Thursday, April 30, 2009

Problems in Education.

I teach science (Genetics) at an open admission public University. I have watched my incoming students steadily decline in their ability to handle basic math and logic. As a geneticist, I can assume that their genes aren’t changing from year to year. Yes genes influence intelligence, but so does environment. On top of that, intelligence by itself is not a fabulous predictor for success.

At my University the big exception to the trend of decreasing interest and decreasing skills is foreign-born students. We have sizable communities of South Asian, Central European, and Middle Eastern students. We have very few East Asian or Hispanic students. It doesn’t matter if these foreign-born students spent their entire school career in the U.S. or not, they have learned to value education from their parents. They treat me and other professors with respect, they do their homework. Some American-born students do too, but there is a pronounced difference in the groups as a whole.

Think about it, there are advertisements that make fun of science and learning. Smart kids are stereotyped as socially backwards nerds. The popular “Rate My Professor” website gives points for “easiness”. We do not value knowledge or intelligence.

I try to make my students work hard, solve problems, and comprehend the material. The end result is hopefully some better mastery of the subject, but my student evaluations are full of hatred for my expectations and for making the students work. My good students hang out in my office and lab, asking questions, discussing genetics and biotechnology, trying to convince me to let them work in my laboratory. They always express puzzlement about the terrible things they have heard about me from their peers.

In truth, the terrible thing is that I want my students to learn and understand. I want them to think.

Until we, as a society, start putting a high value on academic achievement we are going to continue to slide compared to the rest of the world. We don’t value education. We pay teachers poorly and make them work very hard. It is no surprise that students who struggle with their classes often drift into education, and that brilliant education majors often do not stay education majors. Education is considered low-end work. It does not command respect.

What do we value? Money, fame, and sexiness. That won’t serve us too well as a nation in the long run.