Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Public Schools Stink

David's school focuses heavily on preparing for standardized state tests. I'm told that the yeshivos don't have this type of emphasis, and I certainly don't remember such an emphasis from my own elementary school days. (Although this may be a factor of poor memory after so many years, a general indifference to standardized tests back then, or perhaps even then there was a difference between the public school and yeshiva approach?)

I didn't really think much about the tests until I attended a parent workshop last week in school. Wow, the word questions on the math test are hard. I've gone though Calc 2, calc-based statistics, two semesters of college physics (o.k, not in the most challenging college) and then various advanced statistics and medical math classes. And yet not only did I still have to concentrate really hard last week, but some questions still stumped me.

David is not the best reader and we need to keep on top of him to make sure does his reading comprehension and general reading homework. And that he does it properly. Yesterday I passed by the table as he was looking at the questions to the reading comprehension assignment and I asked him if really finished reading the passage so quickly. He said that he didn't read it yet and I started to get upset that he was already jumping to the questions without having read the passage. Then he explained to me that in school they learned to look at the questions first and then to read the passage and look for the answers (and underline them as they appear). 

I was very upset. I don't know anything about education or pedagogy, but this doesn't strike me as a something that will produce good and motivated readers. Rather, it instills in kids the message that the purpose of reading is only to answer the questions. The act of reading is lo lishma. And I'm not even sure if this tactic produces more correct answers, as I'm afraid that students my be speed scanning the passage and not find what is really the best answer anyway.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. I understand the need for standardized testing. It helps enforce universal standards and serves as a measure--even if only imperfectly--if students are meeting those standards. It helps gauge--even if only imperfectly--teacher quality and productivity. Of course all this is all the more important in public schools, where there needs to be some type of oversight--even if imperfect--for funding purposes. This is why the school staff from the principal downward are fixated on test scores; poor results can herald the closure of a school or the end of its funding. (Are yeshivos not so concerned about standardized testing as they don't really have much to loose?)

And hence I understand the curricular emphasis on mastering the goals that the standardized tests focus on, as well as the need to prepare students with various test-taking strategies and tricks.

But it really saddened me to watch David look through the passage for the answers rather than read it.
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