Each semester, University Scholars engage in small-group discussion seminars called “Exploration Series.” University Scholar Farid Saemi ‘17 is a junior aerospace engineering major who participated in the Education Exploration Series seminar this semester. In this post, he shares what the seminar covered and how it has shaped his opinion on education in America.
By Farid Saemi
Education is one of the most important topics in contemporary America. Thanks to investments made by local, state, and federal governments, the American education system is the most high achieving education system in the world. US universities regularly blaze new trails in aerospace, physics, and biology research, and their graduates contribute to the world’s largest economy. However, the lower half of the US education system—its elementary, middle, and high schools—are some of the lowest-achieving institutions among their peers. This semester in the Education-themed University Scholars seminar, we set out to learn why this dichotomy exists and what people are doing to fix this serious problem.
We began our seminar with a guest lecture from Dr. Lynn Burlbaw, Professor and Co-Department Head of the College of Education and Human Development. Dr. Burlbaw specializes in the history and development of education, and he presented a fascinating summary of the history of education in America. Through his lecture, we learned how some of the current conflicts over education—such as private vs. public schools, locally-set vs. nationally-set curriculum, and free vs. paid college—stem from the centuries-old North vs. South mentality of the United States. For example, when small towns in the more religious colonies of New England reached a critical mass, Boston mandated that they dedicate a building and teacher to teach the town’s children how to read the bible. No such policy existed in the less-dense and more economically-motivated South, so well-off slave owners simply hired tutors for their children. Fast forward 200 years, and most supporters of the Common Core Initiative are in the North, while opponents of the Common Core Initiative are in the South. Ironically, today religion motivates the South more than the North in a whole host of topics beyond just education.
We also learned about how society kept enlarging the scope of education in US schools. As Dr. Burlbaw discussed, education in the 1600s meant being able to read the Bible, but by the 1800s when parents worked longer hours away from home in factories and manufacturing plants, education also began to encompass social science and etiquette in addition to basic science, history, and mathematics. By the post-war boom of the 50s, education also included learning how to drive. By the liberal boom of the 60s, education also included information on sex. Now, as society fully enters the digital age, more and more schools are teaching computer science and basic technology literacy. However, the same fundamental differences between the North and South and between public- vs. private-enterprise are contributing to how schools bring in new concepts—like computer science—and how they effectively teach old concepts—like sex ed and mathematics.
After we had gained a better understanding of Education’s background, we set out to learn about what schools and educators are doing to improve their standings. For this analysis, we turned to Dr. Hersh Waxman, a professor on school reform. As he explained it, schools in America have undergone numerous reforms. From the “New Math” fad of the 1960s to the “No Child Left Behind” reforms of the early 21st century, US schools have tried teaching math, science, history, and language arts with a variety of new tools, but each method invariably fails. New Math failed because teachers didn’t understand what they were teaching, and No Child Left Behind failed because it emphasized standardized testing so much that states were forced to lower standards to fend off closures and investigations.
As we learned about these and other reforms, I began to realize that the reforms failed because of a “disconnect” between education policy and actual education. While New Math looked great on paper—who doesn’t want their children to think more critically and abstractly about numbers?—the policy failed to effectively teach New Math to teachers so that they could effectively teach the new ideas to their students. Similarly, No Child Left Behind set out to improve schools using data and standardized tests, but the set of policies failed to sufficiently prepare and equip schools and educators for this new environment. More importantly, my classmates and I concluded that all of these policies failed because they failed to include the critical “other half” of education: parents.
Most, if not all, of my honors classmates enjoy the opportunity to learn through the Honors program because their parents ensured that they did their homework and got a good GPA in high school and scored well on the SAT or ACT to comfortably enter TAMU. These students are typically the college students that go on to become the vaunted “STEM”-ers that the government and industry so desperately needs, and these students typically don’t need much assistance from their school or teachers because they have enough support from their parents.
The other students—the students who bring down average scores, the students who don’t care about learning—are the ones that need support from their school and teachers because they don’t receive enough support from home. Unfortunately, all the scholastic support in the world cannot ensure that a student pursues academics outside of school. For this, the firm but gentle support of parents is needed.
Other countries also face this problem. Lower income families in Brazil and India tend to keep their children at home as a helping hand versus at school as a student. Thus, some local governments in India and Brazil have begun to essentially bribe families to send their kids to school—and it works! While such direct methods may not be necessary in America, parental inclusion in the education process is critical if America’s lower education system is to supply the higher education system with enough critical thinkers.
America’s rise depends on the intelligence and creativity of its population. From Edison to the Wright brothers to Silicon Valley, every revolutionary advance in the last 200 years has roots in America, and these advances have ensured that America ingenuity progresses the world. We must fix our education system if we want to sustain this progress.
In light of current events, perhaps we should re-frame Education as a matter of National Security…
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