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


Duly noted: Nov 30 – Dec 6, 2009

  • Micro-financing of student loans in the developing world is the hot new trend in education and international development.  Vittana Foundation, which provides loans to would-be students in the developing world, has an innovative model of philanthropy.  Loans are given directly by visitors to the website and sent to particular students that the lenders choose.  The loan — sometimes as little as $25 — are repaid to the lenders when the student completes the education and finds a job.
  • Citing drastic drops in endowment, Harvard Law School suspends the Public Service Initiative, a new and much-touted financial aid program that gives third-year law students one year of free tuition in exchange for a five-year commitment of working in a public interest career.
  • The GRE is changing.  The test will be slightly lengthened (from 3 hours to 3.5 hours) and graded on a scale of 130 to 170.  Some industry experts say that Education Testing Service, the administrator of the GRE, is revamping the test to better market it as an alternative to the GMAT (administered by Pearson) to business schools.
  • The 5th Circuit upholds a school district’s restriction on student distribution of written materials to their classmates in Morgan v. Plano Independent School District. The court concluded that the restrictions are content-neutral and aimed at providing a focused learning environment.

Religious speech in school: religion or speech?

Thou shalt not preach.

My previous post discusses the tension between the Establishment Clause and the Free-Exercise Clause in the First Amendment.  In the school context, much of the tension centers on what public school educators can or cannot do.  But a couple of recent cases involving religious speech demonstrate that the tension exists for students as well.

Unlike with teachers, who are state employees, student religious speech normally does not trigger the Establishment Clause concern that the state is endorsing an official religion.  Nonetheless, in recent years, controversies and lawsuits have sprung up around the country concerning whether schools may prevent students from reciting prayers, singing religious hymns, or offering other expressions of religion at school-sponsored events.  In nearly all of these cases, courts have upheld the powers of the schools to regulate student conduct. 

Some of the cases seem almost comically petty.  A Wisconsin student who planned to sing a hymn at graduation was told, for example, that she would have to use “he,” “him,” or “his,” instead of “God” in the lyrics.  A New Jersey school district banned religious music entirely at the school holiday concert, a decision challenged by parents but upheld by the 3rd circuit.

A pair of cases about graduation speeches have received a lot of media attention, and both were recently denied cert by the Supreme Court.  In McComb v. Crehan, a Las Vegas high school valedictorian sought to use her valedictory speech to discuss how her christian faith helped her to succeed in school.  The school nixed portions of her draft speech as “proselytizing.”  Brittany McComb decided to deliver the speech anyway, and the school turned off her microphone at graduation.  McComb then brought suit against the school district, alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights.

A district court in Nevada denied the school’s motion to dismiss the case based on the pleadings, essentially ruling that McComb could go forward on her suit.  But the 9th Circuit reversed and upheld the school’s actions.

In a similar case, Colorado valedictorian Erica Corder also veered from her prepared text into proselytization of her Christian faith.  She actually succeeded in delivering the entire speech.  But the school principal refused to grant her diploma until she wrote a letter acknowledging that the speech was her personal view.  Corder’s suit against the school district, therefore, dealt not only with unlawfully censored speech but also unlawfully compelled speech.  The suit has been similarly dismissed by the 10th Circuit.

Although the two circuit courts reached the same results, they rested their reasoning on different grounds: one primarily on religion, and the other primarily on speech.  This highlights a problem with student religious speech in school — should it be analyzed under the Establishment Clause rubric, or the Free Speech Clause?

In the 9th Circuit, the issue was analyzed as one of religion, perhaps in part because there is clear caselaw that students have no right to proselytize in a school-sponsored event.  Neither party disputed that the school officials had the power to control and censor student speech in such a setting.  The main issues were factual: whether the student speech was in fact proselytizing and whether the school official retained primary control over the graduation speech.

The 10th Circuit, however, did not have such clear precedents, and instead rested its ruling on an analysis of prior Supreme Court student free-speech cases.  In doing so, the 10th Circuit ruling nearly completely ignores the “religion” aspect of the case and treats the student’s religious speech as any other types of speech.

Although the 10th Circuit arrives at the same conclusion as the 9th Circuit, such an approach has its risks. Student speech cases typically rely on a kind of in loco parentis authority that the school has to regulate behavior of the students in order to satisfy educational and disciplinary goals.  In its opinion, the 10th Circuit strained to explain what type of “educational” goals the school achieved by censoring religious speech.

The fact of the matter is, a school’s decision to censor religious speech is not the same as its decision to censor sexual, or lewd, or incendiary speech.  It should not rest on a discretionary judgment about the consequences of the speech, but should stem from a legitimate concern that such speech may be seen as endorsed by the school in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Thus, prohibiting this type of speech, at least in a school-sponsored event where schools retain primary control of the content, is not optional and a judgment call, it is constitutionally required.  Religious speech in school is not just speech, it is religion.

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.

Duly noted: Nov 23 – Nov 29, 2009

  • President Obama announced an initiative to promote and encourage math, science, and technology education, and asked corporations and non-profit organizations to help.  He also annouced an annual science fair at the White House.
  • Officials in Oregon said that teachers in Oregon are likely to win the right to wear religious clothing, such as yarmulkes, head scarves, and crosses in school when the legislature convene in February.  A 1923 law in Oregon currently prohibits teachers from expressing their religious beliefs in school.
  • Lincoln University, a historically black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania, believes that BMI is as important as GPA.  To graduate, students with a Body Mass Index of over 30 — the measurement for obesity — must take a class called “Fitness for Life” before they may graduate.  The policy, enacted in 2006, will keep two dozen students from graduating this spring.  Student reaction to the new policy has not been positive.
  • A guest column on the Quick and the Ed explains why student protests against the University of California tuition hike, though unlikely to be effective, are still desirable because they attract national media attention to the contentious issue and to student discontent.

Giving thanks for public education

Our public education system has been criticized for many things, but today, I want to pause to think about what a remarkable system it is.

This year, a record number of 49.8 million students will be attending about 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools.  Altogether, our public school systems employ 3.3 million teachers and spend $543 billion annually.  We have a teacher to student ration of 15.2 to 1, down from 16:1 from 10 years ago, and we are expected to spend $10,844 per student this year, up from $9,683 from two years ago.

Education is not the only business of the schools.  Students must be transported somehow from their homes to schools. In 2005-2006, 55.1% of students were transported at public expense, to the tune of $18.87 billion.  Students must eat lunch in school.  The National School Lunch Program, run by the Department of Agriculture, feeds more than 30.5 million children each school day with a total expenditure of $9.3 billion in 2008.

To be sure, the quality of our education system lags behind that of other developed nations.  Our schools suffer from grave problems of inequality and inefficiency.  Only 72% of our students in our public education system are deemed “on track” academically for their age and grade level.  Only 98% of our adults are literate, compared to 100% in other developed nations.

Nonetheless, we have come a long way.  The scale and complexity of our education system is breathtaking when you consider how young our nation is, and how differently we conceived of education merely two centuries ago.  At the founding of our nation, access to education was by and large only open to the wealthy and the nobility.  When Thomas Paine advocated free universal education, his idea was considered radical and unattainable.  Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Amendments mention school or education, and the power to regulate education was reserved for the states via the Tenth Amendment.

But sometime around mid-1800s, the idea took hold that the state should take responsibility in educating its citizenry.  By 1918, 150 short years after Paine advocated his “radical” idea, mandatory school attendance laws existed in all states.  By 1919, all states have laws providing for the transportation of children to schools.

Massachusetts bears special mentioning as a constant champion of public education. When it was still a colony, it established the first grammar school, and was also the first one among colonies to require every town that has at least 50 families to establish schools.  In 1827, it became the first state to require the establishment of a public high school open to all students in every town.  In 1852, it was the first state to enact laws that required school attendance.

The idea of public education is not a new one.  Plato’s Republic advocated compulsory education for all children in the polis so they could learn virtue and the state could sort them into different classes and professions.  The Aztecs, too, established mandatory schools for their male children where they received religious instructions and learned how to read and write.  Protestant clergymen advocated compulsory education to enable their congregation to read the Bible themselves.

But there is something new in the magnitude of the project that we have undertaken.  What is also new is our reasoning for why people should be educated.  Plato, the Aztecs, and Protestant clergymen wanted universal education because they saw education as a tool for the state or the church to instill desirable values into its students.  Their conception of education sometimes smacked disturbingly of brainwashing.  It is no surprise that communist countries were also zealous in establishing free and universal education for their children.

But we in a free and democratic society have no such narrow requirements for our students and no such strictly-defined goals of what schools ought to teach.  As a society, we provide this service to our children, not only because we believe that it would make them better citizens and more useful for our country.

We provide it because education and the chance to succeed should not be restricted to those with means to enjoy it, but be open for all who have the desire and the capacity.  We believe in a basic equality and the human potential to excel.  And yes, we also believe that when all children are given this opportunity, we will be a better society as a result.

Let us give thanks to our public schools.  Let us give thanks to our idea of public education.

The God problem with the Pledge of Allegiance

Freely choosing to pledge?

Ten-year-old Will Phillips refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance on the ground that we as a country still discriminate against gays and lesbians, and therefore do not have “freedom and justice for all.”  (See his adorable CNN interview here.)  Phillips did not mention this, but another portion of the Pledge of Allegiance seems far more problematic to me.  It is the portion that declares that the United States is “one nation, under God.”

The original Pledge did not include the phrase “under God.”  That phrase was officially added in 1954 by Congress and approved by Eisenhower after intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and several prominent clergymen.  Although the Supreme Court had ruled in 1943 in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that public school children could not be compelled to say the Pledge of Allegiance, the Court rested its ruling on the freedom of expression prong of the First Amendment (after all, the phrase “under God” was not yet incorporated into the Pledge in 1943).  The Barnette opinion also did not prohibit the Pledge from being said in public schools.  Therefore, the Pledge, even after the inclusion of the phrase “under God,” remained an “optional” part of most school children’s morning ritual.

As might be expected, the phrase has been the subject of much controversy, protest, and litigation.  In 2004, the Supreme Court heard a suit brought by Michael Newdow, an atheist and attorney who objected on behalf of his daughter to the inclusion of the phrase in the Pledge.  The 9th Circuit sided with Newdow and ruled that the phrase endorsed religion and therefore violated the Establishment Clause, but the Supreme Court dodged the issue by dismissing the case on a procedural ground.  Newdow, it found, had no standing to bring the suit because he was not a custodial parent of his daughter.

A new round of lawsuit is being brought in California, this time by three families who are represented by Newdow and who presumably do not have the standing problem.  A district court in California has ruled that the Pledge does violate the Constitution.  The case, styled Newdow v. Carey, was argued before the 9th Circuit in 2007 and is awaiting judgment.  (Hear the recording of the oral arguments here.)  Whatever the judgment, it is certain that the case will petition for certiorari.

Conservative members of Congress are concerned enough about the possibility that the Supreme Court would side with Newdow that a bill passed the House in 2005 that would strip the Supreme Court and most federal courts of jurisdiction to consider the issue.  The bill died when the Senate declined to take up the issue.

The supporters of the Pledge are in a curious position.  On the one hand, they argue that the voluntary recitation of the Pledge does not violate the Establishment Clause because the recitation is mainly a “patriotic exercise,” and that any mention of God is merely incidental and only raised for historical reasons.  (The attorney for the government, for example, argued at one point during oral argument that God is not a religious figure, to the puzzlement of Judge Reinhardt.)

But the ardent refusal by the school district to take the phrase out of the Pledge, and the anger and disdain expressed against Newdow and his supporters during the lawsuit (Newdow received quite a few death threats), belie the argument that any mention of God in the Pledge is merely incidental.  Most proponents of the inclusion of the phrase, unsurprisingly, take the belief that we are a nation “under God” quite seriously.

Finally, does the voluntariness of the recitation of the Pledge save its constitutionality? I think the reaction of some of Phillips’s classmates in the past week counters that argument quite nicely.  Is it coercive to begin each day by asking impressionable young children to stand up in a roomful of other children and declare their loyalty to the flag while also affirming that the nation is, in fact, “under God?”  How many times does Phillips have to be called ugly names to prove that, yes, it is?