Tuesday, December 27, 2005

my schooling

I hope you all have had a great holidays so far. I have had a good old time here at home in Minnesota (yes, it is cold, people). Surprisingly, we do have computers in Minnesota, and just recently moved into real houses from our igloos.

My dad and I were rehashing some of the issues I've discussed on this blog the other night. (By the way, it's been made empirically certain that I got the ranting gene from him. Not that my Mm is too shabby at it either. I love you guys!). We actually got to discussing my own education, which was an interesting comparison to what I've been doing this year.

I went to my local public high school here in Minnesota. We live in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis that is known for its good schools, which is why my parents chose to live here. In fact, the high property values here are largely based on the reputation of the school system. This gives incentive to older residents and those without children to vote for high levels of funding for the school system, despite the fact that they themselves do not partake of it. Thus, local referenda on increases to school funding usually pass quite easily. (One exeption is our crotchety right-wing neighbor, who doesn't see why he has to contribute to the education of the pesky kids of the neighborhood. Personally, I think he's just bitter because they discovered that the haunted park monster is really this guy in a mummy suit. Pesky kids.)

Anyway, my school was pretty good. They offered AP Biology, AP American History, AP European History, AP Calculus, AP American Literature, and a variety of AP languages. Kids could choose to take these advanced classes or not. The only tracked subject was math. Teachers were smart and competent (with notable exceptions. One of my teachers would regularly let my friend leave class to drive somewhere and buy bagels. And another time we spent an entire class period searching for textbooks that some kid had hidden in the ceiling). Administrators were proud of the academics (although not as proud as they were of the sports) and tried to protect them. I am grateful for the education I got there.

Still, overall, I don't think it was enough. This was supposed to be the best public high school in our state. But when I got to college (I went to a good one), I realized that I couldn't really cut it in the areas of science and math. Granted, I'm not exactly a whiz at either of these subjects, and they aren't my passion. Still, compared to kids who went to private schools or magnet schools, I was definitely behind. And compared to kids from other countries, I was definitely definitely behind. The entire math department at my school was dominated by foreigners, to the point where they couldn't find PhD students who spoke good English to teach intro math classes. The biggest complaint I heard about calculus classes was not that they were so difficult, but that the students couldn't understand what their teacher was saying. Most were from Asian countries and had very thick accents. I had a German dude who was reasonably understandable. But also freaky in a German grad student/robot kind of way.

As a freshman, I was still ambitious and over-confident in my academic skills. I was still in small-school Minnesota mindset, as opposed to world-class university mindset, which is "if it's math and science, you probably can't do it." I took a multi-variable caculus class and an advanced general chemistry class. It was the worst semester of my life. Multi-variable calculus was extremely difficult, mostly because it was taught in a completely different way than any of my high school math classes. Our textbook did not walk one through the problems. Problem sets had to be solved by combining different theorems and procedures in creative ways. Class met only three days a week, and the lectures were fast-paced. You had to give yourself the quizzes. There were only two tests, and they were impossible. I got decent grades, but only because the curve was so incredibly generous that a trained gerbil would have had to struggle only slightly to pass. For example, on the midterm exam, a 22 out of 100 was a D. A 56 out of 100 was an A-.

My chemistry class was worse, for me. I had taken only an intro type chemistry class in high school. My advisor, who was clearly a sadist, told me to take the advanced one anyway. I struggled. I went in for office hours, I asked my friends how to do things, I cried, and I worked all the time. I did ok...I was really proud of my B-.

I don't know...maybe it's just that I'm not talented in these areas. But still, I think that it was generally just difficult for me to cut it at my college based on the preparation I had been given. I think if my math and science education had been more rigorous, or even if there was a more rigorous option available, I could have survived and even though about majoring in one of those subjects. As it was, an "ordinary" student like me would not think of doing that. It was a small elite, at least among the American students, who could cut it.

Let me know what you think about this issue. I would like to know what the situation was like at other colleges.


At December 27, 2005 5:17 PM, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

Indeed, even our best K-12 programs seem to be lacking in rigor compared to what top-flight universities expect.  I experienced the same problem (though I did manage to pull an A in the intro-chem weeder class).

Regardless of the cause(s) of this, it's bound to get worse rather than better.  Resources are being shoved the other way.

At December 27, 2005 7:53 PM, Blogger ogre said...

Gets me thinking about my own teaching here in Boston - high school math, physics and chemistry. NCLB says we're going well, but my juniors can't solve one variable equations, can't do metric conversions after we spent a week on it - manipulatives and all!

I had to take my 5 month old to the ER for a high temp. Imagine my horror when I overheard the nurse prepping IV drugs for my child say to another nurse - "can you check my calculations? I'm not very good at conversions." You can bet I insisted on checking her work! It's only going to get worse.

Going to far the other way? You bet - much of my time outside class is spent in meetings on how to help kids failing a class for the 3rd or 4th time get it together. Kids who scream "F*&k you a&*$%(e!! I'm off this!" and storm out of class if I ask them if they did their homework.

Great forum by the way - brings back memories of my time going through a different Ivy League ed program just a couple years ago. Keep going, but find the kids you're comfortable working with

At December 28, 2005 4:56 AM, Blogger nop-tastic said...

my guess is the longer we have a school's funding dependent on how a kid does in his or her state-wide competency exams (no child left behind), the more 'teaching to the exams' well have, and the less actual teaching there will be.

i went to public school in florida, and went to college at the university of florida. college was hard, but it wasn't undoable with hard work. i definitly thought my high school education prepared me for it.

but that said, i had really good teachers the entire way. most of whom knew what they were doing. they didn't teach toward exams, and actually seemed like they wanted to be there. the longer we continue to pay teachers half of what new york MTA employees make, the less often we'll have dedicated people like it seems like we have on this board wanting to teach.

alternatively, the longer we continue to fund...ummm....wars, the more kooks we'll have running around teaching my future kids that evolution is a theory.

At December 28, 2005 7:47 PM, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

I wasn't cognizant of anything during those years, but didn't we still do a good job of teaching everything from reading through English to math and science during WWII, the Korean war and even the first years of Vietnam?

Whatever the problems are, wars don't seem to have much to do with them.  It seems more like "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and our instant-gratification culture.

At December 29, 2005 12:15 PM, Anonymous Dana Huff said...

I felt the same way -- unprepared for college. I didn't do too badly, I guess, because I only made two C's -- the rest were mostly A's and some B's. But I do remember working for those grades. I went back and re-read my research paper for 11th grade. My teacher had given me a 100 on it, if you can believe it. I told her later, when we were colleagues, that I wouldn't have given it a 100 at all. I felt that my math preparation was particularly good, but I was lost near the beginning of Chemistry and never did figure it out. I was afraid to take it in college. My teachers never did figure out how lost I was in Chemistry, which is very bad. I don't know -- I think in retrospect, that my high school education prepared me better than I thought, but not quite as well as it should have.

At December 29, 2005 8:33 PM, Blogger Allison said...

I don't think you were ill prepared for school in the sense that you took a chem-weeder class and worked your ass off for a B-. That's what you're SUPPOSED to do in college.

No, the way in which you were ill prepared was in thinking that it would be a cakewalk. You were misled into thinking that school was easy.

This isn't a matter of better high school math or physics prep; it's a matter of you learning that you're just going to have to buckle down to get that A, and that it's completely possible to do that, but it requires REAL work, REAL discipline, and REAL studying.

Studying--real studying-- requires doing lots of problems, self tests, practiced timed tests, listening in lecture, rereading your notes, reading outside texts, etc. etc. etc. This takes time management, motivation, and discipline.

Fundamentally, you weren't worse prepared that anyone else. Some of those kids in college had significantly less prep than you; others had more and still got Cs.

Btw, if you were taking real English courses in college, you would have been just as SHOCKED to see how hard it was to write a term paper that received an A, too.

At December 29, 2005 8:42 PM, Blogger Allison said...

btw, I went to MIT. I was a physics major. I had less prep than you in physics and chem (we had no AP chem or phys, and my school didn't offer phys from a teacher who even knew what it meant) though I had more prep in math.

I worked my ass off there and struggled, getting Cs and Ds my freshman year in physics courses--honors courses because my advisor suggested it, since I wanted to be a physics major. Nearly all of the kids I knew struggled. The only ones who didn't were Russian.

I stayed in the major. I never got an A in a single course in my major. I still got the degree, and I still learned more than I ever thought possible. I know a crazy amount of physics, though significantly less than those who aced the major. But I learned, and every minute of learning was a struggle.

Your current issue is thinking that since you can't be the BEST at something, that you shouldn't try it. Well, my academic life didn't end because I got Bs and Cs in physics. My life didn't end with my bad GPA.

What I learned was that the kids who learned HOW TO STUDY, how to do a problem without getting confused, how to not need to know the reason for everything at the time, etc. solved the problems and did well. Kids who aimed at "grokking" so to speak, did less well, because that takes time and wisdom and solving the problems. So what matters is learning to barrel through the work.

you can be in a major you want. your high school did you a disservice because you think that unless it's easy, you shouldn't bother doing something. This idea that we should only find that perfect intersection of "what we're great at, what's natural" and "what we like" is a crock.

At January 02, 2006 6:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A huge area in which high school did not prepare me for college centers around reading - I was assigned very few primary texts in high school. Every course but English was taught from a grade-level-appropriate text book at my school. When I got to college, I found out my math class was the only course which didn't require some type of "real" reading - from Locke and DeToqueville's works of political theory to sociologists' accounts of the sixties, I had to read books that weren't meant to be user-friendly. There weren't helpful sidebars or captions or chapter summary review questions, and the vocabulary and sentence structures were tough. I considered myself an excellent reader in high school, and I was stunned to find myself so weighted down with college-level texts that it took me twice or three times as long to read with real comprehension. (The fact that I took few math and science courses undoubtedly skews my perception of college reading - I imagine the hard sciences assign more textbooks.)

I think my school's attitude that English teachers should be the only ones to teach reading comprehension skills contributed to this problem - I knew how to read difficult fiction, but had never encountered an OLD, LONG, AND DIFFICULT work to read for history class or a COMPLEX, ESOTERIC article to understand in science class. I have the conception that private schools like the one my college roommate had gone to were more likely to teach using more primary sources and fewer reader's digest-like summaries and translations. Is there anyone who knows more about a private school and can speak to this issue?

At January 03, 2006 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see now why you are having trouble. If your "problem" in high school was that your AP classes were too easy for you to excel in an Ivy League school--well, you will be in shock when you deal with inner-city type tough kids or even regular middle class kids.

I grew up in a blue-collar environment (although my family was college-educated)and I was one of the smartest in my high school. I went to a fairly non-prestigious school in the suburbs and was in shock when I was less well-prepared than the kids from the more suburban area nearby. Today I teach in the poorer city next to mine, and I continue to be saddened by my students attitudes towards authority and education.

Why don't teachers push and push and push and make it harder and harder and harder? Because most kids would fail. Most kids can't--or won't-- study math for hours on end like Russian or Asian immigrants. Most kids won't sit and peruse the meanings of difficult non-fiction. They'd take an F--or even better--get Mom to complain until it was made easier.

At January 03, 2006 9:07 PM, Blogger Ms. Smith said...


You're from Minnesota?

At January 04, 2006 10:43 AM, Blogger newoldschoolteacher said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At January 04, 2006 10:56 AM, Blogger newoldschoolteacher said...

Interesting comments. You've succeeded in making me feel both whiny and snobby. My point was not to bemoan my own situation, or to brag about how good my schools were. I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the whole world.

Allison is right that I tend to like things that I'm good at. And she's right that any kind of accomplishment takes a lot of hard work. The fact that she was able to graduate from MIT with sub-par preparation no doubt shows that she is incredibly hard-working and very bright. My story was not meant to belittle this kind of gargantuan effort, but to highlight it. Should all American kids have to run such a gauntlet if they are to become physicists, biologists, chemists, astronomers, computer scientists? Or should our country take a cue from those overseas or in the private school system and make sure that our kids at least have the opportunity for such preparation?

My point was not supposed to be about my life or my choices, but how my experiences could illustrate a wider problem. Perhaps they don't. In any case, another commentor was absolutely right when he said that the situation is far more dire in inner cities and rural areas. That's mostly what this blog is about. But if our "best" (ie in the most wealthy/property-tax-rich area) public school education is not really up to par, then that is also a problem. Because it means that whatever we are striving for in improving our inner city schools might not even be good enough.

And what's wrong with being from Minnesota, Ms Smith? It's good people.

At January 05, 2006 11:31 PM, Blogger Allison said...

You commented:

--the fact that she was able to graduate from MIT with sub-par preparation no doubt shows that she is incredibly hard-working and very bright.

no no no no no!

It demonstrates that IF I'd been Harder working OR very bright OR better prepared, I could maybe have gotten As! BUT, even without all of that, you could get something out of a major with some hard work, curiosity and only a modicum of talent.

Did I belong at a top grad school? No, obviously not. But that doesn't mean I couldn't gain value from learning something DIFFICULT. It's also true that society gains more from my reaching for something difficult.

The lesson for you, as a teacher, to those who are unprepared, is to simply teach them NOT to make excuses for preparation, and to teach them that there's value in working hard and learning something difficult even if it isn't what you're "best" at.

Few of us will ever find that our dream job is our best talent. THAT'S OKAY. What you can do as a teacher is show that hard work and a B is respectable, not disheartening. What you can do for your students as a teacher is show them that what they gain by trying something difficult is FAR more than a grade.

You can be encouraging, and encouragement doesn't come in the form of "be so prepared along a particular path so things are never difficult." Encouragement comes from learning that "the path is never so straight, so believing that hard work is valuable is REALLY NECESSARY, even if you can't see success yet."

Sure, schools should prepare people better in subjects. But if all a teacher did was convince a student that hard work and time would increase their own skill, discipline, patience, and midn, that is a truth that allows all future skills to be learned.

-- Should all American kids have to run such a gauntlet if they are to become physicists, biologists, chemists, astronomers, computer scientists?

YES!!! THEY SHOULD! otherwise, they aren't very good at it!

look, we don't need mediocre scientists. We don't need scientists who were indoctrinated in how to solve a problem a certain way. We need people who know how to come across something DIFFICULT and not give up.

China can teach its students how to solve a certain problem a certain way, but innovativeness? Creativity? Invention? American culture teaches those skills in ways other cultures don't.

If all you do is convince kids that you solve problems by following a recipe, they won't learn that innovation. Yes, they need a base from which to learn, but it can't be all like that. Hard work teaches something ease does not.

At January 07, 2006 4:28 AM, Anonymous Barry G said...

"China can teach its students how to solve a certain problem a certain way, but innovativeness? Creativity? Invention? American culture teaches those skills in ways other cultures don't."

This is urban legend. If US students are so creative, why do they do so poorly on international math exams that the Chinese beat us on? Because the problems are substandard? I've talked to math professors who find that their Chinese and other Asian students are quite creative. US K-8 math emphasizes problem solving "strategies" which means letting kids stumble around with inefficient solutions (like "guess and check") trying to solve problems for which they have not been given sufficient background. In Asian countries, students are given information and asked to solve progressively harder problems, but by applying the efficient techniques they have learned. This takes creativity. Stumbling around with inefficient solutions seems to satisfy the US definition of creativity but it doesn't cut it on the international scene.

At January 10, 2006 5:49 AM, Blogger Barry Garelick said...

If multi-variate calc was your first math class in collee after having AP calc in high school, you probably had difficulty because the high school class just taught you enough to pass the AP exam. The problem with AP classes in high school is they don't prepare students for calculus. Many students really would be better off taking the first year calculus class in college rather than in high school. But with tuition so high, there is an economic necessity to doing it, I suppose, in addition to the prestige it gives a lowly freshman.


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