Posted by: holdenlee | September 3, 2012

What is wrong with education? (Part I: Slowing down to speed up)

The US pours more and more money into the educational system every year–so that we spend upwards of $10,000 per student per year. Yet our test scores have stayed flat relative to the rest of the world—for instance, the US still ranks 25th out of 34th countries in math test scores on the OECD. We call education “the great equalizer,” yet the students that aren’t graduating from high school are still those who come from inner city schools, and many of them are black. Every president seems to have some new educational policy–from No Child Left Behind to Common Core–that failed to create the promised change. And even for the students who’ve aced their classes there seems to be a widening gap–or perhaps a gap that has always been there–between getting the A’s and getting hired, and the reality of a weak correlation between their grades and their success in life.

What is wrong with education?

I like to start an essay with a “vision” of what we can do, but I refuse to do so here: there is no easy fix. If I give a vision, you, the reader, may strike it down as something that “sounds great in principle but won’t actually work.” Too many people have had their own “pet policies” on education that they adhere to religiously, simply because they came up with it. In lieu of a vision, I will say instead that to answer the question “what is wrong with education” we have to examine all aspects of the question:

  • What are teachers doing; what are parents doing; what are students doing?
  • How has society changed in the last half-century?
  • How do we teach and certify our teachers?
  • Are test scores actually a good metric for determining success?
  • How relevant is what schools teach to the skills people actually need in their real lives?
  • Where are all the good teachers going?
  • What are the actual effects of policies like No Child Left Behind?

We need to reflect on how our own teachers taught us, what we liked and didn’t like. We need to read the statistics that are already out there, and opinions of people with many years of experience in education. This is why I am slowing down, and exploring these questions in a series of posts.

But much of what I want to say has already been said, by many other good teachers who can put it better than I. Most of what I learned about education is from Mathew Crawford, during my internship at Gliya this summer. Before I give my own perspective, I encourage you to take a look at what teachers themselves are saying, for instance Kenneth Bernstein (a.k.a. Teacherken; my AP government teacher, recently retired) blogs about education at dailykos; Mike Polinquin blogs about teaching math. Far more has been said then I have the time to read. If you’re interested, just search on the web, or go to the library and pick up a book about education (but do some research first to make sure it’s worth reading!).

Today I’d like to explore the question: How should we pace curriculum?

Slowing down to speed up

I talked to a teacher who used to teach first grade (back when there wasn’t compulsory Kindergarten). In the past, she said, parents took responsibility for their children’s education. In parent-teacher conferences, she would say things like, Johnny is a little behind the other kids in school, but Johnny can catch up if he does some extra work on X, Y, and Z at home, and mostly, the parents would listen and give Johnny some extra help. And if at the end of the school year Johnny still wasn’t up to par, she would recommend that Johnny repeat first grade, or else the parents do a whole lot of extra work with Johnny over the summer.

Parents often trusted her and let their Johnny repeat first grade.

Although kids like Johnny are “held back” for one year, for the rest of their school life they are often in line with, if not ahead of, their peers. For instance, one of her “held back” students went on to become valedictorian in high school.

These kids aren’t dumber than their classmates. Maybe, they just weren’t quite ready at age 5, and they are at age 6.

Can you imagine a parent saying in this day and age, “Yes, by all means, let Johnny repeat 1st grade.”?

Now all the talk is about speeding up our children’s education. Accelerated tracks, the invasion of AP’s into a high school student’s schedule, loaded on with lots of extracurriculars to tack on to a model resume.

More likely: “Johnny is every bit as smart as his classmates, I see no reason why he shouldn’t go on to 2nd grade.”

We’re allergic to slowing down. Being “held back” has a bad ring to it. Just consider, for instance, the naming of the bill “No Child Left Behind.” Being held back is not the same as “being left behind.” It’s called “slowing down to speed up.”

To make a vast generalization, it seems a lot of people–parents and students–want good results NOW. They think some auditor is going to appear on their doorstep any minute and judge the students’ performance. It’s not surprising, since modern life seems so fast-paced: credit cards give us money now, pay later; science/technology is making rapid progress; we can text anyone via cell phones and check anything via high-speed Internet; all in all, our pace of life gives us a vibrant economy {\,}^{dubious|discuss}, increased convenience, the ability of a single person to be informed on a lot of topics.

In comparison, the educational system seems to have made disproportionately little progress.

You argue: of course we need accelerated programs. Didn’t you, Holden, do AP’s in high school, accelerated math/science/whatever? I’m not arguing against accelerated programs. In fact, they’ve done what they claimed for “smart” students–accelerated their education. But many times kids are pushed into these classes when they’re not quite ready. It’s not that they can’t succeed in the classes–but they might get more out of the class if they take it one or two years down the road.

If you stop a random person on the street, what are the chances that he or she will be able to recite the quadratic formula? Or, let’s stick to something more useful, read a graph or table in the New York Times? Surprisingly low.

If we push students on to algebra 1 without learning fractions, if we push them onto algebra 2 after they “pass” algebra 1 with a C or D, we are doing more than just wasting 1 \frac{\text{hour}}{\text{day}} \times 6 \text{ years} of a student’s life. Students will not pick up anything meaningful from the next subject if they did not learn the previous one, or if they passed it my rote memorization without complete understanding. Why, then are we pushing kids algebra-geometry-algebra 2-trig-precalculus if at the end they’ll forget what they learned in *algebra*? Why not slow down and make sure they actually learn the kind of math they’ll need in their daily lives—like how to read a graph or table in the New York Times?

Whether everyone actually needs to learn all these math classes is a separate post in itself (I argue not). But let’s ignore this point for now.

By pushing students before they’re ready, we’re doing more than wasting the students’ time with facts that they’ll forget. We’re teaching them how to feel hopeless. We’re teaching them to despise what they learn. We’re teaching these students that school is not giving them what they need for their lives. It only gets harder and harder for these students to catch up in each grade—and they don’t feel motivated to, because they don’t see how the algebra 2 they’re learning will be relevant to their lives in any way—and many of these students hit a point where they simply give up. Maybe they get in disciplinary trouble. Maybe they drop out. We say that college leads to a better life, but high school already feels like hell to them… and what will college be?

Don’t just take my word for it:

In future posts, I’ll explore ideas for how we can actually “slow down to speed up,” and another important question: How much of education should be standardized? How much freedom should we give teachers and students?


  1. (Thoughts by Mr. P on the news article here:

  2. […] answers the big questions  about that subject. Each piece of knowledge should be placed somewhere. Slowing down to organize saves you time in the long […]

  3. […] Learn methods, not results; learn how to derive formulas from basic principles rather than memorizing them. When reading math, “don’t turn the page until you have thought a while about what’s probably going to be on the next page, because then you will be able to read faster when you turn the page.” To write his massive series on computer programming, he had to survey the whole field which was very disorganized. Like Diaconis, he had to develop an ability to read a lot of titles and abstracts and “index” them in his head. When he had to learn a field with 60 papers, he would read two of them slowly–trying to figure out the problems before looking at the answers, learning the vocabulary and ideas–and the next 58 would go by much faster because he would know what to do. (See Slowing down to speed up.) […]

  4. […] is not 1? Then write the solutions. (Learning a baby version completely helps very much; see “slowing down to speed up.” Also see “proofs as obstacle […]

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