Thursday, August 16, 2012

American Public Education: Epic Fail or Remarkable Success?

When it comes to the question of whether or not the American education system does what it is supposed to do, there’s no easy answer. First of all, we have to decide what we want our schools to do. What should be the final result of 12 years of public school education?

Here’s my list of objectives for graduating high school students:
  • The students should be able to read English (on an 8th grade level at a minimum);
  • The students should be able to do basic mathematical computations;
  • The students should be able to speak and write in standard business English clearly and effectively;
  • The students should have a working knowledge of modern technology;
  • The students should understand basic science concepts (which include health issues);
  • The students should know how the American government and economy function.

 If a student masters these objectives, I would expect him/her to be able to function effectively as an adult. One would expect these adults to be able to read and understand an employment contract, use a computer, communicate ideas effectively, calculate a 15% tip, understand global warming, and know the function of the Electoral College.

Okay, now that we’ve decided what we want our public schools to accomplish, we can try to determine whether or not the American education system does what it is supposed to do. I propose looking at some of the headlines from today’s news and judging the effectiveness of education from these (admittedly limited) viewpoints.

First, let’s take a look at this article from Kentucky:
“Kentucky GOP lawmakers say ACT exam treats evolution as fact, ignores creationism”

Basically, the problem that these politicians have is that there are “questions on an end-of-course biology exam that…seems to require the teaching of evolution as a fact instead of a theory.” Unfortunately, I see this as an epic fail for the education these politicians received at their local public schools. All students should have been taught the scientific method and they should understand the difference between “fact” and “theory.” Facts stay the same, while theories are changeable as more evidence is discovered that proves or disproves the theory. Theories, by their very nature, are not “the truth,” because there might yet be evidence found that disproves them. Evolution is a theory, because scientists are routinely adding to the body of knowledge about the subject. As far as I can tell, there really is no way of teaching evolution as “fact.” These politicians were obviously absent from high school on the day the scientific method was taught. Sigh….

Next, watch the video below:
“Mars Rover’s ‘Voice’ Captured During Nail-Biting Landing”

Now isn’t that just the most remarkable human intellectual accomplishment you’ve seen in quite a while? The scientists who worked on the Curiosity project obviously got the most from their public school educations. They learned basic science, mathematics, and communication skills. They learned from past experiments with similar projects, and they designed a system that worked, and worked well. This is an epic success for American public education. (Note: Credit must be given to the colleges these scientists attended, as well.) If you’re a teacher, feel free to pat yourself on the back. These scientists couldn’t have achieved this incredible feat of ingenuity without the foundation you helped them build.

So does the American education system do what we need it to do? I guess the answer is…sometimes.

Super article on fact versus theory:  http://www.johnpratt.com/items/astronomy/science.html

Kentucky article: http://www.courier-journal.com/viewart/20120815/NEWS0101/308150079/Kentucky-GOP-lawmakers-say-ACT-exam-treats-evolution-fact-ignores-creationism?odyssey=nav%7Chead

Wonderful pictures and video about Curiosity and other space-related issues: http://www.space.com