No Gold Star for Hyman
One of Mark Hyman’s favorite whipping boys is the educational system—not just high fallutin’ academics, but the folks in the K-12 trenches as well. To hear Hyman tell it, the people who devote themselves to teaching (and do so with little in the way of compensation) are actively eroding the American character.
There are all sorts of philosophical problems with this attitude, but at the very least, it would be nice if Hyman got his facts close to straight when going after this favorite target.
In his most recent attempt to clobber those in education, Hyman claims that public education is being “dumbed down.”
This assertion has been around forever, and there might even be a degree of truth in some aspects of the educational system. But in order to make his point, Hyman makes completely unsupported charges.
For one, Hyman says that there’s a new math curriculum in which answers that are exactly right are wrong. He claims the “rounding curriculum” tells students to round numbers before doing the actual arithmetic in order to make problems easier to solve. Students who give the actual answer are told they are wrong.
At least, that’s what Hyman would have you believe. For a number of years, I wrote and edited workbooks that helped K-12 students review academic skills, including mathematics. I had never heard of the “rounding curriculum” before, so I Googled it. Apparently, no one else has heard of it either, except Mr. Hyman, because all I got back was Hyman’s own editorial.
Now, it’s true that students are taught to use rounding to help them solve problems more quickly when it’s appropriate to do so. Rounding is a math skill that is useful in the real world, and students need to know how to do it. And it’s certainly possible that when learning the skill of rounding, students who don’t round properly (or at all) are told that they’ve made a mistake. But the idea that students are learning to round in all math problems (and are counted as being wrong when they don’t) is simply preposterous.
Hyman also claims that cases of schools discontinuing spelling bees because they involve one winner and lots of losers suggests schools are doing more ego stroking than teaching.
But there are a couple of facts Hyman doesn’t mention. First, while there are a small handful of schools that have suggested discontinuing spelling bees, this has been done in direct reply to the “No Child Left Behind” legislation pushed by the President. These schools, worrying that the winner/loser dynamic inherent in spelling bees is counter to the philosophy of “No Child” have suggested doing away with them for this specific reason (after all, there are plenty of ways of teaching spelling without using spelling bees).
Admittedly, this is an overly cautious way of reading the “No Child” legislation, but that brings us to the second point about spelling bees: hardly any schools have taken this anti-bee approach. In fact, spelling bees are thriving. The broadcast of the Scripps Spelling Bee on ESPN, the movie Spellbound, as well as other pop culture texts in which spelling bees feature prominently have lead to a renaissance in the spelling bee. If we take the holding of spelling bees to be an index of the quality of the American educational system (a dubious assumption anyway), kids in the U.S. are getting a more rigorous education than at any time in recent history.
And then there’s Ebonics. Hyman implies that the fact that the school district in San Bernadino, California, is experimenting with a curriculum that recognizes Ebonics as a dialect of English (rather than simply “wrong” English) is further evidence of the coming educational apocalypse.
I don’t know if using Ebonics in any way in a school curriculum will help. But in a school district in which black students are consistently falling behind their peers, perhaps framing language studies in a way that acknowledges the complexities of these students’ native dialect while still emphasizing the necessity of mastering standard English is not a bad idea. At the very least, it seems worth a try. Hyman suggests that the Ebonics issue is driven by an abstract idea of political correctness. The truth is that it’s simply one of many solutions being tried to help traditionally disadvantaged students succeed in school.
I don’t know enough about the issue to have a strong feeling about whether this approach is likely to succeed or not, but suggesting that students must be told that their traditional way of speaking is wrong in order for them to learn standard English (or any other subject) is actually the point of view that puts ideology ahead of what’s best for students.
But then again, that’s the hallmark of nearly all of Hyman’s comments on education: let ideology drive the debate rather than the facts, and when the facts don’t happen to fit, hack away and mangle them until they do.
And that’s The Counterpoint.
Hyman Index: 2.29