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Good news for the late bloomers

August 11, 2007|By ALLAN POWELL

Robert J. Samuelson, in "How We Dummies Succeed" (Washington Post Sept. 6, 2006), shows great insight about an ostensible failure in American education. He is fully aware of the reports which show that American students lag behind their European counterparts. For many, this has been a point of embarrassment.

Samuelson, however, points out another statistic that is seldom used. Post-high school test results close the gap rapidly when older students are tested - most notably in literacy and math. In order to explain this "riddle," Samuelson makes a clear distinction between the American school system and the American learning system.

The school system is the formal, grade-graduated system which, if all goes well, results in a diploma. The American learning system extends far beyond this into later life and includes extension courses, correspondence courses, self-help books and community colleges.

This extensive, post-high-school learning system has two valuable virtues, according to Samuelson. First, it provides second chances to people who are now more mature and motivated to be committed students. In addition, it is oriented to the immediate interests and needs of people who want better jobs, social mobility and who prefer practical to abstract knowledge.

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Samuelson goes so far as to say that these older, more mature students "outperform the test scores" consistently. This is good news because they give support to an advanced economy. It may, however, unsettle those who have given their adult life to teaching what has sometimes been called the "civilizing" elements of a good education - literature, philosophy, history and other liberal arts courses.

The article, without intending to, shows the problem of relying so strongly on more and more standardized tests as proof of achievement. It should be clear that a teacher fully expects to give tests. But when test scores become the dominant preoccupation and teachers are driven to "teach to the test," we have run the education train onto a side rail.

As a teacher, I gave hard, but fair, tests. There were, however, several other evaluative devices to measure progress. Also, I always tried to inspire students to like a subject more than they did before taking the course. An all-pervasive fear of test failure could stifle creativity and discourage any pedagogical diversion that might give pleasure to students.

The main feature of Samuelson's article was the recognition of the several obstacles to success faced by students. They became "late bloomers" but eventually overcame these handicaps and became productive, able and positive contributors to our society! Personal experience makes Samuelson's analysis attractive.

We four brothers each joined the Navy as we reached age 17. There wasn't a teacher in existence who could hold the attention and inspire four restless and disinterested lads who were bursting to escape a small town, poverty, consciousness of place - and who wanted to see the world.

Two tours overseas as a gunner in a Navy sea plane gave me time to mature. It also created a burning desire to get a high school diploma. All reports on the performance of veterans as students say they were serious students. We were no exception and each returned to education with a newly acquired interest in learning. A second chance in tandem with maturation turned things around.

The study of the lives of many great achievers shows clearly that all had a very personal learning style that was at odds with formally accepted and enforced educational systems. The incomparable genius, Albert Einstein, was an outright rebel who treated the authoritarian educators in Germany and Switzerland with contempt. All this is to say that we should be careful not to make education so distasteful that it is unpalatable to students.

The joy of learning should not be considered as a primarily adult experience; if the anticipation of joy could be endemic to the education of youths, the fixation on test results would diminish markedly.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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