What shapes education today
By Elliot Bacharach
Imagine being a child who does not go to school. Instead of learning academics that are deemed important for one’s future in today’s education, little children are essentially their own teachers and rely on exploration of their surroundings and play in some type of form. They process the ways of life through their own experiences.
There isn’t much need for learning such trivial things like mathematics or English. Instead, people become extremely knowledgeable about the variety of plants and animals in the area. After all, the only future career of these adolescents is being a hunter and gatherer, just like their parents. The goal is to just simply survive. There isn’t a need for academia. This is the life of a child before agriculture existed.
Though becoming informed about the wilderness through exploration may not be the most traditional way of learning, it doesn’t mean it is inferior to today’s learning. It is just a different approach of education. In fact, some students yearn for a more intimate learning experience.
“I am more of a hands-on person and can’t be sitting at a desk and listening to the same thing over and over again. It gets boring,” sophomore Bennett Brownfield said. “But hands-on stuff helps me focus and keeps me more engaged.”
Now, picture being put to labor as a juvenile. There are more ways to obtain food now besides hunting and gathering. There’s a popular new thing called agriculture that has swept all across the world. Unfortunately for the children of the world, they will be put to hard labor. Their days are filled with plowing, planting, tending their flocks, cultivating and other agonizing work. Gone are the days of play. It is now the era of gut-wrenching work.
Youngsters may develop a good work ethic and character but don’t gain much knowledge about academic subjects such as math or literature while exclusively working on a farm. Their duty is to support their families because when they have 10 other siblings who all needed to be fed, their families need all the help they can get.
Before education became more academic based, this was the life of young ones.
One student didn’t think that the stress of labor is as useful for a child as an education. Specifically applying to the more useful knowledge education provides as opposed to simply just working on the fields.
“Education would most likely be more beneficial than labor because it has greater benefits for the kids’ futures,” sophomore Hannah Rettke said. “Education and the lessons you learn through schooling will help you through life with multiple things, such as math and English skills that are often required for multiple tasks.”
However, as society progressed, so did the ways kids learned. As the industry advanced and became somewhat self-regulating, the need for child-labor declined.
The concept of Universal Education in Europe evolved from the 16th to 19th century. Most of its promoters were religious Protestants. Because of this, the main purpose of formal education was to instruct children on values and religion. Another influence of education at the time were employers. They saw education as a way to improve the future workforce. For them, the most vital things to be learned were following orders, resilience to long hours of work, and a basic understanding of reading and writing.
Schools developed to what they are today in the 19th and 20th centuries when academics became a more prominent part of the curriculum. From the 1890s to 1930s, what is known as the progressive era, the number of schools and students served increased tremendously, and by 1950, 50 percent of adults had earned a high school diploma in America.
Dr. Chris Belcher, former superintendent of Columbia Public Schools (CPS) and current assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, gives insight on what shapes education today. His areas of expertise include school and district improvement, curriculum leadership, and leader development and learning.
“At one point you may remember hearing about common core curriculum, which was lots of states working a partnership trying to identify what were the key objectives for courses. And the types of activities and outcomes students should be able to demonstrate, those types of things. So that’s the first way,” Dr. Belcher said. “The second way is school districts are by law allowed to choose the curriculum they want to teach as long as it doesn’t violate any kind of federal or state standard. School districts can look at those standards and integrate and adopt them to their own liking, so to speak. So that’s the basic outline. And when I say the curriculum that’s provided. Those are sort of broad outcomes, like a student will be able to understand the difference between a one variable expression and something else.”
CPS has utilized the common core curriculum in the past. Sometimes reforms had to be made to CPS standards in order to better fit common core. Not necessarily because CPS had to, but because they believed what they were doing wasn’t preparing students for life after school. Whether that be the military, the workforce, or higher education.
Teachers are also involved in the process of deciding what material to teach. Kory Kaufman, a physics teacher who has been teaching for more than 30 years, explained their role in forming what is taught.
“Most of what is decided as to ‘what’ is taught is determined by state standards. Teachers including me have opportunities for input to those standards when they are being developed,” Kaufman said. “In terms of what I actually teach my students is somewhat up to me. I work with our PLT (Professional Learning Team), and we decide our common assessments and then I have a lot of freedom to decide exactly what I teach and how it’s taught.”
The district does have power in the decision of what the curriculum will be, however they don’t get the final word in what learning will look like. Dr. Belcher illustrated just how much power the district has over what is taught.
“When you hear this term academic freedom, what that really means is, we give teachers the professional judgment to determine the best way to teach that curriculum,” Dr. Belcher said. “And in some cases, they have these certain assessments that the district has created, and when I say the district the teachers created it, to measure whether or not the students have learned that curriculum. So we give them lots of ways to implement the curriculum, but the principals expect the teachers to for the most part be teaching that curriculum effectively from that curriculum guide.”
Though teachers don’t have control over everything they teach, Kaufman is content with the power he has, especially because he has a lot more voice in the process than in the past.
“I feel that I have a lot of freedom in making decisions for how I teach and that’s only because I was involved in what was taught. When I first was teaching, I wanted more because I had very little say in what was being taught,” Kaufman said. “What I mean is when I first started teaching I was handed a curriculum and a book and it was up to me how I taught it. Since then I have been involved in changing the what and how of what’s being taught. However, that would mean that a new teacher coming into the position would not feel they have a lot of freedom of what to teach.”
However, some teachers believe there is room for improvement. Bob Borst, a math teacher for more than 25 years, sees a flaw in the current system of the curriculum.
“I wish we could pare down the amount of mathematics we have to teach in a given year. You may notice that the train keeps moving throughout the year and doesn’t stop much to explore or apply the mathematics in our effort to complete the given standards by year’s end,” Borst said. “Mathematics is such a comprehensive subject that even though we cram in so much in a given year, we actually make conscious decisions to eliminate some topics that we would prefer to teach.”
Not only that, but Dr. Belcher detailed some of the changes that were made specifically at CPS. “A good example of how curriculum has really changed a lot is project ‘lead the way,’ which is a curriculum we have at the Career Center. It was a recent development based on the needs of having more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” Dr. Belcher said. “And so at a national level they produced a curriculum and CPS has adopted that and has integrated that into courses at the Career Center. So it’s constantly changing based on the needs of the students and the workforce and college requirements and research.”
Moreover, there have been many changes in education over the years. This consists of modifications of how students are taught, or even a decision to make a class mandatory. There are also outside factors, such as future employers of students, that go into deciding what adjustments are made.
“There was a group of people in the late 90s that got together in Missouri and decided that all students should have to have a personal finance class. And we [the district] thought so at the time, really didn’t think that was a mandate that was necessary because we had personal finance classes that kids could take, and we weren’t sure if kids should be required to take that,” Dr. Belcher said. “Well, ultimately the state, working closely with the business industry, decided they wanted to make that a requirement.”
With the development of resources in society such as the internet and other technologies, a lot of what we know as the traditional curriculum is subject to change in the future and has already been changed. Because of the access to answer virtually any question, the amount of memorization incorporated in class has been cut down. Kaufman described specifically how methods of teaching have changed over the years.
“When I first started teaching over 30 years ago there was a lot of emphasis on memorization of facts. When the MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) was introduced, the assessments didn’t rely as much on facts but more of an emphasis on application of information,” Kaufman said. In physics “There is very little memorization of facts since most can be found with a quick google check and an obvious emphasis on what to do with those facts. Tomorrow’s workers need to be problem solvers and that is currently what the curriculum does today.”
Borst gave his opinion on how education has developed, too. Since he started teaching, many changes have been made to how kids learn. He revealed how each change affected him personally as a teacher.
“I began teaching in the ’90s and it was a traditional approach to teaching. I didn’t really know any other way as this was the way I was taught as a kid. Then in the upper ’90s and early ’00s, the district decided we would try a new approach that was making waves in pockets across the country,” Borst said. “ ‘Standards-Based’ teaching was a departure from lecture, notes, and memorization. We still taught the ‘what,’ but the ‘how’ meant teachers and parents had to approach learning from a different place. It absolutely required teachers to understand mathematics at a deeper level and required us to teach it in a radically different way.”
Although this method seemed to be effective based on the improved understanding and test scores of students, teachers were forced to shift back to traditional ways of teaching because of another major player in the deciding of the curriculum. The opinion of the taxpayers.
“At the middle school we were problem-based and we developed thinking students. Students became comfortable wrestling with problems without notes or a blueprint on how to solve. Eventually, this type of teaching and learning was thrown out by the superintendent who bowed to pressure from loud parents and some teachers,” Borst said. “It was no longer politically-correct to stray from tradition and tax-funded schools answer to the taxpayers. Test scores were improving for our students, but that was not enough to quiet the noise. CPS teachers were told that we had to change back to a traditional approach to teaching math.”
Furthermore, the previous approaches of the curriculum have impacted the present-day custom of teaching. Some of these techniques didn’t work the way they were planned to. Dr. Belcher demonstrated an example where education was affected by past experiences that weren’t sufficient.
“We’ve seen a lot of push to stop schools from offering low-level classes that don’t really challenge kids,” Dr. Belcher said. “Often times they were offered so that kids could process through them gradually but they really weren’t graduating with the skills that they needed, so you see curriculum tightened in schools to where more and more kids are pushed into more rigorous courses. We’ve taken out some of that fluff that used to be there in the ‘70s and the ‘80s.”
There are many reasons why education is the way it is today. But it is always changing, and one must account for what is in store for students tomorrow. Dr. Belcher went into detail on where he sees education going. He noted that online school may trend up, and the overall freedoms of students should increase.
“I think we’re gonna see a huge shift in the way that students get their curriculum where it’s online. It’s gonna give a lot of individuality to students to choose when they take their course and how they take their course,” Dr. Belcher said, “Then I think we’ll start to see that; I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but there may be a time that students will be at the RBHS campus maybe half the time. You know, they may be taking some courses online. They may be doing some sort of apprenticeship with a business. That’s another thing that’s going to unwind. The desire to get students, especially in their junior and senior year, out in the environment of where they think they might wanna work and do some work in the industry in which they think they want to go on and seek a degree or certificate in.”
With this freedom comes a lot of responsibility as RBHS faculty likes to tell their students. In a perfect world, all students would be able to handle this freedom, but the district knows that isn’t realistic.
“I talk with a lot of my colleagues, and the fear from the professionals is that some students are ready for that independent level of study and when they do that they won’t complete the assignments or they don’t have the study skills to stay organized and they’re not successful in the class,” Dr. Belcher said. “So there’s gonna be that. Some way you’re going to have to determine who’s going to be successful at something that is atypical from the current model and who needs to be there and have direct guidance at a much higher level.”
Teachers and experts have their concerns and hopes for the future of learning, as well. Not only because of the lack of human communication but for an unrelated issue of the next generation of teachers.
“With the increase in online learning options, I’m not sure this is a good thing. Ideas are developed and problems are solved when we have dialogue with each other. I have never had a student who didn’t have something to contribute,” Kaufman said. “I am also concerned about recruiting good teachers. Other country’s top students become teachers. Here in the U.S., that’s not the case. I have made a concerted effort to tell my top students that I think they would make a great teacher.”
Online classes are currently offered at RBHS for a wide range of subjects. Vera Reichlin, a Math teacher who also teaches online math classes, shared her input that it takes determination from students in order to succeed in the class.
“One of the negatives [of online classes] is that students need to be pretty self-motivated in order for online learning to work. If students aren’t very self-motivated, it’s pretty easy for them to fall behind,” Reichlin said. “Also, in math classes, students have each other and the teacher to ask if they don’t understand something. Online there are videos to watch, but no one to ask.”
Nevertheless, there are students who do have the drive to stay caught up in the class and can benefit from the opportunity and flexibility that go along with online classes.
“The benefits [of online classes] that I have seen are if students have health issues that prevent them from being able to attend an in-seat class,” Reichlin said. “Online classes allow those students to continue to learn and meet their educational goals.”
“Online classes, overall, will be good for the future of education because it provides them with the resources and opportunities that some regular classes might not allow,” sophomore Hannah Rettke said. “The only negative I could see from online classes is that students will no longer be receiving that in-class experience in addition to not being able to interact with other students or teachers face-to-face.”
Another student sees the advantage in more open space in schools. Not only that, but it would allow students to apply themselves more than a typical class would.
“School’s are already overcrowded, and [online classes] would get less kids in school, and teachers could possibly work more with students one on one because they don’t have to deal with a great number of students in a class,” Brownfield said. “[Apprenticeships] would get [students] more prepared for what’s coming and what they would have to know. I think interactions with people in the field you want to be in would be better than just sitting in a classroom dealing with a teacher. I’d like to deal with what they would go through on a daily basis.”
There are so many components that go into what students are taught, it’s hard to tell what actually makes a difference. What truly matters and makes a difference, is who is teaching whatever the curriculum is, be it based on what’s going on in the present, what’s happened in the past, or planning for the future.
“A good teacher has the biggest effect. Whether that teacher is employing a mostly traditional approach or using exploration and discovery it matters that the teacher knows is the students are learning and can adjust when students are not understanding. We cannot just push math into brains and make it stick,” Borst said. “All CPS teachers are teaching the same standards, but the results are still varying from teacher to teacher. This is why our teachers continually meet together and attend professional-development so we can continue to learn from one another and improve so all students can benefit from the best instruction.”
American college v international university
Education is an important part of American society, but many other countries seem to have worked out far better systems of learning, es
pecially regarding college. A good education is almost always necessary in the United States to get much more than minimum wage, and higher level positions often require more difficult degrees. The main problem most students are hav
ing is the cost of college, which can sometimes be absurdly high.
Other countries, especially in the EU, publicly fund free education such as Germany, or significantly lower the cost of higher education compared to the US such as France or Switzerland. The United Kingdom’s education system has instituted universal income based tuition in order to comba
t rapidly rising student debt. This means that in the UK, what a person pays for university is directly tied to how much money they make in a year, so it is very hard to rack up debt as long as they are responsible.
So, what has the US done to combat student debt? Recently, hardly anything. The price of university has been exponentially rising, and the government has basically ignored it. According to the College Board, the average student pays about 34,000 dollars a year. This means the average student could end up in tens of thousands of dollars in debt coming out of college before they even get a chance to use their degree.
Another pressing issue is the quality of education within America. We may perceive our colleges and universities to be some of the best in the world, but Americans with bachelor’s degrees score 6 percent worse than the international average, according to the New York Times. Many degrees are quickly obsolete due to the quickly developing nature of our job market, meaning even the most educated among us can have problems finding work.
Overall, the American system of higher education is inconvenient, unfair, and expensive for the average citizen. The universities cost far too much compared to our international counterparts, the knowledge is lacking, and degrees become useless fast.
Homework consumes students' time
EEE makes efforts to improve diversity
From Student Council to Congress, equalizing opportunity and increasing diversity is a prevalent issue, and Columbia Public Schools’ gifted program, EEE, is no exception.
CPS provides a program known as EEE (Extended Educational Experiences) to provide specialized instruction to gifted students, as dictated by Missouri legislature. Senate Bill 638 passed by the General Assembly in 2016 states, “School districts in Missouri may establish programs for gifted children when a sufficient number of children in the district are determined to be gifted and their development requires programs or services beyond the level of those ordinarily provided in regular public school programs…” Dr. Beth Winton Ph.D., the Administrator of Secondary Gifted Education, believes an appropriately rigorous class is necessary to ensure these students reach their fullest potential.
“Between 25 and 35 percent of identified gifted kids are underachieving academically,” Dr. Winton said, “which means that that’s one out of every three or four identified gifted kids is not performing in school in the way that their potential suggests that they should. It’s not that they’re not unmotivated or they don’t love learning. They’re disenchanted by the system.”
Despite the apparent necessity of this program for gifted students, recent statistics suggest that gifted students of color and low income are disproportionately unserviced. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) releases an annual report of racial and socioeconomic diversity among Missouri education programs. The 2018-2019 report found that with the exception of Eastern Asian, every group of students of color is underrepresented in Missouri Gifted Programs. The 2018-2019 reports of CPS’s EEE concur with the DESE statistics, with the exception of adequately representing mixed-race students. This issue of underrepresentation is not unique to EEE or other Missouri gifted programs, it is an issue of national proportion. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, African American, Hispanic American, and Native American students are nationally underrepresented by at least 50% in programs for the gifted.
Sophomore and student of color, Shruti Gautam noticed a lack of racial diversity in her EEE classes. She notes this has nothing to do with the empirical abilities of underrepresented students.
“As for looking at racial diversity in gifted program intrinsically, it definitely isn’t representative of an ideal ratio,” Gautam said. “Many racial groups who are historically associated with a lower socioeconomic level, such as African American and Latino, tend to not be in these programs. Even though, there is nothing wrong with the kids themselves. I know plenty of talented and genius kids of these groups, they just have a lower presence.”
To explain the disparity several students describe, a variety of theories have arisen. Some students, including Wu, theorize that this inequality is because of the lack of awareness of the testing process.
“I feel like it’s always the parents who research it and who prepare their kids for the exam,” Wu said. “I don’t think the school really advertises it to students that EEE is a thing that’s a good opportunity.”
Gifted Teacher and Counselor Gwen Struchtemeyer agrees with Wu’s assertion that students whose parents do not have the time, energy, or knowledge to look into gifted program are put at a disadvantage in the identification process.
“Right now we have about 300 students who qualify for gifted services, but fewer than 12 are of African American or Latino descent, which is several times underrepresented as compared to the general population. I do find students every year who I think would be on my roster if they had been selected earlier. Undoubtedly, a variety of social challenges weigh into this. I have a lot of students whose parents actively seek gifted acknowledgment. Some students may not have been selected because they moved around a lot as children, or they did not have a parent at home who could seek out services, and that is also tied to lower socioeconomic status.”
Although there is a universal screening in elementary school, joining EEE during middle school requires a testing recommendation. This may put under-resourced families at a disadvantage as they do not have the time or resources to research the program. According to the U.S. Department of Education, underprivileged families have less access to academic material like books. This disadvantage is clear in the DESE report citing, while 44 percent of CPS students receive free and reduced lunch, only 12 percent of EEE students receive these services. According to Dr. Winton, Free and Reduced is often used as an indicator of low-income among students. This underrepresentation may have contributed to the lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity in EEE as students of color have higher rates of Free and Reduced Lunch qualifiers. According to the Missouri Department of Education, CPS’s free and reduced lunch serves over 60 percent students of color, yet the district is made up of only 40.1 percent students of color.
The correlation between socioeconomic and racial diversity creates a unique issue for screening gifted students. Dr. Winton said the screening for EEE can be biased toward students with more resources.
“One of the issues with the identification of gifted kids is sometimes the screening procedures are biased or imperfect and they end up screening kids out. So ideally you want a universal screener where everybody is screened within some kind of nonverbal assessment,” Dr. Winton said, “so we don’t screen out kids for whom English isn’t their primary language, kids who have some kind of language processing disability or kids who are from underprivileged homes who don’t have strong language skills.”
In order to qualify for EEE students must meet program benchmarks on the Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children, Fifth Edition (WISC5). This test is administered one-on-one to any student if the student first meets a program benchmark on the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, Second Edition (NNAT2). The Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test is administered to all students new to CPS and to all kindergarten students during the spring of the kindergarten year. This test acts as a prerequisite to the WISC5. Test creators Naglieri and Ford found that for the NNAT2, White, Black, and Hispanic children of similar household income had similar mean scores and were equally likely to meet common percentile cuts for participation in gifted programming. More recent studies, however, found that students from low income households and underrepresented minority groups scored 14 Naglieri Ability Index score (NAI) points lower on the NNAT2 than non-minority students from middle-class families.
The varying ability to present giftedness based on the background makes it difficult to identify underprivileged gifted individuals. The current screening processes measure primarily academic giftedness and tend to skim over other forms.
“We don’t want to disadvantage kids from the under-resourced background because you don’t have a thousand books in your house, doesn’t mean that you can exhibit the giftedness, it just means it looks different and it’s our job to know that it looks different,” Dr. Winton said. “To know what those differences are and to actively go out and look for kids who have exhibited in the way that we know those kids exhibit their giftedness. It’s our fault for not doing that. It’s not their fault for not showing up knocking on our doors saying, ‘Hey, I’m here’. Our job is to go find them.”
To find these individuals, the EEE program opened referrals to allow testing recommendations from family, friends, teachers or even the students themselves. Still, Dr. Winton believes that more can be done to identify the giftedness in all its forms.
“You can be at the top academically, musically, artistically or creativity. There are lots of other avenues,” Dr. Winton said. “Some students can memorize the words to every song they’ve ever heard. That’s just as strong a memory skill as the kids who have memorized every book they ever read, but our schools tend to value that book skill over the kind of non-academically related displays of giftedness. So what I would love to see us do, and one of the things that I try to work in my role as coordinator is to expand opportunities for gifted kids to display different skills.”
To consider these varying displays and eliminate resource bias, Dr. Winton suggests a holistic approach to EEE applications. She believes this will help identify giftedness among underprivileged students whose skills may not manifest themselves in test scores.
“What I would love to see ultimately is a committee interview process where we collectively look at all of the information about a particular child in school and out of school,” Dr. Winton said. “We would interview them and sort of take collectively their whole experience, as opposed to just how well did you do on this set of tests of these last five years.”
Dr. Winton resides on the Advisory Council on the Education of Gifted and Talented Students, which works to improve and manage the policies surrounding gifted education. The Advisory Council meets each month, at Drury University, to discuss making the Missouri gifted programs more inclusive.
“I don’t view it as a kindness to be more inclusive. I view it as an ethical requirement,” Dr. Winton said. “It’s a moral decision that if we have a program that targets needs of gifted kids and we know that the way that we identify gifted kids isn’t as good as it can be. We have a moral imperative to make it better.”
By Amira McKee