Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why My Daughter's Education Sucks

I got pretty frustrated with my daughter's homework last night. She's in sixth grade but no, this is not one of those stories where a parent complains that his daughter's homework has already grown too complex for him to figure out. Instead, this is one of those stories where a parent, teacher, and learner (all rolled into one) is so disappointed by the education being offered his daughter in school that he begins thinking it's time to switch to private school. Not that he can afford it.

The story is in three parts. The first is all about plate tectonics, the second involves trapezoids, and the third is concerned with reading. Here we go.

Her science work was to read a chapter in a book and answer a worksheet. Both were about plate tectonics which, for my money, is a pretty exciting subject. I've watched PBS shows about plate tectonics, studied it a bit in school, and have a geologist friend who can tell me a ton about this sort of thing. My daughter couldn't figure out what the hell was going on. Being a good dad, I leaned in to help.

Turns out, I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on either.

The book from which she is reading is written poorly. I can say that because I read the chapter and it was as exciting as watching the ground, waiting for it to move. Along the side are "fun" ways to make the learning happen! Things like, make a flip book of the terms! Or, write down lists of terms used! Or, shove the pencil directly into your eye and out the back of your skull! Woo-hoo, let's party!

The worksheet was worse. It was looking for short, one- or two-word answers to questions that didn't seem to be addressed in the chapter. I worked on this while she went up to shower. I enlisted the help of my brother and wife. Three graduate degrees among us and we couldn't get the answers to this sixth-grade assignment.

Worse than all that, none of us could see a single reason to be doing the assignment. Learning was not the focus.

Testing is.

But enough of science, let us move on to geometry where my daughter is learning about area of figures. This episode was about trapezoids. I love finding the area of shapes and trapezoids are among my favorites. I'm not kidding. I really do like this stuff and I'm good at it. However, last night I didn't know or care to recall the formula for the area of a trapezoid. (I figured it out later but that was just for fun.)

My daughter is being taught the formula. She is told to memorize it and then use it. In math teaching, this is called drill-and-kill. It drills the information into a child's brain (or is supposed to) while simultaneously killing off any will to engage in mathematics ever again.

I taught her something else. She knows how to find the area of rectangles because that makes sense. She doesn't memorize a formula, she just knows that she is dividing it into regular squares and counting up the squares. Base-times-height makes sense to her because it embodies the principle she has come to understand. She also knows how to find the area of a triangle because she sees right triangles as halves of rectangles. It makes sense to her so that 1/2-base-times-height isn't so much a formula as it is a natural outgrowth of her understanding.

1/2-height-times-the-sum-of-the-two-bases is not going to stick with her even though it is the formula for the area of a trapezoid.

I taught her to cut the trapezoid into triangles and rectangles. A simple thing to do, a simple thing to teach, a crucial thing to learn. By doing this, she found that she could easily find the area of the trapezoid.

Here's the killer: she said, "but I have to do it [with the equation] or I'll lose points on the test."

Oh yeah. I forgot that the point of school is to pass the test. My bad.

Finally, after going a bit nutty about what school is really for (hint, it's not for tests), I asked her what books she had read so far this year in English class.

"We haven't read any books," she said.

Instead they have read stories out of the textbooks and off of test prep packets.

Can you still hear me screaming about that?

I don't blame her teachers. They're trying to keep their jobs and to do that they have to follow orders. They are also burdened with more than they can do and the rug has been pulled out from under them. They got into this to teach but now are tasked with little more than test-prep.

I blame her principal for not speaking up, but then he would probably lose his job.

I blame her superintendent for not speaking up, but she's there for politics and politicians don't rock the boat.

I blame the State Department of Education for following money instead of learning.

I blame our Governor for running for President instead of taking care of our children.

I blame Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama for selling education to corporate interests.

And I blame you and me. We have to stop this. First things first: I'm teaching my daughter how to do math. I'm showing her good things about science. I'm taking her to the library to get good books and making sure she has time to read them. I'm taking her to dance class and soccer practice and getting her out to ride her bike because those things are more important than any god damned test. I'm also telling her to stop thinking of the tests as important and concentrate on the things that matter. Things like understanding that the ground is moving, that complicated things can be divided into simpler things, and that nothing is more important than a story, especially her story.

Screw the workbooks, formulas, textbooks, and all the tests. Write on.