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Education by the numbers a failing grade
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Forsyth County News


Educationally speaking, we are in a mess. And as one who has spent much of his career in higher education, the situation is especially painful.

Merriam Webster’s first two definitions of the word “education” are:

1: the action or process of educating or of being educated; also: a stage of such a process b: the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process

2: the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools

The first is gobbledegook — which, unfortunately seems to characterize much of the debate and substance related to today’s educational efforts.

The second seems comparable to Gracie Allen’s statement that she “always made out her laundry list when she got it back from the cleaners, that way she never lost anything.”

I’m not trying to single out a particular dictionary. Most will provide similar definitions — in essence they don’t know how to define “education” — and that is the crux of one of the key issues we face as a nation today.

Any good definition of education is much too complex to be summed up in a few words. It has many components. At the simplest level, it involves teaching and learning new facts, concepts or skills. At a higher level, it helps develop a framework to deal, creatively, with one’s environment. But most of all, it is the stuff upon which future hopes and dreams are built.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the “pay off” from education is long term. Good educational processes are cumulative, with each step building upon the one that came before. The time scope is in years (whereas budgetary outlays are scrutinized from month to month). In a society that thinks more and more about “me” and “today,” sacrificing for an uncertain future for the next generation seems to have lost some of its luster, particularly when those who must make the effort may not reap direct benefit.

Here in America, we seem to have lost sight of what education really means and its critical significance for our future. In many cases, it has been reduced to numbers — test numbers, and budget numbers, the latter part of a trend that has become more pronounced with the economic decline and resulting budget cuts. Let’s look at some recent developments.

There is nothing wrong with “accountability.” Yet the way standardized test scores have been applied has proved, in many cases to be counter productive. When resources, pay raises and other important decisions are tied to those sterile numbers, the incentives for people to misuse the system become substantial. Recent scandals across the country (and in Atlanta) involving teachers and school administrators who have “cheated” to raise test scores are indicative of this problem. Obviously, raising scores in this manner does nothing to improve the education of the affected children.

Teaching to the test, without the presence of cheating, is commonplace. But learning sterile answers to questions, rather than learning how to think through and solve problems, or to understand the essence of the question is also counter-productive. But that’s where much of our educational effort today is directed.

For budgetary and other reasons, states have introduced new programs. In several, students can now obtain a high-school degree in two years. One reason given in support of the program is that it will reduce the drop-out rate.

Little weight seems to be given to the possibility that education also includes the process of maturing, and that learning social skills may be just as important a part of what takes place in school as “book learning.” The logic seems to be: “If we can’t do it in four years, then we ought to be able to do it in two.” Should not the focus be directed towards making the four years more meaningful and productive?

It’s sad to realize that this program is based on the idea that “the problem with four-year programs is that we are filling them with only two years of content, so let’s cut back to those two years.” And where will the teachers come from to handle this “condensed curriculum” when we can’t seem to find sufficient numbers to teach, effectively, ordinary arithmetic?

In another jurisdiction, there are proposals to cut the school week to four days. One proponent argued that so doing will help reduce the budget crunch and there is nothing taught in the fifth day that can’t be covered in the other four. This would all be funny if it weren’t true. And look where it is getting us.

U.S. students, who will live in a much more competitive world than their parents or grandparents did, are not faring well. The Programme for International Student Assessment, under the auspices of the OECD runs comparisons of national educational skill levels. They look at the competence of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science. The test is run every three years with a focus on one of the three subjects in each of the first three test years (e.g. 2000, 2003 and 2006) and then a comprehensive look at all three in the fourth (2009).

The results from the earlier years were disheartening. The sample in the first three years included most of the countries in Europe, Turkey, North America, Australia, New Zealand, S. Korea and Japan — in essence, most of the industrialized world. The U.S. ranked 15 of 27 in reading, 24 out of 29 in math and 21 out of 30 in science. So much for our great educational leadership — at least at that level.

The 2009 study was expanded to include 65 nations. The U.S. rankings: 17/65 in reading, 30/65 in math and 23/65 in science. A decline in every category!

However, part of that decline was a function of the inclusion of a number of other nations, particularly China – which ranked first in every category. In fact, with the exception of Finland, the top five spots in every 2009 category were held by Asian nations.

One can find a similar pattern if one looks at the amount of time children spend studying. The U.S. school year is one of the least demanding. For example, students in Japan experience a school year that is 30 percent longer. If one looks at the exposure to classroom learning and homework time, the discrepancy is substantially greater. Obviously, just time spent in school is not the key element. It is what occurs during that time that is important. But clearly, all other things being equal, more time devoted to good education will yield a better result.

The U.S. still sits on top of the world with regard to the caliber of university learning. But how long can we stay there, with the declining quality of output from our elementary and high-school education?

Other nations are building excellent university systems and as they grow and improve, one of the mainstays of our system will disappear — the large number of foreign students, many of whom stayed, and a good many of whom went into teaching and research here in the United States.

We must find a way to break this mentality that trivializes education and sees it solely in terms of number, be they test scores or dollars. Neither of these measures is unimportant. But with so much of our nation’s future resting on the education our young people receive, the places for compromise should be elsewhere. We need to address the drop-out rates, find ways to motivate teachers, and find ways to assess educational outcomes which do not end up driving the entire system. We need to create individuals who are knowledgeable about the world, who can think creatively, who can seek solutions and are motivated to continue learning as they grow.

As a nation, we have achieved enormous heights in terms of the accomplishments of mankind. Education has been its mainstay. This is not a time to back off. I am reminded of a quotation that I cannot attribute to its author, but it seems relevant: “Upon the plains of destiny bleach the bones of countless millions who, having reached the threshold of victory, paused to rest and having rested, died.” The rest of the world is not resting. Our focus has to be on improving the system, not dismantling it.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Arizona and Georgia. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other week, more or less. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at