Monday, August 6, 2012

Dumbing Down and Demanding Less...Really?

"A 1990 survey of college seniors showed 42% couldn't  name the dates of the War Between the States to within half a century." - Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes
"A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra... Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I've found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn't... " - Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus Queens College
DILEMA: Too many schools and educators are demanding less of our students.

Here are three current examples of the dumbing down of America- one in English, one in history, and one in math:

EXAMPLE #1: William Chase in The Decline of the English Department (2009) notes that many schools core requirements are neglecting critical reading and are taking the passion out of books and liberal arts. As a result the relevancy and pursuit of English writing and classical reading are quickly dropping. Hopefully the Common Core Standards across content areas will help.

EXAMPLE #2: In a Wall Street Journal Weekend Interview (6/18/11) Don't Know Much About History  popular author and historian David McCullough responds to the Department of Educations release that week of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress which found that only 12% of high-school seniors had a firm grasp of American history:
Image by Ken Fallin
"We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate...One problem is personnel...People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively...Another problem is method. History is often taught in categories - women's history, Africa American history, environmental history - so that many of the students have no sense of chronology...What's more, many textbooks have become so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back [such as] Tomas Edison are given very little space or none at all...and they're so badly written.  They're boring!
McCullough's solution: about history, talk about the books we love, the biographies and histories... take our children to historic places...and teach history with 'the lab technique'[giving] students a problem to work on. If I were teaching a class I would tell my students, 'I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street [The New York Public Library]. Or I want you to interview Farmer Jones or a former sergeant Fred or whatever...I'd take one of the textbooks. I'd clip off all the numbers on the pages. I'd pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here - all the way through. I'd put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, 'Put it back in order and tell me what's missing.' You'd know that book inside out.
[Please see my recent post for great non-fiction/ history reading suggestions.]
Image by Adam Hayes
EXAMPLE #3: (7/29/12) New York Times Opinion piece (see quote above) Is Algebra Necessary by Andrew Hacker (professor emeritus political science, Queens College, City University of New York) illustrates dumbing down all too clearly and painfully as he advocates removing algebra from the 'required' high school curriculum because
To our nation's shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school... Most of the educators I've talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
His suggestion:
Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call 'citizen statistics' would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.
How in good conscience can or should we dumb down the curriculum because students are failing? My suggestions:
  • Much like McCullough talks about teaching history in a 'lab technique' so too should math be taught as meaningful projects and 'thinking playgrounds' (see Lockhart's Lament ) and not as wrote formula memorizing.  Algebra lends itself to this kind of study - even Hacker notes algebra is used in airline ticket pricing, animated movies and investment strategies - let's teach using these meaningful examples as algebraic 'labs'.
  • Many are failing high school algebra because they have not mastered long addition and multiplication.  We must make sure our students have mastered the basics.
  • Eliminating algebra or making it optional will restrict math-phobics (who opt out of algebra) from many careers. It also models a 'cop-out' strategy - something we definitely do not want to teach or reinforce.  High school students are not ready to make those decisions nor are they ready to be hindered from such consequences. Instead we must teach to various learning styles while raising (not lowering) demands and expectations.
    Under no circumstance should we remove algebra because students fail.  We need to raise not lower the bar and we must strive to meet expectations not eliminate them. Many are hopeful that the Common Core Standards will help. 

    The bottom line: Stop the dumbing down of our students.  Raise the bar don't eliminate it because it's hard or because kids fail.  Observe WHY they fail and address student needs (are they visual or verbal learners, do they have short attention spans - teach in shorter 'bits', use teaching multiple modes and examples of a particular content), but don't eliminate algebra or educational options because they're too challenging.

    And while I mean no insult to Miss South Carolina Teen (who I am sure was incredibly nervous when responding to her question which probably effected her response), we certainly don't want to raise inarticulate students who can't locate US States, or recall when the War of the States occurred. And, if we were to follow Dr. Hacker's suggestions - would we make geography and map-reading optional?
    What do you think?
     Thanks for your visit and please share your perspectives in the comments.


    1. I agree 100%! Have you read the book "Dumbing us Down" or Weapons of Mass Instruction? Stopping by from Mom's Best. Hope to see you at True Aim!

    2. Stop the dumbing down of our students!!! Raise the bar!!! I agree 110%.

    3. Loved "Don't Know Much About History," and the "geography" version as well. I got them at a used book store as a young teen.

      It might be horrible to say, but in the struggle to save everyone might we be losing everyone? Maybe we have to accept that a certain small percentage of students just... will fail, and that's to be expected and okay?

      Chris H
      ABC Wednesday
      D is for Detritus (Oceanography)

    4. Good post. My experience is that it can go either way. I think the problems tend to be for students that don't get "special" classes at either end of the spectrum. My point is that many High Schools give "advanced" students the option of taking AP courses and in some cases courses at Universities when the high school doesn't have classes at the level they can take. I think there are more and more opportunities at the higher levels and also for students with learning disabilities but the basic standards aren't perhaps what they used to be. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

    5. My problem is the ADULTS who believe the pseudo-science earth is 6000 years old, that people walked with dinosaurs, and that the earth is not getting warmer. We don't need to go to Mars, because the world will end soon, and all questions will be answered by God next week when we're raised up to heaven.
      In other words, I think we're sunk.

      ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    6. I think we all need to learn from our failures and that life has problems, can be hard and isn't always fun.
      The baby food approach to life and learning is definitely dumbing all of us to some extent.
      Working for something isn't a bad thing.
      Thanks for this valuable post Meryl.

    7. Thank you for this interesting post, Meryl!
      I think that the solution of McCullough is very good. History could be very interesting and even fun if you take the trouble to organize plays and actions that are taking place in the past. We have several parks in my country which show us the various periods in history. People actually live in Roman villages or a town in the middle-ages, or any other period during their holidays. Schoolchildren are invited to take part in building a hut or a boat.They love it and will never forget these history lessons.

    8. I believe that there is only so much that educators can do. Parents need to step up to the plate and work with children at home. I also believe that our government needs to step up and provide more funding for our schools. Every time I turn around I hear about budget cuts and the schools are the hardest hit. I find that insane! Without proper funding, our children do not get a proper education, therefore, American children will continue to "dumb down" in my opinion.

    9. I'm still struck DUMB after watching that brief video...may God have mercy on her soul for sure! lol Seriously, though, I think it's absolutely crucial when teaching kids at any level to show them the relevance to everyday life of what they're learning, be it algebra, reading, writing or history! My expectations for students were always high (some parents complained) but all students did the best that they could whether they ended up with a C or an A+. I did not allow "cruisers." I always praised students for doing their best work and I always gave constructive criticism to those whom I knew had not done the work to their best ability or when I knew that parental "assistance" was given. In the adult working environment, you're on your own so learn as a student how to do it yourself. Dumbing things down will only create dumber, lazy people - not the opposite! Always a pleasure to read your posts, Meryl.

      abcw team

    10. And this is part of the reason why we homeschool.

    11. I understand this all too well. I teach at a graphic design college. One of my classes is Design and Layout 2. They get the core structure of design in Design and Layout 1. I wanted to teach something they haven't heard before. I dove into designers, their work and process. I even show videos that interview them about their skills. On my evaluations last year students said my class was too much like an art history course. They want me to take names out. In my opinion if you are going into a field it's important to know some of the big names in it.

    12. I believe this is so true! My kids high school is a place where a student can excel if they want to. Otherwise there's nobody there who is going to push you to try harder. Of course there has been the occasional teacher here and there who do make a difference, and I applaud them for that.

      Thanks for linking up for WW :)

    13. "Much like McCullough talks about teaching history in a 'lab technique' so too should math be taught as meaningful projects and 'thinking playgrounds' (see Lockhart's Lament ) and not as wrote formula memorizing." -- I completely agree!

      From what I understand, educational system in the future will be more concept- than principle-based; hence, memorization will be phased out and learning will become more fun, though challenging still, to students.

      Cheers ... visiting from ABC Wednesday!

      Tito Eric

    14. Our schools our more concerned with self esteem and sexual health than teaching what they should be teaching. That little beauty pageant twit would make a good politician. She already knows how to double talk.

    15. Geographic ignorance is scary. Everyone thinks, GPS will tell me where to go, not thinking GPS is the basis for most of our mobile technology. One needs skills in this area to advance technology in many fields.

      It boggles the mind how we are going into a innovation economy but yet we are doing so little to help the next generation be able to do just that.

    16. The trick is to make lessons relevant to the real world. I still vividly recall how geometry came to life for me at the age of eight or nine when taught to measure the height of a tree with a protractor, a ruler, a piece of string and a sheet of graph paper!

      But we must also look at our education systems and compare them with those of seemingly successful systems elsewhere. Miss Teen USA talks about helping South Africa whereas I found young people to be be much more motivated to learn when I was there.

      1. You are so right Shooting Parrots! I am one of those who wasn't very fond of Algebra subject (I still don't like it till this day). Real life application of lessons is very effective in teaching students. Catching up With ABC.

        Daredevil Diva
        Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

    17. Another excellent post ~ I so agree ~ We are a nation in trouble and need reform badly ~ (A Creative Harbor)

      ps always good to have you 'visit'

    18. Here is something for you to put into the equation. Money for education is being cut in the arts...the arts are the expansion of thinking and the method to help students learn those core studies. So students scores go down, but not for the lack of good teachers, but for the lack of a well developed learning environment.

    19. I'm in a school everyday, and this is simply not true where I teach. I see the exact opposite. Curriculum has gotten a lot more rigorous!

    20. Even speaking as one of those math-phobics of which you speak, I'm grateful to have been subjected to algebra. To this day, I will still freeze up if you show me an actual "math problem" and ask me to solve for X or something, but I worked in customer service for years, and could always understand billing, prorated amounts, upcoming discounts, and tax percentages. Some of the younger folks I worked with seemed to struggle with even the basics, and that always scared me. If I--worst math student in the history of the world--could grasp a concept that they found difficult, I feared their education had failed them somewhere. Removing crucial bits of education is not the answer.

    21. I also consider the paring down of arts programs (while football budgets are sacrosanct) to be an utter failure to give students a full education. Encouraging students to express themselves through creative writing, poetry, singing, play and instrument... music uses and exercises both sides of the brain, improves hand/eye coordination. Art classes are instrumental in connecting kids with nature.

      There's another wonderful text I recommend: Lies My Teacher Taught Me. It is NOT an indictment of teachers, but of history textbooks, so male- and Eurocentric-dominated.

      Math was not my strong suit, but I still calculate all in my head before "proving" it on a calculator, as my engineer dad (who used a sliderule) used to say: "Use it or lose it," and also, "Learn a new thing every day and you'll never grow old." Thanks so much for this, it's so valuable for discussion! Amy

    22. Fantastic points! I am a mom of a middle-schooler and have noticed over the last few years a few things:
      --She took Algebra (considered a 9th grade math class where we live) as a 7th grader. She got As, but I was strangely disturbed when her teacher let her retake any test she wanted to raise her score. So...if she didn't study and got a C on a quiz, all she had to do was tell her teacher she wanted a re-take, and got it. So I'm happy that she likes math and does well, but why this philosophy of letting kids retake tests until they get a higher grade? Never would have happened when I was in school. Makes me wonder if the school system does that so its overall student scores look better for funding, etc??
      --I've also noticed the books they have kids read in middle school language arts seem to be less about classic literature and more about "fun" reading. Not that classic lit isn't fun. (I have a degree in English Lit and I'm a YA/Middle Grade writer, so I WANT people to read anything and everything.) I guess my point is this: When I was her age, kids in my class were reading things like Jack London's Call of the Wild. I encouraged my daughter to read it, and she gave up part way through because it was "too hard" -- and she's in advanced classes across the board. Why was this book read by all middle schoolers 30 years ago, but is too hard for the gifted kids today?? Interesting...

    23. I agree with what you've said! I love the idea of teaching history chronologically, any other way doesn't make much sense. Also, very good point about the problem being not having a mastery over the basic grammar facts. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking post with us at Trivium Tuesdays!

    24. That video is scary! That said, I am truly afraid for your kids today. My daughter goes to a good public school but I still worry they spend so much time on the arts (and yes I think its important) over Math it makes me nuts.

      Happy WW!