There are some who believe that schools bear a striking resemblance to prisons…
For many of you, school was 12 or more years of teachers and administrators deciding what was best for you, dictating exactly how you spent every minute of every day — the result being that you absolutely hated each and every one of those minutes. But as you reached adulthood, you probably came to the realization that it was all for the best. You were just a stupid kid, after all, and your elders did things a certain way for a reason.That reason being that they were full of shit. Science is just now taking a closer look at these centuries-old school practices, and they’re finding out that …
#5. Huge Final Exams Are Bad for Learning
Assuming you weren’t some kind of freak prodigy, you probably looked to final exam season with a deep sense of dread. Once a semester, each teacher threw enough study guides, handouts, and notes at your class to provoke a scoliosis epidemic from the backpack weight alone. Then, after a week (or one God-awful night) of late-night cramming and stress seizures, you proceeded to brain-puke everything you’d learned that year onto one last son-of-a-bitch of a test that was worth 20 percent of your grade.
It sucked for the students, but your teachers had a valid justification for kick-starting the premature graying of your hair: Without giving you a huge cumulative test, there’d be no way to make sure any useful knowledge made it into your head alongside all those Pokemon stats and Power Rangers sexual fantasies. You only hated it because it was hard, you lazy, spoiled little bastard!
But You Were Right …
Hey, you know who has done away with final exams as a concept? A little school called fucking Harvard University. They no longer require professors to issue giant year-end tests, and in fact, if a professor wants to give a final exam, he or she has to file a specific request to do so. In 2010, only 259 of the university’s 1,137 undergraduate courses still issued exams, which puts Harvard students’ time-honored tradition of cheating on them in dire jeopardy.
Some critics say that’s just Harvard professors being lazy and/or letting their students off easy. But before you crotchety 25-year-olds start grumbling about how much wussier today’s schools have gotten since your time, let’s take a look at what exactly the critics are saying. The idea isn’t to get rid of exams because they’re too hard on our precious children’s fragile widdle brains; it’s that waiting until the end to assess what the students learned is a terrible way to get kids to actually retain the information. A week of “cramming” is good for passing a test and absolutely nothing else.
So the suggested solution isn’t killing off big cumulative exams in favor of video games and ice cream, but giving a bunch of little cumulative exams throughout the year. You know, to actually make sure everyone is keeping up with the subject as a whole, rather than using the current method of giving a bunch of quizzes intended only to make sure the students read the last chapter. They tested this method a few years ago, and the kids given regular cumulative tests scored 16 percent better than their peers. Giving them a bunch of little tests, each covering everything they had learned to that point, simply worked better than building toward one do-or-die apocalypse-test at the end.
But then how will our children learn the most important lesson in life, which is that projects can only be accomplished by coasting for several months and then frantically scrambling to throw it all together at the end between gulps of Red Bull?
#4. Kids Don’t Get Enough Recess
Ahh, recess. The one part of the day where you got to leave all that learning bullshit behind and pretend to murder Space Nazis with stick guns. The only sucky thing about recess was that we didn’t get enough of it. Schools have been cutting back on playtime for years, and it’s not hard to understand why: Imaginary Star Wars/Transformers crossovers might be a pantsload of fun, but they don’t teach you how to spell “Mississippi” or where the red fern grows. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act even urged preschools — preschools — to cut out some of the shenanigans in favor of more direct instruction.
And how can you argue against it? It’s time to put that playtime bullshit behind you and get down to work, kids. There’ll be plenty of time for “recess” later, during your years-long stretches of unemployment.
But You Were Right …
First off, recess exists for a reason: It makes kids behave. Students who get just 15 minutes of playtime are rated by their teachers as being better behaved and more focused than their peers. Sixty percent of principals say that their students function better after a half-hour of recess, and 80 percent believe that playtime actually helps children learn. The old carrot of withholding recess time to coax good behavior actually makes kids more likely to misbehave.
Recess even helps to curb the effects of ADHD. Walks outdoors, particularly in natural settings, improve attention and concentration, no amphetamines required. In fact, one study found that one solid dose of the outdoors per day can be enough to cut out one dose of medication per day. Maybe prior generations were onto something when “Go play your ass outside for a while, goddammit!” was the most-prescribed cure for a hyper kid.
The whole misconception about recess seems to come from adults who equate “playing” with “wasting time.” It’s not — playing is how kids learn. It’s probably the same reason animals do it: all of the running and screaming and fighting and giggling is how they learn social cues and how to interact in groups. So, yeah, it’s not only OK to let them get dirty, it’s kind of necessary.
#3. Algebra Before High School Is a Recipe for Disaster
We’re betting that some of you still get cold sweats at the mention of the word “algebra.” Here you survived the first six or seven years of school knocking out basic math and remembering the names of presidents, and then suddenly around age 12 or 13 they unleash this arcane, abstract bullshit that seems to have no application in the real world whatsoever. You’re still a kid, but suddenly you’re spending your evenings solving for X instead of watching He-Man reruns.
Case in point: At that age you were still stupid enough to find this a believable secret identity.
It wasn’t much fun at the time (in fact you probably hated it), but that head start must have paid off once you got to high school. Why else would 38 percent of eighth graders nationwide be taking algebra?
But You Were Right …
When California made eighth-grade algebra mandatory in 2008, they noticed something strange: Many students started to do worse in high school mathematics. The kids who’d been struggling with math before saw their GPAs plummet and their scores in later courses drop correspondingly. Pushing advanced math early seems like a great idea, but it actually ignores everything we know about the way young brains develop.
Kid brains go through rapid periods of growth, interspersed with long plateaus where everything sort of settles in. It just so happens that eighth grade is one of these plateau periods, which makes it a particularly shitty time to teach abstract concepts like algebra. No wonder eighth graders fail algebra more often than they fail any other subject.
And the smart kids suffer, too — a Duke University study found that test scores also declined for “high skill” students in the wake of early-onset algebra. It turns out that kids do best when you introduce them to math the same way the French introduce their children to wine: a little glass here and there at the dinner table teaches moderation; tossing them the bottle and chanting “Chug! Chug! Chug!” teaches brain damage.
#2. Competition in School Hinders Learning
For those of us who weren’t big into organized sports, being graded and getting scored on standardized tests were our first experiences with the stress of competition. The only students who enjoy being ranked are those at the top, and the valedictorian is the only student not imagining a swarm of flying dicks choking him to death on graduation day.
But competition clearly works in the real world, so most likely all of us non-valedictorians are just sore losers. After all, the modern world runs on competition. It’s what made America great. The free market is all about pitting worker vs. worker, company vs. company, and idea vs. idea. The best comes out on top, and everyone pushes themselves harder out of fear of falling behind. Kids just need to man up and see how the grown-ups do things.
But You Were Right …
Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conducts a survey of the world’s educational systems, called PISA. 2001 was the first year they managed to pry Finland away from playing air guitar long enough to be included in the study, and they absolutely crushed it, scoring at or near top marks in every category. No one was more surprised by this than the Finns themselves, since academic excellence isn’t something they give one steaming shit about.
Finland has no standardized tests. They don’t rank their students, select valedictorians, or even care all that much about grades. Teachers give individualized grades to each student and develop their own tests for their specific classrooms without any input from some central authority. There’s no competition in Finnish education, and no private university scholarships to compete for. It sounds like the bullshitiest hippie wet dream ever conceived … and it works better than any other educational system in the Western World.
How is that possible? Well, competition may make perfect sense when it comes to grown-ass men fighting over a leather ball, but in the classroom, it appears to just distract kids from the important business of learning. Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer at Stanford’s School of Education, followed five high school students around for a year, and while a stunt like that would have landed us in a very special sort of prison, her outcome was much more productive: She found that high achievers spent more time “finangling the system” than they spent gaining knowledge. Meanwhile, students in Finland don’t worry about maximizing their GPA or collecting enough extra credit hours to impress [College X], and as a result they end up actually learning stuff.
And don’t just take Finland’s word for it. Professor Hall Beck of Appalachian State University found that students who focused mainly on their grades tended to have lower GPAs and shittier mental health than the kids who focused on learning. So what should replace grading? “Nonthreatening, task-related evaluation,” otherwise known as correcting kids when they mess up without penalizing them for it. Again, it sounds like a load of rancid hippie crap, but it gets results.
Although to be fair, grades get results, too — results that equate to kryptonite for our kids’ brains. The mere knowledge that their work is being graded is even more effective than track day in PE at making them avoid school.
#1. Middle School Is a Horrible Idea
There’s no point in beating around the bush: middle school sucked, hard. You had to go from being the oldest kid at your elementary school to being the youngest kid at some strange new school. Adolescence is hard enough to deal with on your own — stirring you into a hormone stew with a few hundred other kids, all taking to puberty like a duck takes to auto repair, just makes the whole situation that much worse.
As a result, you probably spent most of middle school wishing you could go back to elementary school. Now that you’re an adult, of course, you know that moving tweens on is the right thing to do because … sorry, we drew a blank there. What were we saying again?
But You Were Right …
Astoundingly, it turns out that locking a bunch of acne-riddled hormone junkies in a big building together is a fucking terrible idea. Middle schools have a crime rate 30 percent higher than elementary schools. Grades suffer, too — a study of New York City schoolchildren found a sharp drop in math and English scores in students who went to separate middle schools, compared to kids in K-8 schools.
You might expect a difficult transitory period — what with the shock of moving to a new building and all the time spent discovering Internet porn — but the bigger problem is that kids who go to middle school don’t recover. That drop in test scores follows them right on through high school and makes it much more likely that they’ll drop out of school altogether. If you have aspirations of raising a crack-addled streetwalker and you missed the boat on that whole in utero drug use thing, sending them to middle school appears to be a damn good way to play catch-up.
Several cities have already started jumping off the middle school ship. Even Baltimore, which The Wire taught us is just one big, fetid pot of heroin and cops with pickled livers, has seen the light: They’re in the process of shuttering their middle schools and returning to the days of keeping sixth through eighth graders in elementary school. We assume the abandoned middle schools will be left standing as memorials to the crushed dreams of the countless students who pathetically floundered their way through them. That, or they’ll be fenced off as toxic sites due to hormone permeation.