2011-04-15 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

What Is Education?
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Everybody would agree that education is necessary.

What education is and how education can best be provided, however, is an open question that is answered in different ways by different people.

In a recent New York Times front page article, for example, writer Trip Gabriel wrote a piece on “distance learning,” using computers rather than teachers to educate teens.

Gabriel writes of a Memphis (Tennessee) teen who failed his high school English class and was now trying to “recover” his English credit by taking an online course.

“Hamilton, who had failed English 3 in a conventional classroom and was hoping to earn credit online to graduate, was asked a question [by the computer] about social Darwinism. He pasted the question into Google and read a summary of a Wikipedia entry. He copied the language, spell-checked it and emailed it to his teacher.”

Hamilton got a passing grade for his report on social Darwinism and eventually got the English credit he needed to graduate.

Another educational success story, much like the stories that Bloomberg and his minions put out about his “iZone” program, which allows failing students to “recover” credits by doing the same thing in New York City that Hamilton did in Memphis.

Did Hamilton learn anything about social Darwinism by plagiarizing a Wikipedia entry, which may not have been correct to begin with, and turning it in as his own work?

Was there education going on in the interaction between Hamilton and his computer?

As a teacher for more than 30 years, I would argue that “Googling” an article, pasting it into your own word document and then passing it off as your own work is not what education is all about.

The movement to dumb down education, however, is nothing new.

It started years ago when the educational hoo-hahs at Columbia University impregnated the public school community with such ideas as “New Math,” “Holistic Writing,” and the strange notion that only Reading and Mathematics are important, and that subjects such as Science, Social Studies, Citizenship and Foreign Language were secondary and to be addressed only peripherally.

I remember when Holistic Writing burst on the scene. Its central core belief was that you shouldn’t teach grammar to students “until they were ready for it,” sometime around the fourth or fifth grade.

It also included the belief that students could learn to write without knowing grammar. In fact, they believed that worrying about grammar was harmful because it got in the way of writing free-flow ideas.

You want to know why adults can’t write a letter or a report? Because they never learned grammar in school.

Add to that, the fact that “Peer Review” became the buzzword. The teacher was no longer allowed to take a red pen and edit a student’s work. That would only stifle the student’s creativity. No, a group of students were to edit the work and pass it around until it was correct.

The blind leading the blind.

You learn to write well in only one way. By learning the rules, developing your own voice and by being edited by somebody who already knew how to write well.

I know, being edited is not good for your self-esteem, but everybody needs to be edited.

As Susan Behrens, a professor of communication science at Marymount Manhattan College recently wrote in a Daily News op-ed piece, “When a writer cannot keep straight the logical connection between the basic building blocks of subject, object and verb, he or she risks communicating incoherently.”

Is Holistic Writing education? I don’t think so, and we have done an entire generation of school kids a disservice by not teaching them grammar and how to communicate coherently.

Then, we come to the New Math.

The core ideal that the program follows is that memorization and drill are bad and that understanding the concepts behind the math are good, which sounds OK until you try to put it into action.

For example, if you are old enough, you remember memorizing the multiplication tables (what we all called “the times table”), and what a chore it was. Our parents drilled us and our older siblings did as well. At the end, however, we could do 12 times 12 or eight times nine without hesitation.

No more. Drill and memorization are out. Now kids have to understand why five times six equals 30, but they still can’t quickly do the math. Ever see a teenager try to figure out your change in a store when the digital cash register is not working? It’s a horror.

You know how much change you should get back, and so does everybody in the building except for the poor worker who never learned to count or do multiplication.

There was once a test called the PAM test. I don’t know if they still use it in New York City, but I am sure they use some newer version if not that test.

Students had to show their work in the test booklet. Four was the top score on each question.

If you got the right answer, but did not show your work, you got a two.

If you got the wrong answer, but showed your work so that the teacher could see how you got the wrong answer, you got a three.

For those of you who learned the new math, that means you got a better score for getting the wrong answer while showing why you were wrong, than you got if you could do the work in your head and didn’t need to show your work to get the right answer.

Is that education? I don’t think so, and most adults would agree.

Dennis Walcott will have to resign his deputy mayor slot and then get a waiver from the State Education Department. I hope that the state agency has learned its Cathie Black lesson better than the mayor.

The problem is made worse by the fact that the state official that approved Black’s waiver has also resigned his position.

Of course, he said that his resignation has nothing to do with the whole Black fiasco, but one has to wonder.

Education is not a business and not a science. For a good teacher, it is an art and good education starts not with the mayor or the chancellor, but with the classroom teacher in front of 25 students.

Both the state and the city should leave those teachers to do the job for which they have trained.

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