Quantitative education’s chickens come home to roost.

Posted by admin
Dec 27 2005

As a burgeoning teacher, I have had some time to develop a thought or two on this…

Literacy of College Graduates Is on Decline (Washington Post)
Survey’s Finding of a Drop in Reading Proficiency Is Inexplicable, Experts Say:

Literacy experts and educators say they are stunned by the results of a recent adult literacy assessment, which shows that the reading proficiency of college graduates has declined in the past decade, with no obvious explanation.

“It’s appalling — it’s really astounding,” said Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at California State University at Fresno. “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.”

While more Americans are graduating from college, and more than ever are applying for admission, far fewer are leaving higher education with the skills needed to comprehend routine data, such as reading a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity, according to the federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Experts could not definitively explain the drop.

“The declining impact of education on our adult population was the biggest surprise for us, and we just don’t have a good explanation,” said Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of education statistics. “It may be that institutions have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV. It’s a different kind of literacy.”

“What’s disturbing is that the assessment is not designed to test your understanding of Proust, but to test your ability to read labels,” he added.

Seeking definitive, quantifiable and simple answers might be the first of many problems. From the general public to presidents, governors, federal and state legislatures, school boards, and even the students, too many people are interested in learning only “What Do I Need to Know” in order to pass an assignment, test, or course. Compounding this first problem is, as I have observed from fifth graders to even graduate-level college students, a sense that students develop a very narrow focus that prevents them from taking a comprehensive view of their academic or non-academic world. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to hear in my physical geography classes last year that students learned about weather in their biology classes. I would reply that, as a social studies class, we are a mixture of the sciences and humanities and that our work on such a topic as weather would lead us into future discussions of human cultures. For example, I would ask, what decisions would individual people and groups make regarding something apparently simple as excessive or deficient rainfall? How might they adapt to just that one factor among the many that people must address in order to survive and prosper in their environment?

This leads me into another problem our children face. I have noticed a general impatience with revisiting topics previously covered. I would hear students, both as a teacher and as a student in a classroom, complain about how they have “already learned” the material we might be covering in a class on a particular day. Maybe I have spent too much time in education, but I have come to think that I have no problem with revisiting topics I think I “know” because I realize that I can forget bits and pieces that need refreshing or that a new perspective from a new teacher, or fellow student, is actually valuable. As I teach, I find this kind of impatience is one of my greatest obstacles because we live in a society that places an emphasis on “getting something done” and moving on to the next thing.

Reflection, meditation, studying, revisiting, mastering; these things do not carry much weight in our production- and performance-oriented society. We are reducing education to two questions: “Can our kids read?” “Can our kids do math?” In these two simplistically posed questions, we develop quantifiable tests and set quantifiable goals. If we were to shift away from this and, instead, ask if our kids can think, we might find that quantifiable tests and production-performance theories of education are inadequate and move toward a more qualitative, thoughtful and humane style of education. That takes more money, teachers, schools, community support, and — dare I say — faith than I think too many of us are currently willing to spend. If we cannot make this shift, however, then we might as well toss Proust off to the wayside.

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