Ever More Money Still Leaving Students Unprepared

A recent article on Rhode Island education and the high-tech sector ends with this discouraging testimony:

Prof. Edward Bozzi, coordinator for the biotechnology manufacturing program at the University of Rhode Island, said high school students need to learn physics, chemistry and biology, in that order.
He also said high-tech business is increasingly international, and that foreign language skills are important.
“I’ve talked to people who have taken foreign languages in high school here, and they can’t speak a sentence,” he said.

One notable differentiator between private and public schools in Rhode Island, that I’ve noticed, is that the former often begin teaching languages in the very earliest classes. Another is that grades are more reliably tied to performance; when children’s report cards are exactly the same every quarter, parents should be suspicious that the method of tracking their abilities isn’t functioning properly.
So, I’ll admit that Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s talk of teaching methods leaves me unconvinced that she’s correctly identifying the problem:

“Classrooms with rows of desks, and the teacher says turn to page 138, do the odd-numbered problems, and don’t make any noise — that doesn’t work anymore,” she said. “Kids are living in an interactive world.”

Sure, the odd numbered problems ought to be homework, leaving plenty of time for interactivity — which we used to call, simply, “teaching.” Schools shouldn’t have much trouble identifying teachers who think class time should be used for tasks better suited to the dining room table and encouraging those teachers to rethink their methods. But we’ve been hearing about the changing educational needs of America’s children for decades, and still results do not manifest.
Blanket statements about what does and doesn’t work should raise red flags. Rows of desks and rote work are entirely appropriate for some subjects, at some grades, with certain students, and particular teachers. It speaks no disrespect to suggest that Ms. Gist’s Providence office is not the most appropriate perch from which to discern when that is and is not the case.
The fundamental problems with Rhode Island education are twofold: First, regulatory and financial incentives from the federal and state governments take the focus off students’ individual potential and place them on improvements among below-average students. (It simply isn’t possible for large government bureaucracies to address student performance on an individual basis.) Second, labor practices shape decisions to an unhealthy degree.
Basically, if we are to improve our schools, school systems must behave as if satisfying involved parents is the key to success. As it is, curricula are shaped to attract money (or, perhaps more accurately, to avoid loss of money on which districts are already reliant), and policies center on minimizing union unrest. Schools require the leeway to decline money that comes with tripping strings, to increase programs as student need dictates, and to modify employees’ practices with sufficient rapidity to address the actual student bodies that arrive at their steps each year.

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