Thursday, September 22, 2011

History, Economics , Math, Science --- Communication and Comprehension Skills

The Education Our Economy Needs is an interesting look at how our 12th-graders performed when tested on the subjects of science, economics, history and math. The results revealed that students performed worst in history and best in economics. The editorial calls this worrisome.

Yet the editorial writer, the retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, doesn't even question the assertion that our best subject is economics. Talk about a lack of critical thinking!

Here's my question. How can we claim that our best subject is economics if we're testing for useful knowledge? My experience points to a staggering lack of general knowledge concerning economics and the debilitating effects of debt and deficits. And besides that, this knowledge deficiency is widespread, longstanding and true for all age levels.

It's simply impossible to reconcile our so-called first class economic proficiency with today's dangerous financial mess and debt issues, both with respect to individuals and for our society as a whole.

Far too many of our citizens owe more on their homes than the homes are worth. Even if we'd rather blame the bankers for the current state of affairs, Pogo teaches that we did this to ourselves (with encouragement to take on more debt over many decades by our government and the tax code, but that's another story).

So how can we possibly claim that our greatest knowledge is in the area of economics? Relative to economics, I sure hope that we're better in math, science, history and all the rest of the subjects, at least with respect to practical knowledge.

The writer had only this to say about the students' performance in economics, "And despite what might be suggested by the number of underwater home loans, high-school seniors actually fare best in economics."

But enough of our discussion of economics for now.

Let's return to a subject upon which the writer and I completely agree. He calls for a "modern" approach to the study of history.

In the editorial, he describes the many ancillary benefits of studying history:

"Well, it's not primarily the memorized facts that have current and former CEOs like me concerned. It's the other things that subjects like history impart: critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and cogently. Such skills are certainly important for those at the top, but in today's economy they are fundamental to performance at nearly every level."

Later, he sums up:

"Far more than simply conveying the story of a country or civilization, an education in history can create critical thinkers who can digest, analyze and synthesize information and articulate their findings. These are skills needed across a broad range of subjects and disciplines.

In fact, students who are exposed to more modern methods of history education—where critical thinking and research are emphasized—tend to perform better in math and science. As a case in point, students who participate in National History Day—actually a year-long program that gets students in grades 6-12 doing historical research—consistently outperform their peers on state standardized tests, not only in social studies but in science and math as well.

In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers—but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.

Now is a time to re-establish history's importance in American education. We need to take this opportunity to ensure that today's history teachers are teaching in a more enlightened fashion, going beyond rote memorization and requiring students to conduct original research, develop a viewpoint and defend it.

If the American economy is to recover from the Great Recession—and I believe it can—it will be because of a ready supply of workers with the critical thinking, creative problem-solving, technological and communications skills needed to fuel productivity and growth. The subject of history is an important part of that foundation."

What he says makes lots of sense.

Now let's try to connect these arguments to the historically low performance by high schoolers on the reading and writing portion of this year's SAT exam.

How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores posits that the record low performance on the verbal part of the SAT is attributable to the compounding effects of not beginning to read rigorously at an early age:

"Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer.

The origin of this cruel truth lies in the nature of word learning. The more words you already know, the faster you acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that’s been tried and it’s not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired indirectly, by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.

The Matthew Effect in language can be restated this way: “To those who understand the gist shall be given new word meanings, but to those who do not there shall ensue boredom and frustration.”

My take on both of these articles is straightforward. To optimize learning, kids need to read and then discuss what they've read, both in writing and orally.

These regular readers also need to be challenged to analyze and cogently communicate the meaning of what they've read.

Whether that involves reading and communicating about history, economics, government, politics or other relevant topics isn't what's important.

What's important is that our youth is reading, thinking, discussing, analyzing and communicating on an ongoing basis.

Now let's return to economics and the fact that we're in a world of hurt with respect to our knowledge thereof. This glaring shortage of useful knowledge is especially germane to the housing and related debt for individuals, as well as the unsustainable operating deficits and onerous debt levels of our national government.

Kiss of Debt for the Flagging U.S. Economy is also worth a few minutes of your time.

Household and individual debt levels are at record highs.

With respect to government, in 1980 our nation's debt totaled $1 trillion. In 2011 that debt is now in excess of $14 trillion. And it will continue to grow each day for as far as the eye can see.

If those facts don't convince you that our knowledge of economics and personal finance isn't what it needs to be, here's another way of looking at our nation's debt.

We now generate annual operating deficits greater than our total national debt was in 1980. Succinctly stated, what took us 200 years and several wars to accomplish, we now do each and every year. And that doesn't even count unfunded social security, medicare and medicaid liabilities.

Sadly, this "worrisome" performance is likely to continue indefinitely or at least until someone pulls the plug. We could sure use a plug puller about now.

Although housing related debt levels are now unsustainable, government continues to encourage individuals (i.e., mortgage interest deductions, property tax deductions and so forth) to become even more indebted.

Accordingly, my conclusion is that economics as generally taught today probably isn't teaching kids anything very useful. Or adults either. Maybe that's why it's reportedly our best subject.

Thanks. Bob.

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