Why learning should be less fun

In his speech addressing the nation today, President Obama mentioned, once again, the well-known fact that that the math and science scores of U.S. students lag behind the students of many other industrialized countries, including China, Finland, and Singapore.  The weak scores have long been the worry for American educators.  They are partly what the Race to the Top funding is supposed to address.

So far, many prominent voices in education have assumed that the reason for the lag is some essential problem with American schools. Some, such as the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, point to the lack of “good math and science teachers” and calls for higher teacher salaries to attract more and better teachers in those areas.  Others, like Paul Peterson at Education Next , believe that technological innovation “is our best and final hope for saving high-quality math and science education.”  Peterson hopes that online education could compete with traditional models of teaching and educate better students.

But few people seem to be asking a rather obvious question: if U.S. students are lagging behind other countries, how do these other countries teach their children?  Do China, Finland, Estonia, Sinagpore, Japan, etc. have more talented teachers?  Do they have more effective teaching methods arrived at via a more decentralized teaching market?

In future posts, I would like to explore the school systems of these other countries. But this post will be a more personal one.  Having experienced one of these other education systems first-hand, I can tell you that neither of those propositions was true.

I went to an elementary school on the outskirts of Beijing that was considered very mediocre.  Some of my teachers were compassionate and interesting.  Most failed to make an impression on me.  A couple were downright horrible.  Corporal punishment was normal behavior.  So was verbal denigration of students.

School was not fun.  Hours were long — in elementary school we arrived in class around 8:30 am and usually stayed until 6 or 7 pm (with a 1.5 hour break for lunch in between).  High school hours were even longer. We went to school 6 days a week, and usually had a couple of hours of homework each day, which mostly consisted of math and verbal drills and problem sets. I did not like school very much.

And yet… I learned.  Lots and lots of math and science.  By 7th grade my classmates and I were solving complex quadratic equations with multiple variables.  By 7th grade, we were learning biology, chemistry, and physics, all in the same year.  All 3 science courses were mandatory courses to be taken concurrently for the six years of middle and high school.

So imagine my surprise when I came to the States and discovered that children in 7th grade were still reviewing how to add and subtract fractions.  Imagine my surprise to learn that students only enrolled in one science class each grade, alternating among biology, physics, and chemistry, that school let out at 2:30, that homework was nearly nonexistent.

Needless to say, for the next three or four year or so, I sailed through my math and science classes with excellent grades.  My Chinese education, as much as I disliked it at the time, gave someone like me, by no means a math or science genius, a huge boost.  This is something that many immigrant children I know experienced.

Why did the Chinese school teach me so much more?  Did I learn because I loved school, because my teachers were fascinating, because I had tools unavailable to my American peers?  No, no, and no.  I learned because of the excruciatingly long hours, the constant drills, the obviously high expectations, the pressures from the teachers and from my own parents.

School in China was not expected to be fun, and no one pretended that it was.  Learning certain subjects, especially math and science, was work.  Work that was sometimes grueling.  Work that required discipline, just like learning a musical instrument or becoming good at a sport.

Some children find such discipline easy.  Those children are often high achievers from a very young age.  But for most, including me, discipline was difficult and required external motivation.  It sometimes required fear, including fear of being punished.  As a whole, my Chinese school, for all its shortcomings, was very effective at instilling this discipline.

Even for someone as young as me, it was clear that the emphasis of my American public schools was not on discipline.  It was on something like “creativity,” or “individuality.”  Much of it was focused on “fun.”  This was reflected in the short hours of school, in the light volume of homework, on the long summers, on the gentle and easy-going way in which teacher treated us, on such filler classes such as “study hall.”

No doubt, certain students thrive in the more fluid and flexible American system, which allows for those at the top to develop their talent more spectacularly than the stratified Chinese system could ever allow.  Time spent outside of school could be used to accomplish some amazing things, just take a look at the spectacular entries each year for the Westinghouse competition.  But as a society, our concerns are not merely with the success of the top students, but also the average students whose lagging scores trouble us so much.

Do I believe that American schools should adopt all of the tactics of my Chinese school?  Not at all.  Even the Chinese schools themselves have reformed and eliminated many of the harsh authoritarian measures.  But I do believe that to improve the math and science scores, American schools do not necessarily need better teachers or more innovative methods.  It needs more of a culture of discipline.  It needs, for instance, longer school days, and more teacher authority.

Most of all, it needs the realization, from students, parents, teachers, and administrators, that mastering basic academic skills, just like athletic drills or music practice, is often not fun.  Perhaps we put too much emphasis on looking for ways to make it so.  Perhaps we should instead look for ways to effectively teach our students the discipline they need to learn.

Related post: Longer and more school days


An Amendment divided against itself

Can't they teach?

Oregon may be changing its laws regarding a teacher’s right to wear religious clothing in school. This got me thinking about the tension between two Clauses that deal with religion in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits federal and state governments from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”  It has been used in “separation of church and state” cases such as prohibiting prominent religious displays on public property.  The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, on the other hand, enjoins Congress and state governments from making laws “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

The requirements of the two Clauses thus pose a dilemma for teachers, who are state employees.  Can a religious teacher freely fulfill her religious duty by donning religious attire while on the job?

I am genuinely conflicted on this question.  On the one hand, Oregon’s blanket ban — which prohibits teachers from displaying any type of religious symbol, large or small —  seems too extreme and likely to have undesirable effects.  It is difficult to see why a teacher should not wear a cross or a star of David on her neck or a kippah on his head.  And so what, if she shows up to class in a burqa?  In this day and age, wouldn’t it simply be a lesson in tolerance and respect for her students?

I strongly suspect that such a ban discourages Muslim, orthodox Jews, and devout Christians from applying for teaching positions.  Alas, this may very well have been the original intention of the ban.

But on the other hand, the ban is rooted in the psychologically astute observation that teachers are authority figures, charged with molding young minds.  The ban expresses a concern that when a teacher displays her religious preference, or her preference for religion over non-religion, it would be viewed as an expression of not just private preference, but a preference by the state.

The ban also implicitly endorses an idea that the Establishment Clause seems to endorse: that religion is a private matter that belongs in the private sphere, undisturbed by the powers of the State, but that public spaces, such as schools, should be left secular and neutral.

France, which bans all displays of religious symbols in its schools for students as well as teachers, is one prominent supporter of this idea.  The French idea of laicite, which promotes secularism in civil society and governmental affairs, is strikingly similar to the American idea of the separation of church and state.

The problem, of course, is that the ideas of laicite and the separation of church and state both overlook religion’s tendency to obliterate the boundaries of the private and the public.  A religious command is usually a total command that has no regard for whether the person is acting as a state employee or as a private person.  This is partly what makes religion potentially problematic for civil society.  But it also means that any pretense for “neutrality” in the public space is really a triumph of secularism over religion.  The neutrality necessarily imposes limits and burdens on the rights to “freely exercise” religion, which may violate our constitutional commitment to freedom of religion.

So which of the Clauses should win?  I am leaning towards freedom over neutrality, for now.  It seems that what we are really worried about is not religious clothing and symbols, but a teacher using his position of authority to actively  promote his religious viewpoint.  The total ban seems overly broad, and we should fashion better regulation to deal with the real problem.

What do you think, dear readers?  Please voice your opinion by voting in the poll below.  I would love to hear your comments as well.

The rehabilitative powers of education: a matter of faith?

My previous post discussed the issue of providing education services to juvenile offenders in prison who are serving life sentences. But the case of Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, which were argued before the Supreme Court on Monday, raised broader questions as well: to what extent do we believe in the transformative and rehabilitative powers of education? Are certain young people in our society absolutely beyond repair? Do we have a duty to try to rehabilitate before we punish for life?

The state of Florida argued that the purpose of these life without parole sentences is purely to punish and to deter. But even the government conceded on Monday that sociological data suggests that, due to a difference in brain chemistry, the deterrence effect for juveniles will be much smaller than for adults.  The Supreme Court first suggested in the case of Thompson v. Oklahoma, for example, that offenders under 16-years-old do not consider the consequence of death sentence for homicides. The Court then visited the same theme in subsequent cases dealing with juvenile death penalty.  Case law and a host of solid research findings therefore make the deterrence argument much less forceful.

As to punishment, the same arguments about brain development and chemistry call into question of whether youth offenders are as morally culpable — and therefore deserving of a harsh punishment — as adult offenders.

More importantly, I think few would argue that the underlying premise to both the punishment and deterrence rationales is that the youth offenders are basically beyond rehabilitation, and therefore nothing less than lifetime containment would work to protect society against them.  If we knew that these youthful transgressions — horrendous transgressions, to be sure — would never recur, that the offenders themselves would grow up and change and become better people, would we still be so eager to lock them away for life?

This is why a group of educators submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the youths. The brief argues that

sentencing children to die in prison for non-homicide offenses senselessly ignores children’s capacity for growth and rehabilitation so early in their lives, wrongly treating those adolescents as irretrievably depraved.

The question is, at its core, an empirical one. The amicus brief therefore cites a host of studies and statistics about adolescent brain development, the susceptibility of children to negative influences, and the success of charter schools and innovative learning strategies in helping at-risk youths. Despite a lot of scientific-sounding conclusions and citations, however, the brief was a bit low on concrete numbers and figures, relying instead on more generalized and qualitative arguments.

This is partly because the empirical data we have today about the success of rehabilitation is still inconclusive and debatable, and it will be for years to come.  The moral conclusions we can draw from these data is even more of a matter for debate.

This means that whether education can indeed be an effective rehabilitation tool can’t help but be a question of faith. Those who have faith in humanity’s ability to change and grow are bound to also have faith in the transformative power of education, and those who are more cynical of humanity’s ability to change would be more skeptical of the need for education as well.

When the justices decide the question of whether life without parole for juvenile offenders who did not kill necessarily violates the 8th Amendment, they will be passing judgment on the transformative powers of education as well. Do they have faith?

Related post: Should they learn?

Should they learn?

Joe Sullivan

Should he learn?

The Supreme Court heard two cases today concerning life sentence without parole for juveniles.  In Graham v. Florida, a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to life without parole for his participation in a home invasion robbery.  In Sullivan v. Florida, a 13-year-old boy was sentenced similarly for brutally beating and raping a 72-year-old woman.

Although both cases focused on whether locking up juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes for life is cruel and unusual under the 8th Amendment, the cases also have a surprising educational dimension: the appellants argue that such punishment is cruel and unusual partly because juvenile inmates serving life sentences without parole do not receive educational and vocational services in prison.

The rationale for the policy is that these inmates do not need training to help them transition back into society since they will never be released.  Justice Ginsburg appared to be troubled by this policy today when she questioned Graham’s attorney about educational opportunities for juveniles in prison.

Graham’s attorney answered that, in general, those serving life without parole have no access to educational services.  “That’s what makes the sentence so particularly cruel, to give up on a kid at that point in his life,” he said.

Does the fact that a 13-year-old boy will not receive any further education because he was put away for life trouble you?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  The answer reveals our deeply-held beliefs about what education is.  It depends on whether you think education is a means to an end — and therefore meaningless without a concrete purpose — or whether you believe that education is a basic right.

38 states currently have laws allowing juvenile offenders to receive a sentence life without parole, but is unclear how many states provide educational services to these inmates.  (Florida does not.) It’s difficult to glean, based on the rest of our educational policy, our attitude about prison education (for those who will never get out).

A recurrent theme in this blog is that our societal notion of what education is (as reflected in our laws, policies, and rhetoric) is often self-contradictory.  On the one hand, we make primary and secondary education universal, mandatory, and free, which makes the access to education — up to a certain grade level, at least — take on the shape and tenor of a basic right.

On the other hand, our courts have ruled that it is not unconstitutional to have wide disparities in the way localities finance the public schools, and that it is not a violation of equal protection principles when one public school spends $5000 per year on a child while another spends $15,000.  This approach makes education seem more like a non-essential commodity and not a basic right.

If education is a non-essential commodity, then there is nothing legally or morally troubling about performing exactly the type of cost-benefit analysis that many of our prisons are surely performing — and denying juvenile inmates access to educational services.  The prison has no duty to furnish inmates with this or other types of services that people can purchase when they are not in prison when there is little benefit to society.

But if education is a basic right and not just another commodity, then denying juvenile offenders these services is like denying food, water, shelter, or medication. Inmates would have a right to it regardless of whether receiving them would benefit the rest of society, or whether the benefits outweighs the costs.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that I belong to the latter camp.  I hold the strong belief that even if the youth offenders would never need the practical skills to survive in society, they should be not forced to be stuck at an understanding of the world at the age of 13 or 15 or 17.  They should not be denied the opportunity to broaden their perspective of the world and of themselves, and to experience their humanity on a deeper level.

Ultimately, the question may be moot if the Supreme Court finds that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional.  Whether education is a basic right that is denied in prison may be one consideration in such a decision, or it might not.  But where we stand in the meanwhile reveals our beliefs about what education is and what it is good for.

Related post: The rehabilitative powers of education: a matter of faith?

Pushing the limit of “deliberate indifference”

LonelyBoyWhen is a school liable for student-on-student bullying? The standard laid down by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education is whether the school has shown “deliberate indifference.” In Davis, the Court held that a school is liable for damages if it failed to respond to known acts of severe student-on-student harassment, thereby creating an environment that denies the victim equal access to education.

The Supreme Court justified the doctrine of deliberate indifference by referring to the doctrine of in loco parentis, noting that the school has “substantial control over the context in which the harassment occurs,” and that “the nature of the State’s power over schoolchildren is custodial and tutelary, permitting a degree of supervision and control that could not be exercised over free adults.” As my post on in loco parentis noted, the power of the school to exercise control over its students comes with a duty to ensure safety, health, and an effective learning environment.

The school officials in Davis were obviously “deliberately indifferent” because they totally failed to respond to a female student’s complaint of sexual harassment by another student. But in reality, deference to the judgment and discretion of school officials has meant that in cases where school officials addressed the student complaint, courts are unlikely to question the adequacy of that response and find deliberate indifference.

But recently, a case has pushed the boundaries of what “deliberate indifference” means. [Full disclosure: I worked on the case briefly and tangentially last year.] Like other cases that involve bullying, the case of Patterson v. Hudson Area Schools is a disturbing and sad one. For three years, the plaintiff DP’s life in school was a nightmare. Beginning in 2002, while he was in 6th grade, classmates began taunting him, calling him “faggot” and “queer” and pushing him into lockers. DP reported some of the incidents and began psychiatric counseling, but the taunting escalated in 7th grade. DP’s grades suffered, and he became withdrawn and depressed.

Things briefly improved in 8th grade with the help of a compassionate special-education teacher, but worsened again in 9th grade, after DP began high school and no longer had access to the teacher. The harassment of DP escalated again. In addition to name-calling, students wrote insulting phrases about DP on note cards and showed them during a presentation in class, defaced DP’s planner with sexual phrases and drawings, and vandalized his school locker. Some students also broke into DP’s gym locker, removed his clothes and urinated on them, then threw his shoes into the toilet.

The school punished each of the identified students responsible for the harassment. The individual harassers who were punished never bothered DP again. But some harassers, such as those who defaced DP’s lockers on the two occasions,were never identified. In the meanwhile, the harassment continued, and finally culminated in a sexual assault by a student against DP in May, 2005. DP’s attacker was suspended and ultimately expelled permanently from the school system.

After the attack, DP refused to set foot in his high school again. His school allowed him to receive instruction off the school grounds in another building, and later to attend college courses to satisfy his high school requirements. DP graduated high school early. In 2005, his parents filed suit against the school district.

DP’s parents alleged that the school violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by showing “deliberate indifference” to DP’s reported harassment complaints. The question came down to whether the school’s responses were reasonable under the circumstances as a matter of law. The school argued that it had punished each of the identifiable perpetuators who harassed DP, and that the punishment was effective at least as to the individual harassers. The school also pointed to its attempts to help DP by providing him with counseling, one-on-one meetings with the principal, a special-education teacher, and extensive accommodations after his sexual assault.

The district court agreed with the school’s argument and granted summary judgment against DP’s parents. But the Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the school’s response to the pattern of harassment was not reasonable. The court reasoned that, although the school effectively punished individual perpetuators, the real problem that DP faced was not any isolated incident but a pattern of pervasive and persistent harassment and an environment of hostility. When it became clear that the standard responses were not working to stem the harassment, the school had a duty to do more.

Here, the opinion was treading on thin ice. Unlike in Davis, the Hudson Area Schools officials did not sit idly by while a student was being harassed. They tried to help him, but their efforts failed. There simply isn’t a lot of case law that supported the contention that what the district did here was inadequate or unreasonable. The majority opinion cited an out-of-circuit district court case extensively, a fact that was ridiculed by the dissent. The majority was also silent on the obvious question of what else could the school administrators have done.

Patterson represents the broadest interpretation of “deliberate indifference” that a circuit court has made to date. Last week, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to the case, which means that the Sixth Circuit decision stands, at least for now.

Yet, despite all that is unsatisfying about the case, I believe that Patterson is a positive development. First, the case makes sense doctrinally, even if it goes beyond what “deliberate indifference” has been interpreted to mean in other school cases and in other contexts, such as employment law. The decision tracks the trend of expansion of school powers into many areas of student life, not the least of which are rights involving free speech and search-and-seizure. With the broadening of school authority and the increase in the school’s ability to control its students should come a corresponding broadening of the school’s responsibilities. As I discussed above, the Davis Court itself has linked its justification for the doctrine of deliberate indifference with the control that a school exercises over the school environment. DP loses a lot of rights when he walks into that schoolhouse. In exchange, he should receive a lot more protection.

Second, and more important, this ruling, if it is followed, will encourage school officials to look beyond rote and often ineffective responses to bullying to look for more creative and effective solutions. As DP’s case illustrates, bullying is a devastating phenomenon with complex social and psychological roots. School officials should not be automatically shielded from liability just by resorting to solutions that have been shown to be ineffective. DP deserves educators who are actually not “deliberately indifferent.”