Opinion: Daily Journal

Educational Fads Lead to Downward Spiral in Student Performance

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Melissa Mitchell, Office Manager for the John Locke Foundation.

RALEIGH — I was not amused when I read the article “To Read or Not to Read … That is the Question,” in the Feb. 1 Wall Street Journal, telling how AOL will provide comedic videos of CliffNotes, thus cashing in on the attributes of lazy students. Heaven forbid that a high school or college student is required to read a lengthy novel. I’m all for the free market, but let’s not use it to further dumb down our educational standards.

Not only should English teachers and college professors groan over this idea, but parents and students should, too. The U.S. is dealing with a loss of educational excellence. The number of students who cannot read and understand literature is frightening. All I could think of was shame on AOL for contributing to the dumbing down of education.

If students cannot read and comprehend intricate information, they cannot excel in any subject, nor will they be able to write well. Today’s students need to understand that being able to send a text message, or write a Facebook or Twitter blurb, is not going to get them into a good college or help them get a good job.

The WSJ also reported on a new film called “Race to Nowhere,” which is an answer to the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” “Superman” blames ineffective schools and teachers’ unions for what is wrong in education. However, this new documentary by Vicki Abeles alleges that U.S. education focuses too much on giving kids “things to memorize and regurgitate, instead of developing critical thinking skills that will be useful in solving problems and thriving later in life.”

The WSJ article addressing Abeles’ new video — “Do American Students Study Too Hard?” — caused a firestorm of letters to the editor. The letter writers were adamant in stating that the opposite was true. One letter writer asked, “What part of the alphabet is OK to forget? Which of the multiplication tables is OK to forget?”

Another writer, a college professor, points out that “despite the fact that they are ‘millennial children’ who are supposed to be more at home at the computer than a book, they don’t know how to navigate around databases in the library system.”

The idea that students can’t memorize information seems preposterous when you realize that young children can memorize every fast food jingle, students can memorize song lyrics, and what 16-year-old seeking a driver’s license can’t manage to read and memorize the driver license manual?

Abeles’ contention that they need to learn how to solve problems later in life ignores the fact that they need to learn and retain the information that would allow them to solve those problems.

Meanwhile, students in other countries, especially Asian countries, are memorizing information and are outperforming U.S. students in math and science.

For some time now, I have been concerned about what is occurring in education. Because there was a 12-year difference between when my first and last child entered school, I was able to witness firsthand how education changed in a very short time. Teachers seemed to be constantly trying new ways of teaching the basics. Gone was the requirement to learn times tables. When I complimented my daughter’s teacher on teaching all of the math tables from addition to division, she informed me that she would no longer be teaching these tables because of parental complaints. I realize that even parents are complicit in the lowering of educational standards.

Also gone was the requirement for written book reports. Now, students had to just dress up as a character in the book, so the parent had to help the child find the items to play dress-up, and the teacher did not have to read and grade a book report. The student did not have to worry about writing a report that contained correct sentence structure and spelling.

Gone is the requirement to write in cursive. Students now print everything. Google the terms “cursive versus printing,” and you will see a multitude of reasons for students learning to write in cursive. One recent study showed that students using cursive on tests, including the written portion of the SAT, did far better than their peers who printed. The cursive essays were much longer and contained far more information.

I find it ironic that many of the experts who are proposing these new ideas and consider themselves highly educated and knowledgeable were educated by the very methods they seek to destroy.

While watching the PBS educational channel, I saw two ads for the PBS educational program for teachers. When they showed the teachers in the classroom, both were talking so loud that I wondered if they were teaching hearing-impaired students. One teacher was teaching students, who were standing, about decimals and kept adding a Cha-Cha to the end of every teaching sentence. Those Cha-Cha students still had to sit down and memorize how to move and place those decimal points. This type of teaching is similar to the AOL CliffNotes project that assumes students need to be constantly entertained in order to learn.

We see First Lady Michelle Obama and the government worried about what K-12 students are eating, but we are graduating students who cannot follow a recipe and do not know the difference between 1t (teaspoon) and 1T (Tablespoon) of salt or sugar in a recipe.

North Carolinians are shocked when they see a headline in the News and Observer stating that N.C. Central University may force 519 students out because the university now requires a Grade Point Average of 1.9 for fall enrollment — up from the current minimum of 1.7. What is really shocking is that some students may have already graduated with a 1.7 GPA from NCCU and entered the work force to compete with students with a 4.0 GPA.

Unfortunately, colleges now have to deal with poorly educated students and provide remedial education for students who were never required to learn or memorize information they need to succeed in higher education.

Education in North Carolina and throughout the U.S. is in big trouble. In order to avoid the experimental and undisciplined education in public schools, concerned parents are turning to home schooling, private schools, and charter schools.

Unfortunately, there is no one group responsible for this decline in education. It is going to take a few courageous individuals within the teaching profession to speak up and say this is not working to change the downward spiral in education. It certainly won’t be AOL or Ms. Abeles!