Education Is Like A Dysfunctional Family

I’m probably wrong, but bear with me as out outline all of my errors for you.

Over the last two decades I’ve seen student performance noticeably decline. Students fear math. Not calculus, but merely simple multiplication and division. Ask any student to calculate a percentage, i.e. “The population of the United States is 310,000,000 people. Kentucky has a population of 4 million people. What percent of the U.S. population lives in Kentucky?”

We can estimate an answer very quickly. Thirty-one million is 10%, and 3.1 million is 1%, and each 0.1% is about 310,000 people. We can then say 310,000 x 3 = almost 1 million people. If 1% is 3 million people and 0.3 is one million people, then 1.3% is about 4 million people. Finally, we can say the population of Kentucky represents about 1.3% of the total United States population.

But, I teach geography and use numbers like this all the time. My students examine demographics of countries, statistics like death rates and birth rates, literacy rates, and labor force participation rates, and HIV/AIDS prevalence. People need to understand simple ratios in everyday life, though, for doing simple things like calculating gratuities, or figuring out how much our discount at JCPenny’s is going to save us.

More importantly, as our politicians increasingly take advantage of the growing apathy, or ignorance, of U.S. citizens while leveraging differences in religion  income between neighbors, we need every advantage to overcome egregious misinformation by our politicians and their media minions.

The majority of students in my courses fall into one of two categories. As one might guess, most of my students are early academic career Freshman or Sophomores, not long from high school. I also have several adults “back in college.” I have also been an instructor at three community colleges. Community colleges may lack cultural diversity, but what they lack in cultural diversity, they more than compensate by having vast socioeconomic diversity. I have had grandmothers with zero college experience to career professionals in my world geography courses, true freshman right from high school to people straight from military service to people retraining due to job loss or wanting a promotion.

This fall, I have roughly 70 students. This is a light semester; a typical semester is twice this number. All of my courses include numerous writing assignments, usually 4-5 essays. The vast majority of essays have fundamental structural problems. Paragraph indents either do not exist or are too large, e.g. 1″ indents. Few students spell-check. The use of sentence fragments in place of a proper sentence is common. Most student cannot effectively communicate using examples even after being told to use “people, places, things, and ideas” mentioned in the podcast or video. Many writing assignments simply end, stop without completely discussing the material, or providing a summary. The writing is crude, lacking a range of vocabulary, attention to details, and organization. Essentially what students are submitting as final drafts of writing assignments I consider to be drafts which never should be submitted.

In the last year, I’ve argued with an assistant principal at a local high school and have caught two Education student blatantly plagarising. A close friend of mine, working on her education degree has encountered numerous peers who lie, cheat, plagiarise, and have a work ethic not suitable for a person choosing a career in education. In the case of the assistant principal, she did not understand plagiarism. Each semester, I have 6-20 high school students taking my college courses. The assistance principal supervised one of these students, and helped her with her writing assignments. Each writing assignment the student submitted was completely plagiarised, coming from newspaper articles, from Time or Newsweek articles, or from web sites. She offered no links, no “Works Cited,” no “Reference,” and no footnotes. I found the plagiarism by googling selected sentences. With each submission, the student received a zero and a

On my 3rd warning (this is a high school student, so I was using these assignments as a teaching mechanism to showcase how not to plagiarise) her principal called me.

I don’t understand how you can say she is plagiarizing, she declared. She is doing her own research! She shouldn’t have to cite anything.

No, you are mistaken, I replied. Your student (and mine) is not doing research, she is doing reporting. She is researching a topic and reporting on the work of others. Because she is reporting on the work of others, she has to cite her articles properly using in-text citations with a Works Cited page. Even if she were conducting her own research, she would not being doing such research in a vacuum, she would be basing her research on the research of others. Therefore, she would still have to cite previous efforts. There is no way around this.

The assistant principal admitted she still didn’t understand how the student could be plagiarising, as she had helped the student find her resources and read her essay. My response was rather blunt, that the reality was, the student needs to abide by the rules as stipulated within my syllabus and abide by the university’s academic honesty policy – if she wants to continue in the course.

One of the education students I caught plagiarising told me I was the first professor to have caught her cheating in her two-plus years of college coursework. My close friend worked in a group with a fellow education student who professed to have never written an honest paper in his entire 4-year university career. He then went the following semester to begin his student teaching.

Several current student-teachers have indicated no willingness to take home assignments to grade, or to perform many of the extracurricular duties expected of K-12 teachers, such as being a club advisor for chess, speech and debate, or an assistant for a sport. A philosophy of not needing to know “more than a 4th grader because that’s the highest grade I’m going teach” is pervasive.

Why do you need to know more than the kids you are teaching? The answer has little to do with the information being communicated to the child. The answer lies with opening and revealing a little more of the world to a young mind. I not saying someone has to be an expert in all fields; that simply impossible. A teacher, an educator, needs to appreciate the learning experience, and the revelations associated with exposing old knowledge to new minds.

A former student of mine is married to a 3rd-Grade teacher. She came home one day, exasperated. Her student-teacher refused to take home work to grade. To add insult to injury, she had asked her student-teacher to calculate the mean scores on some homework and compare those scores to a report.

“I’m not good at math,” was the reply.
“It’s OK; it’s 3rd grade math. You’ll be fine.”

Evidently, the results were calculated wrong and the classroom teacher had to re-work what amounted to figuring the mean grade.

So, I see problems developing for higher education.

I see problems which will be getting worse, not better. I see problems coming from high schools from the current students, teachers-to-be, and unfortunately, from the administrators. My friend working on her practicum teaching was placed in a classroom containing typical students, plus 6 students who spoke no English. Four of the students were Hispanic Spanish-speakers. Two of the students were from Somalia, by way of Iraq, by way of Louisiana.

“We don’t even know where Somalia is. Is Somalia in Africa?” This from both the teachers and principals. “What language do Somalis speak?” OK, that one might qualify as a good question.

Yes, I see problems. Today, on Twitter, I entered into a debate with an “education professional” who works at a large university in the Midwest. The topic was “Should remedial courses be taught at university?” I may have misunderstood her stance; at first, I thought she was advocating against teaching remedial courses at university.

Later, though, she evidently supported more professional development (PD) and modified tenure conditions for faculty in what I can only assume implies she is an advocate for an expansion of teaching remedial students in higher education. I have to assume because after I drew the analogy the conversation ended.

Teaching remedial courses at university is like trying to fire-fight a burning building while the arsonist is still running from floor-to-floor setting fires in the building. This was my analogy. We have to train people to live in a building which will catch fire on regular basis.

“Here is your fire extinguisher. You are responsible for putting out all fires on your floor. Maybe you can work with the other residents and develop a plan to put out fires. Even-numbered apartments might be the firefighters on M-W-F, odd-numbered apartments fight fires on T-Th-Sa. Ask for volunteers for Sunday.”

Perhaps teaching remedial courses at university might be like fighting a forest fire while the ignorant campers are still moving from campsite to campsite creating fires. Either analogy pits a group attempting to stop damage against a group which is causing the circumstances to continue, either knowingly or through ignorance or apathy. But the firefighters job is folly when no effort is made to stop the arsonist or to track down the irresponsible campers, or the attempts to track down the the wrong-doers is haphazard. To take this analogy to the next level, the educator advocating expansion of remedial education at university is essentially advocating for people to get used to forest fires, arsonists, and irresponsible campers, and learn how to stomp out fires in addition to our other job duties. We must educate Forest Service employees and train them to get along with and accept irresponsible campers whose actions cause physical damage, monetary loss, and potentially loss of life.

Recently, a local school district bragged,

“We have 100% graduation from our high school. We received a bonus of $____.”

This is not impossible. I do not doubt a few public school systems in the United States can make this claim. But, 100% has to be a rare situation. In Kentucky, for example, the drop-out age was recently raised from 16 to 17. Progress is being made. Socioeconomic situations vary greatly, as does parental supervision and support. Some high school students simply don’t have familial support to make it through school. However, as in this case, students were forced from the high school rolls by assigning them to Alternative School. Also, there is some indication the rigors of high school, what rigors exist, have been eased.

Another local school district has a “Zero Senior-Year Homework” policy. Wouldn’t that have been nice, not to have any homework our senior year of high school.

As states vie for more education funding, and states explore ways of creating incentives for schools to improve their “learning outcomes,” I worry incentives merely inspire people to find creative measures to show improvement where no improvement really exists.

A second comment by the Twitter educator bothered me. I wonder, she stated, if your peers know about teaching to students at different levels [I paraphrase.]

The comment may seem rather innocuous, but I assure you, she has uttered a mouthful. In K-12, educators are instructed to evaluate students in their classroom, assess aptitude, more or less. Lower performing students may get a unique Individual Educational Program (IEP.) Today’s classroom contain kids of all abilities. Today’s classrooms may also have mentally handicapped students, a process known as “mainstreaming.” Today’s classrooms may also contain students who speak little to no English. Today’s classroom may contain the next Richard Feynman, Elon Musk, or Caterina Fake.

Teaching to students at different levels? Seriously? I wanted to ask. University historically has not been about teaching students at different levels. University exists to further education and knowledge, to promote science, technology, engineering, mathematics, plus develop critical thinking skills, and fundamentally question our universe. Students are supposed to arrive from high school, or community college, with the fundamental skills necessary to move their intellect to the next level.

The earlier comment recommending expanding remedial services through professional development and modification of tenure to accommodate students who arrive lacking fundamental college skills in math and writing is ill-conceived, in my view. Vocational schools exist in nearly every school district in the United States. Vocational schools should be available and made attractive to people who would prefer to avoid college yet develop a career-oriented trade or skill.

Community colleges exist in every state in the United States. Community colleges exist to build or enhance skills in order to prepare for university. Community colleges also provide vocational schools and are retraining centers for people who have lost employment. A framework already exists to support people who neglected to take high school seriously, or who lacked appropriate high school education. Why do we need to re-build a wheel which was built-in the first place to serve primarily the same purpose as university-based remedial education?

In Kentucky, for instance, every public university is facing another round of budget cuts. A lower tax base and reduced revenues means lower state income, which translates into less available for higher education. Most Kentucky universities will lose another $2 million dollars, minimum. Every year since 2007, Kentucky universities have had their state apportionment reduced. No raises most years, not even COLA (cost of living allowance.) Computer labs are refreshed every 4-5 years. My computer labs operated for 9 years on the same computers, in spite of my pleas to chairs, directors, and deans for financial support.

I have been advocating for technology-lab fees for my area, and each time had them declined. Except this year, when I told my dean he should simply eliminate my department if he wasn’t going to support my labs. How does one do GIS and remote sensing on 9-year old computers? Answer: rather shittily.

In the face of fewer and fewer education dollars available each year in Higher Education, how are universities going to be able to teach an increasing number of students in need of remedial education simply to get them to the point of being able to be accepted into university? Are we supposed to stop teaching our actual 100 and 200 level courses, our fundamentals courses, so we can teach students remedial courses just to prep them for our 100 and 200 level courses.

In a past post [here], I provided some anecdotal stories of statistics reported by regional news sources.

Next consider the statistics of incoming freshman students needing remedial courses prior to even enrolling in college. In 2010, the Fairbanks, AK Sun-Star reported “50% of incoming freshmen entering the UA system require at least one remedial course.” In 2011, the Columbus, OH Business Journal wrote, “the share of students under 20 needing remedial help has grown to 39 percent from 36 percent in the past five years, while that same measure for older students has grown to 46 percent from 40 percent.”

These remedial courses never count towards a degree, by the way, but they cost the same as a university course. This has the effect of increasing a student’s student loan amounts. Depending on the student loan conditions, students may be limited by time and/or the number of hours the student can enroll. I have run across a few cases where students have run out of financial support early.  Students are required to take remedial courses, then run out of loan support in their senior year because the loan agency imposes a limit on the total number of credit hours for which a student can request financial support. Sometimes, support ends after eight semesters (4 years). However, due to remedial courses, a 4-year program might become 4.5-5 years. The downstream effects have the effect of increasing the cost of Higher Education.

These remedial courses are simply an answer (not a good one, in my opinion) to correct a flawed education being promulgated in high schools.

  • Should we not be working on improving high school education?
  • Should we not be working on improving vocation schools across the country?
  • Should we not be working on improving community college education and university transition programs?
  • Should we not be focusing on those nodes within the currently existing national education framework and making sure those institutions are performing?
  • Should we really build a new node-within-a-node to correct problems originating at lower educational levels?

To me, these questions sound reasonable, rational, and logical.

What are the answers?

  1. Audit every high school?
  2. Audit students, the teachers, administrators, and curriculum?
  3. Audit the environment, teacher morale, student attitudes and activities?
  4. Audit parental attitudes, the neighborhood around the schools, and school district support?

A local high school, for instance, has too few teachers and more students than desks. Students sit on lab stools, 30-35 in a room, while other classrooms sit dormant, unused, due to a lack of teachers. Needless to say, that environment is good for no one. How adequate is that learning environment for building a 21st century knowledge base? I’m probably missing aspects to measure, assess, etc.

I sit chagrined when I read comments by people with Ph.D’s in Education, Education Leadership, or Higher Education who purport to solve problems within the university. Having worked at university for 16 years and community college for 13 years, in rural Kentucky, many of their comments seem baseless and out-of-touch with reality. Many of these experts advocate “mainstreaming” all kids, putting kids of all abilities in the same classroom, yet developing lesson plans based on individual talent. One class may have 7 or more individual lesson plans based on the abilities of the kids in the room.

Why not simply create three or four general groups, place kids into a group which most closely represents the kid’s ability. Do this for all the classes in a grade. Then, all kids in the Blue Group meet in a classroom, all kids in the Green Group meet in another classroom, and all kids in the Orange Group meet in a classroom. Then, a teacher can work with all kids of a certain ability. Teachers can rotate groups so no teacher has to work with the same group all the time.

I’ve proffered this idea to Ph.Ds and have been met with what I can only call derision.

“We can’t separate kids based on skill. That’s absurd. That is segregation. And segregation is bad.”

Yes, segregation based on religion, or skin color, or sexuality, or gender is bad. Though, I do like having gender-segregated bathrooms. And, I am glad the Baptist, Lutherans, Methodists, and Catholics have their own places of worship. And, I do enjoy eating at restaurants which specialize in Japanese, Thai, Chinese, or Indian cuisine. I’m sure the people with handicapped tags enjoy having parking places closer to the front doors. I’m sure the little kids at the Burger King playground appreciate not having giant obese adults wrecking TubeTown. I’m sort of glad claustrophobic people and overweight people are discouraged from going on some of the Mammoth Cave tours. I remember driving a very small car and enjoying being able to park in the “compact car” spaces. But, I make too much money to be on Medicaid. I’m too young to take advantage of any AARP discount. I’m too pale for a McNair scholarship to work on a Ph.D, and I’m too clumsy to play professional basketball. Yeah, society is not segregated, not one bit …

My bias comes from my experience in elementary school, junior high, and high school. My classmates and I were placed in groups according to ability. Three groups, numbered 1 to 3, into which kids were placed based on math and reading skills. Each group was given work according to their ability. Kids in each group were also given plenty of chances to improve and develop skills. We had 2 recesses per day, plus designated gym class, music and art. After school, we had “afterschool activities,” a chance to stay after school and do homework, play on the playground, or do any number of activities. I don’t remember any issues among my peers. I don’t remember any bullying directed at kids in other groups.

To be sure, there was plenty of bullying. I was bullied for 3 straight years, from 4th grade to 7th. I played cello, was smart, and was a bit of a fighter, if someone pushed me, or my sister. My cello made me an easy mark, plus my mile-walk home. But, I don’t remember kids picking on other kids for being in a different math or reading group. We all played together outside, ate in the cafeteria, and rode the same buses.

Perhaps my classmates felt stigma from being in other groups. If they did they never mentioned anything about it. We were all in school, faced with tasks, exercises, and homework. For most of the day, we were all together, except for math and reading, when we met with our assigned groups.

I know I personally felt some stigma in junior high and later in high school. Junior high stigma was felt after I missed being placed in a gifted group by literally 1 point. I scored a 94; the threshold was 95. Sorry, Michael, no soup for you!

Every time the bus for the “gifted” kids left, which literally contained 98% of my friends, they would also ask me why I wasn’t on the bus. In high school, despite having the GPA, I was never approved for National Honor Society until my senior year, despite nominations. Years later, I would learn from one of my teachers I had angered two other teachers and therefore my NHS status was not approved until senior year. In the meantime, from freshman year through junior year, I had to deal with questions from my peers as to why I wasn’t in Honor Society. Funny, as during my Senior year I was appointed “Most Scholarly” by my classmates for our yearbook.

Why did I call this post “Education is like a dysfunctional family?” I’m hoping what I have written has made my point for me without explicitly making my argument. But, education in the United States is like a dysfunctional family. Think about any episode of “Intervention” you’ve ever seen. One person clearly has a problem and is in complete denial about their problem. The family has members who help the person purchase drugs, or eat, or cover up thefts, or give them money, who keep the problem alive. Some family members try to get the addict help. Some family members refuse to interact with the addict. Everyone frets and all adjust their lives accordingly around the life of the addict. Eventually, some crisis occurs bringing action from all members and an outside therapist is brought in to evaluate the family.

I find considerable parallels can be drawn among the various education institution cohorts. Secondary education I would place in the role of the addict. State and Federal education agencies are other members of the family. The agencies might recognize a host of problems with secondary education. The agencies might fret and wring their hands, and try different tactics to coax better performance from high schools. Local school boards and site-based decision-making boards (SBDM) increase the family size. These boards may also recognize problems, and may also be part of the co-dependency problem. They may think no problem exists where one actually does. For instance, school boards or SBDM boards who advocate non-science as science, such as the teaching of Intelligent Design, Creationism as Science, or climate change denial, or a Young Earth or any other biblical stories as science. To further the analogy, local high school administrators and teachers may scrub tests to improve test scores in order to gain more favor, i.e. money, from state and federal officials. Finally, we have serious issues in Higher Education Teacher Education which potentially promises an endless continuation of dysfunction. Little filtering of students is conducted, oversight is seriously lacking, faculty are overwhelmed and rely on local teachers to provide feedback rather than conduct on-site visits.

Higher Education Teacher Education suffers from constant disruption as policies are updated, modified, or instituted mid-semester or mid-program. Some of these changes are top-down, as Federal laws are enacted. Other changes appear to be whimsical or capricious, arising not from state statutes or federal law, but from local Higher Education administrators and faculty.

To refer back to my friend, she indicated to her middle-school placement adviser an interest in applying for teacher training workshops in inner city Chicago, New Orleans, and Albuquerque. She really wants the experience of working with inner-city youth. Several good schools, Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard, (I think we recognize these names) have teacher-training programs in these cities which allow students in teacher education programs across the United States to apply. Her adviser told her if she were to be accepted by any of these programs any teaching hours would not be valid and she would still be liable for the 200 practicum hours required by the program.

When she related this conversation to me, I was stunned. My friend applied, anyway, and was denied. Hypothetically, had she been accepted, she would have worked for 6-8 weeks with inner city youth as part of a program developed by Stanford, Harvard, or Princeton, and a woman sitting in an office in rural Kentucky has the authority (and audacity) to deny those hours, on the basis that experience is not applicable to rural Kentucky. Holy Sh*t! (As an aside, this person has since been removed from her position and replaced by a rational person.)

If you haven’t watched Sir Kenneth Robinson, then, here, watch this:

I see problems in Education.

But, like I said at the onset, I could be wrong; probably am.


One thought on “Education Is Like A Dysfunctional Family

  1. Pingback: Higher Education Needs A Start-Up Mindset | Constant Geography

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