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Eight Warning Signs of a Bad School
How do parents find a good school? Not only are public schools crippled by dozens of bad ideas, but the schools seem intentionally designed so that parents can’t figure out what’s really going on inside the classrooms. It’s probably more practical to watch out for warning signs that you can observe from a distance. Here is a checklist of the top eight signs that you don’t want your child to attend this school:
1) READING: The most important skill is reading. If you hear about Whole Words, Sight Words, Dolch Words, Fry Words, or Balanced Literacy, run the other way. English is an alphabetic/phonetic language and should be taught phonetically. Kids need to learn the alphabet right away and which letters stand for sounds. (There seem to be five or 10 good phonics programs available. I’m not convinced that small differences matter. What’s killing us is this big difference: teach basic alphabetic information or NOT teach it. Any synthetic phonics programs, mixed with poetry, song, and a light touch, it seems to do the trick.Phonetics proponents report that virtually all of their students learn to read by age 7. Whole Word proponents say children should memorize a few hundred words every year, in which case “I will effectively be illiterate during high school.)
2) MATH: The next most important thing is arithmetic. If you hear about Reform Math, run the other way. (Reform Math is an umbrella term for at least 10 different programs, with names like Everyday Math, Connected Math, MathLand, TERC, CPM, etc.) These programs tend to push advanced concepts to kids who don’t even know how to add 10 and 16. These programs like to use obscure methods and algorithms so that children end up confused and lost. The correct goal is for children to master basic arithmetic, for example, easily adding and subtracting one- and two-digit numbers. Then they move on to multiplying and dividing one- and two-digit numbers. There should be no use of calculators, no “spiraling” from one subject to another, no mention of college-level concepts.
3) KNOWLEDGE: The second most important thing is that children are routinely expected to acquire knowledge. This was ordinary; but for 75 years, our educators have waged war on content, facts, and memorization. “They may be looking for it” is a huge danger sign. To study history, for example, it is necessary for children to first learn the names of oceans, continents, rivers, mountains and countries. Basic geography should be a staple during the early years; there should be maps in every class, both of the United States and of the world. In general, in all subjects, children should first be taught the simplest information, the essentials, the foundational knowledge, all in preparation for studying the subject at a higher level. If kids don’t learn the names of the oceans in first grade, they’re not in school but at a babysitting service.
4) SCIENCE: Children should be taught the rudiments of science and scientific thinking from the very beginning. For example, children can look at common objects and tell whether they are animals, plants or minerals. Children should be able to talk about water changing from solid to liquid to vapor. Older children should be able to discuss the different types of problems faced by doctors, chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, etc. Studying simple maps, diagrams, charts, illustrations, and blueprints is a good sign. (In other words, I can’t imagine a bad school thinking of teaching kids to understand simple diagrams in first grade.)
5) CONSTRUCTIVISM: One of the great fads raging in some public schools is called constructivism. (It can show up in teaching any subject.) Freebies are phrases like “building new knowledge,” “driving alongside,” “previous knowledge,” “learning strategies,” etc. contrast to direct instruction, where expert teachers teach what they know better than anyone else in the room. “An essay on a stage” is exactly what children need. Constructivism devalues the skill and preparation that good teachers bring to the classroom; and helps hide the poor training of bad teachers. Constructivism ensures that education will move slowly and be fragmented.
6) FASHIONS DIFFER: Other popular fads to avoid include: Self Esteem (where kids are consistently praised and awarded good grades even if they do a poor job); Cooperative Learning (where children are constantly forced to work in teams so they never learn to think for themselves); Critical Thinking (where children are encouraged to engage in in-depth discussions about topics they know little about); Creativity Curriculum (where playing with the arts takes precedence over learning knowledge); and Fuzzy Anything (where children can guess, come up with weird spellings and weird grammar without correction, get it wrong but still be classified as correct). All of these are warning signs.
7) GOALS: Perhaps the most distinctive trait of good schools is that they talk about what will be taught and what will be accomplished. There are goals and expectations. There is a sense that the school has a map and has traveled the road many times before. Bad schools are distinguished by an endless litany of excuses and alibis. There is a sense that these schools don’t have clear goals and don’t really expect to advance much. In bad schools, a lot of what happens is actually some kind of make-believe where the kids are kept busy doing make-believe work that doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps the most disgusting part of the whole charade is that some of these schools pretend that they are caring about the kids, that they don’t want to push it too far and don’t want to expose the inadequacies of poor and minority children. All this, it seems to me, is the most trifle, not to mention racism. Kids need to be challenged and pushed, not to the point where they give up, but to the point where they’re like, “Wow, watch me go.”
8) SAFETY: A signal that cuts through all others could be called basic order and security. Schools should be safe, law-abiding and predictable places. The point is, children should be able to relax so they can learn. A scary school ceases to be a school. The principal (comparable to the mayor and sheriff of a small town) is a crucial figure in this paradigm: he or she sets the tone. Principals explain goals and policies to students and parents; principals motivate and support teachers. (This could be called the Main Principle.)
Summary: The Tao of Education is very simple. Learning the basics and academics is the goal and the path to that goal. Facts and knowledge are the lifeblood of the classroom. Teaching should be as creative as possible; schools should be fun and students should smile a lot. But the whole process has to go somewhere, it has to move forward. At the end of each day, students know more than they did the day before. The problem with American education is that elite educators have moved from knowledge-based education (cognitive learning a/k/a) to feeling-based education (affective learning a/k/a).
Many psychotherapeutic prejudices were mixed with a disdain for facts and a disregard for fundamental knowledge, including even literacy. The result, as one would expect, would be a very stupid and mediocre school, such as one would find in any American city. The solution is to ignore the bad ideas that caused the problem, get away from the touchy clichés, and seriously try to do students a service by giving them the best possible preparation for the rest of their lives.
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