I have been commenting on the public school system and how it is failing our students time and again. Ever since social promotion was introduced, students have slowly figured out that they don’t even need to work hard to pass. Couple that with a 50% passing mark and you have average graduates. Worse yet, students earn high marks despite their performance so that when they reach the tertiary level, if they do decide to undertake a college or university course, they do not have the skills they need to excel.
Let me pose a few assumptions:
Assumption One: The public school system does not seem to communicate with colleges and universities and vice versa about what students need to know or be capable of doing.
One would come to this conclusion because students who come from the public school system have weak grammar knowledge and poor writing skills. From experience, I have discovered that they are unfamiliar with research methods and research writing; they are unable to write a cohesive research paper; they use incomplete sentences and dangling modifiers; their vocabularies are limited; they cannot speak in public; they have difficulty understanding and solving basic mathematics problems, and so on. The list goes on and on.
Assumption Two: Pass marks of 50% mean that students have only learned half of what they should.
That, plus the fact that they only perform half of what is expected of them. This is alarming, because students no longer strive to be as good as they can be in school. They are content to pass with only half the marks, as long as they pass. Their ambitions are low and they do not try to aim for more.
Naturally, there are those who work as hard as they can and earn higher marks, some of them attaining the status of honour students. I often wonder about what qualifies students to be honour students in the public school system. Is it that they achieve a general average of 80 and above? How are their grades determined then, if they achieve 80% or more and still cannot demonstrate strong basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics? I have worked with college students claiming to have been honour students in high school and being told their work was excellent, yet could not submit written work, let alone a research paper, with complete, grammatically correct sentences throughout, nor were they certain of the correct use of punctuation.
Assumption Three: Students who do not make the grade, so to speak, are promoted nevertheless.
I say this because I have not heard of any students who have failed and have been held back to repeat a year or attend remedial classes. All this achieves is send the message to students that they don’t even need to try, because they’ll pass anyway, whether or not they get the 50% mark. If that is the case, what is the point of even having a pass mark? Do students ever attend remedial classes in the public schools?
I’m aware that students who need help are sometimes sent to resource. However, I do question how much help students get, and if resource is uniform across the board. I have heard of resource where students do nothing at all, particularly in cases where students have learning disabilities and are assumed to be incapable of learning. Resource should be tailored to the students’ weaknesses, and even then, a small handful of resource teachers cannot fill in the knowledge that students should have gained over the years.
Assumption Four: The Public School System does not want change.
Why do I say this? The writing is clearly on the wall. Students graduate each year with worsening levels of achievement. Teachers are teaching to the test so that students can score well in the foundational outcomes tests. The teaching is inconsistent and the teachers are not all fully capable of teaching.
We no longer need the factory design that churns children out of school with the barest knowledge so they can find their place among assembly lines. The world has changed; the 21st century demands training in skills that are transferable. While there might be specialized skills, the basic skills still need to be taught well. Math, reading, and writing are no longer valued when they should be at the forefront of teaching. Communication is a huge factor in the working world–it has always been and always will be–and yet very little effort seems to be made to develop this skill among school-age children.
Assumption Five: Teachers are not well-trained.
When learning about education and how to teach was reduced from a four-year course to a two-year course after attaining a regular undergraduate degree, then to a one-year course, churning out new teachers on a conveyor belt, I knew the quality of education would drop even further.
When it was still a two-year course, I had the opportunity to teach a methods class for one semester, and I knew from the beginning it would be a disaster. In the first place, students were allowed to enrol in the methods class before they had taken the theory class, so instead of being able to apply theories they had learned first before working on methods, the students had to be taught theory. I had designed the class to be a workshop-type class because it was a methods class, but a good number of the students expected a full lecture class–all 45 hours of it at 3 hours a week–and for me to teach them everything I knew about teaching English. That expectation alone was ridiculous because what I knew about teaching English was something I had learned over 20 years of teaching. Also, it would be impossible for me to teach everything I knew, because a great deal of what students learn about teaching is learnt in the classroom, doing actual teaching.
The other thing that I found most ridiculous was that many students felt they were being embarrassed in front of their peers when they had to receive a 360-degree critique of a demo class. If they could not receive comments and suggestions from their peers and professor in a safe setting, how much more would they feel when faced with and average of 25 students in each class all ready to criticize them, and in most cases not constructively? Needless to say, I did not regret not being invited to teach the class again.
Assumption Six: Education does not always attract the brightest and best students.
The fact that many teachers are churned out with only one year of teacher training has a negative effect on their ability to teach. I have heard of teachers who don’t even understand what they are teaching, teach to the test, teach to the whiteboard, or even teach to themselves. Some teachers seem to be teaching subject matter they are unfamiliar with and end up leaving students without a clear understanding of the subject matter. Many times, teachers are made to teach subjects they are not experts in, regardless of the level they are assigned to.
In many countries, families have been known to encourage the least scholarly or academically-inclined of their children to take up teaching. The brightest and smartest are encouraged to take up medicine, law, or engineering–still top-rating courses no matter where in the world you go. In highly-religious cultures, the priesthood is the fourth vocation of choice. Parents ensured their futures by ensuring their children covered all necessary aspects of their lives: a doctor to take care of them in their old age; a lawyer to attend to their legal needs; an engineer to build and show off skills; a priest to take care of their spiritual needs. Once all these had been taken, the last choice would be to have a child unsuited to the top choices become a teacher. Admittedly, there are many more careers students can choose from today than there were half a century or more ago, but the elders of society might still assign greater value the same things they would have half a century or more ago. After all, having a son who is a lawyer or a doctor is still more prestigious than having one who is a computer programmer or an actuarian, assuming they understand what a computer programmer or actuarian does.
Assumption Seven: Expectations are unrealistic.
Sometimes, failure in the classroom is not completely the teacher’s fault. Sometimes, teachers are expected to teach a particular subject matter in a particular way that the teacher is not prepared to do or that does not suit the students’ learning styles. There is a problem with knowing that students all have different learning styles, just as teachers have different teaching styles. Are students expected to adapt lessons to each and every student? In an ideal world, yes, but the immensity of that proposition is beyond the reach or ability of any school.
Several theories of education besides the public-school-conveyor-belt system have been proposed, studied, and implemented in progressive schools, many with great success. Common among these theories are the Montessori approach and the Emilio Reggio approach. The theory of Multiple Intelligences has been accepted as a sound theory of learning, as is the theory of learning styles, and yet public school systems have not adapted their settings to reflect this learning. Models of the best school systems have been shown successful in Scandinavian countries, notably in Finland, yet North America has been slow to even explore these models.
Assumption Eight: The bottom line is still money.
I think that bottom line of the North American reluctance to change the way the public school system operates is money. North America’s governments do not want to foot the bill when it comes to overhauling the educational system. The cost of retrofitting classrooms and retraining educators will be no less than staggering, because not only will the public schools have to change, but the way teachers are trained must change. Teachers need to be retrained to change their perspective, their teaching-learning styles, their content learning. Too many teachers have been entrenched in their methods and adapting to new ways of teaching and learning is something they either do not want to do or cannot do.
Assumption Nine: Society’s perception of what education is must change.
Besides changing the system of education and teacher training, how society sees education as well as what society expects of education must also change. Society still sees schools the way they were taught and expects nothing to change. Probably the majority of students graduate (whether they deserve to or not) with the feeling that they are escaping a prison and choose not to look back until they have children of their own who need to attend school. Then they expect schools to teach their children everything the children need to know when they grow up, as if they themselves learned everything they needed to know from school. The attitude towards school and learning is also something society must instill in people. If the majority think going to school isn’t really worth it, is it any surprise their children do not see the value of education?
Assumption Ten: Schools just aren’t teaching the skills needed by society.
If we are teaching transferable skills that will allow students to become successful in multiple contexts, then content should not be the primary focus of education. If 90% of all graduates use only 10% of all the math they are taught, why do we continue insisting on teaching 90% of the content to the 90% and expect them to fail anyway? Why do we not teach the 90% math that they do need and will use 90% of the time? If 10% of all graduates become excellent writers or researchers and 90% of the jobs waiting for them require mastery of writing and research skills, why aren’t we teaching more writing and research? If 90% of all the jobs out there require public speaking and other communication skills, why aren’t we teaching more public speaking and communication? If everything is being done on computers or using digital media, then understanding computers and digital media should be more of a norm than a novelty.
We are approaching a time when we can no longer ignore the consequences of stubbornly clinging to an educational system that does not work. Our graduates cannot read or write or do math properly. The only thing they can do on computers is use social media. They spell as if they were texting all the time. They cannot shake hands properly or look people straight in the eye when speaking. They cannot even speak before a crowd properly. Most of them have no idea what debate or oratory or declamation is. They do not even have manners or social graces so that they know what to do with protocol. There is no denying that education is still entrenched in the 19th century while everything else is straining at its leashes, raring to leap into the 21st century.
I’ve gone on much longer on this than I thought I would, which just goes to show how much of an opinion I have on the state and quality of education today. I am certain of one thing, though: there MUST BE CHANGE.