Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September Dirt

The “Drive Carefully, School’s Out” posters on the roadsides once again have been exchanged for “Drive Carefully, School’s Open” posters.

Pre-schools were a rarity in my day, so my first look inside a classroom was on the day I started Kindergarten, September 5, 1957. On October 4, the Soviets launched Sputnik. There was no connection between the events, but there was a connection to school experiences that followed. I recall standing in the driveway with my parents and sister as we watched the little twinkling light pass overhead.

Politicians at all levels pointed at the twinkling light and cried that the US had been left behind educationally. This was a conclusion for which Sputnik was dubious evidence, but political arguments seldom are strong on evidence and reason. They demanded and got sharp increases in spending on schools and a widespread reshaping of curricula. The results were as dubious as the original argument. NASA overtook the Soviet space program long before the changes in schools could have had anything to do with it. High school graduates in the 60s and 70s were not noticeably more knowledgeable than their predecessors. The most lasting legacy of the Sputnik shake-up, continuing to this day, is far larger school budgets, as my property tax bill attests.

It is hard to judge how well public schools do what they are intended to do. To the extent SAT scores are any indication, average scores barely have budged in decades. Yet, the tests have been made easier, so in real terms results have gone down. (Wiki claims 70 points should be added to your verbal and 30 points to your math if you took the test more than 30 years ago to compare your results properly with those of 2010.) Every politician, it seems, touts some plan for improving schools, always with more money. The NEA constantly calls for higher wages and benefits. It is not at all clear that any of the previous changes and spending increases have made much difference in the past 50 years.

An interesting experiment, in business since 1968, is the private day school Sudbury, which famously has no established curriculum at all. This unorthodox Massachusetts school provides educational resources for any student who cares to use them, but it lets students spend their time as they wish so long as they don’t prevent anyone else from studying. The school issues no grades. It allows students to hire and fire teachers by vote. Somehow, the school’s graduates do as well in college as do graduates of conventional high schools and prep schools – no better, perhaps, but no worse. Sudbury’s per pupil expenditures are half those of the local public high school. The school lends support to the old saw, “all education is self-education.” Interested students learn. Bored ones do not, regardless of how hard we try to force-feed them.

Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr. is one of the most frequently assigned books in high school. The movie October Sky (an anagram) was based on it. In 1957, young Homer was inspired by the same Sputnik that I stood in the driveway to see. He was in high school at the time. He and his buddies started a rocket club. In order to send their rockets higher and higher, they took a scientific approach to weights, fuel mixtures, and nozzle designs. Homer, previously an indifferent math student, chose to study trigonometry, chemistry, and calculus because he needed them for the rockets. One rocket climbed almost 6 miles.

The book assignment is intended to inspire students to emulate Homer. More likely it inspires them to Google the Spark Notes. A rocket club might inspire them better, but this is not 1957. Today a club would face real trouble from over-protective parents, insurance companies, and land use officials, among others.

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