Turnabout or Some Remarks for Ed

At Milard Fillmores Bathtub, Ed Darrell, points out a short exchange between Neal McCulskey and Matthew Yglesias on vouchers (Mr Darrell has links to both) and then goes on to make his own points on the matter. I’m going to quibble a bit.

Mr Darrell writes

Once upon a time in America, American parents held a firm consensus on the value of education.

In colonial (and I presume probably pre-Civil War Virginia) the Chesapeake bay/plantation folkway had a … hegemonic attitude toward education. In fact, while the plantation “masters” were 100% literate, the servants and other classes in the society (white) were some 70% illiterate. It was something of a point of pride that public education was not generally available. Literacy and education as well, was not emphasised in the backcountry as well (which continues (I think) today in Appalachia for example). So of the four folkways which made up our early nation, only two held that education was of value.

Mr Darrell then writes:

One thing we know from our brief history as the United States. The moral issues do not get easier the more we know. To function as a free, democratic republic, and as a free society, we need good information, and our kids need that information and the reasoning tools to use it to make good policy.

However, this certainly does not mean that the status quo is preferred. We have both an astounding lack of both diversity in methods in our public schools (with a farily uniform curriculum) and a astoundingly poor result given our outlay of cash. But I think he has partially hit it on the head. Our kids need good learning skills (“reasoning tools”) and this in important for our society from a pragmatic and moral standpoint. However, what is the best way of getting this? In the past, I’ve proposed the following, and I’ll invite Mr Darrell to tell me why it’s wrong.

As Mr Darrell points out we need our kids to become good … well … at learning. But that means we don’t test their improvement in their ability to learn, but just in their mastery of a (shrinking) set of skills and facts. It doesn’t, as Mr McCulskey indicates mean that our non-insistence on Creationism vs Darwinian evolution is “to be decided” by consensus. What it means, is from the point of view of our state, what is important is how good our kids are at learning new things.

Thus our schools need is not standardization on curriculum and method, besides a very small core curriculum of basic skills. By this I mean English and I’d like us ala the Classical Greeks and Homer to have us all in this country to have a common set of story/saga from which we might draw on. But, that part, and picking of the core texts is not the main point. What the main thing the state needs from its schools is the development of good students. There are four main skills which a good student needs

  1. Memorization – To remember what is presented.
  2. Reasoning – To be able to make connections within (and outside) of that material and to utilize that which is memorized.
  3. Dilligence – To be able to take care in your work.
  4. Perserverence – To be able to finish what is started and to follow through with your work.

My contention is these skills are all a student needs and it matters much much less the particulars of what subject matter he studied in order to develop them.

If a student arrives in college with these skills well developed, he will do well no matter what curriculum was presented. To put it in a more pointed manner, it doesn’t matter if a student has never heard of Darwin or evolution for his developmental/evolutionary biology class. If he remembers what he is taught, works hard, is careful, and can make connections he will do well and in fact better than a student who does not have these skills but has had a two week “module” taught in a high school science class on evolution. College classes these days depend on very little material to have been presented prior to arriving in the introductory classes.

What this would entail is that a “voucher” system can free up our schools to teach by whatever methods and whatever material that those schools chose to teach is fine. But the “vouchers” and how much federal, state, or local support might be offered be contingent on demonstrating improvement in each of its students in those four skills mentioned above. More improvement should yield more money. Less yields less. This also lets the “magic of markets” back into our classrooms and perhaps, if we concentrate on what we need (good students) we might get what we desire. Specificing “how to do it” is not the way. Specify what you want. This also would have the beneficial result of not “teaching to the test” because the “test” doesn’t test mastery of particular fact sets or material but uses a metric to measure how much each student has improved in the four skills since the last test.

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3 comments

  1. […] Mark Olson is a veteran blogger on issues of concern to conservatives and to Christians, at Pseudo-Polymath. He’s responded to my earlier post on vouchers. Marks calls it ‘a bit of a quibble.’ […]

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Hmmm. I must be doing something wrong on trackbacks, or my system isn’t talking to your system. In any case, here’s my response: http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2006/08/07/more-on-vouchers-history-and-creationism/

  3. […] Ed Darrel was kind enough to write a response to my “quibble” of his contribution to a discussion on educatin. My previous post is here, his is here. his original post was here. In his second essay, Mr Darrell perhaps has misunderstood my essay … and we have a disagreement running as well over the value of education in America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Two things are confused in my remarks on education. What I call “vouchers” is quite different than what is commonly touted as a voucher system. I contend that given skills in the four areas I mentioned, memorization, dilligence, perserverence, and reasoning and contra Mr Darrell’s commenter Jim Benton I don’t raise memorization above the other four or propose testing the memorization and “vomiting” of particular facts for tests. But the ability to remember and facility at recalling facts when learning new material speeds the learning process immensely. Modern students and teaching, it seems, favor learning “concepts” over facts and I think that practice has swung too far the wrong way. Memorization has a place. However, I digress. The point is, and I think Mr Darrell would not contest this, that given two students one exelling in these four areas and the other while behind in those skills but having a head start in background material the student who learns better will surpass the one with the “head start”. In the mid-1980s I recall reading (in Science News I think), that there was a study of a set of students in Israel. These students had come from a strict religious community and had until their mid-high school years studided nothing but memorization of Torah and discourse and rhetoric from Talmud. Then, at that late age, they were put into mainline High school curricula. How did they do? To the surprise of the investigators, they did very well. It seems that the greater skills at reasoning (rhetoric), their far greater memorization, patience, and dilligence and perseverance come from long hours memorizing Torah chapter and verse translated quite well to quickly learning trigonometry, calculus and modern science. From this we learn, that prior to college curricula is less important that subject matter. What is important to the state and to the health of our nation is not that our students in the elementary and middle schools (and perhaps high school) are taught what is currently believed to be true by the intellectual elite. What is imporant is that they learn to memorize, perservere, practice dilligence, and learn to reason. Now, Mr Darrell repeatedly warns against “Creationism” in our schools contra evolution. However this is at best a red herring. Unlike a disciplined schooling in Torah & Talmud, “Creationism” is based largely on one chapter of Genesis, which might be memorized in an afternoon or two. To pass muster and teach students to improve and excell at all four of these disciplines hard and interesting topics must be taught carefully and in depth. But my point is that the choice of these topics is not as important. If instead of Torah/Talmud our young Creationists had to learn Greek/Latin, Roman and early history, and follow carefully arguments from Plato, Aristotle followed by close and careful readings of the corpus of the works of Augustine and Aquinas (in the original languages naturally) I’d contend these young “creationists” will do ok in the modern marketplace of ideas or in any forum where smark people are required. Show me a curricula you fear, Mr Darell and demonstrate that it will also teach our student to excell at all four of my “disciplines” of education and then I’ll submit you might be right. But I think that many of the private schools which engage in the kind of education which Mr Darrell fears also don’t teach students to learn either. […]