or even notice the unexamined attention seeking axiom until I taught in a society that does not socialize its children to be attention seekers. Teachers in these societies capably manage much larger classes even in preschool and the early grades. Most primary grades have an average of forty-five students per grade. Even more interesting, students from these societies generally outrank American students in comparative studies. While larger class sizes may not be a positive variable, it is at least not necessarily negative variable either. Of course, interpreting international comparisons is always a problem because of the complex interaction of variables. Even in the US, the research on class size is inconclusive and subject to confirmation bias

For example, some Americans believe that societies with large class sizes post exemplary academic achievement because of an authoritarian school structure. One person wrote to me that they “knew” the Chinese government does not allow students to misbehave. While such a belief may be consoling, it is not true. Japanese education, especially in the elementary grades is very inquiring, active and hands-on. Furthermore, it does not occur to Japanese teachers that misbehaving students are seeking attention. They attribute misbehavior to other factors. If you have not created a room full of attention seekers, you can be a highly effective teacher with many more students in the classroom.

Contempt of High Achievers

American society is of two minds when it comes to high achievers. We say we value academic achievement, but what we say is betrayed by what we do. Our society routinely mocks and marginalizes high achievers. Tamara Fisher asked her gifted students to talk about how they felt about being high achievers. We did not need Ms. Fisher's class to tell us that while they were personally happy, they suffered socially. Nearly every American schoolchild has either been a victim or a perpetrator.

America says that one foundation of its education system is equal opportunity, that is, every child has a right to be educated to the extent of their potential. Then we undermine our grand values by charging high achievers with elitism. What exactly do we mean? That smart people can be smart as long as they hide it, so as not to hurt anybody's self esteem by their mere existence? There is an unresolved conflict between the values of meritocracy and egalitarianism.

Maltreatment of Substitute Teachers

One of the most appalling characteristics of American education is the routine poor treatment of substitute teachers and the commonplace administrative attitude that pranks and misbehavior come with the territory. Since when is it ever okay for students to mistreat another human being for a day. The substitute should be accorded the regard given to special guests for that is what they are. Nuff said.

Faculty Continuity

Everything about the American way encourages faculty longevity and discourages mobility. Teachers are certified at the state level. There are often silly, bureaucratic obstacles to re-certifying in another state. A teacher earning a Masters degree while teaching will receive a pay differential as long as they stay in the same district. Move to a new district and the Masters becomes an impediment to employment. Moving also turns experience into a disadvantage. Administrators are so adverse to paying for experience they will give credit for a maximum of only five years (in most districts). More often administrators simply pass over the experienced applicant in favor of the novice.

In Japan, for example, teachers are not only certified nationally, but they are also required to transfer schools every three years. Japanese administrators believes change keeps the staff fresh. The Japanese do not worry about the stability of school culture as Americans do. In fact, it could be argued that stability of school culture is actually a problem since the flip side of stability is resistance to improvements.

Instead of reflexively trotting out the tired list of reasons why international comparisons are flawed as if doing so somehow magically turns poor performance into acceptable performance, we should should be studying those reasons in detail to see what we can learn. It may be true that other societies value education more. Good for them. The lesson then is not to make an excuse, but to ponder what we could be doing to encourage American society to value education more, not only in word, but in deed.

Some Class Size Research Sources:

Counting Students Can Count

The Effect of Class Size on Student Learning

Class Size Research (List of Six Publications)

Class Size-Research Brief

Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons

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