The Wha? Of The Schwa

I was rolling along pretty well in school.  I had mastered the ability to sleep on a towel at nap time, and I colored inside the lines.  I had learned how to read, knew the alphabet (and the alphabet song), and got the connection between printed words and verbal speech.  I also understood the concept, at least, of counting and math.

And then, at some point, the schwa came along, and I kind of lost the golden thread.

schwaDoes anyone here remember the schwa — the inverted e that purportedly signified some kind of sound and that was supposed to help kids with reading, or pronunciation . . . or something?  More importantly, does anyone here remember being helped — as opposed to being completely flummoxed — by learning about the schwa?  Even now, the definition of the schwa comes across as the same needlessly confusing morass that it was when it was first introduced in grade school.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “an unstressed mid-central vowel (such as the usual sound of the first and last vowels of the English word America)” and “the symbol ə used for the schwa sound and less widely for a similarly articulated stressed vowel (as in cut).”  

There, does that help?

The schwa didn’t exist when I started school and first learned to read.  At that time, the emphasis was on recognizing different words, learning how to pronounce them, and then memorizing them.  It worked perfectly well, and you could feel your working vocabulary growing.  It wasn’t a big deal that letters could be pronounced in different ways, depending on the word — that was just another part of what you had to learn, the same way you had to learn the name of your town, the name of your school, or the name of your teacher.  You accepted the different pronunciations because that’s the way that language apparently worked.  It was just something else to memorize.

The schwa didn’t help, it only muddled things.  It wasn’t a letter of the alphabet, and it didn’t appear in the Weekly Reader or any of those compelling books about Dick, Jane, and Spot.  So why in the world was the teacher trying to get baffled students to understand the schwa?  Why couldn’t we just go back to learning more actual words, the way they were actually spelled?  I decided to ignore the stupid schwa and just learn more words, and it seemed to work out okay.

Interestingly, when our kids went to school, they didn’t seem to hear about the schwa at all.  It appears that, after years of battering perplexed students with it, it was consigned onto the educational scrap heap, along Esperanto and other failed concepts.  If the schwa is gone from American education, I’m glad.

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Requiring A College Degree For Every Job

Recently Washington, D.C. became one of the first cities in the country to impose a licensing requirement that mandates that all child care workers — that is, people caring for infants and toddlers who aren’t yet in a pre-school or kindergarten program — must obtain college degrees.

The college degree requirement is part of an effort to address an “achievement gap” between children that apparently is evident as early as 18 months of age.  The concern is that most early child care workers are treated, and paid, like glorified babysitters, when they actually should be viewed as being more like teachers.  D.C. officials want to focus child care programs more on education and quality of care and “set our young children on a positive trajectory for learning and development.”

The new standard will require many existing child care workers in the District of Columbia, who hold only high school diplomas, to go back to college and obtain a degree — a daunting prospect for many because of the cost of going to college and the low pay that child care workers traditionally receive.  Studies show that a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education produces the lowest lifetime earnings of any college degree, which makes it likely that child care workers who do earn a degree won’t stay in the child care area and will instead move on to better-paying careers.  If those child care workers need to take out student loans to get that college degree, their financial issues will become even more acute.  And neither the District of Columbia, nor the parents of the kids being cared for, apparently have the resources to pay the workers more after they get that required college degree.

This seems to me like a self-inflicted problem.  Of course, making sure that young children enjoy stimulating environments, are introduced to the benefits of reading at an early age, experience interesting forms of play, and so forth is important — but it doesn’t require a college agree to make sure that happens.  People with high school diplomas who are adequately trained and monitored should be perfectly capable of helping children move onto that “positive trajectory for learning and development” through programs that can be set by the supervisors of the child care centers.

More and more, we seem to be requiring college degrees for jobs because it sounds good, and a college degree can be seen as a kind of general surrogate for all kinds of skills — when in reality not every job actually requires a college degree.  This trend pushes more people into college, allows colleges to continuously increase their tuition, puts pressure on wages, and has all kinds of other effects.  We need to recognize that not everyone needs to go to college, and not every job requires college.

 

A Deserving Winner, And A Nobel Cause

This morning the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to its youngest winner ever — Malala Yousafzai, a 17-year-old woman from Pakistan.  She and Kailash Satyarthi of India received the Prize for their work to advance the rights of children and promote universal schooling.

Many selections of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee have been controversial — often they are criticized as highly politicized attempts to direct public discourse, rather than recognize true achievements in promoting peace — and even this award had an apparent political message.  The Committee Chairman said: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”

Regardless of the political overtones, this time the Committee made a very worthy choice.  Yousafzai’s compelling personal story, and her courageous crusade for education, have been an inspiration to millions across the world.   Ever since she overcame being shot for resisting Taliban edicts that barred girls from going to school and bravely continued to advocate — peacefully — for the advancement and schooling of girls, Yousafzai has been a living example of everything the Nobel Peace Prize is supposed to represent.

There is something important in the fact that Yousafzai is the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, too.  A 15-year-old girl who is threatened, bullied, and then shot by religious extremists would seem to be powerless, but Yousafzai proved that perceptions of power can be wrong.  Individuals, young and old, can make a difference.

Should We Show The Door To Common Core?

These days you hear a lot about “Common Core” — a set of national math and reading standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states and are supported by the Obama Administration.  One recent article described a “populist uprising” against the standards.  In Louisiana, the state board of education and Governor Bobby Jindal are suing each other about whether that state can nullify its agreement to participate in Common Core.  This week, in Ohio, House Republicans have introduced a bill to replace Common Core standards, which could set up a clash with Governor John Kasich, who has supported the Common Core initiative.

The stated goal of Common Core is to develop critical thinking and better ready students for college and careers and — as its name indicates — establish a common set of standards between states.  Supporters say the Common Core approach to learning about math and reading are better, and in any event it would be foolish to retreat from the standards after the participating states have spent years developing and implementing them.  Common Core opponents object to “federalization” of education and raise questions about costs.

Richard and Russell are long past learning math and reading, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I’m not automatically opposed to trying new approaches or promoting standards that ensure that kids learn the basics; I remember taking “The Iowa Test of Basic Skills” when I was in grade school in the ’60s.  At the same time, I’m often skeptical at claims that new approaches are better, particularly when it comes to subjects that have been taught for centuries.

With respect to Common Core, I’m more interested in the human element in these changes — which, I think, often get overlooked when huge national forces and politics enter the process.  I became aware of that human element when I had lunch several weeks ago with two colleagues who have youngsters in grade school.  Neither is a Republican or a reflexive opponent of “federalizing” standards, but both had serious concerns about Common Core.  One related a story in which she sat down with her daughter to look at her math homework, which involved addition and subtraction problems.  When the mother started to use the familiar right to left process, “carrying” numbers from column to column, the daughter said:  “Mom, we don’t do it that way!”  The Mom was embarrassed, and wondered why we are making this kind of change.  NPR recently carried a report that raised that same issue of disconnect between parents and their kids that Common Core presents.

I think parental involvement helps to encourage kids to work hard in school, and homework assistance can also be one way of strengthening the parent-child bond.  Those of us who learned the “carry” method have somehow managed to balance checkbooks, perform the basic math skills needed to function in modern society, and contribute to the economy.  Why change the basic approach to addition and subtraction in a way that shuts parents out of the homework process even in the very early grades, and suggests to young children that their parents are old-fashioned and out of it?  Isn’t it at least possible that there is an ultimate social cost in such a change that outweighs whatever incremental learning benefit the new approach is supposed to realize?

Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact. 

IMG_2446Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.   

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.

The Constitutionality Of Teacher Tenure

Last week in California a state-court judge declared that the state statute establishing teacher tenure violated the state constitutional right to an education.  The court held that the tenure statutes disproportionately adversely affected poor and minority students, because the worst teachers protected by the statute are assigned to their schools.  The evidence of the negative impact, the court found, “shocks the conscience.”

Much of the news coverage of the decision has focused on the impact on teachers’ unions — a powerful voice in the powerful field of public employee unions.  The head of one of the unions affected by the California ruling said that the judge fell prey to anti-union sentiment and rhetoric and that teachers were being unfairly scapegoated for the problems that exist in public education.  Those arguments will be tested:  the court’s decision is just the first step in what will likely be a long litigation and appeal process.

As I read the reports on the California decision, I had two reactions.  First, we’ve become an increasingly judge-driven society, in which courts and litigants are using constitutional provisions to overturn statutes and popular referendums.  We applaud court rulings when we agree with their effect, but a heightened judicial role is a two-way street.  I’m sure California teachers never dreamed that a constitutional right to education could be used to overturn a hard-won legislative victory on teacher tenure.  And judicial involvement in policy-making can be complicated:  if the existing California system of hiring and firing teachers is struck down, what will replace it?  Legislative enactments are detailed and specific and supplemented by regulation; judicial rulings are much more high level.

Second, the concept of tenure — which was a means of ensuring academic freedom at the college and post-graduate level — does not fit well at the elementary and secondary school level.  The idea was that professors who had proven their merit after years of work should be free to explore research or prepare writings that addressed controversial topics without worrying about being fired by those who disagreed with their conclusions.  How does that translate to the public school setting, where curriculums are increasingly dictated by federal and state laws and regulations?  In California, the state law overturned by the court seemed motivated less by notions of academic freedom and more by simple job preservation:  teachers became tenured after only two years, strict seniority rules required that the newest teachers would be laid off first, and a welter of rules and procedures made it practically impossible to discharge incompetent tenured teachers.

We can expect to see more efforts to use broadly phrased state constitutional provisions to modify existing public policy, and more wrangling about teachers.  They are on the front lines of public education and inevitably will be targets as people grow increasingly concerned about the state of our public schools and what to do about them.

The Latest Government Rating System

The federal government has announced that it plans to “rate” America’s colleges and universities.  The New York Times story linked above describes the ratings push as “a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons.”

IMG_0747The underlying concept is that colleges and universities receive $150 billion in federal loans and grants, so the federal government should determine whether the schools are “worth it.”  The proposed rating system would apparently be based on how many students graduate, how much debt they accumulate during their college years, and how much money they make after they graduate, among other factors. The federal rating would compete with the college guides, like that produced by U.S. News and World Report, that are all too familiar to the parents of a college-bound high school student.

College administrators are reacting with horror to the idea.  In some respects, it’s hard not to feel a certain schadenfreude when you read their outright dismissal of the idea.  For years our institutions of higher learning have been relentlessly raising their tuition and fees and administrator salaries, blithely rejecting thousands of applicants, and happily operating in their own, comfortable sphere of almost complete autonomy.  Now they’re the ones who will be judged, and they don’t like it.

But the college presidents have a point.  One Department of Education official said the rating system would be a cinch, like “rating a blender.”  Sounds like the same unfounded  bureaucratic arrogance that led to the disastrous roll-out of the healthcare.gov website, doesn’t it?  And speaking as someone who went to a land-grant school for college and a private school for a law degree, and was the parent of children who have gone to small and medium-sized private schools and a state school for college and master’s programs, I have zero confidence in the judgment of anyone who thinks that rating schools is even remotely comparable to rating an appliance.  There are far too many variables and differences, and focusing on financial issues — like how much graduates are paid — inevitably gives short shrift to the idea of getting a well-rounded liberal arts education.

More fundamentally, I am royally tired of the federal government injecting itself into every facet of American life.  The process is always the same — first the government provides money, then it says it needs to establish oversight to ensure that the money is being spent wisely. (Of course, there’s never any reconsideration of the idea of the federal government spending the money in the first place.)  We know from years of experience that if the Bureau of Federal Higher Education Rating is created, it will immediately become another calcified government program that can never be cut or terminated.

We don’t need President Obama or the federal bureaucracy dreaming up new ways to regulate and new administrative positions that need to be filled, we need them to focus on doing a better job of running the programs that already exist and figuring out how to run them more efficiently — and determining whether they are truly needed at all.  I’d give the notion of establishing a federal college rating system an “F.”