The Broad is Back!

July 27, 2009

Unexpected Negatives from Positive Changes

Some much needed changes to American society have had unexpected consequences for education in our country.  Both feminism and educational reform opened doors and made America a stronger country, but there have definitely been negative side effects to both.

The feminist movement opened doors to women that had been closed and allowed us to enter fields that had previously been the domain of men.  And we entered those domains in droves.  But pre-feminism, one of the few career choices available to women was teaching, so the best and the brightest went into teaching as it was one of their few options for a career. There was nursing, of course, and a few hearty souls entered “male” fields, but that was statistically rare.  Since teaching had become a “woman’s field,” even then the pay was lousy and the conditions weren’t much better,  it was an enviable position for most women because it was one of the few that offered them a steady income and a modicum of respect.

When I was growing up I was taught by a number of these women—brilliant minds who held themselves and us students to the highest possible standards. Yes, a number of them were old battle axes who made me crazy, but I managed a pretty good education, though even by the late 60s, things were getting spotty.

Because in the 60s, women had more options.  By the time I entered college in the late 70s, it was much more common that the best and the brightest women students majored in pre-law, pre-med, business or accounting.  I had no intention of being a teacher when I was in school—I eventually became an English major, but I originally planned on becoming a medical doctor.  And no, I didn’t flunk out of my bio major.  Much to my mother’s dismay, I decided I didn’t want to spend so many years in school and residence programs and really wanted to be a reporter.  Or maybe go to law school, which remained an option until I finished my MA and, on the advice of lawyer colleagues, decided to go for a PhD in English instead. (On a personal note, there are days I second guess that decision, I must admit!  And the real irony is I ended up in school longer than I would have had I just gone to med school!)

Of course, some of the best and brightest were also education majors, but with so many more options that could lead to lucrative careers, it did make a change in the demographics of who went into teaching.  At my undergrad college, for many of my friends teaching was the default major.  I went to a women’s college with fantastic nursing and physical therapy programs, especially.  They were incredibly competitive programs, so many were dropped out of the program for earning grades lower than a B.  This could happen as late as junior year, so the education department to the rescue.  In fact, of my college friends who are teachers today, I think only one started out with that major, and actually, I’m not sure about her.

Many of those education majors are no longer teaching in a classroom.  Some went on to do fine in the classroom, but others got the degree and used it to get a job for which they were more suited..

But in terms of grades, things started to look bleak for teachers.  On a whole, education majors have some of the lowest SAT scores and class averages and ranks from high school, and their GPAs in college are lower than students in other professional and pre-professional majors.  I remember reading about this when it came out, so I did a quick search to find the information I wanted.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compiles loads of statistics on education. The NCES “Digest of Education Statistics” Table 136 shows average SAT scores by student characteristics for 2001. Students who select education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any major (964). Math majors have the highest (1174).

It’s the same story when education majors finish college and take tests for admission to graduate schools. In the case of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), education majors have an average score that’s the lowest (467) of all majors except for sociology majors (434). Putting this in perspective, math majors score the highest (720), followed closely by economics in third place (625). (Walter Williams, “Educational Ineptitude, Con’t” Jewish World Review, May 19 2004)

This means that weaker students become teachers with weaker abilities.  This is a recipe for disaster.  But this was only part one of the recipe.

Educational reforms have often been double-edged swords.  While reforms have made our educational system less rigid and more student orientated and created better thinkers, some have frankly backfired.  Somewhere along the line, it was decided that rote memorization was a bad thing.  We were no longer required to memorize poetry and other “useless” things for the sake of memorization, which is fine in theory, but this led to lack of practice in the skill of memorization itself.  And it’s pretty useful when learning geography, foreign languages and math.  When I moved overseas, I realized that one thing many Asians students had on their American peers was incredible memory skills.  Of course, they focused too much on memorization and not enough on thinking, and their American peers excelled at that, but there has to be a happy medium.  Somehow we managed to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Let me give you an example.  When I was in grammar school, it was decreed that grammar need no longer be taught.  Language arts would focus on allowing students to express themselves well.  Students would be able to intuit grammar naturally.  That’s all well and good for a large part of grammar, but in English, some rules just need to be learned and memorized, especially for students who want to be successful academic writers in higher education.  And knowing grammar is incredibly useful when trying to learn a foreign language in school.  How can I figure out Spanish sentence structure if I don’t know the difference between a direct object and an indirect object?

There are many theories of holistic language learning, and I’ve “picked up” languages in my time just from being in a country or being around speakers for an extended amount of time.  There’s definitely something to that.  But I also know that when I learn languages, and I have formally learned three foreign languages in my time, there comes a time when I just have to learn grammar from either a book or a knowledgeable person in order to read more complex writing or even write notes that sound like they came from an adult, not a fourth grader.

Granted, most Americans, even educated Americans, can live long and happy lives without learning grammar, but people who go on to teach really should have a clue.  And I don’t mean just English teachers.  All teachers are role models, and all teachers are responsible for students being able to communicate clearly and accurately.  And when a teacher sends a letter home to parents that is riddled with grammatical errors, there’s something wrong.  In the past, I have received those letters from my son’s teachers!

I remember in college seeing a poster made by students in the education department that contained a glaring punctuation error.  The poster read YOUR’S instead of YOURS.  I was frightened for education even then.

The person who wrote that poster has been teaching kids for over 25 years now.  I’m sure that kids she taught are now teaching kids themselves.  Hopefully somewhere down the line their students learned to use an apostrophe properly, but based on the papers I receive from college students now, too many didn’t.

I teach freshman English, but the course I teach is very different than the version I took 30 years ago.  I now teach my freshmen skills I was taught in middle school.  I teach how to outline and how to have a thesis statement and a topic sentence.  I teach how to find the subject and the verb in a sentence.  I have to teach these things because too many of my students are writing papers that are so weak that I don’t even understand what they are trying to tell me.  And they are native speakers!  Even worse, the students I teach were often A and B students in their high schools.

Entropy is more than just a theory.

And I am not just a grumpy English teacher here.  If I am teaching basic skills in Freshman English everything is being pushed along.  The skills students need to acquire in upper level classes aren’t being learned.  And being able to communicate clearly is pretty much one of the main reasons we educate people, isn’t it?

It literally scares me that my Taiwanese graduate students in English can write better papers in English than my graduate students in America, both in terms of critical thinking skills (at which we supposedly excel) and mechanical language skills.  Our democracy depends on educated thinkers to survive.

True story: a few years ago I applied for a position at a major law firm.  The firm wanted to hire an English professor full time to teach its recently hired lawyers how to write clearly and properly.  Neophyte lawyers who had gone through a four-year undergraduate course, a three-year law course, passed the Bar exam, but they still couldn’t write clear and error-free prose.  When the use of a comma can radically change the meaning of a sentence, one would hope someone in law would know how to use it correctly!

The philosopher George Santayana writes, “Grammar, rhetoric, and logic enrich enormously the phenomenon of being alive.”  The first time I read that, I thought, “That is the biggest piece of hyperbole I’ve ever read.”  Now I’m not so sure.  Grammar, rhetoric and logic are the three components of excellent communication skills.  Of the three, the only thing still taught on a regular basis is rhetoric, probably the least important of the three.  We now teach the other two skills at the college level, so no wonder students can’t get a decent job without a college diploma.

This leads me to the point I wish to discuss in my next installment: when did vocational training become bad and college become imperative?


1 Comment »

  1. […] Well, forget it.  My friends who are public school teachers are just as frustrated as I am.  And elsewhere in this column, I’ve written about problems with our students and education, so obviously this is something […]

    Pingback by The Contemplative Broad is Edging her way Back « The Broad is Back! — March 9, 2010 @ 5:29 pm |Reply

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