Today in the Times... teaching math vs. reading

In raising scores, 1 2 3 is easier than a b c

When I first started mentioning articles that interested in me in the NYT, I did not anticipate it becoming a daily phenomenon. But lately the newspaper has been doing a lot of interesting reporting on educational politics and pedagogy, and that is one way I'm hoping to use this blog: to collect interesting articles on education. Hence the frequent NYT posts.

Today's piece is not surprising, but the situation it highlights is surely an interesting topic for conversation, debate, and certainly research. The article discusses how it is easier to catch students up in math than in reading.

Part of that is certainly because reading teachers aren't teaching reading anymore, are they? They're teaching reading and critical thinking and rhetoric and grammar and five paragraph themes. At a fundamental level, math teachers teach students a certain kind of logic, while reading teachers are expected to teach students how to think.

And this is where education collides with politics. All subjects are not equally politicized and for good reason. How students think will influence future political contexts. Authoritarian regimes have an interest in having skilled mathematicians and engineers. But are critical, engaged, informed citizens a goal of authoritarian regimes? I don't think so. Sometimes I don't think they are goal of democratic regimes either!

The other issue, highlighted by the article, is that math proficiency is much less influenced by your home environment than reading. As Geoffrey Borman, a UW professor and one of the interviewees in the article said, “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations.” Your ability to use language is influenced by your exposure to it, and school is simply not enough. Your language will reflect those you hang out with and what you read. Your math skills are much more determined by your teacher at school.

My first instinct about this is that much more time should be spend in school on language-related skills than math skills but that is obviously not enough of a solution. My second thought is, boy was that Dorothy Sayers on to something with her article "The Lost Tools of Learning."

I'll just leave it at that for today and perhaps write on Sayers tomorrow!

Today in the Times... Reforming Education in Thailand

Thailand considers reforming its authoritarian educational system.

My dissertation examines how education has been used for authoritarian ends in Morocco, so I read with interest an article this morning in the NYT about Thailand's current conversation over educational reform. The article highlights several significant points:

1. Educational reforms have path dependent effects: changes made to educational curriculum can continue shaping individuals long after the conditions in which those reforms were made have passed.

In the Thai case, educational style is rooted in the military dictatorship established in the country in 1972. The country experienced a period widely viewed as democratic in the mid-2000s, but returned to military dictatorship after the coup d'état of 2006. Its curriculum is deeply rooted in authoritarian values, even as the country's political space opens.

2. Education in authoritarian contexts is distinctly undemocratic: I know this is obvious, but I think the political science literature has done very little to examine this. Sometimes I get the impression some political scientists think any education is better than no education. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

In the Thai case, students are beat with bamboo canes, can have their hair cut or dyed publicly at school if it does not meet rigid dress code standards and the curriculum is rooted in rote memorization. “School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” one student said.

3. Schools are the training grounds for citizenship: again, obvious. But in a system where students are expected to "bow, bow, bow" to their teachers, and never articulate their own arguments nor learn to evaluate others' arguments, how can a democracy function? where else do people learn to be critical?

In Thailand, the new education minister, trained in the US, is interested in moving towards letting students think more independently, though his support seems distressingly conditional. He remarked, "We want them to be individuals, within reason.”

4. You can't always get what you want, and neither can the regime: The Ministry of Education can change the national curriculum, but whether its implemented on the ground depends on its relationship to teachers, principals and other bureaucrats.

In the Thai case, one vice principal interviewed in the article seems likely to ignore reforms if he thinks they are too drastic. He was clear with his views, “The military needs guns; teachers need sticks. Sometimes you need to hit them a little bit, but only on the bottom.”