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If we're so smart, why are we broke?


Americans are awakening from several decades of spending and consumption with little to show for it. We are realizing that when we had the chance to engineer more efficient cars and put solar panels on the roof to harvest energy from the sun, we did neither, and as a result we are slaves to our addictions and in debt to support them.

Our schools have bought into the idea that we exist to feed the American Dream, which means our students must graduate from college, prepared for the six figure salary, the fancy car, the house in the suburbs (and the crushing education debt) that awaits them. Anything less is unacceptable as a goal. So they must have Algebra in the 8th grade (so they can fit in geometry, calculus and trigonometry courses in high school) and graduate from high school prepared for nothing less than a four-year college education.

Gone is vocational education. Anyone who advocates it runs the risk of being accused of harboring “low expectations” for our students. This ignores the fact that, according to a recent report from the Center for the Study of Jobs and Education:

The great numbers of high paying jobs of the future that are claimed to require college graduation and high academic skills for all high school students are a hoax. The majority of the jobs of the future in Wisconsin and the United States are low or average paying jobs that require short term or moderate-term on the job training and do not require high-level academic skills in academic areas, particularly in higher mathematics.

Furthermore, preparing students for future options other than college does not mean we ignore higher order thinking, and does not mean we do not teach them to strive for excellence. These things are not the exclusive domain of the college-educated. A skilled craftsperson solves hundreds of problems a day, and may take years to grow as an expert. Skilled technicians can earn just as much or more than college graduates as well, as this report from the Southern Regional Education Board makes clear.

There is something else we have lost. At the same time we have boosted the amount of higher math our students are required to take, we seem to have lost the most elemental common sense math from our schools – and our society. The past decade has seen people encouraged to borrow against the equity in their homes to make consumer purchases. This practice was sometimes even justified as “good debt,” because the interest is deductible.

Many of our students live in areas where neighborhood banks have closed, and the local financial institution is a check-cashing store, where you can get an advance on your paycheck and wind up paying more than 400% interest. These cash advance facilities are located almost exclusively in poor neighborhoods and near military bases. This easy money is a trap, and far too many of our students wind up getting caught.

And credit cards are an even easier temptation. According to this article in the New York Times, “Today, Americans carry $2.56 trillion in consumer debt, up 22 percent since 2000 alone, according to the Federal Reserve Board. The average household’s credit card debt is $8,565, up almost 15 percent from 2000.” Much is made of our imperative as teachers to prepare our students for college. It seems to me we ought to have an even more compelling imperative to prepare our young people to support themselves without becoming enslaved by debt.

When I look at my state’s math standards, I find that in the 6th grade students are supposed to learn to solve problems involving ratios and percents. How is it that they are graduating from high school not understanding what happens when they charge up their credit cards? I believe it is because these things are taught in the abstract, and practical applications are often ignored. Math applications are taught “so you can pass the test,” and that is a poor substitute for real learning.

We need a return to common sense when it comes to math, and to the potential of vocational education programs. There are fantastic math problems embedded in practical problems that can be posed by teachers working in real-world situations. When I taught 6th grade math, one year we hatched eggs in my science/math class. For science, we learned about the development of the embryo and the habitat the chicks would need. In math, my students designed chicken coops, and made scale drawings. Some even built three dimensional scale models. Students were engaged by the reality of the problems they were solving. New research in England is finding that students develop their brains in unique ways when they work with their hands in school.

In our schools, computer labs have taken the place of shop classes. This gives students access to useful writing and software tools, but something is missing. There is something magical about solving math problems to design something and then actually building it with your own hands. And vocational education is much more than a wood shop. Modern vocational education can include opportunities to use technology to care for the sick, design bridges, or prepare for careers in biotechnology. In my district, Oakland Technical High School has a Health and Bioscience Academy, a Computer Science and Technology Academy, and an Engineering Academy. The students that graduate from these programs may indeed go on to a four-year college, but that is not the only thing they will be prepared for.

Perhaps if we gave students more room to pursue real-world interests, and made school meaningful for those who might not be college-bound, we might have fewer of them drop out.

So what do you think? Should we revive consumer math? Is there room for vocational classes in our high school curriculum, or should our only goal be college for every child?



As I read through your post, I find that we have many points of disagreement, although I suspect that they are more of the glass half-full glass half-empty sort. But I think that perhaps there is an opportunity to understand something that I keep missing about schools.

I don't agree that "vocational" education has gone by the wayside, nor do I hear clamors of disapproval of modern vocational programs. I do perceive a major difference between the programs that provided an underclass when I was in high school and the programs that are required today. The workplace has changed and so must the workforce. In my state the vocational education standards have been linked to the state academic standards, and for good reason. Because this is what is needed. There is not a great need for hand constructed chicken coops. But even this requires knowledge of geometry and probably some algebra.

No, I don't see a need for a revival of "consumer math," as a substitute for rigorous mathematics (as other countries have already demonstrated can be accessible to a wide population) As you point out, the concepts are already included within the mathematics standards. I do see a need to link all mathematics (and science, and reading and writing and social studies) to real world applications.

But this brings me to the point that I am really struggling to understand. Why is it that schools and teachers have adopted this shallow, teach to the test mentality? I have a very difficult time accepting that solid educational methodology that engages students in learning results in students who do poorly on standardized tests. And as someone who has been a parent in an urban district over a couple of decades, my impression is that the good solid engaging teaching before NCLB was a pretty mixed bag. I have one child who got far more of it than the other. I have seen plenty of "movie Fridays" and worksheets and a dearth of science projects.

My district has dropped any pretense of summer enrichment programs and focuses solely on dry remediation, credit recovery and test prep. I fail to see the point of test prep classes that are intended to review material that has never been adequately taught to begin with. I cannot say that the results have been outstanding. But there is this firm commitment to the belief that some outside hand is forcing teachers into this mold that neither teaches nor results in dramatic increases in test scores. What's up with that?

First of all, it is important to understand the nature of the pressures that these schools are facing. Under NCLB, schools that do not show improved scores over four years can be shut down, their administrators and staff reassigned elsewhere. There is tremendous pressure to show that you can be "effective," and the only measurement that counts is test performance.

So let's assume you are at a school that has had historically low test scores. You have students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. That means many of their parents have been on government assistance for years. Many parents are completely absent, incarcerated or dead. Children may bounce from one relative's home to another, or live in foster homes. Many live in the projects, in blighted neighborhoods where rife with violence. A San Francisco Chronicle article last year drew a vivid portrait of this reality. If you want to understand, read this story: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/08/26/MN7PRKTI3.DTL

This article reveals that: “As many as one-third of children living in our country's violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, according to recent research and the country's top child trauma experts - nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq.” This results in ADD-like symptoms, and children have difficulty attending to schoolwork. In Oakland, where I teach, there have been 74 murders so far this year, and most are concentrated in the same areas where student test scores are lowest.

Administrators in these schools have some tough choices. They can invest in a rich curriculum, drawing on the enthusiasm and expertise of their teachers, focusing on investigations that really engage their students. I believe that in areas where the students come from homes that are relatively enriched, this can result in decent test scores. This allows these schools to maintain these programs, and retain their teachers. In areas like the one I described, the students arrive way behind. If they do not get focused intervention, tutoring after school, and strong motivation from parents and teachers, they do not tend to score well on tests. Even with all these elements, the ever-increasing bar set by NCLB has these schools lagging behind. So some administrators and teachers resort to plan B, which is to figure out as best they can what skills and content will be on the test, and try their best to cram that into the students. Short term, this can boost scores. Long term, I think it does the students a great disservice.

You question where the “outside hand” is that is forcing this. Well, as I said, if schools do not improve after four years, they are shut down – otherwise, according to NCLB, they lose federal funding, which is an essential supplement to the educational dollars here. Here in Oakland, we have had dozens of schools closed. Some closed several years ago, and the new schools that replaced them are now in their third or fourth year, and may be shut down once again. So this “outside hand” is quite visible and powerful.

As a special education teacher with a K-12 license, I have taught many subjects across many grades. I have taught in high school classes where the students had a 3rd grade reading level, lots of frustration and damaged self-esteem. Each test they had to endure was another indicator of failure, and by 10th grade many were at the end of their rope. It's at this point some decide to give up, as school is not preparing them for anything but more indication of how worthless they feel. One can argue that they were ill-taught in earlier grades; that teachers had low expectations; they received poor parental support; etc. Whatever the reason, in my experience, teaching consumer math (among other things), and making learning hands-on , was meaningful to those who had little hope of getting a Regents diploma (in New York State, you cannot graduate high school unless you pass all the regents...and many of these students couldn't do it, or found it daunting and gave up). In addition, many kids at the poverty level don't have skills or training in how to get along in the world...skills such as budgeting money, dressing for interviews, presenting themselves positively, using technology, etc. High schools should give vocational classes for those students whose interests will lead them there; it will keep such students in school. Tying math to real life applications, and allowing opportunities for hands-on learning, should begin in elementary school. Adding these to the curricula allows those kids, whose learning styles or lack of prior knowledge prevent them from grasping algebra or trigonometry, to learn subjects useful to them.

As far as adopting a "shallow, teach to the test mentality," my co-teacher and I plan projects that apply what students have learned in reading, writing, and math (and science and social studies, depending on the topic). Then we have to stop in December to teach how to pick the best of 4 answers, how to understand what the question is asking, test vocabulary,etc. The kind of thinking that goes into creatively solving problems and learning/using information, strategies, etc. is not the same kind of thinking that goes into taking a test. We teachers are thrilled when we get the tests out of the way so we can go back to really teaching.

The premise that not only CAN everyone go to college, but that everyone WANTS to go to college is both ludicrous and destructive.

College degrees are NOT the end all-be all definition of success. Ask the Ph.D. stocking shelves at Wal-Mart or behind the counter at McDonald's how well that college degree is working out for him.

If schools are supposed to prepare students for life, then consumer mathematics and vocational training are essential (as are academics and the assorted arts) to ensure students have a remotely decent chance at "the pursuit of happiness" our Constitution promises.

Besides, students (especially teenagers) learn best when learning about their interests (academic, art, and/or vocational); if you can appeal to their immediate self-interest (consumer mathematics), that works too.

Providing NO outlet for students to learn in a "fun" or "useful" class often results in academic apathy or dropping out; this in turn leads to damaged self-confidence and tarnished self-image, not to mention the social stigma attached to being a "dropout."

Selling students on the false hope that "college degree = success" is setting lots of students up for failure ... and debt.

Maybe its not a coincidence that as this "college for everyone" idea has grown, the teaching of consumer mathematics has declined?

As the director of a mentor program that has over 900 volunteers working one-to-one with their mentees, (most of whom come from severe poverty and the problems that result from that) I constantly hear from mentors, "Why in the world do the schools and teachers preach going to college? My mentee will never darken the door of a university, but certainly can learn to be productive and successful if someone will show the way. Most of the jobs in our world do not require a 4-year degree. We need our kids to learn how to use their talents...and most of their talents lie in areas seemingly avoided by the schools"

And, I should add, this is not suggesting that just because a child comes from a deprived life-style that they are not capable of going to college, but rather it sets up the premise that if they don't, somehow they are never going to attain any type of success. Tell me, how many of you can fix your plumbing, work on your air conditioner, fix your car, build cabinets, lay brick for your house, set a telephone pole, manage a farm, etc? Frankly, I can't do any of these and I thank God that there are people who have these talents and abilities on whom I can rely.
When we overlook the inate talents of our young people and do not give them the opportunity to develop them we do them a great disservice and send the terrible message that those talents are not important to society....only those who can work by primarily using their brains are worthwhile (as if none of the above have to use higher-thinking skills)!

Shame on us for being "educational snobs"!

Jay Greene has an interesting post right now on exactly what I was talking about with regard to the things that NCLB does (and does not) require vis a vis sanctions. http://jaypgreene.com/2008/07/29/nclb-less-than-meets-the-eye-more-than-nothing/

I'm not an expert on education in California, or Oakland, but I did do some web investigation to better understand what you believe. Oakland, so far as I can tell, does not have any policy akin to a three strikes and you are closed rule regarding failure to improve test scores. They are closing schools with declining enrollment--and low test scores are a factor in making those decisions (makes sense to me--in my district it's just low enrollment, with the result being that low scorers stay open and some promising buildings have been split up).

They do in fact have a system of what some would call sanctions that are applied following successive years of failure to make AYP (I forgot to check exactly what the AYP level is in California at this point--I know that it typically started with the 20th percentile level of achievement and most states delayed any rapid steps upward). The sanctions include making an improvement plan and implementing it. I am sorry, but this seems to me to be a logical next step. Oakland also steps up oversight and RESOURCES, providing priority status for grants, etc.

I also note that California has moved in the direction of providing student support services such as mental health within schools (which would be a good response to the need to diagnose PTSD). Oakland is the recipient of several large grants in this area. All of this seems to make far more sense than reviving consumer math for a class of students deemed to be unable to handle, you know, the "regular" math.

One other interesting piece that I picked up on regarding Oakland is that they sponsor a lot of charter schools. I am not certain why that is--my own district still pretty much sneered at them, until they figured out that there were some $$ available--then they opened their own online school. They tried to sponsor KIPP--but what they really wanted was to capture their scores. But in Oakland, apparently they are functioning as their own competition--which would drive declining numbers and force closures.

All of which has nothing to do with why teachers are moving so easily in the direction of test prep instead of solid and engaging instruction.

You point out that a failure to improve AYP is only one of several factors used to determine that a school will be closed, and that schools that are in trouble receive extra oversight and resources. Well, first of all, the fact that there are other factors does not mean that low test scores vanish as a significant issue the schools must address. Second of all, the "extra oversight and resources" often comes in the form of scripted curriculum and coaches to make sure it is followed faithfully. There you have your formula for test-prep.

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