Educating the public

This letter to the editor appeared in the Flamborough Review on September 17, 2011:

I was puzzled – but not surprised – to read the comments offered by the provincial candidates regarding education (Review, Sept. 8). The big picture to these players is the bricks and mortar and infrastructure. They really need to pay attention to the people.

Wait, where have we heard that before? I am a parent, and the biggest concern among all parents I talk to is the curriculum.

We are inundated with fundraising for this, awareness for that. The kids come home telling us about all the “activities” they do.

Wait a minute. What happened to the three R’s?

What happened to sitting down and having a deep discussion about something relevant? Has school turned into glorified daycare?

I’m sure there are some teachers who are just fuming right now, but I don’t care. The public system is failing our kids. The adage that they “never leave a child behind” because it may affect his “self esteem” doesn’t wash with me, or many other parents. Who will worry about their self esteem when they can’t fill out a job application?

I don’t agree with technology and keyboards in primary schools. What is wrong with pen and paper? Apparently, spelling tests are too much to bear anymore. Standardized testing is also an issue with many parents. Many teachers I have spoken to say that they are pressured into spending more time in preparing the kids for these tests.

Let’s get back to basics. Our kids need a stable base of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic, not volunteering activity time to promote corporate marketing.

Kevin Inglehart

The only phrase missing from this rant was “Back in my day…” My first thought upon reading it was “spoken like a man who hasn’t set foot in a school in thirty years.” Gail, who has been involved as a volunteer and on the school council at our kids’ school for eight years and is currently going through teacher’s college, was indeed fuming when she read it. If Mr. Inglehart had done the slightest bit of research before writing this, he might have understood the current goals of the education system and why they’re different from those of years ago.

“What happened to the three R’s?” – Literacy (which is far more than just reading and writing) and mathematics (which is far more than just arithmetic) have always been the core of the education system and still are, though they are being taught in a different way than in the past. When my parents were kids, and to a lesser extent when I was a kid (I’m currently 42), mathematics in primary school was mostly arithmetic and was almost entirely memorization. Here are the times tables, learn them by rote (i.e. repeating them out loud over and over and over until it’s burned into your head). There you go, that’s math. Did the students understand what it was they were memorizing? I’m sure some did but many did not. In public school, we had to memorize the times tables up to 12 times 12. To this day, I can instantly tell you that 12 times 12 is 144. If you asked me 12 times 13 it takes me a half-second longer to come up with the answer – but I can come up with the answer. In all modesty, I am one of the ones that understood how the times tables worked (I always did well in math and went on to get a Bachelor of Mathematics degree) but I know that some of my classmates would have been completely lost because 12 times 13 wasn’t on the chart we learned memorized. That’s not the way math is taught these days. Kids are not just given the answers but are taught how it works so that they can figure out the answers for themselves.

“What happened to sitting down and having a deep discussion about something relevant?” – That depends on the grade level. Just try having a deep discussion about anything with twenty 8-year-olds and see how far you get. That hasn’t changed in a hundred years and so has nothing to do with this issue. But I know what kinds of projects Ryan (currently in grade 7) has worked on over the past few years, and they are having deep discussions about relevant issues.

“The public system is failing our kids.” – Evidence please. Don’t go spouting off a claim like this without backing it up. Show me evidence that children are coming out of public school less prepared for high school or university than they were twenty or forty years ago and I’ll start listening.

“Who will worry about their self esteem when they can’t fill out a job application?” – Show me a teacher that allows a student to pass their class with high self esteem but without the basics of reading and writing and I’ll show you a teacher who needs to be fired. That’s not the way the public education system works, now or in the past. The difference is that now teachers consider a student’s self-esteem whereas in the past they did not. Were people in Mr. Inglehart’s classes ever singled out and humiliated in front of the class? Let me guess, stuff like that “builds character”, right? It doesn’t take a genius to realize that humiliating a student or telling him he’s stupid because he didn’t do well on a test or assignment does nothing to help the student learn. If a child is struggling in school and you tell him he’s stupid, after a while he will come to believe it himself. Alternatively, you can give him extra help – both in the curriculum and in believing in himself so that he has the confidence to continue. If a student’s self esteem is ignored and he struggles, he is more likely to hate school and leave as soon as possible. How is that good for the student or the community?

“I don’t agree with technology and keyboards in primary school. What is wrong with pen and paper?” – Technology is not replacing pen and paper. Both of my kids go through plenty of paper during the school year and they do far more printing and writing than typing. But considering the pervasiveness of computers and technology in our world, how does it make any sense not to start familiarizing our children with it as soon as possible?

“Apparently, spelling tests are too much to bear anymore.” – That’s because many studies have shown that spelling tests are ineffective. Students learn how to spell the words in the few days before the test, write the test, and then promptly forget them. Teaching them the fundamentals of English grammar and phonics is far more effective in teaching kids how to use language.

“Standardized testing is also an issue with many parents. Many teachers I have spoken to say that they are pressured into spending more time in preparing the kids for these tests.” – Then whoever is pressuring the teachers doesn’t get it either. The idea is to prepare the children for life – teach them how to think, not how to answer the questions on the test. Once you’ve done that, they will succeed on any test you give them.

I don’t know what “corporate marketing” thing Mr. Inglehart is referring to in his last line, but I assume it has to do with fundraising which he mentioned earlier in the letter. It’s a fairly well-known fact that schools are given far less money now than in previous years. As for why that’s true, that’s a political issue that has nothing to do with the teachers or how they teach. When I was in school, all the materials we used were provided by the school itself. Now, teachers spend their own money to outfit their classrooms. Over the years my kids have read and studied many books that were purchased by (and then borrowed from) their teacher, not the school or the Board of Education. Fundraising is a way to help further equip the schools. Without it, schools wouldn’t be able to afford many of the materials necessary, and programs like music and art may need to be cancelled altogether.

Mr. Inglehart needs to realize that society is constantly improving its knowledge of how children learn, and changes must be made to the education system to reflect that knowledge. Yes, sometimes money is a factor in such changes, but not always. Things don’t work the same way as they did when he was a kid, but that doesn’t make the changes unnecessary.

There are always people who say things like “it was good enough for me when I was a kid”, but is that really what you want for the next generation – “good enough”? Don’t you want “better”?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s