Climbing the Ladder in Education

…Is Not Easy When There Are Missing Steps

Written on October 26, 2011 by Dr. Ram Nayar

The old cliché that we all heard over the years “adding fuel to the fire” is what I think I am doing now. My subject matter has been already covered in our site by Jim Kotas, Dr. Nicholas Markette, Lisa Jones, and Dr. Cory Dobbs eloquently. You might ask why I have to add the same subject matter for the “thinkers” to read, and discuss further, instead of responding to all those illustrious articles. Don’t I have any another topic that I could introduce in this column? Do I have to be a copycat? The answer is “No, I don’t” because every waking moment of my life, I spend all my energy in transforming the lives of both young and middle aged youth to inculcate an interest in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). I teach science to two-year college students who are so ill-prepared that the most fundamental aspects of science are “foreign” to them.

Speaking of foreign, that is where the issue becomes larger and disturbing to a nation that has always been in the forefront of discoveries and inventions. The issue is of an American generation that is coming up with scientific illiteracy that the most basic problems in science and technology are beyond their abilities. Here are the statistics to back up this clam. In 2003 China produced over twice as many engineers as did the US; while India produced 40% more accounting and finance specialists. When data was analyzed of 4th and 8th graders (2007) according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program (sic) for International Student Assessment) [PISA] US ranked among the lowest of the countries participating: the US came behind Lithuania, Latvia, Spain, Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation.

In 2006, the National Survey of America’s College Students demonstrated that 50% of students at 4 year colleges did not score at the proficient level of literacy, meaning they lack basic skills like summarizing arguments in a newspaper editorial. For every 100 ninth graders, 67 graduate from HS, 38 enter college directly upon graduating from HS, and 26 are still enrolled in to their sophomore year of college, and only 18 graduates with a two-year degree within 3 years or a 4year degree within 6 years (excerpt from Rainwater, 2008)

To understand the severity of the problem we are facing, take a look at the graph showing the doctoral recipients in the USA compared to other select nations. (Source: the NSF).

Doctoral Degrees In Natural Sciences and Engineering

Selected Countries: 1993 – 2007

Source: National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

At first look it looks as though we have more doctoral recipients than other nations. Take a closer look, and you will find that the peak you see at first is a combination of natural born US citizens plus the foreign students who are either on a student visa or on a specialist visa and many of them chose to return to their native countries after their degree. Or worse, are forced to return due to our immigration laws.

Some in the U.S. say that we test poorly because we try to educate more students and access to education in other nations is very “selective”. Also, our results are partly due to having low socioeconomic level students in our system that cannot be compared to the “select’ group of other nation’s students. Not true. In fact studies have shown that our fourth graders do as well as those in other countries, but as these students stay longer in our schools they become detached from excellence. So, the problem is at the high school. Why do our children lose interest in education as they reach the high school level? One of the main reasons is that they lose interest because there is either no relevance to real world problems in what they are taught or they don’t seem to get the relevance. Either way, it is disastrous for them and the nation.

It is high time that we in the U.S. rethink and reshape our education system, especially K-12 with prudence and a sense of purpose. I believe that there is no direct correlation between the amounts of dollars spends for education and the performance levels of students passing the grade levels. So, the question is what is our solution? Where did our education system fail? Who is to blame? Is it the parents, the school system, the government or the children? I would say all of the above.

How much of the downward spiral of our education system has to do with a lack of rigor and relevance in our curriculum? Whatever happened to critical thinking as part of the teaching/learning process? How much of this slippery slope of achievement has to do with the highly technological gadgets available for children of all ages who fail to “think” and “recall” or solve the simplest of problems with an analytical or intuitive mind?  Behold the human molecule with an infinite power of shaping and reshaping the niche in which he lives and where would he lead the world next?

Here is my prescription for changing the broken steps of the ladder of teaching/learning.

  1. Don’t give undue credit to the cumulative GPA. It means nothing
  2. Take the words “extra credit” from the vocabulary of teachers and students
  3. Institute more rigor—challenge the students and they will appreciate overcoming
  4. High expectations equals high returns
  5. Stop teaching the students for “tests”, and start teaching them how to “think”
  6. Always teach beyond the text books
  7. Instill in students that “Knowledge is Power”

Reference:  Education beyond the Rhetoric: Making “Rigor” Something Real.  Teresa Rainwater , Dolores A. Mize and Nancy Smith Brooks [A brief written for discussion at the State Scholars Initiative National Summit on Academic Rigor and Relevance in Boston] April 29-30, 2008

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