Sunday, March 16, 2014

Surviving Secondary Education

One of the reasons we moved to Germany was for our kids to get exposed to an education system with higher expectations. I wanted for them to get a good basic body of knowledge and skills from school. That part totally worked, the expectations are higher,  they are learning a lot, even though we buffered this by putting the two older ones in an international secondary school and Ben a grade back at the neighborhood elementary school.

They are all struggling with school in their own ways, and all managing quite well. I am glad they are having to establish study habits, manage their time and do a good job. That sounds trivial, but in NM I felt nobody had instilled the expectation that you not only complete an assignment on time, but that it is well done, looks good and it has been edited and fine-tuned. Or that you keep good notes in an organized binder (which will later serve as you study guide). In NM, my kids always had a bunch of dog eared pieces of paper stuffed into their backpack or their cubby at school. Here, kids get a grade on their binder.

Apart from these improvements, the education system and the schools here are far from perfect, unfortunately. And years of intense involvement in my kids’ school in the US have left me with little energy to do the same here. I just kind of wanted to lean back and know that the system works. Not happening. We are thinking about a different school for Ruby, for reasons that have nothing to do with her performance and everything with the school’s performance.

Ruby is part of a public school experiment (the Nelson Mandela International School) and within that, part of the second international school being spun off from the first one. The whole process has been mired by jaw-dropping levels of incompetence at the school administration level: Of all the components you and I know are needed to start a new anything, they had exactly zero: No plan, no leadership, no staff (other than teachers), no building (other than two sublet classrooms a 30 minute walk from the main building), no infrastructure, no steering committee (until recently) no division of labor and no assigning of responsibility.

Teachers, students and parents, when this lack of everything slowly dawned on them, had to take over. When you do this, when you speak up and you try to compensate for the lack of activity by doing something (like, the teacher brought her own cell phone hotspot, so the classes would have internet, the parents organized recess supervision, wrote letters etc.) of course this is not received well, because your activity will reveal the lack of competence of those really responsible. Moron exposure, not a happy thing. So then, conflict arose between the school and the parent community, which is now hopefully morphing into some kind of collaboration, but certainly not built on mutual trust yet. 

Remains to be seen if it turns into a viable school before Ruby’s secondary years have passed. Her class has shrunk to 11 people, which of course creates a dream student-teacher ratio. But Ruby's circle of friends is rather small as a result. Meanwhile I joined the steering committee, with a big sigh. Do I have the patience? Not really, and anyway, I didn’t come here to start a new school, and while some parent involvement is great, I still believe in the concept of paying taxes so public schools give my kids a decent education (and only if that doesn’t work, move, or pay tuition to a private school). So Ruby and I are reviewing our options.

Generally, high school seems to have gotten a lot harder in Germany over the last 30 years. While each Land (sort of the German states) is different, due to a federalized political system, I think this is true all over the country. I remember sailing through Abitur with not a whole lot of effort 30 years ago. Today, the content of higher level secondary education (Gymnasium), which ends in Abitur, is squeezed into two, instead of three years in many of the Laender. Students and parents complain that there is no life outside of studying. I see that with some of my friends who have children in Gymnasium: They spend a good chunk of their family weekend on homework and studying for exams. 

It goes on at the university, which has become more school-like, with tons of tests and exams, very structured curricula, all this since Germany changed degrees and grades along the lines of European reform, which included adopting the US bachelors/masters system. So, people complain it’s more measurable, test-ible knowledge and data squeezed into one's head, and less thinking, independent research, group work, project work – less of the competencies that makes us capable to continue on a path of livelong learning.

I have heard quite a few people remark recently: Almost everything I learned in high school I have never needed in real live ever again. And now school in Germany teaches even more academic stuff that our kids won’t need, as part of that core curriculum of secondary education. There is the argument that you should learn these things to train your brain to learn, so you can learn other things that you will actually need later. But what is even the point of memorization, when there is no context for what you memorize? You will forget it immediately after the test.

Knowledge that we apply on a regular or even occasional basis will stay in our head because it is relevant, because it is connected to something meaningful or useful. Instead of high level calculus, can’t they teach kids to do a tax return, navigate and use excel and bookkeeping software? That would save a lot of money and grief later in life. Teach them foreign languages. Teach them skills and study habits, so they know how to organize thoughts and research, how to understand what they read and how to write so other people can understand. Teach them how to work on their own and as part of a team. How to speak in public and to advocate for something they feel passionate about. Finally, along with all these competencies –and I think this is the high end art of being an impactful teacher - do not kill your student’s curiosity, but nurture it. Help you student succeed.

The other day I heard this on NPR’s Fresh Air, from an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson:
Dave Davies: I read that you were recently asked to give, I think, a commencement address at, was it your elementary school, and declined. Did you feel let down by the public school system when you were a kid?
Tyson: Oh, no, no. So everyone has all different experiences in school. I just know that throughout my life, at no time did any teacher ever point to me and say, hey. He'll go far. Oh, he's someone you should watch. You know, I had some OK grades. They ran the gamut. I had some high grades in math and science, and medium grades in other subjects, and slightly lower grades in other subjects. You've got to remember, the school system is constructed to praise you if you get high grades. And if you get straight A's, you're the one that everyone puts forward, and they prognosticate that the straight-A person is the one most likely to succeed, because that's the way the school system is constructed and conceived.
And there I am, getting grades all over the place, but I know my interest in the universe and I owned a telescope that I bought with money I earned by walking dogs, because I live in a huge apartment complex. And 50 cents per walk, per dog, and that accumulated quickly. I bought a camera, a telescope. I taught myself astrophotography. I did all this.
I took classes at the American Museum of Natural History at Hayden Planetarium, advanced classes for adults in modern astrophysics. I did all this, but none of that showed up as a high grade on an exam in school. So, there I am, and teachers complaining about my social energy, as though that was something bad, and, oh, he's disruptive. Not purposely, I just had energy, right.
So my elementary school wanted me to come back - because I was already well-known by then - to talk and say what a great education I had. I said no. That's not the talk I would give. I would say I am where I am today not because of what the teachers said about me or did for me, but in spite of it. And I don't think that's what you want, so I will decline. Invite me back one day, and I'll talk just to the teachers, all right, and then I'm happy to tell - give - you know, tell them what they should be looking for, perhaps, in their students.
Also consider - now, see you've got me started here. Also consider that if you have a straight-A student in your class, that student has straight A's not because of teachers, but in spite of teachers. That's what having straight-A means. It means you do well, no matter the teaching talent of the teacher. That's what straight A's mean. So if you're a teacher and you put forth your straight-A student as though you had something to do with it, you are deluding yourself. The greatest teachers are the ones that turn a B student into an A student, or a failing student into a B student. Then let's talk about your teaching talents.
I agree with Tyson, and I see how inquisitiveness, curiosity and hunger to learn about things kids are interested in, are in direct competition (for time, attention and energy) with the core curriculum and its contents that my high school age kids are expected to hammer into their poor teenage brains.

Rory does not get good grades for teaching himself Ableton, a complex music production software, doing extensive music history research, organizing a library of samples, learning the base guitar, learning drums and producing an ever improving body of musical work over the last seven months. I do have to admit, the IB program he is in (the international high school degree, as opposed to Abitur), at least acknowledges his creative work through the Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) component. Students keep track of their hours in these areas and it becomes part of their final score for graduating. But instead of just keeping time sheets about stuff you love to do, these talents and passions could be celebrated and supported in many other ways. And other students, who are maybe not as driven as Rory, could be supported in finding their service and creativity opportunities.

My biggest concern with public school beyond 10th grade here is the sort of sink or swim attitude of many teachers. Students in Germany can finish school after 10th grade here, with the Middle school Degree (MSA), and then move on to a technical or vocational career. If you stay in high school beyond this, you are expected to be entirely self-motivated. In a mass letter you receive when your child has unexcused absences (my fault in Rory's case, because I didn't submit the excuses), the coordinator states: "We do not want to unnecessarily prolong your child's education". Excuse me? That, precisely, is your fucking job, if you would only choose to deem it necessary.

The Nelson Mandela IB program requires said study skills, enormous discipline, and in year 12, essentially 100% of the students’ time. It’s a rigorous academic curriculum, comparable to the first 1-2 years of college in the US. For students to master this, however, Nelson Mandela school provides hardly any support from teachers, coordinators and advisors. In fact, they tend to be late, uninspired in their teaching methods (long, droning history lectures), badly prepared, and unable to exhibit even basic communication skills. They do not model the behavior expected from their students. If students are not fully motivated, or experience difficulty academically, there is no support.

Neil deGrasse Tyson would have a stern talk with those teachers. I don't get why these people even are teachers. I would think it’s too stressful and intense a job if you are not good at it and you don’t love it. But maybe they figured out a way to sail through and not feel responsible for the students left behind. I wouldn't want to unnecessarily prolong their teaching careers.

There is no one system that works great, and what I knew already in the US is true here as well: Your parental job is to put together the best possible education menu from available public and private resources for your kids, and complement whatever they are not getting yourself. And you have to support them and encourage them, for the whole 12 years. You have to teach them to function well within badly designed systems. And tell yourself that that’s a good skill to learn in itself, because it’s one of those you will need for the rest of your life.

P.S. I’d like to see your comments on this…. What do you think school should teach students by the time they graduate? How hard should they try? What’s not the job of the school, but of parents and community?


Peter said...

Hi, Nikki:

This is a terrific article, and it confirms some of what we think we know about European (German) education. Unfortunately, some of it is a bit disheartening. I think your final comments about the responsibility of parents in the educational process are particularly valuable. The question is how parents can be made to take that responsibility more seriously.


Nikki Zeuner said...

I am going to post my friend Byron's comment here (he understandably didn't want to start a google account for this):

Looking back at my brief international teaching experience, I've come to feel lucky that I didn't have to teach the IB curriculum. Almost everyone I ever knew who worked in IB schools shared the criticism that it is overly test-driven, and rigorous for the sake of rigor. It has become, de facto, a weeding out process, so that, as you point out, those who survive it, do so largely in spite of their teachers and the process.

At my school in Guatemala, the director, despite other blind spots, realized that our school was too small to effectively use the IB, and that its particular brand of "rigorous instruction" wouldn't fit our student population. The school in Kuwait, modeled its curriculum on the US system, but seemed to have adopted all the most dysfunctional aspects while ignoring the few positives.

I did learn from my own experience and the shared experiences of other teachers, that the reputation of international schools taking "only the best of the best" for teachers and administrators is largely a myth. About 5% of international admins are really top notch. The rest are a mixed bag of everything from moderately competent people to failed teachers, failed coaches, and people with axes to grind...just like most administrators in US schools.

People generally don't become school administrators because they are brilliant leaders or visionary educators. More often they end up there because they are the most willing to subjugate their own judgment to the will of the bureaucracy. In my experience, the few truly gifted educational leaders I ever worked for were fired because they outshone their bosses. They were replaced in every case by incompetents whose sole talent was the ability to kiss the right ass at the right time.

The Guatemala experience was particularly valuable in making me a better teacher because I was allowed to a great extent to identify the needs of my students and address them as I saw fit, rather than being handcuffed to a rigid curriculum. Sometimes I failed, but more often I saw success in terms of students understanding things better, and even more so, in seeing them evolve toward asking deeper, tougher questions.

The issue of 'academic rigor' is one I had fights over my whole career. I got knocked by both parents and colleagues for not assigning enough homework. Then when I did, I got complaints from parents because the work was not in the form of fill in the blank worksheets and similarly mindless but easy tasks. My thinking was that if I'm not successfully teaching and reinforcing the material in class, all the homework in the world was not going to fill in the gaps. I also recognized that kids need to have some life outside school, and when they're carrying home 20 pounds of books and 5-6 hours of homework daily, they're not getting it. It robs them of too much of what should be the funnest part of their lives.

I've always held what I knew of the German system as a model for what American education should aspire to, with a few caveats. It's sad to hear that the German system is drifting toward the more dysfunctional ideas and processes of the American system, instead of looking at the few things we might be doing right.

Doug Abbott said...

"When I think back on all the crap I learned in High School, it's a wonder I can think at all". Simon and Garfunkel, "Kodachrome".

Thees said...

Das Endergebnis:

Lisa Houston said...

Hey Nikki,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights here.
Well, you've shaken up my fantasy that the grass is greener across the pond, at least in terms of educating the future. After chewing on your shared experiences, and wading through the cognitive dissonance floating in my own muddied waters of an American inferiority complex, I came to ask the following:

Who is benefitting from either system? From the EU educational culture that you describe as rigid, demanding and exhaustingly task driven, and from the US public system, which you know has been described as dumbing us down (successfully, I would add).
My answer: Capitalism. The market and the forces driving it is evolving, ans thus the conditioning of future workers must also evolve. I see the US system still hanging on to the industrial worker model, you know, teach to the test, move only when the bell rings, do what you are told, don't think outside the desk, or your factory designated workspace. Very 20th Century. It sounds like the European system has caught up with the new, 21st century corporate model of "success." I'm reading Ariana Huffington's book Thrive today. She describes this as:

“NOTHING SUCCEEDS like excess, we are told. If a little of something is good, more must be better. So working eighty hours a week must be better than working forty. And being plugged in 24/7 is assumed to be a standard requirement of every job worth having today”

I'm focusing on redefining "success" and "achievement" for myself. Perhaps we need a student led movement to take back education alongside a renewed labor movement that stands for sanity and wellness over deadlines (becoming more and more a literal term) profits.

I know Ruby is resilient. I hope she finds time to daydream as she navigates the waters over there. All the best to you, and Ruby, Rory and Young master Ben!

Ps I really enjoy your blog...keep writing!

NMS-GEV said...

Dear Nikki,
Thanks for your blog comments. I agree with you 100% on parents needing to be right there and not expect the school to do everything! I also believe that every experience we have, we have for a reason. Makes us more resilient.

I agree with you wholeheartedly on the problem with the new NMS school. Everyone involved (except for the Politicians) tried to get it to stop because we all knew that it would turn out to be a terrible situation for the students. We were not successful.

Our kids only go thru each grade once and then it is on to the next. It does take parents like you to help navigate and lead. Thank you for your help!

I know it is exhausting to do this kind of work and we all wish the system would work for every student but the system is made up of us and we can only change it a little at a time..unfortunately it won't be changed for our kids.

Education needs a reformation--we are not adequately preparing our kids for their future...a future we can't even fathom--the rate of change is so rapid. So what is the best way? All I know is that I will be involved each step of the way for my own child and do the best I can by him...what else can we do?
NMS Parent

Marya Coppinger said...

Gees, this post is very thought-provoking, Nikki. I empathize with your desire to get the kids a great education. I'm not sure where to start my comments, so this may be more free-form than organized.
I attended Catholic Schools, where I did have more rigor than in the public schools in my home town. I had some very influential teachers, as well a few duds. Latin class was mandatory, and while some approached as a necessary evil, I was far more curious than wary. The teacher mixed into her classes both drills and time for philosophy and speculation. She believed in Ars artis gratia (Art for the sake of art). I have to say that more than 40 years after leaving her class, I still use Latin skills: Word roots, verb tenses, organizing a paragraph the way Caesar did, etc. However, I have never ever had to call upon my Trigonometry skills in all those years.

What it comes down to, is that good teaching is a complex marriage of acquired skill and natural talent. The universities don't screen for it, we have never defined it well, and we don't hire teachers based on any assessment of "the gift". Sad but true.

We hire teachers who have checked all the boxes that the bureaucrats require for a license, and there are many boxes. Is it any wonder then, that teachers teach that way? Check, check, check, you get thru the assembly line and get a diploma. If you can't think for yourself, or problem solve, or articulate your needs and concerns, that's just fine. To fit in is more important than to make progress. And that is why I don't teach in public schools.

Best wishes to you all for taking on a challenge, and not just sleeping through life.