Under the Skin

At San Jose's Piedmont Hills High School, biotechnology students tested their own DNA for a genetic marker that originated in central China or Taiwan. Seventeen students share a common ancestry  -- but not a common race. Check out the caption on the photo:

Piedmont Hills High students who share a common ancestor include, from left, Simon Bao (Chinese and Vietnamese), Beth Gomes (white), Aaron Saini (Indian), Austin Buckner (African-American and Japanese), Michael Huynh (Chinese and Vietnamese) and Andrew Tran (Vietnamese).

Students began to question the racial and ethnic categories they've been taught to recognize.

Junior Aaron Saini, whose family comes from northern India, was surprised to learn that he has more in common genetically with classmate Christine Gonzalez, who is half Mexican and half European, than with Sefali Patel, whose heritage is also northern Indian.

After the lab experiment, junior Michael Huynh walked outside the classroom and saw a friend, who is Indian, in a different light.

"He was just standing there in the hallway, and I was just looking at him and thinking, `Wow. He may look different, but there's no real separation between us,' " the 16-year-old said.

Very cool.

Don't Call Them 'Gifties'

At a Chicago middle school, eighth graders in the gifted class didn't like the T-shirt design selected by vote, so they ordered an alternate design and added their nickname, "gifties," to the shirt. That label got them in trouble with the principal, reports the Chicago Tribune. Now parents are suing.

(Principal Chris) Kotis told them that no one could wear that shirt because it was not the "official" one and that there would be "serious consequences" if anyone did, the suit said.

The students came up with a petition supporting their T-shirt, the suit said. But Kotis insisted that he was concerned about their "safety" if they wore the shirt to school, the suit said.

On April 1, all 27 8th graders in the gifted program wore the shirt to school, the suit said.

It's unclear what the serious consequences amounted to -- they were "confined" for a day? -- but the lawsuit is asking that the incident not appear on students' records. I'd think the principal would want to forget about it too.

A Piece of Sheepskin

The high school diploma doesn't mean anything, says the American Diploma Project, which was launched by a consortium of education reform groups.

The diploma has lost its value because what it takes to earn one is disconnected from what it takes for graduates to compete successfully beyond high school — either in the classroom or in the workplace.

Despite all the complaints that graduation requirements are too tough, the project calls for raising the bar, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

The new state high school graduation tests are often at only an eighth or ninth grade level, and they do little to change the fact that 28 percent of high school graduates going to college take remedial English or math courses when they start their freshman years.

Even though more than 70 percent of our high school grads attend college, fewer than half of them get a four-year degree, and that record is even poorer for African Americans and Hispanics.

Young people going straight to the workforce need the same academic skills as classmates who go on to college.

The report offers conclusions on what students are going to need to survive in the workplace or in college from more than 300 faculty members from two- and four-year institutions, front-line managers and high school educators. One surprising part of the report for a technologically ignorant poly sci major like me were the examples of workplace tasks a high school graduate confronts these days. Here is an assignment for a machine operator apprentice at the Eastman Chemical Company:

"Ask the apprentice to mix a solution (#1) of 5 g Peters fertilizer and 50 g distilled water. Determine the percent concentration-by-weight of this solution. The basic formula is weight of the solute divided by the combined weight of the solute and solvent equals percent concentration-by-weight ...Calculate the density of this solution (#1). [The basic formula is] divide the weight by the volume to determine the density in gm/ml. Ask the apprentice to make a solution (#2) using 10 g of Peters and 50 g of distilled water. Determine the percent concentration-by-weight. Ask the apprentice: Why is the concentration-by-weight of solution (#2) not double the concentration-by-weight of solution (#1) since the solute is doubled? Ask the apprentice to use this formula to explain: C = x/x + V and 2x/2x + V ? 2(x/x + V)"

Employers must spend more to teach new hires basic reading and math skills. Or hire in India.

Parent Participation -- Or Else

Parents who repeatedly miss teacher conferences could face fines or jail time under a proposed South Carolina law. The State writes:

A parent who ignores the subpoena can be held in contempt and ordered to attend a parental responsibility program, shadow the student, pay a fine of up to $500 or go to jail for up to 30 days for each violation.

The bill also would raise the mandatory attendance age to 18. I don't think either idea is realistic.


Wayne Halsey writes: 

In a letter, Ryan Sauer wrote, "I have yet to see a school publicly display a list of students with less than satisfactory grades, or hold an academic ‘dumb off’."

Here in Nebraska we don't yet have the “dumb off," but some of our schools have adopted a new policy: If you didn't get a D or F, you make the "Honor Roll." But if you got all A's then you make the Distinguished Honor Roll. By putting one and one together, it's quite easy to determine which children are not the brightest eggs.

The PC and self-esteem police have gone off the deep end here by corrupting the honor roll system so that more people can feel better about themselves. But they have ignored the fact that those who now feel better do so at the cost to the others, who must now feel worse because everyone knows that they didn't make the list because they're failing. Far better was the system when those who achieved were honored.

Linda Davis of Atlanta, Ga., writes: 

The letter from Ryan Sauer made some good points, but I take exception to the statement, "I have yet to see a school publicly display a list of students with less than satisfactory grades, or hold an academic "dumb off."

While this behavior might not be in the form of a list hanging in the hallway, I have regularly experienced teachers who have the students trade papers to grade them and call failing students to the front of the classroom as a group to be informed that they cannot resurrect their grade and will, therefore, not be moving on to the next unit. If teachers or school administrators were subjected to that kind of public humiliation, their tormentor would find themselves on the other end of a lawsuit.

A good example of an "academic dumb off" is commonly seen in our schools where "gifted" students are cut out of the student herd at an early age and placed in a more "enriched" learning environment. Perhaps if the students who are left in the "dumb off" group were treated to some enrichment they would not be falling asleep in class while the teacher drones on or surfs the internet. If this status quo doesn't qualify as a "dumb off," I don't know what would.

Sharon Coleman of Chestertown, N.Y., writes:

My daughter attends a public school where they display a list of students' names with less than satisfactory grades. It’s called the "ineligible list." This list is in a hall showcase and is on view for every student in the facility. Any student on this list is not allowed to participate in any extra-curricular activities. This practice has been going on for years. 

Stephen Scott of Tulsa, Okla., writes: 

When I was taught about "discovery learning" it was called, "Letting the child take ownership of their learning."  I realized how good the idea is, because it absolves me of any guilt for not teaching the material.

James J. Jochen of College Station, Texas, writes:

My very sparse education (graduated high school in 1942) did, however, teach me the solid basics which were necessary for me to be able to teach myself during the subsequent 20 years of experience, supplemented by virtually constant pursuit of learning via correspondence courses. My volunteer work in schools during retirement forces me to conclude that there is an agenda being pursued toward deliberate withholding of proper education (referred to by some as 'dumbing down') from our children. The most striking example I can cite is that, while I can comfortably work with fairly advanced mathematics, I cannot fathom what the elementary algebra textbooks are talking about as they carry the student into that area of the subject.

Al Frick writes:

We have not yet discovered if a million monkeys at a keyboard could chance upon writing a Beethoven symphony, but we have discovered those monkeys are now in charge of learning techniques.

Discovery learning is to education what karaoke is to singing. Discovery learning is simply going through the motions of education without imparting any knowledge. Discovery learning is a great-sounding concept that does not work.

My 10-year-old has science books where half the pages pose "thought provoking" questions, according to one of his teachers. The idea is to “get him to think creatively." Horse feathers. How is he going to be able to think creatively about why fresh water fish live in fresh water and do they need oxygen and do they need water when no teacher or science book has adequately explained why organisms need oxygen and water in the first place.

It is said that Edison spent many hours and conducted thousands of trials before he perfected the light bulb. Do we want all of America's kids to waste the same time and effort on rediscovering something we already know?

Discovery learning's real effect is to cheat our kids by not giving them the knowledge and skills, i.e. tools, they need.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at JoanneJacobs.com. She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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