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

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Educational Reform–Start By Asking “What Is School For?”

Public education in America is broken.  Primary schools have become test labs for arbitrary educational and social concepts.  Financial resources are skewed away from those most likely to succeed and are spent largely on disadvantaged children whose social pathologies and parental neglect almost guarantee poor academic performance.  Teachers are required to be psychologists, social engineers, and disciplinarians and are under increasing government pressure to perform.

Since teachers are expected to promote racial and ethnic harmony, strengthen confidence and social ability, create a cooperative environment congenial to all students, deal with difficult, anti-social students, and teach to achieve often unrealistic academic standards, no wonder they ask, “Perform on what?”

Teachers cannot possibly do all that is asked of them by educationists, progressive lobbyists, parents, legislators, administrators, and taxpayers.

There is no doubt that the environment of public elementary education has changed significantly over the decades.  A student population of first generation Italians, Irish, Poles, and Jews, all brought up with the same moral principles, aspirations, and respect for both education and authority was easily assimilable.  Teachers were able to teach because society took care of everything else.


Today’s elementary school demographics are far different.  As white and black middle class families continue to flee  failing urban public schools, they are left with predominantly under-performing students.   Yet, school administrators have not adjusted to the new configurations. 
It is unrealistic to assume that children from dysfunctional homes where education, literacy, and knowledge have little currency can possibly perform to the academic levels expected of them by administrators.  The objective of education in such schools should be to lower  expectations and to expect only incremental changes in student performance. 

More fortunate schools which suffer less from social dysfunction and are comprised of the normal distribution of talented, modestly-achieving, and slow learners, can focus specifically on raising academic performance relative to ability.  Students in a B-level arithmetic group would not be expected to achieve what A-level students might; and they would be judged less on acquired knowledge than on improvement.

Public education should be looked at no differently than any private institution.  Each should have realistic goals and objectives, a strategy for reaching them, an operational plan to carry it out, a budget to finance relevant activities, and a monitoring and evaluation plan to measure success relative to cost.

Of these, the most important is the setting of clear objectives.  Since the public school is being asked to do far too much, what specifically should it be doing?  Should it be to act in loco parentis in schools in dysfunctional communities? In other words, academic performance, while important, would be secondary to instilling a sense of responsibility, respect, honesty, and ambition – foundational principles of all successful societies.

Should schools with more socialized students focus more on non-academic skills and abilities – those which underlie success in a competitive marketplace?  Innovation, creativity, risk-assessment, entrepreneurialism, confidence in decision-making, etc. can be taught from a very early age.  Perhaps most important of all is the ability to think logically and write critically.

Fewer and fewer Americans are politically literate.  They vote ignorantly because of their inability to understand and make sense of highly complex issues of international finance, foreign relations, social justice, income distribution, and demographics.  If a principal objective of primary education were to begin the preparation of a responsible citizenry, then The Three R’s would receive less attention. 

The failure to set objectives and to apply cost-effective plans to achieve them besets American education at all levels.  Public high schools, receiving students from the very elementary schools which have inadequately and irregularly taught them, must deal with the same problems made 100 times worse by adolescence.   Secondary school education can only build upon its antecedents.  If students enter high school having become proficient in whatever educational/social courses designed for them, the job of secondary school teachers and administrators will be much easier.  Children who are identified and classified in primary school (as above) can be tracked, taught, and moved along at an appropriate pace.

Of course the obstacles to such reform are many.  Some observers may criticize the tracking system as undemocratic.  Progressive educators, having invested so much time, effort, and political capital in programs of self-esteem, cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and diversity are not likely to sit by quietly and watch them be dismantled. 

Parents who hearken back to the primary school melting pot of earlier years – i.e. public elementary school education, for better or worse, may be the only time that their children will ever be in a truly mixed community – may resist reforms that would silo students, thus removing them from the mainstream. Some students may not be so easily classified and the risk of misassignment is real.
Yet every reform necessarily comes up against vested interests whose sunken costs are such that any change is threatening.  Education is no different.

The current fallacy of ‘inclusivity’ in education extends to the post-secondary level.  Students, who have been told all through their early years that they are just as good as their fellow-students, and whose parents have bought the highly-marketed idea that four-year college is for all, continue to get an unfocused, unrewarding, and ultimately useless education for which they have gone into serious debt.

Some conservative critics have argued that the taxpayers of a state who are financing its colleges and universities should get something tangible for the investment.  Students who graduate should at least be in an excellent competitive position in the marketplace.  Universities should have carefully analyzed the labor market, anticipated the directions in which it is moving, and altered their curricula accordingly.

Residents of a state should also expect a publicly-financed institution of higher learning to train students to be intelligent voters.  Courses on international finance, economics, political science and philosophy should be obligatory and the most rigorous performance standards required. 
Students who wan to study more esoteric topics – i.e. those which may have personal relevance and provide individual satisfaction but which are far afield from addressing issues of common interest – would be encouraged to attend and pay for private colleges. 

As in the case of primary and secondary education, there are too many vested interests and sunken costs in old pedagogical theory for such reform to be easy.  The ‘Four Year College Is For All’ myth will die especially hard since so many profit from it.  Although students may leave college in debt, poorly educated, unfit for the job market, and unable to understand political debate, colleges are flush with money from subsidized loans, government grants, and tuition payments which parents can ill afford. 

The tiered post-secondary education system established in many states is a very viable alternative and is far more focused on objectives.  Community colleges in particular have moved towards a very practical model according to which curricula are matched to industry demand.  A manufacturer planning to come to a particular region of the country can contract with community colleges to provide them with trained applicants. 

It all starts with objectives.  Unless educational institutions and their financial sponsors are clear from the outset about what they hope to achieve, nothing but an unguided, random learning process will follow.

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