Category Archives: Education

My Old School, or MOS

What I will call “my old school,” (MOS) to which I am still emotionally if not otherwise attached, has sent me, and hundreds of other present and former members of the school community, a questionnaire with the expectation that the answers of those of us who respond to the survey will play an important role in helping the school administration with strategic planning and setting priorities for the next 3 to 5 years.

“Please take the time to reply, it won’t take more than a few minutes.”

Well I took the time, a bit more than the few minutes mentioned, and when finished, and after reading what I had written, I thought to myself that my priorities for MOS could with few if any changes be the priorities of any private or selective public school, although I don’t know how I could ever determine that.

WhIle writing my own replies they seemed to me to describe a kind of true “common core” of our school, not the false, wordy, dense and mostly unreadable common core known as CCSS, and now adopted by the public school establishments of some 42 states.

Anyway, here are the questions and my responses:

1. What are the strengths, values, and traditions that define MOS (my old school) and must be preserved?

At MOS the students are, or should be I think, freer than in more traditional public or private schools. Freer in the sense of discovering their own interests and talents within the school program (as opposed to finding their freedom, and through it themselves, outside of the school program). This makes schooling and learning the same, and usually they’re not.

2. What do you regard as the key opportunities for the School’s long-term success?

Finding the applicants who will most profit from MOS and in turn be most apt to give back to the school at some future time, thereby insuring the school’s long-term successful survival.

3. Taking into account external as well as internal factors, what do you see as the potential challenges to MOS’s continued success?

Being too satisfied with the way things are, because you can and should always try to do better.

4. Considering academic, extracurricular, and any other programmatic factors, what elements are missing from the educational offerings at MOS that are critical for any 21st Century school?

I don’t know if anything is missing, being not all that familiar with the offerings of MOS today. But I don’t think so. However, not what you do, but the way you do things, how you approach whatever it is that you may be doing, or as Sam Chaltain has said somewhere, how you try to focus less on what you want kids to know, and more on what you want them to become, —all that’s much more important than the “educational offerings.”

I’m sure you still do the same stuff more or less that I did when I was there, math, music, art, French, athletics, Darwinian evolution and all the rest. Maybe you could also do (school or college) wrestling? I did. Chinese? I didn’t. Why not?

5. Are there facilities that could be added that would significantly improve the quality of program offered to students?

Sure. Many. But that will depend on your graduates and friends. For example, an indoor pool? A new Gymnasium? Those two, and probably many more that would be nice to have, and yes, that would significantly improve the quality of life at the school, and along with that the program.

6. How would you describe MOS to a prospective student and/or family in three sentences?

The individual is most important.

The community is most important.

The individual within the community should be what it’s all about.

(This is probably how I would like to be able to describe our country to an immigrant. The same thing it says on our coins, Et pluribus unum, from many (of us individuals) one (community/country). And if all schools were more like MOS still is, I hope, in this respect the entire country would probably move more in this direction, individuals working together for the betterment and improvement of the country.)

7. If you were to give advice to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Head of School about the schools’s future, what would you say?

The school will always depend on the excellence of the teaching staff and the quality of the applicants who become students. Nothing is more important. The Board Chair and the School Head ought to be most of all working to make sure that this continues to be the case.

Educational middle ground between left and right

I often return to the article archive of the now defunct quarterly public policy journal, The Public Interest, founded by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol in 1965, and in particular to a few of the hundreds of writers for that journal, such as: Edward Banfield, Peter Drucker, Milton Friedman, Nathan Glazer, Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q Wilson, and of course James Coleman whom I’m going to cite, this passage taken from his Rawls, Nozick and Educational Equality, Number 43, in the Spring of 1976:

TWO recent treatises on moral philosophy have attracted far more general attention than is ordinarily given to works in academic philosophy: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, and Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick. Together, they offer a framework for considering the difficult problems of inequality in education….

NOW what do these two positions imply for education?


Rawls’ position implies erasing all the “accidents of birth” which give one person more opportunity than another, and thus creating a full equalization of opportunity for each child. As political philosophers have long noted, this necessitates removing the child from all influences of his family-because families provide differential opportunity, and raising him as a ward of the state, subject to precisely the same conditions as any other child.

Nozick’s position implies, in contrast, no system of public education at all. For public education is redistributive, and by Nozick’s “entitlement” principles each child is entitled to the full untaxed benefits of his family’s resources, insofar as it chooses to use those resources for his benefit. Thus for Nozick, all education is private, paid for individually by each family according to its resources and preferences.


Coleman is describing, of course, the two extreme positions that one might take towards education. There have been those who have tried to follow Rawls’ proposal, the creators of the Israeli Kibbutz for example, and many other experimental Communes where absolutely everything is shared in equal parts. There have also been those who have proposed making all education, or at least schooling private, subject only to the wishes of individuals, Milton Friedman for example, has proposed this.

But it doesn’t take a lot of brain power to understand that neither extreme is going to be the answer to the problem of how the young ought best to be educated. Rather the place to be is on the ground in the middle, leaning perhaps a bit to the left, toward equality, or a bit to the right, toward individual freedom. In this respect how have the public schools done? Have they been occupying that middle ground?

I would say no, that they’ve done poorly, and as a result, almost since their beginning, with the Common School of Horace Mann in Massachusetts in the 1840s, they have utterly failed to realize Mann’s original mission which was to make, following some 12 years of free schooling, knowledgeable and skillful young men and women ready to be active and responsible citizens of the Republic. Any quick look at our high school graduates, now or in the past, will see that this has not been done.

Why given the colossal failure of the original mission of the schools, why haven’t the school administrators and their handlers, the politicians, moved onto a middle ground, and why haven’t they ceased acting as if government were at all capable of somehow distributing an equality, if only of opportunity, to everyone? For this is not possible, of course, and government should have turned long ago to the private sector for help in carrying out what has up until now been the almost impossible task of universal free and compulsory education.

Government’s role in education as elsewhere should always be to provide those essential services that for whatever reason individuals seem not able to provide for themselves. Defense, infrastructure, roads and bridges, air and water quality, health and old age assistance, although with caveats, and even certain educational programs, but not as of now the whole nine yards as we have done with our public schools.

In many areas of our lives we the people probably know better than government what we need and how best to obtain whatever that be by our own efforts (including in many respects our good health and education). And as much as possible the representatives of government should stay out of our way, move back onto that middle ground between Rawls and Nozick, and from where they can then easily move in either direction, much as a parent when “helping” a child to do for himself without that help.

Readiness for (Community) College

From: The National Center on Education and the Economy


There is a strong consensus that students ought to leave high school ready for both college and careers. But what, exactly, does that mean? As far as we know, this report is the result of the first attempt to answer that question with empirical research.

The NCEE focused that research on the requirements of community colleges, because, by doing so, we can provide a very concrete image of what it means to be “college and career ready.” A very large fraction of our high school graduates attend these institutions, which some have described as the workhorse of our postsecondary education system. Our community colleges provide not only a gateway to the nation’s four-year colleges for a large and increasing fraction of our students, but also the bulk of the serious vocational and technical education taking place in the United States below the baccalaureate level, for everyone from auto mechanics and nurses to emergency medical technicians and police officers.

If a student cannot successfully complete a community college two-year certificate or degree program leading directly to such a job, that student will have a very hard time supporting a family above the poverty line. So it is reasonable to say that if a student leaves high school unable to succeed in the initial creditbearing courses in their local community college, that student is ready neither for work nor college.

And we know that, in fact, a large proportion of our high school graduates are indeed unable to succeed in their first year in community college.

So this report addresses a simple question: what kind and level of literacy in mathematics and English is required of a high school graduate if that student is going to have a good chance of succeeding in the first year of a typical community college program?

One would think that the answer to that question would be well known, but it is not. Community college staff have been asked for their opinions on that point, but people who study the process of setting standards of this sort know that, irrespective of how they are instructed, people who are asked such questions typically answer based on what they would like students to know and be able to do, rather than on what the actual work demands.

We present here an empirical analysis of the mathematics and English literacy skills needed in a range of initial required community college introductory courses in a diverse range of programs of study.

The findings for English literacy

We found that the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding. While the information load of texts students encounter in community colleges is considerably more demanding than of those assigned in high school, students are not expected to make much use of those texts. The requirements for writing are marginal at best and the performance levels students are expected to meet with respect to reading are in many cases surprisingly modest.

It turns out that the reading complexity of college texts used in initial courses in community colleges is somewhere between the level of grade 11 and grade 12. One would think that this means that the level of the community college texts is comparable to the level of a student’s high school text and would therefore present no challenge to their reading ability. But that does not seem to be the case.

Two things point in this direction. First, the high failure rates that students experience in community college suggest that these texts are too difficult for many of them to handle. Second, there are an accumulating number of studies of high school texts that point to their diminished level of challenge over the past half century at the same time as the demands of college texts are holding steady or increasing.  Taken together they suggest that high school students typically confront texts that fall short of those rated at grade 11 or 12.

Our text complexity study noted that students who will be successful readers of information-rich texts written at the 11th or 12th grade level must possess the following capacities:
• The ability to read complex texts in unsupported environments; • The capacity to process, retain and synthesize large amounts of new information;
• Significant reading experience in a wide range of content areas; and
• The ability to read and understand tables, charts, maps, lists and other documents that supplement the prose in many college texts.

Many students emerge from high school without these capacities and experiences because reading for in-depth subject matter comprehension is not formally taught in most high schools and the reading that is required more often than not demands little more than searching for basic facts as opposed to trying to make sense of complex or conflicting ideas or both.

The reading that is assigned in high schools is also drawn from much less complex texts than are found in community college, particularly in college courses focusing on technical areas such as information technology and automotive technology. Texts in these fields require the ability to read and understand technical vocabulary, charts and other visual representations of physical and mechanical phenomena not typically taught in high school outside of career and technical education courses. In many cases it is not that students might not come across such material, it is that they are rarely called on to engage with it. This disconnect between high school and college reading demands is particularly troubling and suggests a need to reexamine what is taught in high school.

The Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts (CCSSE) address reading in history/social studies as well as science and technical subjects, and in so doing may increase the relevance of high school instruction. While the reading complexity of first-year community college texts is between 11th and 12th grade levels, we found that community college instructors typically make limited use of the texts they assign and use many aides (e.g., PowerPoint presentations, videos, outlines, flashcards) to help students understand the key points of the sections of the text they are asked to read.

It would appear that students’ inability to read texts of the level assigned does not inhibit their success in their programs. Is this because the material in the texts is irrelevant to later success in education and careers, or because the instructors offer workarounds, recognizing their students’ limited reading ability?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) analytical framework used by the study’s English Panel to analyze the level of reading challenge makes a distinction between retrieval tasks – those that require a reader simply to find information and make basic interpretations of it – and analytic/synthetic tasks, that require the reader to reflect on and evaluate what they have read. Overall, we found that most of what first-year community college students are required to do falls in the former category. Only the English Composition classes reliably assign tasks that require students to reflect on and evaluate what they have read.

The study also analyzed the reading and writing requirements found in tests and examinations in initial credit bearing community college courses. In this case, we found that most assessments in community colleges come in the form of multiple- choice questions that demand very little in the way of complex reading skills and no writing.

Our analysis of the writing required to succeed in initial credit bearing courses in community college revealed that most introductory college classes demand very little writing; when writing is required, instructors tend to have very low expectations for grammatical accuracy, appropriate diction, clarity of expression, reasoning and the ability to present a logical argument or offer evidence in support of claims.

To the extent that writing is required in initial credit-bearing courses, it typically takes the form of informational writing or marshaling evidence for taking a particular course of action tied to a course relevant profession. For example, filling in an auto repair order form, completing a pre-school class observation form, reporting engine analysis findings, writing up treatment notes for a nursing patient, or making an argument for taking a particular action on the basis of criminal justice system data. But this kind of writing gets the most modest attention in high schools, where literary analysis plays a significant role.

However, even more worrying than how the balance is struck between different forms of writing in high school is that so little writing of any kind is assigned. Across various content area classes, the default is short form assignments that require neither breadth nor depth of knowledge. Furthermore, the quality of instruction, especially with regard to argument, falls far short of what students need.

The good news here is that the CCSSE has recognized this problem and set out to address it by spelling out a much more ambitious approach to teaching writing, starting in the elementary grades and extending into secondary schools. But applauding new standards is not the same as enacting them.

Serious attention at the state and local level to bridging the gap between where we are and where we need to be must follow and this should include greater attention to writing in teacher education programs across the board. With the exception of English Composition classes, complex writing plays a minor role in community college student exams. When writing is assigned in exams, the emphasis in grading is on the least cognitively demanding aspects of writing.

At almost every turn one finds the weakness of high school writing being reinforced in community colleges when just the opposite ought to be the order of the day.

Taken together this suggests that community college could be a much more rewarding experience for students were it not for the weak preparation that precedes college and the modest expectations students encounter during their stay.

We have noted that community college instructors do not expect their students to be able to read at the level of their texts or to write very much at all, suggesting that those instructors have very low expectations for their students, expectations so low as to deny many, if not most, students the opportunity to learn skills essential to the careers they have chosen to pursue.

Conversely, we have also pointed out that nothing in the high school curriculum prepares students for some of what is expected in our community colleges. This study of initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges suggests that only modest reading and writing demands are placed on students in these courses. While texts assigned include content at about an 11th or 12th grade reading level, which is significantly more challenging than what they typically encounter in high school, the level of processing of those texts required by the assigned tasks is, at best, only modestly challenging in most courses. The one exception was English Composition, where high challenge levels are common.

Students in the community colleges we studied are asked to retrieve information and sometimes integrate information from different texts in their writing, but only a few courses, outside of English Composition classes, ask students to reflect on and analyze what they read. Reading and understanding technical vocabulary is a necessary skill in many of the initial credit bearing courses analyzed. While students will not likely encounter such vocabulary in high school, experience in high school with navigating texts in unfamiliar subjects, including texts that contain technical vocabulary of some type, would better prepare them for the demands of college.

Consistent with this idea is identification by the CCSSE of reading in technical subjects as an important learning objective. Consequently, placing some greater emphasis on literacy with graphical representations and other technical means of communication seems like a sensible strategy for high schools to consider.

English Composition courses in our community colleges focus on teaching students the different genres of writing needed in college, but many of the courses specific to the industry clusters never give any writing assignments or assign types of writing that might help students develop the writing skills needed for that industry.

In addition, far too many of these classes rely primarily on multiple choice tests to assess students’ command of knowledge, thus communicating that writing ability is not really needed. Aside from sending a false signal to students, this shouldn’t be read as an excuse for anyone being satisfied with the meager amount of writing students are assigned in high school.

In the first instance, most students will be taking an English Composition course and not giving adequate attention to writing in high school is a recipe for trouble in this course and in subsequent college courses students might take. Secondly, it is a recipe for trouble in the workforce and for participation in civil society. We found considerable evidence suggesting that many of the deficits of secondary school language arts instruction are being replicated rather than remedied in community college teaching.

The writing tasks assigned in these community college programs are of low challenge, students’ writing skills are rarely assessed, and expectations for student writing, especially of arguments, are low. Our community college students clearly need better instruction in constructing arguments and in laying out their thinking logically and persuasively.

Such writing is at the heart of learning in college to say nothing of its essential role in many workplaces. It pushes students to gain command of the subjects they are studying, to think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of different points of view, to anticipate counterarguments, and to express their findings clearly and persuasively.

The target for student competence in this aspect of literacy in both our high schools and colleges needs to be raised if our students are to have a future with promise that they all deserve. The call of the Common Core State Standards for strengthened instruction in this area is a sound first step in this direction.

A Final Note

The response that many of our readers would no doubt expect from the Panels that helped produce this study is to demand that community colleges raise their expectations for students in mathematics, reading and writing at least to the point that students be expected to read the texts they are given, do the mathematics presented in those texts and write material appropriate to the careers they have chosen at a level that goes beyond the simplest recall of facts to embrace the kinds of analysis expected of them on the job.

And further, that the high schools be expected to prepare these students to meet such standards and to provide the foundation skills required for their graduates to exercise the skills for which currently no foundation is provided in high school.

Yes, but a note of caution is in order. We need to bear in mind that a very large fraction of high school graduates does not meet the very low expectations that community colleges currently have of them. The nation may have to learn to walk before it runs, which means that it is important, first, to enable our high school students to meet the current very low standards before we ratchet those standards up. Nothing in this stance, however, should prevent high schools from providing the skills needed to do the kind of mathematics, reading and writing now demanded by our community colleges for which no foundation is currently provided. Nor should it prevent community colleges from assigning more writing in those cases in which it now assigns none, or from asking students to read material which is vital to their mastery of the initial skills their future employers will require.

The issues revealed by this study are clearly not limited to the low standards for mathematics and English literacy in our high schools. There is a striking mismatch between the kind of literacy skills demanded for success in college and careers and the curriculum in our schools.

Some of this mismatch is addressed by the new Common Core State Standards. As such, the standards represent a promising first step in righting this ship, but their faithful implementation will likely be a heavy lift for our schools, and even if successfully executed, offer no guarantee of fully addressing the many shortcomings identified by this study.

Parallel initiatives on the community college front are also in order as is a commitment to build on this initial research to deepen our understanding of the issues at hand and to track the results of the most promising efforts that may be mounted to address the shortcomings identified here. This report will be jarring for many.

Our findings paint a very different picture of the actual standards for success in our community colleges than many have been carrying around in their heads. While we are confident that our research techniques have enabled us to produce a much more accurate picture of those standards than the nation has ever had before, we do not regard this report as the last word on the subject.

We would welcome studies that include a much larger random sample of colleges, take a closer look at colleges with outstanding reputations and gather a larger sample of the materials used in courses as well as student work. We think it would be worthwhile to do case studies of community colleges, looking in more detail at classroom practices and interviewing instructors to better understand why they are not making full use of the texts they assign and gauge their own sense of their students’ needs and limitations. It is not unusual for researchers, in their reports, to call for more research, but we do believe that, in this case, more research could pay large dividends.

The findings for mathematics literacy

Only one program in one college required entering students to have mastered the content of Algebra II before enrolling in that program. Algebra II is an integral element in the sequence of mathematics courses that are required of students who will go on to take calculus and to use calculus in their work, but that is true of only about five percent of the working population.

Indeed, community college first year programs of study typically assume that students have not mastered Algebra I. The most advanced mathematics content used in the vast majority of the first-year college programs we analyzed can reasonably be characterized as the mathematics associated with Algebra 1.25, that is some, but not all, of the topics usually associated with Algebra I, plus a few other topics, mostly related to geometry or statistics.

Most of the mathematics that is required of students before beginning these college courses and the mathematics that most enables students to be successful in college courses is not high school mathematics, but middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.

Considering the importance of middle school mathematics content, it should be of real concern that a large proportion of our high school graduates do not have a sound command of this fundamental aspect of mathematics.

We also found that many students, to be successful in our community colleges, need to be competent in some areas of mathematics that are rarely taught in our elementary or secondary schools, such as schematics, geometric visualization and complex applications of measurement.

In sum, a substantial part of the high school mathematics we teach is mathematics that most students do not need, some of what is needed in the first year of community college is not taught in our schools, and the mathematics that is most needed by our community college students is actually elementary and middle school mathematics that is not learned well enough by many to enable them to succeed in community college.

A significant body of research on teacher knowledge, including the work of Liping Ma, Jim Stigler and Deborah Ball, makes it clear that one reason for this is because the instruction in arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations that our teachers have received in school and in college falls far short of what it needs to be for them to have a sound conceptual grasp of the mathematics they are asked to teach.

We conclude the following:

1 . Many community college career programs demand little or no use of mathematics. To the extent that they do use mathematics, the mathematics needed by first year students in these courses is almost exclusively middle school mathematics. But the failure rates in our community colleges suggest that many of them do not know that math very well. A very high priority should be given to the improvement of the teaching of proportional relationships including percent, graphical representations, functions, and expressions and equations in our schools, including their application to concrete practical problems.

2 . Whatever students did to pass mathematics courses in middle school, it does not appear to require learning the concepts in any durable way. While they may have been taught the appropriate procedures for solving certain standard problems, the high rates of noncompletion by the significant percentages of students who arrive at college with the most modest command of mathematics suggests that there are significant weaknesses in teaching the concepts on which these procedures are based.
This is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed in the first instance by the way mathematics is taught to prospective teachers of elementary and middle school mathematics in the arts and sciences departments of our universities and the way mathematics education is taught in our schools of education.

3 . It makes no sense to rush through the middle school mathematics curriculum in order to get to advanced algebra as rapidly as possible. Given the strong evidence that mastery of middle school mathematics plays a very important role in college and career success, strong consideration should be given to spending more time, not less, on the mastery of middle school mathematics, and requiring students to master Algebra I no later than the end of their sophomore year in high school, rather than by the end of middle school.
This recommendation should be read in combination with the preceding one. Spending more time on middle school mathematics is in fact a recommendation to spend more time making sure that students understand the concepts on which all subsequent mathematics is based.
It does little good to push for teaching more advanced topics at lower grade levels if the students’ grasp of the underlying concepts is so weak that they cannot do the mathematics. Once students understand the basic concepts thoroughly, they should be able to learn whatever mathematics they need for the path they subsequently want to pursue more quickly and easily than they can now.

4 . Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so. The most demanding mathematics courses typically required of community college students are those required by the mathematics department, not the career major, but the content of the first year mathematics courses offered by the community colleges’ mathematics department is typically the content usually associated with Algebra I, some Algebra II and a few topics in geometry.  cannot be the case that one must know Algebra II in order to study Algebra I or Algebra II. Based on our data, one cannot make the case that high school graduates must be proficient in Algebra II to be ready for college and careers.

The high school mathematics curriculum is now centered on the teaching of a sequence of courses leading to calculus that includes Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus and Calculus. However, fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the courses in this sequence in their college or in the workplace.

There is a clear case for including the topics in this sequence in the high school curriculum as an option for students who plan to go into careers demanding mastery of these subjects, but they should not be required courses in our high schools. To require these courses in high school is to deny to many students the opportunity to graduate high school because they have not mastered a sequence of mathematics courses they will never need.
In the face of these findings, the policy of requiring a passing score on an Algebra II exam for high school graduation simply cannot be justified.

5 . Our research shows that many of the most popular community college programs leading to well-paying careers require mathematics that is not now included in the mainstream high school mathematics program, including mathematical modeling (how to frame a real-world problem in mathematical terms), statistics and probability.
Our research also shows that success in many community college programs demands mastery of certain topics in mathematics that are rarely, if ever, taught in American elementary and secondary schools, including complex applications of measurement, geometric visualization and schematic diagrams. American high schools should consider abandoning the requirement that all high school students study a program of mathematics leading to calculus and instead offer that mathematics program as one among a number of options available for high school students in mathematics, with other options available (e.g., statistics, data analysis and applied geometry) that include the mathematics needed by workers in other clusters of occupations.
By doing so high schools will almost certainly expand opportunity to many students who now find success in college closed off by a one-size-fits-all sequence of mathematics topics that actually fits the requirements only for a very narrow range of occupations.

6 . The research we did revealed a major gap in the alignment between the mathematics courses taught in the mathematics departments in our community colleges and the mathematics actually needed to be successful in the applied programs students are taking. In some of the cases we observed, the departments offering the applied programs apparently felt compelled to create their own mathematics courses rather than require a course in the mathematics department.
In a great many cases, the mathematics department course had little or nothing to do with the actual mathematics required to be successful in the applied programs the students were enrolled in. It may well be that many community college students are denied a certificate or diploma because they have failed in a mathematics course focused on mathematics topics that are irrelevant to the work these students plan to do or the courses they need to take to learn how to do that work.
That strikes us as unfair. Because this is true and because we also noted that students in the applied programs often need mathematics that was never offered in high school or in college, we think the community colleges need to review their mathematics requirements in the light of what has been learned about what students need to know about mathematics to be successful in the careers they have chosen.

7. Like the standard high school mathematics sequence, the placement tests that community colleges use to determine whether students will be allowed to register for credit-bearing courses or be directed instead to take remedial courses in mathematics are based on the assumption that all students should be expected to be proficient in the sequence of courses leading to calculus, in particular that they should be expected to be proficient in the content typically associated with Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry.
But our research, as we have noted, shows that students do not need to be proficient in most of the topics typically associated with Algebra II and much of Geometry to be successful in most programs offered by the community colleges.
This is a very serious issue. It is clear that many students are being denied entry to credit-bearing courses at our community colleges who are in fact prepared to do the mathematics that will be required of them in their applied programs. A very large proportion of students who enroll in remedial programs fail to get a degree or certificate, whether or not they complete their remedial programs.
It follows that a large fraction of students applying to our community colleges are needlessly running up debt taking remedial courses they do not need to take to be successful in the applied programs of their choice, and are, in the process, being denied access to the programs that could make all the difference between rewarding careers and lives on the one hand and lives of poverty and frustration on the other. The research showing that many students who fail their placement tests in mathematics, but go on to be successful in community college, makes the point.

8 . While the textbooks in the introductory program courses were often impressive in their demand for mathematical thinking, the tests were a different story. Judging by the tests community college teachers administer to their students in the introductory program courses in their career majors, their courses are typically pitched to the lower set of expectations described by Bloom’s hierarchy—memorization of facts and mastery of procedures—and not to the kinds of analytical skills, writing ability, ability to synthesize material to put together solutions to problems the student has not seen before, and other complex skills that employers are now demanding.
Community colleges need to review their course and program objectives in the light of current employer demands to make sure that they are helping their students develop the kinds of skills that will make their graduates employable.

9 . What is tested by community college instructors typically falls far short of what is contained in the texts those teachers assign to their students. Judging by what is tested by community college teachers, they do not typically appear to be requiring students to apply mathematics or even to think mathematically when the text they have chosen for the courses uses math to explain relevant phenomena or presents mathematical skills as an important element in the skills required to do the work. It is not clear whether this is because the teachers do not think that material is in fact needed to be successful in the field the student has chosen or because, although they do think it is needed, they do not think their students capable of learning the material.
This, too, is a very important issue. If it is the case that many community college teachers are teaching less material than they think is actually needed or teaching material at a lower level than they think the work actually demands, because they do not believe their students can absorb the material they actually need to absorb, then our community colleges are short-changing our students and this problem needs to be addressed.

The mother of all school reforms, let the kids be free.

Efforts to reform the public schools are not new. They’ve been tried and retried, again and again, almost since the beginning of free and compulsory public school education in Massachusetts in the mid 19th. century. And they have all failed.

Why? The problem then and still the problem now, is that the “products” of public schooling, the graduates, not to speak of the ever high number of dropouts, are not, following 8 to 12 years of mostly sitting in public school classrooms and in some cases actually listening to a teacher, the thoughtful, knowledgeable, morally upstanding, well prepared prospective citizens of the country we would have liked.

So we try one reform after another. And we target everything in and about the schools. Often the schools themselves, the physical plant in need of repair; the curriculum that we’re always changing, always a subject of controversy; the length of the school day and school year (shorten the day we say because teens need to sleep, lengthen the year because they also need additional instruction). Now the biggest target may be the poor teachers themselves who are being held accountable for their students learning or not learning. The students, on the other hand, have never been the target of our reform efforts, although being the most important element in the teaching learning mix perhaps they should have been.

At the moment we seem to be experimenting with several reforms, three or more of them simultaneously, and certainly not for the first time. And furthermore the current spate of reforms is led not by the Federal, state and local school departments themselves, but by private foundations, especially what I call the big three, the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations, the three with the most money at their disposal.

Some of the most talked about targets of these reforms are school choice, or enabling parents to choose their children’s schools, vouchers, that will permit parents to decide themselves where to spend the monies allotted for their children’s education, the content of the curriculum, now reduced to a common core of subjects that all children will study and learn, and finally greater emphasis on testing, that which among other things will hold the teachers accountable for their students’ learning.

Of course what is left out of the reform efforts, a kind of elephant in the classroom, are the students themselves. They are the proverbially horse that we’ve brought to water and that is not drinking. We now realize that the students, too many of them, are not learning. When will we see that the reforms have little or no effect because the structure we’ve created for the education of our children is clearly the wrong one?

One has only to ask oneself what are the most important characteristics of a real learning situation, in order to then understand why not more of this is going on in the schools. For learning to go on, yes, there has to be a learner and a teacher (the teacher doesn’t have to be a person, and in fact it’s often not), and you might say in that regard the schools have it right.

But what the schools have overlooked, what they still overlook, is on the one hand the readiness of the student, the readiness for learning which includes an interest in learning, and on the other hand, the teacher’s, at least to some substantial degree, mastery of the subject being taught. Go into almost any classroom and you will see little interest of readiness on the student’s part, or subject matter mastery on the part of the teacher.

Ask yourselves where do schools seem to be working well, that is, where are there motivated and interested students who are learning with the help of knowledgeable and skillful teachers, those who are teaching, or better sharing with the students what they know?

Here are three examples of where it does seem to work: Most elementary schools, where children younger than 8 or 9 bring right into the classroom with them the excitement of learning all kinds of things that has been going on within and about them almost since the day they were born. The bottle neck is of course the 3rd or 4th grade, for at that point too often the natural and spontaneous learning about themselves and about the world around them comes to a halt and for most kids it never returns, at least in school in class.

Other areas where the schools do seem to be working: what I will call the “electives,” the subject areas that the children have chosen themselves in line with their own interests, activities and subjects such as theater arts, music, athletics, the fine arts and crafts, and if we would allow it to happen more in our schools, shop, or the vocations. These are the areas where schools as presently constituted could succeed, turning out graduates having acquired the appropriate skills to go on into an area of their own choosing.

What was it that enabled this to happen? The interest, the motivation on the part of the students, and, on the part of the teachers, the fact that they themselves were active practitioners of what they were teaching, —be they musicians, basketball players, carpenters, artists,…

And of course it is not surprising that these are the very subject areas that the school authorities will hold up to the public as being proof of the successful operation of their mission. How many times have we read about the high school band or theater group competing in a regional competition with credit going to the school administrators?

So why do we have the so often referred to “failing schools?” Because in the 19th century the school for all reform, the original reform that would do away with only some children learning to read at home by candlelight and others growing up illiterate, seized hold of the schools and made them into local, state, and Federal compulsory school programs that would turn out those thoughtful, knowledgeable, and morally upstanding and responsible citizens of the Republic that Thomas Jefferson et al. believed the new country couldn’t do without.

And this became the principal mission of the schools, and it failed of course because it was doomed to fail. Basketball we can teach, but virtue, responsible citizenship, we cannot not. The school founding fathers ought to have known this, and not placed this terrible burden on the schools at their very beginning and from which no reform could ever set them free.

What happened was this. Certain subject matters became important to the country’s leaders, and these subjects then (say in the beginning Greek and Latin, history, geography etc.) and now STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), these matters we just had to teach in our schools and the children, all of them, just had to learn them. Otherwise we were, as they say, putting our country at risk.

And of course it was not to be. Most children in the schools were not going to learn even Jefferson’s original “reading, writing and arithmetic” to any significant, let alone liberating level of mastery. Yet we continued to make them take these subjects and they continued to fail in the process.

What should have happened was that most children ought to have been helped to become better at doing what interested them (music, shop, and math) and not be forced to pretend that, say, “critical thinking” was all important to their lives, and in particular their lives as citizens of the country. How many great athletes or musicians are also “critical thinkers?” How many great Americans are even critical thinkers?

My subject is rapidly moving away from me. It’s much too big for a single blog entry. But if we wanted to bring an end to our failing schools the single “reform” that would do this would be to allow schools to be there for the kids, to free the kids, to help them realize their own potentials, and to stop trying to make them into something that would be useful to us, to the country.

And as I’ve said, this can’t be done anyway. And as others have said many, many times, a country’s strength ultimately is something else entirely. A country’s strength is the infrastructure, and infrastructure includes those people who are able to do well that which they were meant to do, as well as the number of bridges that will carry us safely to the other side.

As a footnote to all this, I take the following passages from a Google search of Thomas Jefferson writings on education. In very different words, and attitude, what Jefferson says is not too different from what I’ve been saying:

Among Jefferson’s drafts for new legislation was the celebrated “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” but there was another piece of legislation that Jefferson viewed as even more important: “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781), Jefferson summarized his educational plan as follows:

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor [i.e., superintendent], who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools [high schools, in effect] of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of [Virginia], for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.

“You only have to know one thing,” Sal Khan

Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) has just released a video that would persuade us, persuade you, that “you can learn anything.”

To watch the video go here: “You only have to know one thing.”

I found the video in my inbox the other day and wrote Sal the following note in response:

Well, Sal, yes, you can learn anything, but not necessarily within the time you may have available, be it a class of 60 minutes, a day in school, a week’s classes, a semester, 12 years of schooling, or if you go on college and graduate school,16 or more years, and finally a lifetime of lifelong learning.

Aren’t you, isn’t Khan Academy overlooking the speed at which we learn the “anything?” And don’t we all realize early on, almost the day we begin to learn, that some of us learn the same “anything” much more quickly than others of us?

And as a result one has to conclude that there are those of us who may be willing and interested, but who will need more time than they may have. There are those of us, probably most if not all of us in respect to at least some of the things out there that we might learn, who will not have enough time in this life to learn them.

In my own case there are a few “anythings” that I’ve been trying for years to learn, not master just learn, chess, mathematics, and then several second languages, up until now unsuccessfully. I’m 82 and it’s getting late in my life. But Sal I’ve tremendously enjoyed and am still enjoying your marvelous calculus videos, most recently sequences, series, and function approximations, and at this very moment the tests for series convergence and divergence.

You tell me I can learn anything, that I can therefore learn even these series tests, and so far I believe you. But I’m not there yet, and I wonder if there will be time enough for me to get there?

But let’s suppose I do. Then there will be the myriad things still out there, no less interesting, that I want to learn just as much, but in regard to most of which I haven’t even begun to do so, and there is so little time remaining.

But I do understand why you say what you say. I say much the same thing to my grandchildren. However, it’s not something we know, this conclusion you’ve come to about being able to learn anything. It’s a belief, but a valid belief, probably one we want to hold onto.

Thanks, Sal. And you do seem to be an exception to what I’m saying, for you do seem, to the millions of us who watch your thousands of videos, to have learned everything.


Philip Waring

Homeschooling brings talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum together.

David Kirp does have a point, a good one, that “it’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” that is, around what we call public schooling, whether the “end run” be a particular innovation such as the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology, or anyone of a number of others that have been tried over the years. Also he’s correct when he says that “the essence of a good education is bringing together talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum.”

But he ends up where he should have begun, which is how to do this, how to bring together the talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum. Does he really believe that this same essence of a good education is not in the minds and the intentions of the reformers? Kirp too easily puts down the business, charter, and voucher reform models, too flippantly says they have failed, that the Gates and other monies thrown at them were thrown away.

But why does he seem to assume that all these (even if unsuccessful) efforts were not also very much trying to bring the elements of a good education together, by different means, that’s all?

But it’s really not so much that our reform efforts have failed, although they have. It’s more important that the schools themselves have failed to fulfill the original promise of Horace Mann, before, after, or even while undergoing seemingly endless reforms.

MannWhat was that promise? Mann argued that the common, or free, universal, non-sectarian and public school was the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans, of creating the virtuous republican citizenry needed to sustain American political institutions, of producing the educated workforce required to expand the American economy, and with all that the disciplined generation necessary to forestall the social disorders so common in American cities, in his time before the Civil War, but still no less prevalent in our own time today.  [from Horace Mann and the Creation of the Common School]

Does anyone doubt that our schools during their nearly 200 year history have totally failed to accomplish these goals? The obvious failure explains the endless reform movements. But rather than putting down the reform movements as David Kirp does in his Times op ed piece shouldn’t we question both the original structure of the common school, that in most regards is the same today as in the 1830s and 40s when it began in Massachusetts —that is, the single monolithic school building as the place of education, the compulsory attendance requirement, the classroom of students of the same age and therefore possessing much the same level of knowledge or ignorance, the single classroom teacher, and all the rest.

And shouldn’t we no less question Horace Mann’s goals for the schools, clearly set too high and probably impossible to achieve in a lifetime let alone the 12 or few more school years?

Although there have been many who have questioned both the goals and structure of the public schools, there has been only one significant attempt to undo them, the so-called free school movement of the 1960s and 70s, led by A. S, Neil, Paul Goodman, and John Holt among others. But the Free School model remained an outlier, and was never adopted by the educational establishment. The free schools that did survive never become a real alternative to the public schools.

Instead free schools were replaced by homeschooling, this also the brain child of John Holt, and that which today is very much alive and the only real and complete alternative to the public school, affecting probably many more children, nearly 2 million at last count, than the reforms that David Kirp mentions. The homeschooling movement, with no common structure, and no goals other than to allow and then help the individual child to follow and develop his own interests and talents, ought to be the model for, if not the essence of all schooling.

Remembering John Holt.

Remembering John Holt

It was having children of my own that first made me think about education and schools and teaching, (or was it first schools and then education and much later teaching, —I’m still today hard pressed to say which came first) although I began to teach years before becoming a father myself. And was it, I asked, was it as they say that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach? Probably so in my own case.

I taught because I had had a very liberal education, and had read a lot of good books, and was ready to talk about them, although my reading was mostly in the humanities and little in the STEM subjects, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which if I had read instead miReght have enabled me to do, and not just to teach.

I began teaching because as I quickly learned my own education in the humanities was of little value or interest outside of the school or college classroom where kids were if not compelled at least expected to sit there and listen to me, not for what I could do, for what I could show them, but for the little I knew from my own recent classroom and lecture experience about the content of some of the so- called great books.

With children of our own my wife and I started to think a lot about schools for them, and we right away didn’t much like those that we saw, and began to keep our kids at home at a time when there was little or no home schooling movement, other than that of just one extraordinary individual, John Holt.

And as it turned out in order to go on doing so, in order to keep them at home, we had to start a school of our own. This was in the late sixties and early seventies, the heyday of the radical education reformers, most of whom would do away with schools entirely, or start free schools where there was no compulsion. These were thinkers and writers like John Holt of course, but many, many others, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neil, Paul Goodman, and Dan Greenberg, almost a neighbor who began his own A.S.Neil like school in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

Now these men (they were all men, and perhaps that’s why they never did much influence the educational establishment) were wonderfully engaging writers and thinkers and I read them all and found in what I read more than enough support for going ahead with our own, borrowing the term that we first encountered in Berkeley, CA, “free school.”

That was nearly 50 years,  half a century ago. The radical reformers then are now, if not dead, all of the past, and one encounters them only in the history books. They had a brilliant message but were not listened to and the schools are pretty much the same today as they were then. That is the true tragedy of the schools, good advice was always there but never listened to.

However, there is still talk of reforming the schools. In fact this talk has never stopped. Those running for office never fail to have their own agenda of school reform. It’s a constant, and like death and taxes it may never go away.

There seem to always be those who tell us that this or that reform is what is needed, the Standards Movement, school choice, No child left behind law,  a longer school  day and smaller classrooms, Teacher Evaluations, and now most recently the Common Core.

But it’s all only talk. Nothing essential ever changes. The same problems are there now as at the start. But things may even be worse, because now there is no one out there saying as did Holt, Illich, Goodman et al. in the sixties, that the schools ought to be shut down and that we ought to begin again.

If there are those of us who think that the schools ought to be closed, that Horace Mann’s at the time in the 1840s admirable experiment with universal compulsory education had gone wrong, was wrong to start with, we keep the opinion to ourselves.

But John Holt is as right today as he was when he answered the question posed to him by Education News some 50 years ago: “If America’s schools were to take one giant step forward this year toward a better tomorrow, what should it be?

Here is Holt’s answer to the question:

“…to let every child be the planner, director, and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he is to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it.
It would be to make our schools, instead of what they are, which is jails for children, into a resource for free and independent learning, which everyone in the community, of whatever age, could use as much or as little as he wanted.”

Too bad today that those in charge don’t listen, still don’t hear what he was saying.

Postcript to Notes for a Science of Education

In case you believe there’s something new  (under the sun) about the public’s low opinion of their schools, or that attempts to reform the schools have not been around at least as long as the schools themselves. Well if you do believe it, that what’s happening today is not at least some 200 years old, read this shocking statement from a Wikepedia source on Common School founder, Horace Mann,

“In 1838 Horace Mann targeted the public school and its problems.”

And things have changed so little that one today would not be at all surprised to read in the news that the leaders of both Houses of Congress had “targeted the public school and its problems.”

Shocking because 1838, with the publication of Mann’s Common School Journal, was the moment in time when our public schools had their beginning, the beginning of free and compulsory education for all. So there were problems even before its founding, and there were problems immediately afterwards. And there are still problems. It does sound a bit like,,,  the launch of Obama Care?

For the founder of our public schools, like the rescuer and provider of health care for all, did suddenly appear on the scene much like a knight in shining armor setting out to correct what he perceived as a wrong. But from the beginning the problems encountered were without easy if any solutions. And in fact both “rescuers” were really Don Quixotes, and like the Don, were only masquerading as knights in shining armor, and would probably eventually realize like him that they had taken the wrong path.

Perhaps it’s the nature of government plans and programs that there are inevitably problems from the very start, and in too many instances (farm subsidies, public transportation, immigration, the mail, … and of course the public schools) the problems never seem to go away. But I would readily admit there are exceptions, the clean air and water acts, social security and health care for the deserving elderly, and a myriad of others, and that’s why we keep trying. And that’s what makes us the truly exceptional nation.


Notes for a Science of Education

There’s nature, and there’s human nature. And now there is just one method of understanding both, and that method we call science.

Religion used to claim to possess such understanding, to have answers to our questions, but no longer is the claim accepted (the principal promoter of belief is herself no longer believed) and this for the simple reason that its answers are not supported by either reason or evidence, the twin supports on which science has built its own cathedral, made up of blocks of newly discovered natural laws, immaterial but more lasting than the blocks of sandstone used to build the Gothic cathedrals of the Christian Middle Ages and now slowly disintegrating and returning to the sand from whence they came.

St_Andrews_Cathedral_RuinsSt. Andrew’s Cathedral, Scotland

Our understanding of the world, of the natural world if not yet of ourselves, is proceeding apace. Even accelerating as we explore the very large, the cosmos, and the very small, the quantum. Science is on a roll. For never before has man (who as science tells us, has been around in his present form and size, some 100,000 years or more) —never before has man learned so much about nature, —the nature of life, of the natural environment, of evolution, of the earth’s history, of the solar system, and of the seemingly infinite universe or universes beyond. In hardly more than a few hundred years, a two hundredth part or less of man’s so far brief time on earth, science has done this.

In regard to our understanding of human nature the situation is hardly the same. Here science no less than religion is without a clue, or so it might seem from a close look at the recently ended terrible century, the 20th, when man’s inhumanity to man was showcased over and over again, defining what seemed to be man at his worst. Man’s nature, like the weather and currency evaluations still seems to have escaped our attempts to understand it, let alone describe it accurately, and somehow quantify, control and direct it to peaceful ends.

The French painter Paul Gauguin while living in Tahiti at the cusp of the terrible century asked three questions, to which he of course didn’t have the answers. He asked, or rather his painting, now on permanent exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, asked “Woher kommen wir, Wer sind wir, Wohin gehen wir?” Not the kind of questions that a scientist would ask. Until today they have remained unanswerable or at least unanswered questions.Woher_kommen_wir_Wer_sind_wir_Wohin_gehen_wirWhere Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? Paul Gauguin, Tahiti, 1897-98.

It’s a fact that only science, in modern times, is on a roll. Otherwise we haven’t made a lot of progress in understanding ourselves, finding out about who or what we are. We couldn’t even say that today we know ourselves better than earlier men, say the cave artists of tens of thousands of years ago in SW France, or the Greeks of 5th century Athens, in particular the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, the philosopher Socrates.

It’s not that we haven’t tried to create a science of human nature. And it’s not that we’re not still trying. We are. And it may even be that we’ve made a bit of a start as, for example, with the publication by the American Psychiatric Association just last year of the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Their effort does appear to be utilizing the method of science, in this case describing, cataloguing, and measuring disorders of the mind.

But unlike the published works of science there is still probably very little agreement regarding the truth and accuracy of the descriptions and probably even less so regarding the Manuel’s conclusions. If I were to say that we have made a start in building a science of human nature, I would look more to the Greeks of 5th century Athens, or to Shakespeare, or to the great works of literature from all lands and peoples, than to our psychiatrists, psychologists and other so-called social scientists.

What is natural science’s secret. How have the physical, biological and mathematical sciences done it? How have these disciplines made so much of nature known and understandable to us all? And by and large they have done so while remaining like the rest of us no less ignorant themselves of their own nature. There’s no mystery about how science proceeds. Science has never tried to hide its methods, or objected to others, the social scientists for example, making liberal use of them. Indeed, along with reason and evidence, transparency or openness might be a third pillar on which science has built its knowledge cathedral.

The late Richard Feynman has given us a good description as anyone of how science goes about its work. I take this description, this account of science’s method from the Introduction to Robert Piccioni’s excellent book, Feynman’s Basic Physics, Simplified. “Simplified” because Piccioni as a Cal Tech student himself, and while attending Feynman’s Lectures, realized just how many of his fellow students needed help in understanding the language of the Nobel Prize winner. Subsequently he wrote Feynman Simplified to provide that help. His book has helped me.



Here’s what Feynman says on the scientific method:

“The things with which we concern ourselves in science appear in myriad forms, and with a multitude of attributes. For example, if we stand on the shore and look at the sea, we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sound, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may be even happiness and thought. Any other spot in nature has a similar variety of things and influences. It is always as complicated as that, no matter where it is. Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand the multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations.

For example: Is the sand other than the rocks? That is, is the sand perhaps nothing but a great number of very tiny stones? Is the moon a great rock? If we understood rocks, would we also understOKand the sand and the moon? Is the wind a sloshing of air analogous to the sloshing motion of water in the sea? What common features do different movements have? What is common to different kinds of sound? How many different colors are there? And so on. In this way we try gradually to analyze all things, to put together things which at first sight look different, with the hope that we may be able to reduce the number of different things and thereby understand them better.”

The scientific method that Feynman describes, —comprising observation, reason, imagination, and experiment, is still what scientists do to understand nature. One focuses one’s look on observable physical reality. One groups things by their samenesses and differences. One tries to determine their make-up, what they’re made of (not the same thing), and while doing so one tries to identify the underlying elements and forces there are, and the fewer the better.


“The famous safe-cracking, bongo-playing, physicist, Richard Feynman, passed away in 1988 but not before winning a Nobel Prize and being one of the coolest dudes ever.” EarthSky 22,  September 2011.                                                            Richard Feynman

I take Feynman’s words here below, perhaps also his bongo-playing, as critical to the acquisition of real knowledge.

Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand the multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations.

Might this method be applied to our attempt to better understand human nature? It certainly has been and is still being tried. Aren’t the still growing number of the social sciences testament to this?  Most all are important areas of thought, need to have their place and be recognized. All would if they could make use of the methods of science while answering such important questions as how we might best educate ourselves, govern ourselves, provide for our needs.

But so far education, political science, psychology, and to a lesser extent economics and medicine, which may come closest of all to being real sciences, seem not yet to have uncovered a substratum of knowledge on which all the discipline’s practitioners might agree, and on which they might build their own knowledge structures as they proceed, as the sciences have built their structures on atomic, electromagnetic, gravitational and other theories.

But that hasn’t yet happened. If I were to take education, something I know a little something about, I’d ask what is the present state of our knowledge of that field? What do we know about education, or what should be the same thing, about how children and people best learn? Much as we know exactly how planets move about the sun in elliptical paths and how a finch’s beak will evolve and change its shape in order to best crack the shell casing of a nut? Is there any body or bit of educational knowledge that is generally accepted by the practitioners, by both child and adult learners, by the teachers and school administrators?

I don’t think so. And the history of school reforms should convince you of this. Compulsory education for the young began in this country less than two centuries ago. Was it scientifically proven at the time that this is how children best learn, by being compelled to sit in school and class so many of the hours of the day?

Of course not. And ever since that time, from that beginning there have been those who would remove the compulsion out of education, you know, you can lead a horse to water, but… But they have not succeeded and today the compulsion is still just as much with us as then. And today also there is absolutely no evidence (science of course has prospered by making great use of “reason and evidence”) that compulsory attendance results in greater learning.

And you could take almost any characteristic of the public schools (for the moment I’m limiting myself just for purposes of illustration to public schooling, probably a very small part of all the “schooling” that actually goes on in the country). But much the same thing might be said of most of our formal learning environments, based as they are not on how people actually learn, not based on recognized principles as to how people best learn, but on what we want to teach, what we want them to learn.

What about this structural characteristic of our schools, does it correspond to some truth about how people best learn? The fact that in our schools children are placed together according to their chronological age? And that this has been going on for some 150 to 200 years, since Horace Mann’s first Common Schools in the 1840s. (Schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts some ten years later.)

Does anyone really believe that this characteristic of our schools has resulted in greater learning? Of course not, everyone knows that differing ages together promote learning, and there’s probably enough evidence out there to “prove” this but no one is trying to do that. A large family and the one room school house, not to mention perhaps the very best learning environment ever, the apprentice at the feet of the master, would have been much better models, much closer to how learning takes place.

And how about this other characteristic of our schools, that children of widely different abilities, needs, and interests, not to mention family backgrounds and family resources, are placed together in a room and are then expected to learn together. It has always been clear that they don’t.

Diversity is not always such a good thing. The differences between our learners are too often just too great for learning to take place, except for a minority of them. But here too we go on doing this. Why? Well we would be a country where we believe that everyone is equal, and that everyone should be treated equally.

Admirable? Well maybe, but the actual result of this has been a disaster in respect to what happens in our schools. If you really could melt them all together, as in a melting pot, well then they might come out all together and the same, but lifeless. But of course no one wants that. We want the differences, that things that make each one of us unique, but we’re not willing to take the time to create an environment where the differences can flourish. Not an easy thing to do, but so far in our schools it has hardly been tried.

There’s no need to continue, to further point our how ineffectual is our system of education, how it is based on ideas without there being evidence or proof of the ideas’ validity and effectiveness. The result is that our schools are a free for all where a few, the gifted, the motivated, often the affluent, succeed; where the many learn, but learn mostly not to pay attention to whatever it is that may be going on about them, supposedly for their benefit, in school and class, and instead go merrily on they own way, happily immersed with their friends in the ubiquitous popular culture of the age; and finally where a growing minority can no longer stomach the school environment which has little or nothing for them, and early on drop out of the activities in class and later on out of school entirely.

If I ever continue with these notes for a science of Education it will be to consider whether in fact there might be such a science. It does seem to be that when real learning takes place there are certain components that might be identified and described and promoted and based on reason and evidence be a part of all learning situations. Here’s a couple of candidates. Could these two be a start of our science of education? An education based on principles obtained by the examination and acceptance of the evidence?

One might be that the most important component of any learning situation is, or should be the learner. How and why have we avoided this truth for so long, the truth that learning, anything more than mindless repetition, must have a learner ready and willing to listen. For learning proceeds not from the teacher but from the efforts of the student. Why have we placed the teacher at the head of the class? At best she ought to be in the back row looking for truths about how in fact her kids now up front and active are learning. Yet our learning structures go on placing the teacher at the head of the class.

Another component might be that what one can learn has a lot to do with one’s talents and interests, and yes, with one’s intelligence, or if you like, as I do, being a longtime admirer of Howard Gardner, one’s intelligences. Wouldn’t a proper science of education have at least as many learning environments out there as there are different talents and interests among the students? Not the way it is now.

In other words shouldn’t a learning situation in order to be successful start with the learners, where they are, what they’re capable of? Now instead we tell them where they should be, even where they should want to be! That, for example, everyone of them without exception should learn algebra, how to write an essay, should eventually go to college. Most kids of course are left behind in this system. And again we are all too familiar with the disaster that has resulted from this and similar prescriptions.

But to sum up, a science of education might be based on this truth about the learner. (And there are probably other truths out there waiting to be discovered and described.) For what one does with his or her own talents and interests is what counts, is in fact what life is all about. That’s the meaning of life-long learning.

And therefore, wouldn’t you think that the very first thing that a school based on the evidence of how people learn would do, would be to help the learner to identify his or her talents and interests and then to help provide a proper environment for them. In my own case I only began to uncover my own talents and interests, such as they are, when my formal schooling was all over. I would have appreciated some help while in school.

What Is Wrong With Our System of Education? by George Bernard Shaw

This piece of writing first appeared in The Sunday Pictorial, in June of 1918, just months before Germany would sign the armistice at Compiegne on November 11 and the fighting would end. But here Shaw is not writing about the war. He’s writing about education, or what I would call schooling. And what he says is no less relevant and valid for us now, nearly 100 years later.

Perhaps even more relevant, since today just about every child will be compelled to pass 10 or more years in school. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance law in 1852, and by 1900, 34 states had such laws. By 1910, 72% of American children attended school, half of them in one-room school houses. Now the one-room school houses are gone, but not the schools, and now every child is compelled to attend them, at least through the first two years of high school.

But here he is, George Bernard Shaw, and in this short piece he is making his case against the public schools in Britain, but the case could be made against the schools here, just as well. According to Shaw the principal reason for having the kids in school is that the parents, as well as society at large, don’t know otherwise know what to do with them. My own experience in the schools would lead me to the same conclusion. And the problem arises, of course, because the schools know even less than the parents what to do with them.

This question, what’s wrong with our system of education, unconsciously begs another question, which is, whether our school system is really a system of education at all.

I have alleged, and do still allege, that it is not a system of education but a cloak for something else. And that something else is the sequestration and imprisonment of children so as to prevent them being a continual nuisance to their parents.

That children and adults cannot live together comfortably is a simple fact of nature which must be faced before any discussion of their treatment can advance beyond the present stage of sentimental twaddle.

The blood relationship does not matter: if I have to do my work amid noise and disorder, and break it off repeatedly to console the yelling victim of a broken shin or to act as judge, jury, and executioner in a case of assault with violence; if I have to be at call continually as a dictionary and encyclopedia for an insatiably curious little questioner to whom everything else in the visible universe requires an immediate explanation; if I cannot discuss the Billing case with an adult friend because there is always a small chaperone within earshot; if I have to talk down to the level of a child’s intelligence, and incidentally to humbug it in the interest of my own peace and quietness, for hours every day; if I have to choose between spending my time either answering the question “May we do this?” or shrieking “Don’t dare do that”; if I have to be medical officer of health, wardrobe mistress, sanitary inspector, surgeon for minor operations, fountain of justice and general earthly providence for a houseful of children, the effect on my career is the same whether the children are the issue of my own body or of my neighbor’s: that is, I shall be so interrupted and molested and hindered and hampered in any business, profession, or adult interest, artistic, philosophic, or intellectual, which I may be naturally qualified to pursue, that I shall have to choose between being a mere domestic convenience and getting rid of my children somehow.
Under these circumstances a modern humane parent who can afford it always does get rid of the children by handing them over in their infancy to servants and later on to schoolmasters. The humane parents who cannot afford it let their children run wild. I insist on the word humane because there is a third alternative open to inhuman people.

By simple cruelty they can tame their children to sit still and ask no questions, to make no noise, not to tear their clothes, not to speak until they are spoken to, to be instantly obedient, and to take extraordinary pains to keep their misdeeds concealed (mostly by lying) from their elders.

Many people are so constituted that an occasional exercise in breaking a child’s will, punishing it, and seeing it flinch and scream under the rod or go pale with terror, is pleasurable to them. But this is bad for the child.

Any dog trainer will testify that a spaniel can be spoiled for life by a single act of terrorization; and many human beings have been spoiled in this way. It is no doubt desirable that little boys and girls should have sufficient self-control to sit quietly throughout a suitably short religious service once a week, or to hold their breath whilst swimming under water across a bath; but for most of their time they should be as noisy as nightingales, as restless as squirrels, as curious as monkeys, and quite indifferent to the tidiness of their hair, the integrity of their clothes, or the scrupulous cleanliness of their persons.

The humane parent knows this and puts up with it when the children are about; but that is precisely why humane parents are the first to get rid of their children under pretence of “sending them to be educated.”
The schoolmaster is the person who takes the children off the parents’ hands for a consideration. That is to say, he establishes a child prison, engages a number of employee schoolmasters as turnkeys, and covers up the essential cruelty and unnaturalness of the situation by torturing the children if they do not learn, and calling this process, which is within the capacity of any fool or blackguard, by the sacred name of Teaching.

That is what is wrong with our so-called educational system. Every genuine teacher knows it. Every person who understands children and sympathizes with them, like Dr. Montessori, knows it. Everyone who, like the wife of the Master Builder in Ibsen’s play, has a genius for fostering the souls of little children, knows it. But I am the only person who ever mentions it; and not one of those who have pretended to discuss my views has ever dared to allude to it.
When I tell the story of my friend who, in a hasty fit of sympathy with a beaten child, punched the head of an elementary schoolmaster, and was fined two pounds and informed that he would have been fined six if he had hit a gentleman, elementary schoolmasters, against whose scandalous underpayment I have always protested, rage at me for disparaging their gentility (as if the valuation had been made by me); but they have never squarely faced the fact that the wages and the social standing of the skilled and earnest teacher of genuine vocation is kept down by the competition of the fellow who, because he can lock a school gate and hurt a child with a cane, can therefore do all that the children’s parents pay for. Such an unskilled ruffian can always depend on the parents supporting him in any further pretensions he may make; for do they not owe to him the quietude and freedom of their lives?

The result is that when war emergencies subject the so-called education of our governing classes to a stringent practical test, we discover that their ignorance costs millions of money and thousands of lives, and is quite staggering to the two classes who have to save the situation: namely, the self-educated and the truants.

By the self-educated I mean those who have taken advantage of the voluntary associations, the Summer Schools, the professional societies, the propagandist organizations which continually keep up a supply of lectures and controversial discussions under free conditions, and also of the access to literature and art and music provided by our libraries, galleries, concerts, theatres, and the like.

If every secondary school and university in the kingdom were wiped out by an air raid tomorrow, and their staffs buried amid the ill-concealed exultation of their unfortunate pupils, thereby throwing our young people on the agencies I have just named, there would be an immediate and enormous increase in the number of really educated persons in England, and a quite blessed disappearance of a mass of corruptly inculcated error and obsolescence, and of that intense hatred of intellectual and artistic culture which exists today among our public schools and university graduates because it is known to them only as an excuse for loathsome prison tasks.

When young people are as free to walk out of a classroom where they are bored by a dull teacher as grown-up people are to walk out of a theatre where they are bored by a dull playwright, the schools will be far more crowded than the theatres, and the teachers far more popular than the actors. Until then we shall remain the barbarians we are at present.

Formerly, when games were forbidden in schools, and children were expected to study Latin for twelve hours a day, the children were keen on games and fighting.
Now that games have been made compulsory school subjects, boys will soon hate athletics and fighting as they now hate “English literature,” and their country will be gathered like a daisy by the first vigorous nation that ventures to cultivate its wits and its muscles in freedom.

For my part, I thank my stars every day that as the German “system of education” differs from ours only in being more thoroughly carried out, and much more sincerely believed in, we may win the war by virtue of being less “educated” than our chief antagonist.