Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Children’s Education: Who Should Guide It?

Sunil Laxman had a post recently in which he discussed some results of a survey on childhood education. What he thought was ridiculous was that 42% of respondents did not believe in evolution and that 41% believed that parents should have the final say in what is taught in schools. He seemed to be implying that parents could not be trusted to have a role in guiding their children’s education because they are too ignorant to perform that role.

Now I agree with Sunil that it is sad that so many Americans are ignorant about many things. I am not that bothered about polls about evolution because I figure most Americans just don’t care about that subject and I honestly don’t see why they should. Evolution is not something most people use everyday. Naturally, facts that seem useless are quickly forgotten.

What bothers me is that so many Americans are poorly educated in areas that really do matter. Many Americans are very poor in mathematics and in language skills. Most Americans have very poor knowledge of economics and economics is something every American is confronted with everyday and this ignorance can affect their choices in elections. So a reasonable question is: “Why are Americans so poorly educated in many areas that do matter and what could be done to reverse it?”

Ironically, I believe that much of the poor results of the American education system can be traced to basically the kind of technocrat revolution that Sunil seems to be advocating. Really? Technocrats have been in charge of American schools and still people are ignorant? How can this be?

Long ago, many schools in America were one-room rural schools with a single teacher that taught all grades. Parents were largely farmers and largely ignorant of most subjects in the world, but they knew that if had any concerns about the school and the way that the kids were being taught, they had a lot say about it. They could easily remove the teacher if they didn’t like him/her. The teacher was accountable and this system work reasonably well. My grandmother taught a school like that in Montana.

In my father’s time, the school system consolidated over the entire county. There were economies of scale here and they were able to offer more subjects and more teachers. The parents had less voice in this system, but it still wasn’t negligible. Since there was only one high school for the entire county, parents still had some voice in the system.

When I went to school, the technocrats took over. These high holies of education decided that that education needed to be revolutionized. They brought in a variety of new ideas; almost all of them were bad. The brought in the “new math”: which centered on set theory and Venn diagrams. The parents hated it. They brought in the movie projector: the idea was to replace boring lecture with infotainment. The movies were entertaining, but you don’t learn by watching movies or T.V. They also brought in “whole word” as opposed to phonics. Children really struggled with reading.

Parents were left out of all of this because by this time, most school districts were very large. The population had increased and then number of school districts reduced. This meant that the average parent had very little voice in the school system. They might grumble at home, but why voice your concerns at the school? The school was subservient to the district school board. And no one at the district school board would bother hearing the concerns of the average parent. What would be the chance that that one vote would make a difference in a district of 50,000 students? Voter apathy is so high that most school board members are virtually unopposed. They are accountable to no one.

In this environment, unions could come in. This brought in another dimension of politics into the public schools. Out went the motivated teachers who just wanted to teach the kids; in came the teachers who thought of teaching as a nine-to-five job.

Parents ceased to be involved in the whole education process and children learned that if they parents weren’t concerned, they shouldn’t be either.

Things have gotten even worse: now much of the control of schools in at the state level and the new “No Child Left Behind” is extending control to the national level. More and more, the decisions about what is taught and how it is taught in public schools is left to bureaucrats. And bureaucrats don’t love a kid like a parent would.

The key to good education is to keep the control of the school local and to let parents decide which school is right for their kids. If parents are behind the school, kids will sense that education is important and they will naturally learn more. But parents won’t back a school they had no say in choosing or creating.

This is why I am a big supporter of parents being able to send their kids to private schools. My wife and I send our son to a very nice (and expensive) private school. If more parents were able to send their kids to private schools, I believe that competition would force prices down.

I agree that we need a public education system in the sense that children of parents with low income should still have access to quality schools. This is why the voucher system is attractive and I really wish Democrats would give it a thought. It could really improve the quality of education in the U.S.

But the most important thing is that people should be free to make the fundamental choices that affect their families. Parents should be able to choose their home, their place of work, and their schools. Parents might not know about a lot of things but their instincts are basically correct. A parent would never approve of a kid watching movies all day in school. A technocrat might, and apparently did. Freedom works: trust freedom.


  • Aren't parents already free to send kids to whichever private school they want to?

    By Blogger gawker, at 10:36 AM  

  • I am glad I checked your site today, otherwise (being a parent)I would have missed on a topic which intrests me.
    You got me thinking again, with a lot of debate on(private vs public)schools, I decided to send my daughter to public school.

    By Anonymous rajeshwari, at 10:47 AM  

  • Hi Gawker and Rajeshwari
    Yes...but you have to still pay for the public school your kids don't go to. That doesn't seem at all free and fair to me (but I admit that I never gave it any thought before I started sending my child to private school). Public schooling wouldn't be so bad if parents could choose the schools (of course they are free to move, but that is not cheap).

    Rajeshwari: Hopefully your daughter's experience with private schools is good. There is much variance in public schools. Some are good some are so-so and a few are awful. But you probably know enough to avoid the really bad schools.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 11:53 AM  

  • I believe it is not that easy to start a private school. If I am not wrong there is also considerable amount of government influence on the syllabus and so on.


    By Blogger Ashish Hanwadikar, at 12:01 PM  

  • I believe it is not that easy to start a private school. If I am not wrong there is also considerable amount of government influence on the syllabus and so on.


    By Blogger Ashish Hanwadikar, at 12:01 PM  

  • Is it like when your kid becomes old enough to go to school you are taxed extra for public school? Or is it part of the tax levied on everyone, even me?

    By Blogger gawker, at 12:37 PM  

  • Hi Ashish and Gawker
    Ashish: No, I don't think there is any government influence on the syllabus for private schools. Charter schools, which are a public/private hybrid, are a different story. The charter has to be approved and the charter might restrict the syllabus.

    No, the money for public schools comes from two major sources: local property tax and state sales adn income taxes. You pay these regardless of how many children you have.

    Btw, here is an interesting conspiracy theory for you: is Intelligent Design merely a way for Republicans to kick liberals out of the public schools. It might be very effective.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:59 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger @mit, at 1:17 PM  

  • Michael - I agree that Parents can and should have the "freedom" to send their kids to different schools.

    The challenge from an Indian perspective is (I think gawker was getting there) that the syllabus and the content is governed centrally. The Central authority decides what can and should be taught in the schools and in most cases the examinations are centralized too. So the choice the parents have is negligible as far as content is concerned. Surely not all schools are same (and public schools are the worst because of lack of funding and proper resources - exception being KV).

    The deciding factor then becomes, past results of the school, sports facilities, etc etc.

    what can one do when Knowledge is Governed?

    By Blogger @mit, at 1:18 PM  

  • Her experience in private school was not that good (social skills).
    As far as the curriculum was concerned it was good, she was learning a lot.
    Right now, she seems to be happy with her new school as she knows the neighbourhood kids.
    So far so good, as the school year goes by, have to wait and see how she feels about the school.
    Had a question-do you just consider the SOL scores to classify the public schools or by talking to other people about the school?
    Wish all schools would be like TJ :-)

    By Anonymous rajeshwari, at 1:30 PM  

  • believe that much of the poor results of the American education system can be traced to basically the kind of technocrat revolution that Sunil seems to be advocating.

    Aha! But I wasn't advocating any kind of technocrat revolution. I detest layers of bureaucracy as much as any one else.

    But there is a substantial difference between how a school is run (if teachers are regular, making sure children learn, management of finances etc) which DOES require local/parental involvement, and the CONTENT of textbooks (parents cannot and are not expected to know all facts of all subjects, but textbooks should teach proven facts, and not wild speculation or personal opinions). There, I don't think the content can be chosen by parents, but by experts in the respective fields. But making this material more accessible for the kids is the role of educationalists as well as parents.

    Perhaps that makes things clearer. We cant club every aspect of schools together. Content and management are two very, very different things.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 1:31 PM  

  • Also, I forgot to add (sorry for spamming you with comments)

    you said I am not that bothered about polls about evolution because I figure most Americans just don’t care about that subject and I honestly don’t see why they should. Evolution is not something most people use everyday. Naturally, facts that seem useless are quickly forgotten.

    Yes, you are right in that Evolution doesn't bother most people most days. But when the attack against science and independent research comes, it usually starts with some thing that affects people the least, and then worms its way in to the system. To me, it's not if something is that important or not, but it is in what might happen if something is attacked baselessly. This can and will spread eventually to things that are more important (it could start with evolution and flat-earth theories, but will slowly move to every aspect of life).

    By Blogger Sunil, at 1:56 PM  

  • I think I'm saying what Sunil is, namely that I don't think content should be influenced in any way by parents. I'm not exactly sure what the voucher system is, so I won't comment on it. And as Sunil says, even though studying creationism in itself, is not a matter of life and death, I think it is more symbolic of how the religious nutjobs are trying to infiltrate science. Which is why it needs to be opposed at all costs.

    By Blogger gawker, at 2:33 PM  

  • Hi Michael
    A friend sent me a good humorous piece on the change in school standards over the decades. I will post my comments in a separate comment. Here goes:

    Last week I purchased a burger at Burger King for $1.58. The counter girl took my $2 and I was digging for my change when I pulled 8 cents from my pocket and gave it to her. She stood there, holding the nickel and 3 pennies, while looking at the screen on her register. I sensed her
    discomfort and tried to tell her to just give me two quarters, but she
    >hailed the manager for help. While he tried to explain the transaction to her, she stood there and
    >Why do I tell you this?
    >Because of the evolution in teaching math since the 1950's:
    >--Teaching Math In 1950--
    >A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production
    >4/5 of the price. What is his profit?
    >--Teaching Math In 1960 --
    >A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production
    >4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?
    >--Teaching Math In 1970--
    >A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production
    >$80. Did he make a profit?
    >--Teaching Math In 1980--
    >A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production
    >$80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.
    >--Teaching Math In 1990--
    >A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and
    >inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals
    >or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a
    >profit of $20. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic
    >for class participation after answering the question: How did the
    >and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no
    >wrong answers.)
    >--Teaching Math In 2005--
    >Un hachero vende una carretada de madera para $100. El costo de la
    >produccion es $80 ...


    By Blogger chappan, at 8:43 PM  

  • Hi Michael
    How can parents choosing what schools to send their kids to will alleviate the issue of declining public school quality ? Given a choice everyone in Michagan would choose to send their kids to Bloomfield Hills, Mich schools which is in the top 10 schoool districts in the country. Needless to say, also one of the richest county in the country. So I dont think thats gonna help.

    And what level of influence over curriculum are you able to exert in pvt schools ? Most of these schools follow this cockamamie Montoserroie (however its spelt) method of education.

    The answer might be privatising education entirely, with grants for the poorer kids to get into schools in their school district.

    What would it be like if Harvard, Stanford, Yale and MIT had their curriculums and ran the pvt schools as well? Wouldn't you want such an en opportunity for your kids?

    By Blogger chappan, at 9:12 PM  

  • General comment - lots of good comments, let me address them one by one.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:55 AM  

  • Hi Ashish, @mit, and Rajeshwari
    Ashish: I'm sorry. I think you must have been referring to the Indian private schools. I'm not sure about them but I would not be surprised if the government were heavily involved in Indian private schools. My wife went to one and said that the major exams were conducted by the government.

    @mit: Yes, that is probably what Ashish was refering to and I misunderstood: see above comment. In the U.S., the curriculum of private schools is largely unaffected by government.

    Rajeshwari: Ah! You're a local I see. Not many would recognize the reference to TJ (Thomas Jefferson High School of Annadale).

    How to learn about schools? You talk to other parents. You need to visit the schools and get a sense about what they are doing and what facilities they have. Test scores can be a factor, but not the only one. In our family's case the school we chose has lots of factors in its favor. Most private schools cater to rich snobs and we are just middle class. We felt a bit out of place at some of these schools. The one we liked caters more to parent of the IMF (international monetary fund) and so the parents are economist. That was a big plus - we fit right in. It is also ethnicly diverse which is a big plus. It had good sports facilities as well (I don't want him to be just a bookworm). All these things matter.

    I admit that we may consider TJ when he is old enough. Its already paid for and it is a quality school (they only take the best students from fairfax county).

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:09 AM  

  • Hi Sunil

    Sunil comment 1: I guess I agree with what you are saying if I understand it. As I understand it, you are saying that the school decides the curriculum and the textbooks and they tell the parents either you like our school or you should go somewhere else. That is basically how it is in private schools. They cannot please everyone. They have a philosophy and either you buy into it or you go somewhere else.

    I would say that if you are sending you child to a school every day and you monitor their schoolwork and see something you don't like, it is reasonable for that parent to voice those concerns. And if the concerns are big enough, the parents should have the right to send their child to another school.

    An analogy could be made to colleges. Colleges don't have to cater to each parent's whim, but they need to be sensitive to what their customers are looking for or else they lose customers, just like any business.

    But I think it would be ridiculous to suppose that parents don't want good scientific education taught in schools. Sure, many parents might be confused about the particulars, but they do know what they want in general.

    Sunil comment 2:
    First, you know that you are always welcome to fill up my comment section with as many comments as you like. You add a lot to the discussions here and I always appreciate your comments.

    I see what you are getting at in the "attack on science". I viewed the statistic that most parents don't understand evolution as similar to a statistic that most parents would not be able to identify Zaire on a map. That might be unfortunate but then if they really were going there, maybe they would put more effort into learning these things.

    But I have heard that many people are concerned that the Christian right and the Republicans are begining to attack science in general because it doesn't fit with their worldview. Specifically, they are attacking evolution and global warming. But this might be the tip of the iceberg. Maybe other science will be attacked.

    If you want to talk about science ignored and attacked in the public schools, however, from my perspective the one that has suffered over the years is not biology but economics. Of course, biology is a solid experimental science and I respect that and I support any movement to help push economics in that direction. But in any case, economics has been largely ignored in high schools and history books are written by people with contempt for standard economics. So bias is there from all sides.

    But I agree that people should know the difference between a solid science like biology and pseudoscience like that whole intelligent design. If people want to send their kids to schools that teach nonsense, hey, it's not for me to say what is right or wrong for their children. But I have faith that a free people will, over time, make the right decision on balance. They will seek schools that teach the real stuff. They will not want their kids to lose out in the long run.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:01 AM  

  • Hi Gawker, and Sourin (Chappan)

    Gawker: I think parents have a right to complain if the school is doing something they don't like. For example, if the school is just showing movies all day long, parents should complain. But I don't think schools should necessarily listen to all complaints.

    Let me give a simple example: There was a couple whose daugther was a classmate of my son. They seemed like nice people but they didn't like the ethnic composition of the school. The school is very diverse: about 30% hispanic, 10% Indian, 5% Chinese, and maybe 10% black or African (and other ethniticities as well). This couple is black and 10% black wasn't black enough for them. They complained about the "lack of diversity" which is ironic because they really didn't want diversity they ended up sending her to an almost all-black school.

    Anyway, the school wasn't going to listen to one couple's concerns. I'm sure that if no blacks went to our school, they would be concerned. But that isn't the case.

    Sourin comment 1: You should write up your Burger King story. I'm sure Sepia Mutiny would link to it. It is very similar to a story Sunil Laxman wrote a couple of months back.

    That's a funny joke with some truth in it. I definitely see the "dumbing down" of American education.

    Sourin comment 2: School choice puts pressure on otherwise monopolies to either "shape up or ship out." Public schools are monopolies and are fat dumb and lazy. They get their money whether you send you kid there or not. They get complacent and just don't do the hard work to turn a troubled school around.

    The influence I have over my son's curriculum is in choosing the school, obviously. Btw, my son went to a Montesori school Pre-kindergarden and had a good experience, in general. Socially, it was a tough few first weeks and he never liked the school a whole lot for that reason. But academically, he did very well. They taught him to read and to write at a very young age. He now can read those large Harry Potter books (he has read 4 1/2 so far) and his reading skills are way beyond mine at the same age. The Montesori method works very well for young children, but they have to transition at some point. His current school is a traditional school.

    Basically the voucher idea is to give all people a coupon for schools and then they can use that anywhere, including the existing public school (which would then be charging tuition equal to the voucher). This, in theory, would give even poor people the money to pay for quality schools and make all schools more competitive. It is an exciting idea.

    I like the Idea that colleges, not just ivies, would then branch out into high schools. That might be a great idea.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:49 AM  

  • Thanks for your replies Michael...

    you said "I guess I agree with what you are saying if I understand it. As I understand it, you are saying that the school decides the curriculum and the textbooks and they tell the parents either you like our school or you should go somewhere else.

    Almost, but not quite. The way I look at it is that parental involvement in schools is necessary in that parents should actively be involved with their child's progress, be able to meet teachers often, and ensure that the time in school is being spent well. They should ideally also be involved with some of the decision making in schools (i.e. if a new library is needed, they can voice their demands). But schools should have a clear policy that what is taught in subject should be facts, and books written on subjects should be based on fact, written by experts (perhaps together with educationalists who make the textbooks more appealing to kids).

    And as for philosophy or religion, I have absolutely no problem with that being taught in schools (it might even be a good thing), PROVIDED that it is taught in a philosophy or religion class.

    I wholeheartedly agree that economics is ignored completely (or some strange ancient version of it is taught) in schools. By all means, a good economics class will go a long way improving the child's understanding of almost all subjects, because economics is a very logical and systematic field.

    A major problem here (with most subjects) is the quality of teachers. I know in many american schools people unqualified for a job end up teaching it. For example, I know of a teacher who majored in arts, who teaches middle school mathematics (because they couldn't find a mathematics teacher). Big problem.

    In India, often the teacher has the "degree" in a subject, but is woefully clueless about it (the reason he/she is a teacher is because s/he didn't get any other job). Results; just as tragic.

    So, I don't think we are in disagreement about parental involvement in schooling, and extremely poor education standards. Nor am I suggesting a techocratic revolution (heavens, no!). But I do strongly believe that there needs to be some expert input in the forming and compiling of syllabi and textbooks. A greater amount of rigor needs to be brought in. And like Sourin's example with math problems, what was alright was "fixed" (if it aint broken, don't fix it!).

    By Blogger Sunil, at 9:57 AM  

  • "But I have faith that a free people will, over time, make the right decision on balance."

    Michael, you just made my point for me. In many ways the American public is not free, at least in this field. What do you call someone whose mind is so enslaved by religious dogma that he / she cannot accept evolution as a fact? Or a person who has been brainwashed so much by their priests and religious leaders (like crazy Pat) that their mind is not able to keep up with the progress being made in science? I wouldn't call them free, so in that sense, you are right, I would trust free people to make the right choices, but if 42 % of americans believe living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, I would not call these people free, and I would not trust these people to have any say in the education of my children.

    By Blogger gawker, at 2:48 PM  

  • Hi Sunil and Gawker
    Sunil: I agree with what you say. One would hope that a majority of schools would naturally want textbooks written by experts. This is certainly true in colleges. But textbook selection has become very political and both liberals and conservatives have participated in this politization.

    Textbooks are not chosen by local schools (unless they are private) Typically they must be approved by a state panel. And the state panels of New York California and Texas have by far the most clout. The criterion is not really the competence of the author or the quality of the book. It is whether the text is politically correct.

    Gawker: I agree 100% that you and I and everyone else should be free to find the kind of school that will give our children the kind of education and school environment we want. We don't want to send our kids to schools that are filled with religious zealots. But this might happen in the public schools as it now is set up. The only way to avoid this is to move to another community.

    Where I differ from you is in believing that the "bad thinking" we want to avoid is due to the ignorance caused by going to mediocre schools or the ignorance caused by religious freedom. I will grant that it could very well be a combination of both at the moment, but I believe that if people were more free to chose their children's school, most people would make the right chose (I admit not all) and over time, schools with bad thinking would mostly go out of business.

    But there is really no other option. If you hope to get rid of bad thinking by outlawing it, it is just as likely that the majority will think your thinking is the bad thinking and outlaw you.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:55 PM  

  • home school textbook are so expensive. I agree, We have been looking for home school textbook all night for a new home school textbook class but havent been able to track down used home school textbook that I can afford. Anyway, I enjoyed looking at you home school textbook blog...


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