Monday, March 8, 2010 | 2:06 a.m.
There were a few items about education that caught our eye during the past week from The Washington Post and The New York Times that should make all of us question how children in this country are educated:
• A news story from Tuesday’s Times was about the intellectual transformation of one of this country’s leading proponents of dramatic education reforms. Diane Ravitch, who the Times noted was once “outspoken about the power of standardized testing, charter schools and free markets to improve schools,” has changed her mind — in a big way. Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary of education during the first Bush administration, finds these to be faddish trends that hurt public education.
A few years ago Ravitch started having second thoughts about the reforms she championed, particularly after hearing from other education experts that the No Child Left Behind law wasn’t actually improving student achievement. “Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools,” the Times says she writes in her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” “The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something that was market-based began to feel too radical to me.”
And for those who rightly believe that we have lost our way when it comes to preparing students for the day they graduate, there was also this telling anecdote from the Times story, recounting Ravitch speaking to school superintendents at a conference last month in Phoenix. “Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect,” she said. “They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track.”
Hopefully, with the sound advice from Ravitch and other researchers, we can scrap this insane practice of teaching to the test that has resulted in children not getting a well-rounded education.
• New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote Wednesday about how vital it is for the United States to ramp up its infrastructure, education and innovation policies in a global economy. He sat down with Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO, to get his insights about U.S. competitiveness. With respect to education, Otellini told Friedman the U.S. is badly falling behind in developing scientific talent. Otellini, when asked if Intel was hurt by America’s weak science and math education in K-12, responded: “As a citizen, I hate it. As a global employer, I have the luxury of hiring the best engineers anywhere on Earth. If I can’t get them out of MIT, I’ll get them out of Tsing Hua,” which Friedman dubbed Beijing’s MIT.
Maybe, just maybe, we can start making the wise investments necessary in science and math so we’re not left behind other countries.
• While Friedman was looking at the big picture, the Post’s George Will, in his Thursday column, looked at some of the everyday issues involving parenting and how we educate our children. Will approached the issue by looking at a new book by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.”
One of the more interesting tidbits that Will mentions from the book is that scientific studies have found that a lack of sleep by children can have a profound effect on a student’s academic performance: Not enough sleep equals poor grades. This isn’t particularly revelatory itself, but the effect from lack of sleep among children is startling. Bronson and Merryman write that “the performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the gap between a normal fourth-grader and a normal sixth-grader.”
Tired children have difficulty learning, the writers say, “because neurons lose their plasticity, becoming incapable of forming the new synaptic connections necessary to encode a memory ... The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night.” Indeed, Will notes that the school day starts much too early, especially for teens. “Awakened at dawn, teenage brains are still releasing melatonin, which makes them sleepy ... When Edina, Minn., changed its high school start from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., math/verbal SAT scores rose substantially.”
We’re not sure there will be a stampede among schools to change their days to later start times, but it’s a change that is long overdue.