Why the U.S. Education System is Failing (and Why I’m an Authority) by indianamcfly
July 21, 2008, 11:59 pm
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My brain just exploded.

As an AP student in our awesomely failing compulsory education system, I agree.

I am the student that deserves a C in one class and suprisingly receives an A or a B. Sure, I’m thankful when I do get rewarded with an easy A (though, often it’s not an A awarded, which brings me to my next point). I am the kid who should be in Honors for some of my courses, but instead is forcefully pushed into a realm of education that should be beyond what my personal limitations are, all to avoid being in the cut-up class of Honors students who were pushed into that level of education. In a nutshell, I am a prime example of the failure of the U.S. education system. I am a product of my environment.

The A that I was awarded (or that 5 on an AP exam) may get me into a college – but what for? To be in another institution filled with students who were also pushed into courses in which they were given A’s but should have earned C’s?

This degradation of the public school system may put more kids in college, but only hurts us in the long run – that “long run” being the post-college career. It would not be so detrimental to the U.S. if the education system were slackened (as it has) were it not for one minor problem: The global position of U.S. education. This (pardon the cliche) “real world,” in which economics and business and policy are all counted and measured and judged and pitted against each other play out on the international stage – not the American stage. In this worldwide play, American students are slowly becoming the extras – the ones which people know are there, but everyone except that kid’s parents are too captivated by the leads to notice. Perhaps the most poignant observation (among many) is that College Board should grade teachers.

Here is a prime example of why.

Starting with the class of 2009, the state of Maryland’s Public Education System put in place standardized High School Assessments – tests which all MD students must pass to graduate. Is this fair? Does it ensure that teachers are being held accountable? To put it simply, no. This new, shiny, state government supported, fail-proof, strict measure has already been given elasticity to its intended rigidity: Students did not pass, teachers are not being fired, and not surprising in the least – its being challenged. Parents will not stand for their child, who is enrolled in an advanced Science course, to be told that they did not make the cut.

This intended swift hammer of justice did not strike. Nor will it. Not until school systems stop pushing for the school with the most enrolled AP students, and start pushing for the most students passing the AP exams.

We need to follow a survival of the fittest approach to education, not the “Oh-well-everybody-had-fun-here’s-a-juice-box” t-ball technique that we are using now.

The Glorious Failure of Charter Schools… by indianamcfly
July 21, 2008, 11:58 pm
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this is a short paper that I wrote for an argument assignment in my AP Language course back in November(I chose to do mine on charter schools). Just putting it out there:

“They are so common that students have given them names… drawn pictures of them”. These are the words of Ariel Smith, a college student who worked at an after-school program at in a Washington, D.C. public elementary school. The “they” she made reference to was not a local running group, a nest of birds in the school yard, or interesting cars. “They” is a reference to the rats seen running through the cafeteria and kindergarten room. Why, you may ask, has this D.C. public school (and so many like it) been neglected, been allowed to fall through the cracks? While some may say that it is the school principal’s fault, it is actually caused by a relocation of educational funds. Where is the money that could be saving the community’s schools? The answer is obvious: charter schools. Charter schools are public education facilities which have been created for any student who wishes to “escape” the disintegrating public schools. While many may say that this is an excellent idea because it allows students to get away from unproductive learning environments, it is, in reality, causing the existing schools to be further neglected, and in the end, allowing students to become “left behind”.

The District of Columbia has put great faith in charter schools to be the savior of the public school system. The charter schools, once seen as the magic remedy of the ever failing facilities and staff, have themselves failed. This year, a review of all public schools in the District was conducted to determine if they met health and test standards. 30 of the schools failed. Included in the list are charter schools. Although some of the charter schools have seen moderate success, a great number of them have failed to meet educational standards. 26 out of the 30 failing schools are regular public schools; the other 4 are charter schools. Washington charter schools are evaluated every 5 years by a charter committee, as well as an annual review (which the regular schools are subjected to as well) dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act. If it is determined that test scores are too low, they have a two year probationary period to improve them before they are added to an “In Need of Improvement” list. If after those two years the school still fails to raise its scores, the school is eligible for additional monitoring, or to be shut down. It is evident that charter schools are not only failing to be the champion of public school system, but rather they are becoming the nemesis of success, as is obvious in the growing number of schools who after more than two years still cannot raise scores.

Some say that charter schools are a great success because test scores are rising. However, this rise in test scores is found only in the charter schools, which draw the more academically advanced students from the regular public schools, and not throughout the entire District school system. Besides failing to ameliorate the entire District’s failing test scores (three out of four D.C. students fail to meet math standards), charter schools also use vital funds which should be used to rehabilitate the struggling regular public schools. Although in theory charter schools should be met with great success, they are actually money pits which consume large amounts of government funding. The school system fails to be productive with the money granted not because of a fundamental flaw with charter schools, but because of the District’s crumbling infrastructure. Blatant statistics show misuse of funding (and of deep internal issues) in Washington’s school system. The school system ranks third in the nation’s 100 largest school districts in spending, while it ranks last in the classroom and instruction spending category. Charter schools are merely the latest step in a colossal fumbling of grant location; they are the biggest layer that needs to be peeled away, and one that when removed will make the underlying infrastructure problems visible and ready for reform.

The first step in fixing the mounting problems in Washington, D.C. schools is to phase out charter schools and focus on rehabilitating the decrepit facilities which already exist. Once this happens, more qualified teachers will come to teach in the District, and eventually, test scores will rise. But I stress once again, to give incentive to these teachers, it is paramount that we refocus our funds away from money pit projects (such as the $125,000 “production room” at a Washington middle school intended for announcements and television broadcasts, which, after three years still has not been used due to miscommunication between the school board and the principal) and towards the rehabilitation and expansion of regular public schools.

Teachers do not want to work where rats scurry through classrooms, adorned with rusted through lockers, and where they will lack proper funding for classroom instruction. Until these issues are met head on, Washington test scores will fail to improve across the board. While system-wide reconstruction will not be easy, the first (and always hardest) steps are to phase out charter schools and refocus funds.

July 21, 2008, 11:57 pm
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Sound probable? Well it is more than you think. And you know what? It’s about time those hair flipping, girls pants wearing scensters get their Vans Slip-On shod feet held to the fire. Who would have thought that it would have come from their choice of cosmetics?

Our little story starts off in September 2007. That month saw the release of a number of albums by emo darlings like Motion City Soundtrack, Rilo Kiley, Iron and Wine, Every Time I Die, The Bled, and Hot Hot Heat. Additionally, the charts were filled with hit emo “rockers” like Simple Plan’s “When I’m Gone”, Fall Out Boy’s “I’m Like a Lawyer…”, BoysLikeGirls’ “Hero/Heroine”, Paramore’s “crushcrushcrush”, and who can forget Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah”. Finally, the number one independent CD of that month was Dashboard Confessional’s “Thick as Thieves”.

At the same time, the L’Oreal Corporation saw the highest gain in stock prices outside of holiday season booms. In one month, the stocks ballooned $10 a share. This drastic gain is usually caused by a spike in demand for the conglomerate’s product. We all know the two things that emo kids love: makeup and skinny guys crying about their fat girlfriends. Usually consuming, per capita, enough eye shadow, mascara and hair dye to make the cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show gasp in astonishment, it can be assumed with roughly one emo kid per every 4 suburban households (or, 1000 per every Hot Topic storefront), that that climb in stock prices could be a reflection of the prosperity of the emo fad. I won’t even begin to talk about the amount of disposable income 14-18 year old suburban white kids have at their availability…

One of the key ingredients in cosmetics like lipstick, mascara, hair dye, hair wax/pomade is beeswax. Most of the world’s beeswax is sourced from Eastern Africa. Since the spike in demand the profit margins for the sale and export of beeswax have skyrocketed. This is reflected by the amount of aid groups that have intervened and under the premise of “creating a market structure” set standard prices (ones above the pre September ’07 levels) in order to increase the standard of living for the producers. This disguised price gouging can be absorbed by the cosmetics corporations, but other enterprises are not as fortunate.

The Greek Orthodox Church mandates that all candles used for religious services must be made from pure beeswax. As I said before, the area of largest export is Eastern Africa. With a standard price raised by non-profit groups like “Honey Care Africa”, the Greek Orthodox Church is facing the ass end of socialized market economies. The price hike is huge when you consider the scale of wax the church must consume regularly. As a non-profit organization, there is not nearly as much room for price fluctuations as there are in private industries. As such, there is a question to be raised about the viability of the church’s use of the wax candles.

So what’s the moral of the story? If you are a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and an emo kid, you are wrong. If you are an emo kid, shame on you. If you are a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, it is your holy obligation to cease the consumption of cosmetics by emo kids by any means necessary.

What’s With the War on Terror Comedies? by dedoty
June 10, 2008, 12:51 am
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A few days ago, I went to go see “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.” Really, just looking at the title I figured it would be shitty, but a friend texted me and said she thought it could be a fun study break. And besides, movies are only $10 and it’s like an hour and a half long. Sounds like a pretty safe decision. Right?

Wrong. This sounds snobby, I know, but to even review this movie almost feels beneath my dignity. The only reason why I can even bring myself to do this review is because Harold & Kumar is the angriest a movie has made me in years. To paraphrase a good friend of mine, who said that “How I Met Your Mother” is “one Neil Patrick Harris away from a shitty sitcom,” this movie was one Neil Patrick Harris away from the worst movie of the century. And maybe he didn’t even save it.

Let’s start off with some of the lighter misdemeanors the movie commits. Every time somebody got punched in the stomach (which happened far too often) it was accompanied by a fart noise. Inmates at Guantanamo Bay eat cock meat sandwiches for their meals, evidently, which played out in an entirely pointless scene where a group of guards came in and told some unconvincing “hardened terrorists,” and our protagonists Harold & Kumar, to “get sucking.” At a completely unnecessary “bottomless party,” a male friend walks from the water and Kumar yells that his pubes “look like Osama bin Laden’s beard.”

And Rob Cordry? Horrendous acting aside, his “racist Homeland Security Officer” character might have come off as quality satire to middle schoolers who get their foreign policy news from Green Day songs, but anybody else it’ll just come off as annoyingly contrived. His death satisfied me more than any comedy casualty in history, probably because I knew that the miserable Homeland Securityplot line was gone, never to return.

Now for the cinematic war crimes. Attention Everybody: Spoilers to follow. To be honest, though, the movie is so thoroughly rotten there’s no way I could spoil it for you. The characters are all completely two dimensional. Even Harold & Kumar, who managed to pull off some degree of likeability and depth in their first film, completely lost it in this one. I didn’t give a shit one way or the other what happened to them, or to any other characters in the movie. When Kumar interrupted his ex-girlfriend’s marriage, it made me happy the way that reading a news report about a car accident two states away makes you sad. The only thing that aroused any genuine emotion was when Neil Patrick Harris died after 15 minutes in the movie. Seriously? Why did they do that? Killing NPH literally killed all the funny.

Some people liked it, evidently. One reviewer from MSNBC wrote that Escape “[A]ctually scores more points off the nation’s paranoid and repressive post-9/11 mindset than all of Hollywood’s hand-wringing war-on-terror dramas put together.” In the same review, he had the audacity to compare this movie with Dr. Strangelove. In his warped mind, John Cho and Kal Penn are to George Bush and the War on Terror what Slim Pickens and Peter Sellers were to the Cold War.

When I was looking around for other reviews of this movie, I also found this.  “Postal” only saw a limited release in the United States, but its most famous actor is Verne Troyer, which I feel really explains everything.  What’s more, movies inspired by video games aren’t worth the DVDs they’re burned on, or even the bandwidth it would take to download them.  This one claims to be more than just a video game movie, “lampooning religious extremists, minorities, bureaucrats, immigrants, cops, women, the Holocaust, gun nuts and more with evenhanded abandon.”

Really?  Verne Troyer headlines a movie in which characters dressed like George Bush and Osama bin Laden hug it out after some other B-list actors poke fun at the Holocaust?

Save yourself the hassle, put the War on Terror and all the rest of America’s problems (which, really, aren’t all that funny) aside for the moment, and laugh at Seth Rogen and crew in Pineapple Express or Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  If you still insist on watching either of these movies, at least consider the last ditch alternative:  you might be better served flushing eleven dollars down the toilet and smashing your head against a wall for two hours.

Why AP Classes Spell Doom by justuntilsund0wn
June 9, 2008, 12:45 pm
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There was a great debate in the Washington Post online today about who should be taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in high school. It can be found here. WaPo education writer Jay Matthews takes the position that the advanced courses should be far more inclusive, and educational guru Chester E. Finn Jr. argues that the courses should only be used as college prep for the most capable students. What is really great about this discussion is the thinly veiled contempt the two men have for each other. There’s plenty of petty tit-for-tat to go around.

The inception of this intellectual sissy fight is Jay Matthews’ annual ranking of schools who have the most students enrolled in AP or IB classes, take the most tests, etc. Finn claims that Matthews is fueling a misguided push to enroll kids that are not prepared or motivated enough to do well in these classes. That seems dubious to me. Although Matthews is a major advocate for inclusion in these classes, his lists merely compiles and codifies a phenomenon that is already happening across the country. As public schools continue to fail its students, the top students, followed by the mid-ranging students are flocking to more rigorous courses. Finn thinks this is a bad thing.

The dialogue between the two highlights an interesting dichotomy between two liberal-minded thinkers. Matthews is a populist who has for some intents and purposes abandoned (I’ll explain this in a moment) the public education system as we know it. Finn is an elitist arguing for the protection of public education.

What scares Finn – and is not fully realized by Matthews – is that the growth of College Board’s AP and IB classes that represent a failure of public school curriculum. It is the educational equivalent of “voting with your feet”. As our schools continue to dumb themselves down to the lowest common denominator, those students and their parents who want more substantial classes (or perhaps just a reprieve from unruly kids who don’t care to learn) move to more advanced classes. When “regular” A-level classes ceased to prepare kids for college, “Honors” classes became the norm for good students. Then everyone wanted these better classes, and teachers were once again forced to teach to the lowest common denominator. Thus the advent of AP and IB classes.

Make no mistake about it: these classes are a privatization of public schools – and for good reason. We do not let public schools enforce any real standards: you cannot fail students, you cannot exclude them from taking a certain level class, tests are made easier, teachers water down curriculum. By purchasing curriculum from a private company who provides a test that is rigid and gives a concrete score, public schools allow students to opt into a real learning environment. Public schools can continue to pass failing students and coddle trouble-makers, but decent students can be challenged. If we allow more kids into these challenging classes, will they continue to be challenging?

The whole movement of education says “no”. Up to the 1950’s, a high school diploma was enough to get a good job. That piece of paper meant something because standards were enforced in schools. Failing students failed. That simple system, loathed by liberal educators, still works today. Japan’s school are so good because they are modeled after ours post-WWII. The next couple of decades saw public schools turning into a social service they refused to uphold standards and discipline. The result was that an undergraduate college education was necessary for good salaries. More kids entered college, including more unprepared ones, so the universities picked up the slack. Today you generally need a post-graduate degree to be in the same place you would have been with a BA 30 years ago and a high school diploma 60 years ago. So goeth the way of the buffalo.

The upshot here is that more people from more diverse social stratum are getting more schooling. The downside is that the quality of the education is plummeting. I don’t know about you, but I would rather go through 20 years of solid education than 30 drawn out years. That’s on a personal level. On a much grander scale, the education of our country ensures our survival, primacy, and quality of life. Long story short, we must be able to compete with other countries. For example, or upper-level math and sciences are far behind other industrialized countries. If Japan’s high school seniors are at the same level of math that our third year college students are, that is bad.

So we have two options, represented today by Mr. Matthews and Mr. Finn. Matthews sees a quick fix to help students immediately by enrolling more of them in AP classes. Mr. Finn thinks this is doesn’t tackle the hard issue of fixing the system which is failing students to the point of a massive bailout to privatized curriculum. I tend to agree with Matthews up to a point, at which I flop over to Finn. Here’s why:

AP is successful because it is a brand colleges trust. Just like a private school that is known to turn out good students, a student who scores well on AP tests is quality-assured. Forget failing schools and rural schools and the whole gamut. AP is standardized across the board, so a perfect 5 is a perfect 5, and this is a tremendous boon to kids that aren’t in elite private boarding schools in New England. Because the tests are guaranteed to stay the same (College Board needs to keep that brand strong) it doesn’t matter too much if less smart kids are in the classes. They simply will not do well on the tests. The value of AP does suffer a little, as merely taking AP classes will become the norm, and more weight will be placed on how well you do on the actual tests.

This is an acceptable devaluation because in the long run it is still standardizing the curriculum. What is not acceptable -and why I ultimately side with Finn- is that the system itself needs to be fixed. More kids can enroll in AP and IB, but teachers cannot let the grading be easier. They need to be able to fail students that do no deserve to pass. They need to give C’s to students that deserve C’s. If the last few decades of public schooling is any indication, I do not have high hopes. What we will have is the inability of a broken system to implement a fixed curriculum.

Which leads me to think about a lot of complicated things. Why doesn’t College Board ramp up its teacher cert program to monitor scores and revoke certifications for teachers that have high graded students who score poorly on the tests? Why not have College Board branded teachers. Then you could count on quality education. Why not have schools become more entwined with a trustworthy brand? Why not privatize everything? This is why Matthews is a little naive, and Finn is so scared. AP has the power to destroy everything.

Which is cool because I’m all for charter schools.