"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Educational Reform–Encouraging the Talented

I have felt all along that the prevailing educational philosophy of investing more in ‘special needs’ children rather than highly intelligent ones has done a disservice to the many talented, motivated, and potentially successful students who must study in ‘collaborative learning’ settings where the improvement of the group is more important than that of the individual and who are deprived of accelerated programs which are closed in favor of those for those with learning problems.  I have no issues with programs for those who need extra help learning.  My issue is with the imbalance between those with special needs and those with special abilities.  I would like to reform the learning environment to give equal attention to both. 

The article below on Steve Jobs presents a strong argument for favoring the intelligent, creative, innovative individuals; and for discouraging collaborative education. "Amidst the oceans of enforced mediocrity....Jobs showed that the real path to excellence was excellence...You could do great things by being smart and having excellent taste..."

Steve Jobs Defended His Work With a Barbed Tongue


The following article by Jay Matthews decries the loss of programs for the gifted and talented, and presents a strong case for acknowledging and promoting excellence.  Matthews in his Washington POST blog called Class Struggle has been arguing this for months:

Frederick M. Hess’s long essay in the latest issue of the quarterly National Affairs pleased those of us who share the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s dislike for politicians’ fixation on closing the achievement gap. Reducing the gap sounds good until you realize that means it is okay for high achievers to stagnate so that low achievers can catch up.


Readjusting and realigning public school programs to foster this equality will not be easy, since there are enough old-guard teachers and administrators in place who remain committed to collaborative education (I use this term as a catch-all for both enforced collaborative learning, as above, and for the defunding and discouragement of accelerated learning programs) to thwart reform.  The situation is a bit like that of universities whose Humanities departments remain wedded to Post-Modernism, Historicism, and Deconstructionism even though these theories are being discredited – there is still a committed core of professors and administrators who have built their careers on these theories, have tenure, and continue to preach.

The main reason, I believe, for this thinking is the pervasive and misplaced conviction on the part of most Americans that promoting ‘equality’ takes precedence over recognizing inequality as a fact of social life.  We cannot favor the highly intelligent because that will make less intelligent students seem inferior.  It will hurt their self-esteem.  It will cause irreparable social and psychological harm.  All of which further tips the balance to the underprivileged – they are ‘otherly gifted’, have one of many intelligences, each of which must be fostered and nurtured, again at the expense of the talented.  Society will always be unequal; and programs to engineer ‘equality’ have not and will not change that.  The grand Soviet experiment to do so failed miserably.  We are the beneficiaries of talented, creative Soviet scientists, thinkers, and artists who fled the ‘equal’ system.

To repeat: the issue is not to forget those students with ‘special needs’ but to redress the imbalance that favors them over the high-achievers.  This will require a cultural change, but one which will simply require education to leave the Sixties behind and catch up with the 21st Century.

In an increasingly competitive globalized world, we need to recognize and promote the Steve Jobses.   They are an incredibly valuable resource for the country; and while the Steve Jobs probably would have risen out of any form of mediocrity, there are other potential Steve Jobs who simply need the right educational environment in which to thrive, prosper, and excel.  His example is relevant, appropriate, and timely.

On a related issue, I have written before on the educational reforms suggested by Gov. Perry of Texas – reforms which would transform the public higher education system into one which would focus on productive learning, reserving taxpayers’ money for the preparation of students to be productive citizens, graduating with a marketable skill and a civic education.  Let the private universities teach art, literature, and philosophy and diversify their curricula as they will; but let public universities regain the confidence of the people to educate realistically and to focus on measurable performance, thus assuring cost-benefit.

The following blog post, again by Jay Matthews focuses on how elite universities are ‘still’ dominated by wealthy white and Asian students.  It seems, so concludes Matthews, that although the test scores and academic performance of black and Latino students have improved, those of white and Asian students have improved even more.


The University of Southern California has reacted to the news with shock – we have to increase the number of places for black and Latino students, they say.  Why?  California has had, up until recently at least, a very comprehensive public higher education system (like Virginia and I suspect many other states) which offers an ‘elite’ education, other four-year colleges, junior colleges, and community colleges.  There is an abundance of private institutions along the same spectrum.  Why, then, should top schools feel they have an obligation to educate less-qualified students, when there are plenty of lower-tier institutions which can educate them perfectly well.  The answer, referring to my comments above, is that we still have a misplaced belief in ‘equality’:  all students have the right to all education. 

There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, by acknowledging and promoting a comprehensive, tiered higher educational system.  We should restore to acceptability technical schools which teach trades – not just the traditional trades of electricians, plumbers, and carpenters; but IT trades as well.  We should keep the standards of our ‘elite’ universities high and accept only those students who pass rigorous application requirements.  We should maintain the high standards of lower-tier four- and two-year institutions; and as in the case of Texas, develop and apply rigorous evaluation tests to assure cost-effectiveness of programs.  Once again, I have nothing at all against providing quality education for all students who apply by assuring an appropriate education matched to a students abilities.  I am only against lowering standards of top institutions in a misguided attempt to serve social ends. 

Equality of educational opportunity in the best sense of the term, is to assure the best possible education for all students – but not the same education.

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