Thursday, October 1, 2009

Public Schools

One source of confusion regarding education policy is a lack of clarity about what the purposes of public schools are. As I see it public schools (K-12) have two main purposes. First to attempt to teach all their students those basic skills needed to function well as an adult in the United States. Second to identify and sort out the brighter students. In practice current schools attempt both of these. However, particularly in the higher grades, they seem more devoted to the second. In fact they sometimes seem actively hostile to teaching anything practical. Hence for example the trend towards dropping driver's ed.

But many policy discussions seem to only consider the first purpose. Devoting additional resources to the slower students makes sense when they are learning important basic skills. It makes no sense for classes like plane geometry which have little practical value and are used almost exclusively for sorting out the brighter students. Pushing slow students into such classes is just foolish. They don't need additional confirmation that they aren't as bright as other students and even if through great effort and perseverance they actually learn the material it won't do them any good.


  1. A few quick nits..
    1) I think the 2nd purpose you mention should read "sort out the brighter students and prepare them for further education."
    2) A third important purpose (or benefit, at any rate) is to enrich students' lives. The ability and inclination to appreciate things which may not be local, easily apparent, and immediately useful adds a lot to the richness of life for those lucky enough to be able to spend some of their time thinking beyond the next meal/crisis.
    3) One example of insufficient attention to teaching practical things, I think, is lack of instruction in critical thinking, a massively useful practical skill. I have a cynical suspicion that this is because many adults don't really want kids thinking critically.
    4) Plane geometry not practical, eh? How about in carpentry/home improvement?

  2. While one can imagine rare cases in which practically any subject turns out to have some practical value this will not be typical. Students do not unlimited time and there are lots of things that generally have more practical value than plane geometry that could be taught instead.

  3. Young students can learn amazing things in Math regardless of whether they are brilliant or not. We have a program in Denver, CO called Every day Math. It teaches a number of math skills to elementary students that used to be reserved for high school. I felt when I first started teaching Math with this program that the children would be lost. Not so. Amazingly, I found that most children can learn to accomplish many mathematical tasks that formerly were only learned at a much older age. Examples are: early Algebra, plane and solid geometry, prime numbers, factors,
    probability and statistics. The children start in first grade on a very simple level but continue to keep learning the various skills in a more advanced way as they grow older. I blieve that anything you learn can make your brain more complex, and that programs such as this have great power. I do agree with Anonymous that plane geometry and other Math skills have many practical uses.

  4. I do like your thought regarding learning relating actively (and positively) to one's brain capability (if that is indeed what you meant). Personally, I have long conjectured that all of us have a really powerful brain and the individual differences in performance at various mental tasks, or general thinking, are explained by a varying degree of "access" of an individual to his/her brain. The main adverse factors limiting such access would be, for instance, laziness, comfort/lack of necessity, etc. Somehow the notion of access limitation seems less fatalistic than simply a limited brain design itself, and so, even though this may be an unlikely truth, I like to believe in that, and in that stimulating children and adults with the right thoughts makes them connect with their brains. They start using it and sometimes even produce brilliant results. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Advanced concepts are all very well but businesses are always complaining about high school graduates who lack basic skills and I have personally encountered a disturbing number of cashiers who have trouble making change. I wonder what fraction of high school graduates can correctly fill out a deposit slip, balance a checkbook or fill out a simple tax form. This sort of thing is more important than quadratic equations.

  6. The practical uses of math in everyday circumstances is, of course important. To get around this problem of making change,
    many businesses use cash registers
    with pictures of the items you order. Some also make change as well. This solves some problems, but it is worrisome that many cashiers can't make change well. Just count your change each time you buy. I do feel that those basic skills such as balancing a checkbook, making change, etc. should be a part of the math curriculum in high school for every student.

  7. Are we seriously debating whether basic subtraction skill should be reinforced in high school, or am I missing something? I think cashier jobs nowadays are paid so low (in most supermarkets they are actually replaced by machines) that people who can do subtraction well will tend to seek better jobs...

  8. My point is it is silly to try to teach everybody advanced material like algebra when you are failing to teach everybody more important basic skills. See for example this LAT article about the actual results of requiring algebra to graduate in LA.