Stephen Gottlieb: For A Better Education
A recent headline read, “Slow Common Core.” For quite a long time there has been a backlash against anything viewed as “too tough” for our kids. That is a tendency of living in a democracy. Anything tough for our kids is bad but at the same time they have to get a fabulous education that will equip them for life’s challenges. So the solution is teachers who can make everyone learn painlessly. And therefore, if anything goes wrong it’s the teacher’s fault, not the student’s.
I’m sometimes sympathetic to the students. Just as it can be too easy to blame teachers, it can also be too easy to blame students. I’ve known many people who were discouraged by their teachers and succeeded in life only by their determination to prove their teachers wrong. That was actually true of my dad. And I know that I did well when teachers encouraged me and relatively poorly when they discouraged me.
Some in our society would say that you can succeed if you try, implying that the rest are worthless. But that’s not even close to true. Many of us have valuable qualities even if we don’t have that enormous drive and self-confidence that allows some of us to overcome all obstacles.
I give that as an example of the larger truth that we should always be looking for better ways to teach, better training of teachers, better ways to help students learn and get where they should be.
But to allow that to block raising the level of the material students are challenged to deal with is a huge mistake. It basically means national suicide because other countries are not making that mistake. It means difficulty finding jobs because the jobs worth having are getting more complex.
Parents with the necessary resources throw all sorts of challenges in front of their kids, from athletics to music to games of mental skill. One of my law school professors developed a set of logic and mathematical games that he used in the poorest communities and found that they succeeded in moving the kids way up the ladder.[i] But when my wife went into the schools to offer some enrichment out of our own experience – what it was like living in Iran where the two of us met; or what the Jewish holidays are about – she was welcomed in the advanced classes but not allowed to make any presentations to any of the others.
We sanitize education for too many of our students. Too often we categorize them, and block students from trying to advance, assuming they’re just no good.[ii]
Instead we need to raise the standards. I see too many students at the professional level who have no knowledge of our history or our government. Such students learn law in a vacuum that robs them of real understanding. We need to keep raising the standards, challenging and encouraging our students –not depriving them of the opportunity to learn at more advanced levels.
[ii] See Mary Hatwood Futrell and Joel Gomez, How Tracking Creates a Poverty of Learning, Reshaping High Schools, Volume 65, Number 8, May 2008, Pages 74-78, available at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may08/vol65/num08/How-Tracking-Creates-a-Poverty-of-Learning.aspx; Daniel I. Rees, Laura M. Argys, Dominic J. Brewer, Tracking in the United States: Descriptive Statistics from NELS, Economics of Education Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 83-89, 1996, available at http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~dominicb/pub/Tracking%20in%20the%20US_EER.pdf; National Center for Education Statistics, Curricular Differentiation in Public High Schools, Table 13. Percent of public secondary schools indicating the extent of influence of various sources of information on the placement of students into differentiated courses in the core curriculum: 1994, available at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/frss/inc/displaytables_inc.asp.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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