Problems in the American educational system
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Tim sent me an email about how the most recent nationwide History tests had turned out some poor results. His original email also contained some comments about how this could be blamed on wasting time on sexual education, the influence of the "Chomsky-ites" and a faulty curriculum. Here is my reply.

Date: Wed, 15 May 2002 20:48:14 -0500
From: Jesus Ortega 
To: Tim Kramer
Subject: Re: history test results nationwide
On Wed, May 15, 2002 at 12:21:36PM -0500, Tim Kramer wrote:
> J-
> >We'll see.  I don't share your obsession with sex ed though.  I _do_ want
> >my kids to have sex ed when they get to school, even in primary school.
> >
> What on earth for???? In primary school??? Why??   Give the kid a chance
> to be a kid!!  Why do you insist that they be taught about sex from such
> an early age?  What purpose does it serve, except to destroy the
> innocence of childhood---that is, if there is still such a thing in this
> jaded society we live in---and encourage promiscuity later in life.
> At any rate,  isn't this something that _you_ should be teaching them?
>  Why do you want the schools to do that?  I don't
> trust the schools to handle a topic of that nature, because when you
> start talking aboutsex-ed you start getting into religious and moral issues.
OK, for starters kids are not as "innocent" as you may think.  Second,
when I talk about primary school in this case I refer to the final grades.
Third, by then most kids have already had some sort of experience with sex
even if it's in the form of comments from their friends.  Finally, the
reason why this shouldn't be entrusted _only_ to the parents is because
they don't have the knowledge to teach their kids in the first place.  Yes,
sex is far more than fucking and having kids.  Yes, there are way too many
parents out there (especially among people with less education) who simply
have no knowledge whatsoever on the issue, and you still have to deal (like
it or not) with all the immigrants who come to this country and have even
less knowledge on the topic.  By the way, in this last case sex ed can
even be liberating to women.  Should parents be allowed to opt out?  A most
resounding yes.

In any case, I consider your obsession with sex ed not only quite ridiculous
but also extremely demagogic.  How many sex ed classes did you have?  Leslie
finished her high school in 1985 and never had a single session.  Jeff Cech
was done in 1988 and never had a single session either.  Steve finished in
1986 and never had one either.  In all those cases they attended public
schools.  Finally, in those cases where there is sex ed the class _never_
takes more than around 5-6 hours for the _whole_ year.  To blame the problems
of American schools on this issue is simply laughable.

Now, for the real core issues.  When approaching this topic (like any other
political or social topic) I'd rather try to make an effort to come up with
some constructive proposals that people may agree or disagree with but that
offer at least a way to start.  I don't like the whining partisanship that
appeals to the masses' worst tendencies with magical solutions and selected
scapegoats on which we can place all the blame.  Reality is always far more
complex than that.

This is a list of issues that I consider to be broken with the American
education system.  Yet, there is little chance most politicians will do
much about them because they are not silver bullets, do not allow for an
easy finger pointing to use as a weapon during electoral campaigns and,
above all, make up for a quite complex and incomplete picture.

o Last time we were living in Spain, Leslie was shocked about how much
  kids had to work at school over there.  Not only did they have to spend
  2-3 more hours in school than American kids on a daily bases, but in
  most cases they'd still be enrolled in language academies to learn yet
  another foreign language after school or in special academies to improve
  their math or science skills.  On top of that, they always take homework
  and nobody complains about it.  It seems natural.  Do they work hard?
  Yes, they do.  Let's not forget that school is, among many other things,
  a place to socialize kids and get them ready for what they will encounter
  in real life at a later stage.

o The curriculum in foreign schools also tends to be quite heavier than
  the one kids have over here.  There wasn't much "feel good" stuff.  The
  average curriculum in primary school was something like this:
  - Math: 5 hours a week.
  - Natural Sciences/Physic: 5 hours a week.
  - Social Sciences: 4 hours a week.
  - Language/Literature: 4 hours a week.
  - Foreign languages: 3 hours a week.
  - Physical Education/Arts: 2 hours a week.

o There are lots of tests and evaluations (at least 3 evaluations per
  subject per year).  If kids don't pass, they can be held back.  Yes,
  there are quite a few kids who are held back several times, and this
  causes some psychological issues but they end up adapting which also
  provides education for real life (my sister herself was held back
  twice, and went to become an execellent student later in her life).
  Interestingly enough, it's been the conservative Government that changed
  this policy in Spain (they wanted to adopt the more advanced "American
  model" in this respect), but have recently decided to roll it back again.
  I applaud the decision and the guts they had to correct themselves.

o In most other countries, the educational system offers an alternative
  to all those kids who don't want to go to the University or simply don't
  like intellectual pursuits.  They can choose to go to professional
  schools or colleges to learn other professions instead of dropping from
  high schools: computers, electricians, chefs, etc.

o Everywhere else in the world, kids have very clear what school is for.
  You go there to learn and to study.  It's not a place where the most
  important activity is sports and everything revolves around the main
  team and the sports stars.  Of course, schools don't make any money
  out of those activities either.  They are very well financed by the
  Governments and don't need to depend on additional sources of income.
  They don't need to use sports as a candy to attract more students so
  they also get more finance either.

o Last time I checked into budget issues (during the course of a three
  year study we did at the University in Madrid using data from the 1960s,
  1970s and 1980s all the way until 1987-88), countries such as Germany,
  Canada, Japan, Holland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Iceland,
  Australia and even the UK and Ireland spent more on education than the
  USA _both_ as a percentage of the GDP and on a per capita basis.  This
  may have changed in the meantime, but I seriously doubt it.

o I have heard multiple complaints already about the fact that there are
  no national standards for education in the USA.  While this may sound
  reasonable due to the fact that this is a federal state where this sort
  of competencies should rest with the states, I've heard repeated
  complaints that as a matter of fast it ends up being Texas the state
  that due to its sheer size ends up influencing the way textbooks are
  written, for instance.  Whichever way it goes, it seems clear to me
  that some sort of standards would certainly help boost the level.  As
  in the case of the students (or in the case of any other activity for
  that matter) you'd better have some way to measure how you are performing
  or the overall quality of the system drops severely.

As for your comments on how "there ought to be a little propaganda here"
(referring to schools), I find it quite interesting.  Kids are not there
to be brainwashed or to be taught lies about mythical men.  That's not the
way to raise _free_ citizens.  Whether the brainwashing comes from one side
or the other, it's just as unacceptable.  I don't think that we ought to
teach kids about _only_ the positive side of Washington and even lie about
it in order to avoid "confusion".

Finally, I do repeat my belief that not every time past was better.  I also
repeat my belief that in the past quite a few kids (probably the same amount
as today) didn't know the basics about History, including the History of
this very country they lived in.  That has been my experience even by
talking to older people here in the USA.  Of course, you get a completely
different picture if you talk only (or mainly) to educated people.

Jesus Ortega