Dec 27 2011

Public School System Changes Needed for the Benefit of Students

There are parts of our public school system that need to change.  My experience in high school gave me as much perspective on this as any, but my experiences as a private piano teacher have compounded this perspective tenfold.  The most common reason that high school students quit music lessons is because school interferes with them.  The changes I have in mind include allowing for more sleep, making students aware of the least-known benefit of summer school, changing how homework is graded, eliminating group work, and rearranging academic priorities.

Give high school students more sleep

Studies have shown (here and here) that sleep deprivation can set cognitive abilities back years, and yet our public school system continues to require high school students to get up at 5 or 6am after staying up late to do homework (especially in 11th and 12th grade).  To quote the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center1:

“As adolescents mature toward adulthood, nature seems to be preparing even their sleep cycles for the lifestyle change. Their bodies release the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin later in the evening than when the students were preteens, so they’re not tired until later at night. Yet school bells still seem to ring at dawn.”

There are three things I can think of off the top of my head that would address this, and there are probably 20 other things I’m not thinking of that would as well.  The first one has to do with high school start times, and the last two have to do with reducing the hours spent on homework at home:

  1. Have elementary school students start at 7:30am or 8:00am, and have high schoolers start at 9:00 or 9:30.  Elementary school kids get up at the crack of dawn without an alarm clock anyway (most of them have bedtimes of 8:30 or 9:00).  Some say that high schools need to start early so those on sports teams can have enough daylight to travel to other schools within driving distance.  I’m not convinced.  Football and baseball fields have lights.  Most tennis courts have lights, and those that don’t can either build lights or use public courts that do have lights.  Swim meets, basketball games and wrestling matches take place indoors.  All we need to do is let these kids come home from their sports events 1-2 hours later than they currently do.  This is a much more acceptable evil than requiring every public high school student in the nation to have their cognitive abilities dragged down by lack of sleep.  (And the next two suggestions will help to ensure those who choose sports don’t have 6 hours of homework waiting for them when they get home.)
  2. Have a national mandate requiring all high schools to allow students to earn the privilege of doing homework in class.  Any student who is receiving an A in a given class (after the first test) should have the option of doing that day’s homework in class while the instructor lectures. Listening to lectures is not nearly as important to some students as most teachers think it is (see this article).
  3. Ban all projects that require a lot of work that lies outside the scope of the class.  For example, constructing catapults in a physics class involves more woodworking than it involves physics.  Creating DVD soap opera videos in a Spanish class involves more video editing than it involves learning Spanish.  Any teacher who assigns such projects to their students either places no value on students’ limited time, are ignorant of the time the project really requires of the students, or are ignorant of all the demands their students face in their other classes.  In any case, these projects are unacceptable and should always carry consequences for the teacher.

Regarding #3, similar to how a mother almost instantly forgets about the pain of giving birth as soon as she’s holding her new child, teachers almost instantly forget about the pain of preparing each project, especially considering that the teachers aren’t the ones enduring the pain!  In fact, grading projects is almost always far easier, more fun, and less time-consuming (grading is done in class!) for teachers, which makes me suspect that projects are often assigned out of laziness (intentional or unintentional) on the part of the teacher.

Update on 2/12/12 and 2/15/12: new BYU research shows that 7 hours of sleep is optimum to maximize test scores in high school. I hope this conclusion isn’t used by high schools to justify the excessive work load they place on students. I don’t believe the small benefit of maximizing test scores is worth the drawbacks to losing sleep that have already been discovered or that have yet to be discovered (such as this).

Make students aware of the least-known benefit of summer school

I loved my summer vacations.  In fact, I loved them so much that I was even critical of my friends who took summer school.  Little did I know that I would get between 6-12 hours of homework every single day during my junior year of high school (and I didn’t max my schedule out with honors classes – I only took the bare minimum necessary to get an honors diploma).  As a teacher, I’ve never had any piano students who had less than six hours of homework in 11th and 12th grade.

Had someone simply told me what I had to look forward to, I would have taken at least two summer school classes so that I could take one study hall or off-campus during my junior and senior years.  Today, I make my graduating 8th grader students aware of this and advise all of them to take summer school.  Having just one less class each year makes an enormous dent in homework, because not only is it one less hour of assigned homework, it’s also an extra hour for doing homework from other classes.  That means students can get two more hours of their life back every school day for an entire two years.  At an average of 180 school days per year, that’s 720 hours over the course of two years (an entire month)!

But advising one or two students a year in my private studio isn’t enough.  Every 8th grader everywhere should be made aware of the average amount of homework students receive in 11th and 12th grade, and that summer school is the most logical way to battle this.  Keep in mind that this only helps if the classes you take are ones with a heavy workload (usually core curriculum classes), and Ivy League schools frown on satisfying these requirements during the summer.  But honestly, who needs the Ivy Leagues?

Change how homework is graded

Homework should never be punitive for assignments that are not open-ended, which would include all math and science assignments, most history assignments, and some English (grammar) assignments.  Homework is what we do in order to learn something we have no experience with, so students should be free to make mistakes without it harming their grades.  This is easy to achieve with a system that my 11th grade trigonometry teacher used:

  1. Students swap papers at the beginning of class (switching each day between forward, backward, left and right swapping)
  2. Teacher goes over how to do every problem, and students grade each others’ papers
  3. Teacher immediately collects graded papers
  4. Teacher puts a check mark by that assignment in the grade book indicating the student did it (if the student didn’t miss any questions, the teacher also marks “100” in the grade book)
  5. Teacher hands homework back to students the next day, and students with imperfect grades fix all of their mistakes
  6. Students hand in the fixed homework.  If everything is correct, teacher marks “100” in the grade book.  Repeat steps 5 and 6 forever until the student’s homework is perfect.

Under this system, all students either receive a 0 (zero) or 100 on every assignment, they learn the material better than if they had been punished for their original mistakes (fixing mistakes is a far more effective strategy than punishing kids for them), and the teacher doesn’t even have to work as hard since they’re only grading corrections.

Why more teachers don’t do this is utterly beyond me.  This was the best teaching system I’ve ever encountered.  I’ve always been one to get between a 91 and 96 percent on math tests because of dumb mistakes.  I would understand all the concepts completely and perfectly, but I’d make calculational errors.  Well, not that year!  When I took trigonometry, I scored 100% on three tests in a row.  This system didn’t just teach me math in a thorough and effective manner.  It also reduced the number of errors I made on tests.

I feel so strongly about this type of teaching that I even believe it should be mandated.  I realize most schools like to give teachers flexibility to teach with their own “style,” but I’m sorry, there are certain styles that are more effective than others.  Of course, my own personal experience is no substitute for studies.  So pedagogues, do all your research, and when you find that I’m right and that no other system of teaching is more effective, make teachers do what actually works.  Catering to the personality quirks and egos of teachers is far less important than doing what is not only more effective but also more fair to students.

Eliminate group work

Group work should be banned not only from K-12, but in colleges as well.  Group work is fine if there is no grade involved, but it is completely wrong for a student’s grade to be even remotely dependent upon the work of another student.

Teachers usually justify group work by pointing out that students will have to work in groups in the real world, but this is a baseless argument.  In the job world, the employee is the servant (the employee is paid by the employer).  In the academic world, the teacher is the servant (the teacher is paid by the students in the form of tax dollars or tuition).   It is the teacher’s duty to give every student the fair and equal treatment they are paying for, and group work isn’t fair or equal.  There is usually one person who works harder than everyone else, and there is usually someone who coasts along for the ride. In fact, I don’t believe I was ever part of a single group project in high school or college where I felt I got as much out of it as I would have doing something on my own. I always felt restricted, and I felt that others were leeching off of me since I was always the one to work harder in the group. I didn’t feel like there was as much room for individual creativity, and for the same reason, apparently brainstorming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I also don’t know a single person (family or friend) who disagrees with my hatred of group school work, even decades after being in school. It’s wrong, and there’s still one more reason I haven’t mentioned.

If people want to use academic instruction as a way to prepare the next generation to be good employees, good bosses, good coworkers and good sole proprietors, they need to encourage them to take leadership courses that teach people skills, where “working together” is actually part of the focus of the course. Making “working together” part of the agenda of a history or math class is irresponsible and only shows that the instructor severely overestimates the scope of his or her job description. I am reminded of my 9th grade health science teacher, who had notebook checks once a month in order to teach kids organization. It was part of our grade, and if one little thing was off (table of contents incomplete, written-in page numbers on notes/tests/homework missing, something put into the wrong divider section…), you received an F on that check. To me this teacher who gave notebook checks “to teach critical organization skills” was no more responsible than the history teacher who assigned group projects “to teach critical cooperation skills.”

Rearrange Academic Priorities

I believe the things we most need to learn are the things that will be of greatest utility to our lives.  Reading, writing and arithmetic are absolutely, unquestionably essential.  Cutting those core necessities isn’t on the table and it never will be, and it’s because of one and only one factor:  how critically useful they are to our daily functioning as responsible members of society. With that in mind, here are my thoughts describing two things that should be added to high school curriculum, and to make room for those additions, two things that should be eliminated or reduced.

  • Every person speaks to others almost every day of their lives, and they debate almost as often (debate takes many forms).  If everyone studied speech and debate and/or philosophy in a debate context (see No Debate: Kids Can Learn By Arguing), they would argue less and discuss more.  There would be fewer misunderstandings since words would be better chosen, articulated and understood.  People would place greater value on finding and embracing truth and less value on being right.  And yet speech and debate is an extra-curricular in most schools (not even an elective).  Speech and debate was a part of core curriculum in the educational system of ancient Greece, just like math and reading, and it should still be today.
  • Washoe County (Nevada) has something called “Gateway Curriculum” for high schools, which is curriculum geared toward preparing students for college.  The curriculum strongly recommends at least three years of laboratory science.  Click here and scroll to the bottom to check out my high school’s requirements.  There are many other cool science classes offered now than there were when I attended, but as you can see, biology is the one science class that is (and always has been) required for everyone.  There are very few people in this world who ever need to know the stages of mitosis, the parts of a paramecium or the innards of a frog.  Biology should not be part of core curriculum;  it should be an elective.  It certainly wasn’t a prerequisite for the other four science courses I took in high school, which were Earth science, chemistry, health (which might as well have been anatomy/physiology) and physics, and I find all the other science courses to be far more applicable to daily life than biology. In fact, I’m in complete agreement with scientists when they say that our entire approach to teaching science needs an overhaul.
  • World history and American history should be reduced to one semester each instead of a year, covering only the most essential things such as the Crusades, Roman Empire, the slave trade, the American Civil War, etc.  Reciting the order of the American presidents and studying ancient Babylonian civilization is completely unnecessary and does nothing to create functional citizens. I also think history should be taught in far less detail, instead spending more time just having class discussions/debates of certain themes that can be found in historical events, such as having a critical discussion about the ethics of the Manifest Destiny. Almost every historical event of significance probably has a story worth discussing and possibly worth debating behind it. This would make history far more engaging and memorable.

(c) 2011 Read Twedt

  1. Originally viewed on the “Is your child sleep deprived?” webpage in 2010 but seems to have disappeared.

1 comment

1 ping

    • Karen on January 26, 2012 at 8:15 am
    • Reply

    Well said, Chad. Having had to yank three daughters out of bed at dawn in their high school years, I especially appreciate your point about allowing teenagers more sleep. I also completely agree with your ideas about homework.
    Who needs the Ivy League? Up until fairly recently, a great number of Ivy League students were “legacies,” there because other family members had attended, or their wealthy families had made large donations. With National Merit honors, I was recruited by the Seven Sisters, but I had no intention of going to schools where my peers would be what I privately thought of as “the dumb kids of rich people”. I grew up in an area of Michigan known as Little Denmark, where community is highly valued, and demographic differences, especially of wealth, are not emphasized. I chose instead the University of Michigan, our home-grown Public Ivy, a true meritocracy. My years in Ann Arbor were incredibly rich, not only in intellectual growth but also in deep friendships. The article you cited discussed “fit”: For me, my alma mater was a perfect fit.
    Today the private Ivy admissions are supposedly based on merit, but some “legacy” students remain, as well as less than stellar students who are extensively (and expensively) tutored for the SATs …My daughter Elaine (who was in your class at McQueen) was an assistant admission director for awhile before she entered the Peace Corps, at her own alma mater, the University of Washington. It was eye-opening when she described to us the process. Flooded with applications, all from strong students with well-rounded resumes (athletics, charity work, all the activities deemed necessary for admission to a first-tier school), and limited to accepting only about 15% of them, the admissions people would just pick at random. Sometimes they would toss the qualifying applications on the floor upside down and just blindly choose.

  1. […] hard and yet one student’s grade is still based on another’s (in my Read Twedt article Public School System Changes Needed for the Benefit of Students, I make a compelling argument against group work in […]

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