Monday, April 02, 2007

Today's Reading Assignment

Ralph Reiland, writing in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, on the "cocky and dumb" products that are emerging from your government schools. Mr. Reiland, an economics professor at Robert Morris University, notes results from a recent survey of U.S. and South Korean students, conducted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

According to the study, only six percent of the South Korean eighth graders expressed confidence in their math skills, compared with 39% of their American counterparts. The problem? South Korean eighth graders score far better on standardized math tests than U.S. students. "Cocky and dumb," says Professor Reiland, is hardly a formula for U.S. success in an increasingly competitive global economy.

But hey, at least our kids feel good about themselves, right? Reiland notes the steady erosion of competition and other "bad influences" that (in the past) provided harsh, but necessary feedback on student performance. In an era of "no score" ballgames, and efforts to ban booing at student sporting events, it's no wonder than Little Johnny is a dumb as a stump, but he still likes himself.

Alas, I personally attest to the veracity of Mr. Reiland's observations. After retiring from the military, I worked for a while as a middle school teacher in the south. Both districts where I worked were underfunded, and many of my students came from poor families. Preparing my students for state achievement tests, I was appalled at their basic skills, or more correctly, the lack thereof. In one school system, the majority of my seventh graders couldn't handle three-place addition or multiplication; division was an alien concept, and pre-algebra concepts proved simpy beyond their grasp. Yet, few had self-esteem problems regarding their school work; more than a few expressed shock and dismay when I handed back a practice test bleeding red ink, with a score in the single digits.

But in hindsight, perhaps I should have expect those excessive levels of self-confidence. The school had its own self-esteem curriculum, complete with an after-school program run by a former special forces NCO. While the program had its merits, it also had an obvious drawback, namely a lack of emphasis on the consequences of long-term actions. Simply stated, our students felt good playing basketball with their buddies in the gym, but no one bothered to explain the "life" consequences of missing that jump shot, versus being unable to keep track of a checkbook, or fill out a job application. For the record, I was one of the few faculty members who didn't participate in the afterschool sessions; most of my colleagues did it for the supplemental pay. When asked about the "value" of the program and the false confidence it instilled, they simply shrugged.

Sadly, I know exactly where Mr. Reiland is coming from. More distressingly, there's no sign that the education establishment is prepared to abandon such efforts in favor of tried-and-true competition based models that stress actual learning and academic achievement. If ignorance is bliss, there are lots of happy school kids across America, and what's more, they feel really good about it.

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