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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 09/24/2010

Turning schools into robot factories

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Joanne Yatvin, a longtime public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin
I never miss reading the newspaper comics. Not for entertainment, but because I think their creators are some of the most intelligent and well-informed people on the public scene. As a group, they have mastered the subtleties of language, politics, philosophy, and human behavior.

Right about now I am struck by how many comics are dealing with the beginning of the school year and how uniform their messages are: Children aren’t happy about going back to school.
This is not good-natured humor. It reflects pretty accurately the feelings I hear expressed by my grandchildren and the other children I meet.

Although the excitement of new clothes and school supplies seems to soften the blow, the thought of being confined all day to over-crowded classrooms and hard seats and allowed to speak only after raising one’s hand is not a pretty prospect. Unfortunately, this picture gets uglier every year as demands for more and harder work increase, and the old respites of recess, art, music, and physical education disappear. By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but not children.

As a teacher educator and educational researcher, I have been visiting classrooms for years, and, for the most part, I don’t like what I see. Many of the once excellent teachers I know have been reduced to automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills, and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curriculum has become something teachers "deliver" like a pizza and students "swallow" whole, whether or not they like mushrooms.

Kindergartens that used to be places for children to learn social behavior, songs, dances, and poetry; how to build cities with blocks, play store, and express feelings with crayons and paint, are now cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one kindergarten I visited last year, children recited all the words in their little books without ever recognizing that they were part of a story.

In a first-grade classroom, I watched children march in circles at mid-morning, waving their arms because there was no longer a recess to refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus everyday and to memorize the words "onomatopoeia" and "metaphor."

In the upper elementary grades I saw both English and math taught by formulas. Students were given a list of the parts of a standard essay, told to use them in order and to begin with a question or a surprising statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful whenever you want to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle).

Many school districts have also adopted summer homework policies, usually requiring students to read a prescribed list of books. This past summer my grandnephew, who is entering 9th grade, had to write a legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther, although he had not been taught anything about that writing form or that famous man in 8th grade.

With the new Common Core Standards, created by experts who will never be tested on them, school life will grow even more onerous.

Algebra has been moved down to the 8th grade, and geometry, always a tenth grade elective, is now required of all ninth graders. Wordsworth’s "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads," which I read as a graduate student, is on the 9th grade recommended reading list. Although, the knowledge, skills, and books in the standards are, on the whole, academically valid, they are scheduled to be taught to students two to four years too young to understand or appreciate them.

All this has happened because the politicians who now control America’s schools have adopted the worst aspects of European and Asian education, which were designed to maintain social class boundaries in those societies.

Out of a misguided belief that students’ test scores represent a country’s economic health and, perhaps, out of wounded pride; our leaders appear determined to convert our once great public schools into robot factories and to extinguish the brilliance and imagination that have fueled our country’s greatness for more than 200 years.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 24, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Elementary School, Learning  | Tags:  joanne yatvin, school reform  
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"cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers."

You have a low opinion of children, most of whom think it's cool to figure out letters and numbers and are rightly proud when they start to be able to decipher words.

"They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful whenever you want to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle)."

How did a pro-ignorance person such as you ever get into education? Oh the horror of having to read Wordsworth!! Give the kids "Goosebumps" books, something more on their level.

Posted by: educationobserver | September 24, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Wordsworth...meh. But the Pythagorean theorem is a thing of beauty, and one of the most used formulas I can think of! And I just divided by a fraction the other day! WaPo, I demand a retraction!

Honestly, the sooner kids *understand* (not learn) math concepts, and the relations between them, the better off they'll be.

Posted by: tomsing | September 24, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Robots are cool.

Robots that can discourse on Martin Luther's attacks on simony, indulgences, and opulence are even cooler.

Posted by: gardyloo | September 24, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

The author left off the heavy back packs and the tons of idiotic homework that is given out in primary school.

Plenty of standardized tests that students fail, but no students forced to repeat a grade.

In many cases teachers can not give out reading assignments as homework since this would be unfair since it is accepted that so many students can not read.

The problem is not robots but simply that the public schools have been reduced to teaching to the lowest level.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 24, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

You also lost me on the math stuff. Is "flip and multiply" really something you think is above 5th grade level? Or something you don't actually use all the time?

Posted by: someguy100 | September 24, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

OK, conspiracy theory!
or, - Prequel to "Matrix"

Our "powers that be" (Bill Gates & co?) are instigating reforms that treat teachers and students like robots because the real plan is to eventually do away with a lot of people - there will be no jobs so people will stop having kids, and languish in dullness - to usher in a society populated with REAL robots. Until we get the real robots up and running via the non-stop technology train, we need to train teachers and kids to behave like robots so that they will be of a mindset to quietly accept the new regime.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 24, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

One point missed: Scripted teaching is ideal for the inexperienced TFA cultists that are being pushed on poor school districts. But again, we, apparently, don't want or expect poor kids to become creative, rational, critical thinkers like rich kids, so we provide only the barest semblance of an education , while strictly enforcing conformity to the social norms chosen by and for corporate America, just as the BIA did to the native people 100 years ago and just as the British did to their colonial subjects.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 24, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

From the article:

"By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but not children."

Does this mean that adults don't get children during their workday?

Should be, "By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but children do not."

This sloppy writing mirrors the sloppy thinking in this piece.

Posted by: gardyloo | September 24, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

The question is not whether there should be scripted instruction, memorization, distributed practice, and mastery of procedural skills in K-12 schools. Of course there should be; some things are much more efficiently learned that way. And those things are not trivial or pointless, as the commenters above noted about manipulating fractions and learning pre-reading skills. Let's add: learning to play a musical instrument, developing an understanding of the atomic elements, getting a grip on world geography, memorizing a challenging part in a play. The real questions are: when, under what circumstances, to what end, and embedded in what type of a curriculum.

Posted by: jane100000 | September 24, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

The author demonstrates what is wrong with education with this statement:

They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing

A kid who can't divide by 2/3 can't divide by x/y when it comes to manipulating an algebraic equation. This is why our kids are so unprepared to deal with subjects like physics in high school and any math in college.

People like the author think of themselves as experts in teaching "in general" and then interject their ignorance into subject areas beyond their understanding.

THe schools that should be closing ARE EDUCATION SCHOOLS, such as the one employing the author.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 24, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I can see the need to occasionally divide by fractions--for example, if you are cooking for yourself, you find yourself trying to divide 2/3 of a cup in half frequently (or converting it into ounces and then dividing). But physicsteacher lost me by arguing that that knowledge is necessary so they know how to divide by x/y when manipulating an algebraic fraction. I have never seen any practical use for either algebra or geometry. The only example any teacher ever gave was using a parabola to align headlights--and the class promptly informed her that the days of do-it-yourself auto repairs were fast disappearing and the only people who needed to understand that are the few people who design the machines that mechanics use to do this, and they could learn it when the encountered the need in college. There may be other uses for algebraic equations, but in more than 40 years since taking algebra, I've never encountered them.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 25, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

@sideswiththekids You are essentially arguing that no one should take algebra, calculus, physics, chemistry, etc. We may as well become a nation of fry makers and Walmart employees.

Arithmetic operations are the road to algebraic operations. Algebra is the road to calculus, as well as an essential tool for the physical sciences. That YOU'VE never used it is beside the point.

The "master educators" out there live in a fantasy world in which kids never learn arithmetic and simply jump to "higher thinking" and go on to design the new generation of space shuttles. Right.

The author doesn't get math, and yet pretends to know what kids need to know. It's the divorce of "teaching" from content that is ruining our schools.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 25, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I'm not arguing that no one should take algebra or calculus. But to justify teaching fractions by saying you need it for algebra and you need algebra for calculus and you need calculus to go into the physical scientists is an ineffective argument. It reminds me of Winston Churchill's account of his entrance examination for his first prep school. He had satisfactorily memorized a meaningless (to him) Latin conjugation and was bold enough to ask what it meant. Told it was the form he would use in adressing a table, he responded, "But I never do, sir!"

I actually took two years of algebra and one of geometry--but I took them because my guidance counselor and the college catalog said I needed them to get into college. In those three years, the only practical use I was told any of that had, unless one wanted to go into a physical science, was the use of a parabola to perform a task no one in the class had any intention of ever doing. (I also trained a store clerk once who couldn't figure percentages. He said his elementary teacher used batting averages to teach percentages, and since he didn't like baseball, he never bothered to learn them well. When he discovered percentages were also used in business, like figuring sales tax, he said he was going to get his little brother to teach him that night!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 25, 2010 11:32 PM | Report abuse

I'm saying that kids who can't manipulate fractions aren't going to learn algebra. What's ineffective about this argument? Your comparison to Churchill is a non sequitur.

There is no way that Churchill's Latin teacher could have known whether Winston would one day need Latin. It was simply the Latin teacher's job to teach Latin PROPERLY. Likewise, your math teachers could not have known whether you would one day need math (and neither did you); it was their job to teach math PROPERLY. This is what's not happening leaving kids who WILL use algebra unprepared.

The infuriating thing is that the people who make decisions on how our children are taught are often subject matter ignorant and real world ignorant.

Posted by: physicsteacher | September 26, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

There are bad teachers, just like there are bad businessmen, bad lawyers, bad doctors,etc. But there are also GREAT teachers that do an amazing job every day. When looking at the failing education system we need to look at the whole picture rather than just placing all of the blame on teachers. What about the policymakers that determine the funding for schools? As a classroom teacher I spend, on the average, $1000-1500 personally per year so my students have the supplies necessary and it is not reimbursed by my school. Teachers are being laid off creating larger class sizes that make it difficult for one teacher to be effective with so many at a time. Textbook adoptions are being postponed because there isn't enough money in the budget. So many schools cannot afford the new technology to teach with such as computers, Smartboards, multimedia projectors, etc. which puts them farther behind those who had the opportunity to learn with new, innovative technology. What about those who determine the academic expectations per grade level as well as creating the standardized tests? I am all for setting high expectations for my students. I taught kindergarten and they all were reading and writing sentences by the end of the school year. However, so much emphasis is placed on standardized test scores that teachers are being forced to do away with the lessons that inspire creativity and imagination for pencil and paper and lecture based instruction in order to prepare students to be successful on "the test." If students aren't learning a specific concept, it shouldn't be pushed down to the lower grade but rather looked at whether it is age-appropriate. What about all the other assessments given throughout the school year? Has anyone considered looking at those? What if the child has test anxiety? What about an undiagnosed learning disability? What if the child has had stress at home? None of these factors are considered when looking at the results. Speaking of home...when are the parents going to be held accountable for how their children are performing at school? Teachers cannot control what happens at home. Parents that have had bad experiences with school often pass the negative attitude along to their children. Not all children are read to every night. Not all children come to school with a good nights sleep or something nutritious to eat. A lot of factors that happen outside the school contribute to the successes or failures that occur within. Teaching is a profession. Teachers need to start being treated as such. You wouldn't tell a doctor how to diagnose your symptoms or a lawyer how to defend your case. Why are teachers being told how to teach by so many that have never been inside a classroom to see what exactly happenes within the day? We, as a society, need to stop blaming each other and take a look at how we, as individuals, are making a difference. It really does take a village.

Posted by: teachone4all | September 26, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

To educationobserver and others like him or her who think that what the writer described is OK because kids "think it's cool to figure out letters and numbers and are rightly proud when they start to be able to decipher words", should be forgiven for their harmful opinion as it is very likely the result of not having experienced a joyful and nurturing childhood with quality learning themselves.

In my years as an active education advocate it always surprised me that some parents felt harmful practices for their kids were OK, because it had not hurt thems when they themselves were young. But clearly, it had a lasting effect as they were never able to change their bias and remained blind to all the research that proved them wrong. It shows anger and disregard toward children.

I witnessed K grades just as described and what's happening to such young children is simply abusive. That's not my opinion, but the evidence from brain research. Find studies done by Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play.

Posted by: gpadvocate | September 28, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

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