What's really wrong with US education: Parents who don't read & anti-"nerd" culture

My mom ordered me to read this thoughtful article on school reform:

The deck is stacked against kids who live in poverty not just because their schools are on average worse than others, but also because of the circumstances of their lives when they leave campus.

It’s time that we admit that it isn’t just teachers holding back poor and minority students back. The problems are societal…

Let the 50 states disaggregate equality-related data by ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, and let us rank the states and reward them for closing all the societal inequalities that are truly at the heart of our achievement gap….

Let’s have national benchmarks for equality in incarceration, equality in college enrollment, equality in health coverage, equality in income levels, employment rates, rates of drug addiction and child abuse.

My initial reaction was that reducing inequality — though a noble objective — is impractical because those who control America love inequality:

Our entire political economy has been systematically structured over the past 30+ years to maximize — not minimize — inequality. And now that the 1% (really the 0.1%) owns everything — the Supreme Court, Congress, the presidency, the corporations, the media, the cash — they’re grabbing everything they can, and there’s no way they’re giving a penny back without a fight.

When Warren Buffett said a few years back that there’s a class war and that his class is winning, he meant it metaphorically, based on massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

But now there’s literally blood on the Occupy movement who were systematically crushed nationwide for exercising their Constitutional right to peacefully protest. And journalists have been arrested for doing their Constitutionally protected jobs. New York City police (not to mention the feds and the military) have been running a nationwide J. Edgar Hoover-esque domestic spy operation since 9/11 and operate a many-tens-of-millions-of-dollars surveillance network in Manhattan jointly with the major banks (police sit side-by-side with bank personnel). They used it to spy on the Occupy movement. Our tax dollars are being used to spy on us to repress small-“d” democracy and efforts to shift the tax burden more toward the wealthiest Americans.

The rich and powerful — on their private jets and yachts — don’t care about educating ordinary Americans, let alone poor/minority Americans. The essay suggests a clever way to pursue a noble, wonderful ideal. But it’s diametrically opposed to everything America has stood for these past three decades.

But I then realized that even eliminating inequality would be only a small step in the right direction. The biggest problem with American education is anti-intellectualism:

That teachers can single-handedly teach our kids — regardless of their pre-school experiences or their lives outside the classroom — everything they need to know is absurd. So, too, is the corollary that teachers should be punished when kids from screwed up families and communities struggle and fail.

Consequently, factoring in socio-economic data would be a big improvement.

But there’s a far more important factor than class and income: motivation. Much of America has an anti-intellectual bias. Whereas students in countries like China look up to their successful, hard-working classmates, American students tease and bully “nerds,” “geeks,” “dorks,” and “teachers' pets.” We admire successful student-athletes but mock successful student-students. Many parents either don’t care about learning or don’t know how to encourage and support their children’s learning (as opposed to pushing them to get good grades, even by cheating and/or pressuring/threatening teachers).

Studies consistently find that a superb predictor of a child’s school success is the number of books in that child’s house. (We’re well over 1,000 books in our house, and I’m hoping the boxes of books stacked in my garage also count toward our total!) Number of books in the home is an even more powerful statistical factor than parental education. It serves as a good proxy for the importance parents place on education. And 27% of American adults tell pollsters they didn’t read a single book last year! (Since the data’s self-reported, the real percentage is probably even higher.) ¼ to 1/3 of American parents are effectively telling their kids that learning doesn’t matter.

So, even eliminating economic and social inequality in America would not solve American schools' critical motivation deficiency. I know because I’ve seen the children of extremely poor, illiterate migrant workers in Shanghai do exceptionally well in school. Shanghai’s school system scores even higher than Finland’s (and every other participating nation’s) on the PISA tests. Tavis Smiley and Cornell West visited quite a few children of migrant workers who live in dirty one-room shacks. Their children embraced and excelled in school because their parents and they placed such value on learning and because Chinese culture respects teachers. The walls of these children’s tiny “homes” were covered with school achievement certificates like wallpaper.

I suspect this “motivation gap” may explain the apparent success of early charter schools and their subsequent disappointing results. Early charter schools may have attracted the most pro-education parents, whose kids were most likely to embrace school and learning. As charter schools spread, their populations increasingly resembled those of ordinary public schools.

School should be about joyous learning, exploring, singing, painting, reading, dancing, and creating. Instead, most American schools are focused on filling in the right bubbles. Focusing on tests is a great way to suck the natural joy out of learning. And that’s toxic when combined with our society’s existing anti-intellectual bias.

The education gap in a nutshell: “In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts report titled ‘Reading at Risk’ found only 57% of American adults had read a book in 2002… Many in the survey reported reading dozens of books and said they couldn’t do without them” USA Today.

Being raised by parents who read voraciously must feel completely different than being raised by parents who never read. Beyond the implicit message children receive watching their parents read (or not read), parents who read (rather than golf or watch TV) likely communicate better (thus building their children’s vocabularies) and read to/with their children, equipping them with valuable knowledge that helps them read.

Posted by James on Wednesday, December 14, 2011