Straightforward Magazine

Education Quick Takes

What are our children learning in school?
Straightforward Editorial

In 2009 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administered a standardized test, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), to hundreds of thousands of fifteen–year–olds in sixty–five countries. The results and analysis of the test were released in December 2010 and caused some dismay among North American and European educators.

US scores placed them squarely in the middle of the pack, prompting Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to say, “We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out–educated.” Shanghai outpaced the rest of the world in all three disciplines—science, reading and math. The other two Chinese administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macao, also performed well across the board, with Hong Kong coming in 3rd in Science, 4th in Reading and 3rd in Math.

Other eastern nations that were in the top 10 in at least one subject were Singapore, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The British Education Minister specifically singled out China and South Korea as nations that his country could learn from in improving its education system. Education leaders from Britain and the US both spoke out about their disappointment in the test results, and Germany’s chairwoman of the education committee joined them, saying, “Germany has improved its status from ‘horrendous’ to ‘average’—we are at least satisfied with that upward trend.”

Canada ranked in the top 10 in all three topics, and Australia and New Zealand were both in the top 10 countries in Science and Reading, but fell to 15th and 13th respectively in Math.

PISA is meant to provide a comparison of the educational systems in different countries, but as with any standardized test, it is hard to have a level playing field across differing cultures. This study highlights some of those differences. Students in Shanghai were told before taking the test that it was important and would reflect on their country. This emphasis on national pride and the willingness to put pressure on students to succeed is more noticeable in Eastern countries than in Europe and North America.

Universities in the US are noted for looking beyond grades and test scores in the admissions process, requiring that incoming students take part in a variety of extracurricular activities as well as regular classes. Other cultures emphasize academic excellence over diversity of experience. Chinese schools in particular are noted for their long hours and emphasis on exams in math and reading over athletics and the arts.

Results of this test seem to have become fodder for the general rhetoric that drives education reform as a hot topic, not only in the US, but also in Europe. It may not spell gloom and doom for all of those countries that bemoan their results, but it does reinforce China’s growing status in the world at various levels, and it underlines the determination of that country to excel in the global community. (Source: Sam Dillon, “Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators”, New York Times, Dec. 7, 2010)

The Dying Art of Hopscotch

In an effort to curb bullying and dangerous stunts on the playground, public schools across the nation are taking a new approach to recess. A March 14, 2010 article in the New York Times drew attention to a growing trend—recess coaches.

To some this is yet another indication of modern society’s tendency toward over–structuring the lives of children. More and more children these days are pushed into schedules that have them spending their after–school hours being driven from one activity to the next. Sometimes the impetus to add more activities comes from the parent, and sometimes it comes from the child, as William Doherty points out in his article “Superkids and Their Parents”: 
“...it’s often the concerned, involved parents who get seduced by their children’s competitive drive. Of course there are some obsessed parents who live their own dreams through their children, but more often it’s a would–be super child pulling parents who don’t feel on solid ground in saying no to something so positiveľsomething that requires dedication and self–discipline, that teaches life skills, and that will get the child recognition in the community and maybe rewards in the future. The American dream is calling your child. How do you say no to that?”

The result of all of these lessons and practices and competitions is a lot less down time for kids today. Coming home from school to cookies and milk, then homework, then free play outside until dark is not the norm anymore. Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over–Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper–Parenting Trap, in an effort to bring families out of their cars to spend relaxed time together has called upon Americans to institute a National Family Night. This night would be devoted to family with no scheduled activities; however, that is such a foreign concept in America today that Dr. Rosenfeld is not aiming for families to gather once a week or even once a month, but once a year!

In addition to less time with family, children are losing touch with how to organize games themselves and resolve disputes without adult mediation. Without these skills learned in neighborhood backyards and parks, recess in many schools becomes a breeding ground for fights and other misbehavior.

Jill Vialet founded a non–profit group, Playworks, in Oakland, CA in 1996 in response to this very problem. Their group trains recess coaches, who then go into schools and provide structure and direction during recess. They teach common school yard games such as Freeze Tag, Four Square and Duck Duck Goose, while also showing kids how to resolve conflicts by such time–honored means as rock–paper–scissors. Some argue that this approach defies the definition of recess as a break. If there is a teacher controlling all aspects of that time, how is it recess anymore? A New York Times article on the topic described one New Jersey recess coach as “breaking up a renegade game of hopscotch” (Winnie Hu, “Forget Goofing Around: Recess Has a New Boss). On the other hand, where else are children today learning games that don’t involve an LED screen and slick computer graphics?

It seems that one way or another child–led and directed playtime is being squeezed out by increasing demands and pressures. What will the lasting effects be on this generation of over–scheduled kids?