Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Teech a man tu ghoti (Teach a man to fish)

Last month, Bill Gates announced his plan to improve public education: more national testing, phonics, & converting to the binomial number system. OK, I made up the last one.

Several people have commented on the wisdom of a computer geek lecturing America on education. Most involved ad hominem attacks on Microsoft (is that ad hominem or ad computeriem?). Since I'm pretty sure that if I insult Microsoft, my computer will crash, I won't go there. However, I will address the basic ideas he put forth.

Testing. Several years ago a SC House member whose name I forgot said that putting more and more tests in the school system without doing anything else is like taking a sick person's temperature every couple of hours without giving them any treatment. Testing, which should be called assessment, is used to find out what needs to be improved. If programs aren't put in place to implement improvement, the test scores aren't going to improve. Duh.

Phonics. Why do people love phonics? The word itself shows the deficiency of phonics. English isn't a phonetic-friendly language. Maybe we should change our official language to Spanish. At least the pronunciation is consistent.

I think people like phonics because it lends itself to games and worksheets and things any bozo can look at and say "cool, I can read." As my son's teacher Chris said, like spelling bees and geography bees, it's a microwave teaching method. Pop it in and 2 minutes later your kid can spell Azerbaijan and place it on the map. There is no logic, no investigation, no relevance.

Phonics is one tool in a teacher's bag of tricks. That bag is full of his or her knowledge, skills, and experiences as a professional teacher. And a good teacher knows when to use each tool, just as a mechanic knows which wrench to use and a doctor knows which medicine to use.

I really don't understand why people tend to disregard the professionalism of teachers. Sure, we are all experts on education, to the extent that we are all educated to some degree. But we all have bodies, yet we don't think we're experts on anatomy.

To improve education, we need to make some improvements that work. We need to throw money in the right direction instead of at consultants and sooth-sayers. We need to pay teachers what they are worth so we can expect excellent, caring, well-educated teachers. Sure, some people will decide to teach simply because of the big bucks, but they won't last. Why do we worry about that anyway? Have you ever heard anyone say, "We shouldn't pay doctors too much or people will go into the profession just for the money"? Do you want a doctor who is just in it for the money?

We need smaller classes so that these professional teachers can meet the needs of each child. People learn in different ways, but it is hard to teach to the individual in a class that is too large.

We need to encourage parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and next-door-neighbors to take part in children's learning. Some people have more time than others, but everyone can express concern and interest in their children's education. When families are welcomed and shown how to help their children, they become great assets to excellent education. The difference between CSI and other public schools is that every child has active family members, and everyone at CSI cares about everyone else. There is a support system that nurtures learning and growth.

Microwaves are wonderful things, but they don't make the best food. Quick fixes and cookie-cutter programs don't make for the best education either.

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