Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lip Service to Education

I constantly hear politicians, media pundits, teachers, and philanthropists opining on how important education is. Nevertheless, the fights almost always boil down to money. The fact that almost everyone ignores proven research on things that work but don't significantly affect the costs shows that providing a better education is not what the argument is all about.

The right wants to spend less on education, so they vilify the teachers unions. They talk about merit pay (but use it as an excuse to punish not reward), and abolishing teacher tenure (because newer teachers are paid less than those with seniority). Conversely, the left talks about class size and making sure that all teachers are "highly qualified." neither of which has been demonstrated to make substantial differences in achievement (Though I would argue that classes are far too large now, but that is another essay).

Here are a few things that would not cost a lot of money and which have been proven, yet I rarely hear either side in the debate seriously advocating for them:

1. Teach foreign language in earlier grades instead of in high school. You could put me in Beijing for a year and at the end of the year I would speak Chinese abysmally, but if you put my five year old there for a year, he'd speak fluently. The reason is not that he's so much smarter than me, but that the brain changes around the age of twelve, after which it becomes far less efficient at language acquisition. So, why do we wait until students are fourteen to start teaching foreign languages?

2. Start high school later in the day. Teens are chronically sleep deprived and their educational attainment suffers as a result. Study after study finds that switching them to a later schedule that better matches their circadian rhythms results in better cognitive function, yet we routinely make high school start earlier than middle school and elementary school.

3. Get rid of over processed foods in school meals. This week, the school tried to serve my kindergartener a "oatmeal chocolate chip bar" for breakfast. Ignoring the long list of chemicals in the ingredients, I found it had 9 grams of fat and 23 grams of sugar. It is unhealthy and when the sugar high wears off, the kids crash and can not learn. A recent study in Michigan found that eating school lunch instead of sack lunch was a bigger risk factor for obesity than two extra hours in front of a screen every day. Why not feed kids healthy food? It can't be that much more expensive.

4. Abolish DARE. Study after study shows that DARE is a waste of children's time. It does not affect drug use. After each study, DARE changes the curriculum a bit and claims that the last study was flawed because it studied an old curriculum. Why spend time and money on a program that doesn't work? Only because it makes adults feel happy that they are doing something about drugs in schools and to maintain good relations between the police and school administration.

Now that I've established that excellence in education is secondary to most arguments about education, I'd like to state for the record that you get what you pay for so until we increase education funding our system will continue to deteriorate.


  1. Don't forget one thing that WOULD cost a lot of money, but has been repeatedly shown to make a HUGE difference in children's learning- lengthening the school year. The United States has the shortest K12 academic year of any developed country (and shorter than many developing ones as well). This short year is particularly bad for kids who don't have an enriching home environment, but is detrimental to maintaining gains across all socioeconomic groups.

  2. My friend Karen pointed out, that the sugar high is not scientifically supported, so I am posting a correction. There are, however, lifelong costs of obesity.

  3. A link to the article I mentioned in 3