Saturday, November 26, 2005

Education: We Done it to Ourselfs

There is a crisis looming in America today, one whose effects will be felt sooner than those of global warming and more broadly than terrorism. The present state of the education system in America is poised to topple our nation from the position of global leadership that we have enjoyed for the last century-plus.

The roots of the crisis are countless, and the solutions are complex and controversial. At the heart of the problem lies money. Politicians successfully campaign on reforming education; everyone agrees that something needs to be done. But once elected, they tend to drop the matter because finding the money to actually create effective change requires politicians to commit political suicide: raising taxes.

Fixing education in America is going to require many changes: we need better facilities, better equipment, and better teachers. But most of all, we need a better curriculum.

The corporate influence on American life means that everything is valued according to a result-based analysis; the problem is that we are looking at the wrong results, and we often cheat to get the results we think we want. What we really need is to value education for education's sake; what we've got is a system that emphasizes test scores. To make those test scores more palatable, we drop the bar. To achieve the results we think we want, we teach children what they need to know to pass the test. We should be teaching them how to think.

Pretty much everyone has contributed to the weakening of the national curriculum. Liberals, sensitive to the idea that children are individuals, that each one is different, that each one is special, and that none of them are robots to be held to some inflexible benchmark, have been resistant to testable standards in education. Worried about the psychological implications of a young child getting a poor grade, they've worked to eliminate grades. Now when a student is failing, we politely pretend not to notice.

Social conservatives have undermined education by putting ideology ahead of facts. The consequences cannot be underestimated; millions of Americans now believe the Founding Fathers were devout Christians who wrote the Constitution with a quill pen in one hand and the Bible in the other. They can't even fathom that the Rhode Island colony was founded by a breakaway Christian group known as "Baptists" because they believed in a separation of church and state. They're willing to sacrifice the intellectual integrity of American students by gutting science education on the altar of Biblical literalism. They confuse the meaning of "innocence" with "ignorance": they refuse to believe you can still make the moral choice not to have sex even if you know what sex is, what venereal diseases are and how to avoid them, etc., and so they prefer not to discuss it at all.

Libertarian-types have contributed by valuing education solely in terms of the dent it makes in their income, instead of seeing it as the essential lifeblood of America's future. Childless taxpayers argue they shouldn't pay for someone else's education, heedless of the fact that tomorrow's doctors, engineers and even presidents, all manner of people that they do and will rely on in their daily lives, are sitting in classrooms right now. They value only a curriculum that gives students the barest textbook-based knowledge necessary for a life as a corporate drone. Art, music, physical education and extra-curricular activities serve no apparent purpose other than inflating their tax burden.

If America wants to maintain its global leadership role, we have got to recognize and accept that we are no longer an industrial nation. Manufacturing jobs requiring a vast workforce of semi-literate, minimally skilled employees have been outsourced to cheaper countries. Instead of our hands, we're going to have to rely on our brains. Intelligence has little to do with it; an uneducated genius isn't very useful. More than any other issue facing Americans today, fixing education requires our immediate and full attention. Will we accept that challenge?


Matthew said...

You are certainly raising quite a few issues with this post. While I'm with you on the need to strengthen education, and the general lack of attention it is receiving from politicians post-election time, there are a few things I disagree with.

Yes, we should be focusing on thinking processes, above test scores. However, I don't agree with "...value education for education's sake." Education has a specific purpose, particularly within the context of American competitiveness. We need education that will allow us to compete and prevail on the world stage. Not education for its own sake. This is more of a pragmatic than humanistic approach, and certainly not the consensus view, but that's the way I see education. Preparing you for a competitive career first, preferably with a love of knowledge and learning as the basis. I don’t really buy into the whole humanistic, renaissance, universal man educational paradigm.

Andy said...

But a competitive career in what? I think by narrowing education down into what is deemed "pragmatic" today we are hindering a child's ability to be flexible and adaptable in the workforce later, not to mention binding teachers' hands in terms of teaching styles and content, because it gets us back to "teaching the test." The very reason we can't find the money necessary to do even what you suggest is that this country does not "value education for education's sake." Our government will throw us into debt to fight an illegal war, but won't do it to educate our children. That's where our values lie today.

little-cicero said...

Not to bring out the Republican in me, but it seems that accountability is the key to fixing the education system. You're right about the testing being crucial to this, but teachers must be accountable as well. Those teachers who dumb down the educational system because of lack of faith in their students, or downright laziness, should be fired as you would fire a nuclear technician who messes up on the job. Teachers who have more than half of their classes failing should be fired. When incompetent teachers are left in place, it is a slap in the face to the students, the parents, and the teachers who work hard and are competent. Teacher tenure will be among the downfalls of our educational system. It should be repealed and supplemented with a Teacher's Bill of Rights to ensure that no teacher is fired without adequate reasons for doing so. As you can tell, I am angry about the rejection of Swartzeneggar's Proposition 75 in California.

Robb said...

The problem with firing "bad" teachers is who are you going to replace them with? My partner works in education, and recently spent some time in a classroom with a very inattentive, disorganzied, unproductive teacher. Everyone knew it, but there is no one to replace him with. Teacher pay is so low it is near impossible to recruit anyone. So is it better to have a bad teacher, or no teacher at all?

For my part, I think the only real solution is to increase teacher pay, and do it by a substantial margin. Make it so attractive and lucrative that everyone wants to teach. Right at first you will probably see an influx of unqualified teachers, but once the supply is there you will have the leeway to start firing teachers who don't measure up.

I agree with you Andy, this is of huge importance and we tend to sweep it under the rug. The whole concept of "merit pay" seems to be designed as a punitive measure rather than an incentive. And I don't think making putting more pressure on teachers is the way to recruit. Don't get me wrong, I do believe teachers should be accountable to their students. I just don't think that is a problem that can be readily fixed until we start attracting more people to the profession.

little-cicero said...

Of course we must supply replacements when replacing teachers, but this is simply a matter of whether replacements exist. Most of the time, it's simply a matter of redistribution. The most important aspect of repealing tenure is actually not that of getting rid of bad teachers. It is letting them know that their behavior matters: Accountability. Merit pay may also achieve this, but to guage a teacher's success, state testing is necessary. That may be the way to go, but we must be careful that school is not all about teaching kids to take tests. What must occur is a consolidation of standardized testing if we are to enstate such testing institutions.

Brother Dufrene said...

Andy, great blog, I've enjoyed it for a few weeks now. This isn't the first time I've posted a comment on your blog (#2,actually), but the first time I did not give you due credit for your work before doing so. Please forgive my inexperience and rudeness in that. Robb has his finger on the starting point of fixing education, and that's teacher pay. Tenure or no tenure, accountability or no accountability, our children are always going to be short-changed on education as long as teacher salaries stay so low. business for 3x that and more? Three of the most important jobs an American can have in this country are the three whose average salaries are the most insulting compared to the social value: policeman, fireman, and teacher.
For accountability, on a scale rating teachers' ability to teach from 1 to 10, a 5 can only be held accountable for a 5 quality rating. We're losing most 7s, 8s, 9s, and 10s to the private sector, because the pay is better. We are attempting to teach our children that the better their education, the more seriously they take it, the better they will be able to compete in the job market. The same principle applies to the markets themselves, only we aren't putting enough money into teacher salaries to allow our schools to compete with the private sector.

little-cicero said...

Most good teachers DO go to the private sector! And a great deal of urban (impovershed) youths go there as well, so why not phase out public education partially and subsidize Catholic and secular private educators?

Esther said...

This is a very interesting and important issue. My classmates and I debated education and how to fix it last semester in one of our debate leagues. I think the best plan I heard was one that gave teachers better incentives (including pay raises) to do a good job teaching their students. It required funding from the state rather than the feds. That is, of course, how education is funded anyway. But I believe the plan increased the funding. Sadly, our government always looks to the national level to fix these things. The only way to solve education problems is to do so on a more local level working with the people who are on the front lines instead of the people living in their bubble in Washington, D.C.