After having written about high college tuition costs recently, I encountered another mighty big problem with the US educational system. This time it concerns the quality — or rather, the lack of quality — of education in our local middle-school math class. What you read here may be the reason why so many kids turn up their noses at an engineering education. This is no joke; you can find the facts for yourself.

It seems that two of my grandchildren were having a bit of trouble in 7th grade math class. They just were not “getting it.” So, I asked them to show me their math textbook and I would help them. But, they said they were not allowed to bring the books home! The first dumb thing I have ever heard! The next obvious question is, “Then how can you do your home work?” It seems that they have to go on the Internet to a place called “Study Island.” The Internet? Yet another dumb thing! There, you will find several “test” questions on a page that resembles a Word document. It is arranged with a picture and specifications first, and multiple-choice answers below it.

This particular study lesson concerned symmetry and geometric shapes, perhaps an introduction to trigonometry. The first problem illustrated both regular and irregular shapes. The question was, “Which shapes retain their symmetry when rotated 90 degrees about their centers?” We solved that one straight away. But the next problem was a picture of a triangle with a base of 20 units, one side of 13 units, and the other side of 17 units. The height was also given as 9 units, and the student is supposed to calculate the area of the triangle. Well, in order to show them how to build a triangle with the given three sides, I used quadrille paper and a pencil compass. I laid down the 20-unit base, and from one end drew the locus of all points that were 13 units from it. I did the same with the other end of the base at 17 units. Then the intersection of the loci (which is unique) is the point where I can drop the altitude (height) line to the base. Guess what! The measured height is about 5.5 units, not the “given” 9 units in the problem! Of course, the equation for the area of a triangle is ½(bxh); one-half the product of base times height. Given 9 units for the height, the answer is 90 square units, one of the multiple-choice answers. But the real answer is 55, because it is impossible to construct the triangle with a 9-unit height. There is no way that this test or lesson could have been designed by a mathematician. Then who did it?

Next, I checked out a similar program that taught writing. Since I am a seasoned writer as well as an engineer, I figured I could judge the writing lesson, too. To my horror, I discovered multiple problems with its suggested sentence structure and grammar. It seems that they employ a robot to “correct” the writing lesson. Have you ever used the Microsoft Spelling and Grammar feature of Word? If you have, you know it can make ridiculous suggestions at times. So does this software grammar program. Needless to say, I would never hire anyone that submitted a sample article to me that was corrected by this program.

Unfortunately, I see a big push today to sell educational software and programs on Web sites that charge pretty stiff fees for their service. They claim that the students don’t have to leave the house to get a high-quality education. I challenge that statement on several fronts. Not only is the Internet education extremely faulty, what about the children’s social development? How can they learn to interact with others normally if they are in the house all day? They will become antisocial zombies—or maybe worse! Give me the paper textbook, pencil and paper, and chalk board (okay, white board) any day. This is what my grandkids use now. Grandpa makes sure they have plenty of books, supplies, and a real live tutor. How smart are your kids?

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Comment by Addie Henricks on June 30, 2010 at 6:37pm
i think you meant ASSESSED...which proves another thing about the US educational system. 'nuff said!

nope. doesn't prove anything other than I'm too busy to double check everything I type...I enjoy using the English language for my own amusement....and look what I find...and amusing 'answer' to a simple comment...

my personal philosophy regarding quality education varies as the years pass but right now it can be summed up as:

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.
B. F. Skinner

if you believe the the entire US education system is somehow 'less than'...merely/mainly due to my inability to proofread...i do sincerely apologize to, well, mainly all of those Composition professors who continually over-used their red pencils on my theme papers...they might have been on to something.
Comment by Juraine Go Pimentel on June 29, 2010 at 7:18pm
Becky Kimble wrote: "..........However, he and all his classmates were accessed via state mandated testing..."

i think you meant ASSESSED...which proves another thing about the US educational system. 'nuff said!
Comment by D.Gary Jones QCS, CCS, PMI on June 29, 2010 at 7:01pm
Being another 'old' guy, we didn't have the computer during our school years, but we did have 'math' and a hunger for learning. I agree with the comments by Jeff Sloan because, I taught myself to use the computer and while teaching my grandson to use CAD, I used the dimensions (Ft & Inches rather than units for his sake), and I also come up with an area of 109.5+. Base = 20', Side 1 = 13' and Side 2 = 17', the Height = 10'-11.5", at 1/2(bxh) the area = 109.5+. Or, where did I go wrong?
Comment by Jeff Sloan on June 29, 2010 at 4:01pm
I was impressed by this article as well, but couldn't follow the logic or the math. I thought it out, penciled it out and finally drew it out. I also ended up each time with the area of 109.5.

I've also been confounded by "Study Island" more than once, but for a different reason. My middle-school daughter was sent home to use it as part of a test preparation strategy. They received extra-credit for completing a series of "Study Island" drills and she was able to guess her way through most of the questions. I decided to use it as a lesson in test taking strategy to help her eliminate the distractors, and made her work out the problems to some degree, but helped her to learn to look at the fundamentals of both problem solving and test taking strategy.

Both of my kids attend a charter school, where the teachers are selected because they love teaching, I haven't seen a text book in math for years and I don't have a problem with that. The instruction is fantastic! When my kids brought home texts, and worksheets, they were often sent home by teachers who were tired, bored and disinterested. My son's middle school homework was corrected by other students in group fashion and they got credit for just having something written down.

Now my daughter and son are both taught by people who look teach like this:

It is awesome!
Comment by Andrew Dreasler on June 29, 2010 at 2:14pm
"The schools need to be taken back away from the teacher's union. Hortonville needs to be reversed. "

If I may cite Wikipedia's article on Hortonville:

""Teachers' strike

During the 1972-1974 school years, teachers belonging to the Hortonville Education Association went on strike against the Hortonville School District. Strikes by teachers were illegal under state law. The strike received national attention as the 84 striking teachers were replaced by strikebreakers and classes resumed. Teachers from around the state joined the picket lines.

The case went to the United States Supreme Court. The union claimed that the disciplinary hearings held by the Hortonville Board of Education were prejudiced because of the board's role as the bargaining unit for the district. In a 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the court found the board had the power to discipline the teachers. Until 2003, when teachers in the Hortonville district were admitted to a national union, a non-affiliated local union, Hortonville Association of Teachers (HAT), was the bargaining association.[11] They are now affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.""

It looks like that court case went AGAINST the unions, not FOR them.
Comment by Andrew Dreasler on June 29, 2010 at 12:07pm
A true 'free market system' for schools would probably run afoul of a lot of legislature in Illinois, since the public school system here is based on, frankly, 'Mob tactics.' The District you live in (can I call them 'Wards' instead of 'Districts,' that's the term we use in Chicago).. As I was saying, the Ward you live in determines which public school is available for you to send your kids to, and which school gets its funding from your tax money. If you wish to send your kids to a private school, at your own cost, that's fine by the Chicago Public School system ('CPS') since your taxes go to fund the CPS school in your ward, whether you send your kids there or not, and whether or not you even have kids. The CPS schools, on the other side of the equation, receive funding based on the size of the 'student population' enrolled at that school and the amount of property taxes collected in that Ward. so the CPS schools in the 'rich wards' do not get much because they have a low student population (the residents with kids send them to private schools generally, due to the 'poor reputation' of the education you get from a CPS school), and the CPS schools in the 'poor wards' do not get much because there is little collected in property taxes in that ward, despite having a high student population.

The 'excess' money from the Property tax-based funding of the CPS schools 'spills over' into the General Fund, so there is little incentive for 'Hizzona, Da Maya' to 'fix' the system, Anything he did to fix the CPS system would mean less money for the 'City Beautification' projects that tend to get awarded to companies who have proven themselves to be 'friends of Daley.'

(Sorry for the political tirade, it's hard to discuss anything about how Chicago works without getting into the politics and corruption.)
Comment by Alan Pitas on June 29, 2010 at 11:26am
As Andrew points out, "creating demand for quality schools through the free market system" and "school choice vouchers" are not the same thing. In Wisconsin school choice means you can switch public districts if you want. My brother's son is doing that to good effect. In reading Tim's link I was struck by the fact that the child's public school had no art class. Perhaps, if the federal funds used for the voucher had been available to the public school, she could have had an art class. But then again, they may have just disappeared into an administrator's salary.
Comment by Andrew Dreasler on June 29, 2010 at 11:01am
That concept of 'School Choice' came up in Chicago a few years back, in the form of 'school vouchers' parents could get to send their kid to a private school if the public school in their district was scoring too poorly on the 'No Child Left Behind' rankings. The concept of vouchers was killed pretty quickly by the teachers unions and 'parent groups' on the grounds that it A) punished the schools that needed help by taking their federal funds away and giving it to a private school, B) violated the rule of Separation of Church and State if the vouchers were used in a Parochial school, and C) only covered part of the private school tuition, leaving parents scrambling to get the money for the kids' education from 'an already strained budget.'

With the badly Gerymandered districts in Chicago, the general consensus would be that the 'Wealthy Neighborhood' parents would get an effective tax break out of it, 'reclaiming' a portion of their property taxes tuition vouchers that they didn't need, since their kids were already in private schools. ("No, wait, they were transferred to the public school, and kept there just long enough to qualify for the vouchers before being transferred back to the private school they were enrolled in before.") The 'class struggles' between 'Rich Downtowners,' 'Middle-class North Siders' and 'Poor South-Siders.' pretty much keep most of the social progress in the city to a minimum. And the geographic distinctions are largely ceremonial, you get a mixing of classes in every district, depending on where the border lines are drawn this week.
Comment by Alan Pitas on June 29, 2010 at 10:56am
When I say a parent needs to walk the walk, I'm think of two issues:

First, choose where you live by the quality of the schools. This may be a inconvenient. It will certainly restrict where you can work. It will probably mean higher taxes. If your childs education really matters then you will make these sacrifices. If you haven't found a good public school system then you haven't looked. In the year before my first child started kindergarten I had three offers in Europe, one offer in Hawaii, and two offers in Boston. I turned them all down to move back to Wisconsin and look for job because the educational systems here are, for the most part, excellent.

Two, put time into your child's education. This means PTA/PTO, volunteering at school, attending school board meetings, chaperoning field trips. Every district has great teachers and zombies waiting for retirement. If you aren't in the building working with the staff you won't have a clue. Also, the idea that a child is sent off to do home work is just as much an abdication as leaving the TV on. Until a child has developed the habits of self-directed study, having the parent present is important in molding behavior. Nothing tells a 6 year old that studying is important as much as having a parent sitting beside them while they work.

Home schooling is one way to show that you're committed to your child's education. The draw back comes in the high school years. My children benefitted greatly by the passion their teachers brought to their subjects. The biology teacher taking classes to Panama in the summer to visit the rainforst. The physics teacher arranging for the class to spend a week working at a nuclear reactor. The shop teacher arranging for my daughter to weld aluminum after she'd gotten proficient with steel. The English teacher knowing which books would interest my son. Books I'd never thought to suggest. No two people can bring that much expertise and emotion to the full range of subjects required to educate a child.
Comment by Tim Ganstrom on June 29, 2010 at 10:35am
I think solutions are two fold: 1) You are already modeling the first solution: Parents and Grandparents taking primary responsibility to model life-long learning skills in such a way that the children pick up on it. Monkey see... monkey do. That means longer than 5 minutes a day of quality time with parents and children. Take responsibility for your child's future success back from the government schools. They were set up to create robots not free thinkers.

2) Vote for any legislation that encourages 'school choice' for tax-payers. Every time a parent have been able to create demand for quality education through the free-market system, the children have had measurably positive results... every time. (see link below.)

That's my thoughts..


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