Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Education Reform

The educational system in the United States is driven by misguided beliefs founded on impossible goals for both the educators and for the educated. What I am about to say will shock most of you; in order to be reasonable, you need to get past your shock and consider what I have to say. We err in believing every youth in America needs to go to college; we even err in believing they need to finish secondary school. Our system is currently pushing students through a system that does not benefit them, which costs us money, and which prevents the students from finding a more productive use of their time while holding back students who will actually make use of a modern day liberal education. I propose we do the following:

  • Drastically reduce government funding for tuition.
  • Remove students from high school who have no aptitude for it.
  • Offer students incompatible with higher education a chance at learning a real work related skill, often in the form of an apprenticeship.
  • Increase the workload for students who remain; higher achieving students can do much better than they are doing now once the bar is set high.
1. College is becoming a great drain on our society. It has become "common knowledge" that everyone should try to obtain a college education; what nobody asks is why. Unless a person is entering a field that requires additional years of education, such as becoming an educator, a doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc., the four years spent on a bachelors degree are truly wasted. If you doubt what I say, find workers who possess a four year degree not focused on a particular profession and ask them if they could perform their job without the knowledge they gained in college. I am willing to bet very few college graduates actually gained useful skills in their college experience, whether applied to their work or to any other aspect of their lives. The four years may have been fun, but they were not useful, and the $50,000-100,000 of debt that costs is often crippling to the finances of many young Americans.

Why do we bother with such a wasteful experience, then? Why do we insist upon it? A college education has become egalitarian; everyone is expected to have one. This means it is no longer a mark of distinction. If you do not possess such an education, it is indicative that you are the bottom of the barrel, but having one does not indicate you are any better than the millions of others who possess a degree. In order to be egalitarian, however, a college degree must be fairly easy to obtain; the bar must be set low enough that just about anyone can trip over it. Setting the bar that low comes at the cost of each student gaining almost nothing. As I said, unless a student is working towards a degree focused on a particular profession or happens to be very driven and really makes the best of their time in college with an eye towards a future job, college becomes a four year party putting millions of students tens of thousands of dollars in debt each without any real gain.

How do we fix this problem? For starters, parents need to steer their children towards a successful career rather than a college degree. A degree is no longer a ticket to success. Businesses want to see skills and experience, not a B+ in Sub-Saharan Feminist Thought. As a society, we need to stop funding this madness. A vicious cycle currently exists between students, the government, and the universities. Universities charge far more than students can afford; students, their parents, and those in the universities demand the government make more money available to the students; when the government does so (it is politically expedient to be seen as helping to fund education), the universities raise their tuition as new funds become available. Once again, it becomes too expensive for students, who again ask for more government assistance, who again give it, which again leads to more money to the colleges who again raise their tuition, etc. etc. Government assistance needs to be limited to those who can actually make use of a higher education, i.e. the cream of the crop. Very few classes in the liberal arts provide anything resembling useful knowledge; if we cut off funding, potential students will have to find work instead. What do they really lose in this exchange beyond $50,000+ of debt?

2. Considering their own experiences with college and the argument against burdening young adults with huge sums of debt for no tangible result, I think most people will agree with point 1. This second issue is going to be more controversial, but I ask you to hear me out. The uselessness of our educational system is not limited to obtaining college degrees. High School (grades 9-12) is often as useless because of our misguided one size fits all attitude toward education. Anyone who works within a secondary school can tell you there are students who have no real business being there, save for the fact that there is a law requiring them to attend. We mistakenly believe that every student "deserves" a liberal education covering the basics of many different fields (social studies, math, science, English, a foreign language). Ask yourself, though: how much do you recall from your high school classes? How much do you actually use? And how much do you think your classmates recall and employ on anything resembling a regular basis? If you are anything like me, you will be astonished for how little we gained over those four years.

It is not politically correct to say this, but there are many children who just do not have any place in an academic society. A very small percentage of any class is going to grow up to become a doctor, lawyer, politician, professor, teacher, business executive, judge, engineer, etc. The majority are going to go into fields that do not require a liberal education: mechanics, janitors, clerks, etc. Why, then, do we force so many students who have no use and no desire to learn the information presented to them to attend four years of this "education?" They have little to nothing to gain and they know it. Their time could be better spent learning useful skills for their future careers, helping them be employable and eventually self-reliant. Apprenticeships in fields that catch their interest or in which they have talent for could be a great way for these students to not only learn job related skills but also appropriate behavior and responsibility while perhaps even creating income. These kids need motivation but either lack the long term view of the future or understand that they are not the material from which higher salaried professionals are cut from. A chance at a respectable career, tied in with decent money in the very short term, can help these kids become productive members of society.

Again, my next point will not be politically correct, but sometimes we need to address issues and find the correct version sans adjective. Students who are academically fit do not have much to gain by having their academically lesser peers dragged along with them. With such a wide range of academic abilities in their classrooms, teachers currently have to err on the side of slowness lest most of their classes get behind on the material. A class intentionally retarded for the sake of heterogeneity does not benefit the lesser academic minds (they do not care anyway) or the more academically fit (they become bored). We are slicing the baby in the middle and calling it moderation.

In my fantasy education world, where those less apt for academics are hooked up with businesses to learn useful skills and a useful paycheck rather than preparing to be overburdened with college debt for no marginal gain, the more academically skilled students also stand to benefit from more challenging courses. In many schools, we already have something resembling this practice in the form of Advance Placement classes. With my system, high school would become an Advanced Placement school on steroids. Teachers could focus on pushing students who want to be there even higher instead of dragging along students who would rather be anywhere else. The advanced students win by having more challenges and teachers who can give them more of their attention; the less academically advanced students win by gaining useful skills and a paycheck; the teachers win by having a more positive environment where students see school as an opportunity rather than as a pseudo-prison. I am sure my critics will be able to point out some disadvantages, but on the whole I believe the benefits far outweigh any costs to our sensibilities concerning the "need" for a liberal education through 12 grades and college.

The true thorny issue here will be in determining who are gifted enough to continue and who should be put into the career apprenticeship plan. A standardized test would be highly inappropriate in this situation for a number of reasons. For starters, one can be an excellent test taker and yet not particularly motivated, or at least not enough to handle the rigors of an advanced classroom. Others who may be excellent students may not be great test takers; the pressure of such a life changing exam would exacerbate that problem. A more holistic evaluation would be necessary. A three year transitional period from 7-9th grade, instructed by teachers trained not only in the content but with special training for this particular evaluation, would be more accurate in determining who can truly hack it and who would be better prepared in the apprenticeship program. Determining the actual criteria for who would be accepted is a complex matter that I am not prepared to tackle here. Who will be accepted will largely depend on what the curriculum on the advanced school would look like; students who excel in one particular field but are average or below in others might be accepted in a school whose curriculum focuses on one content area but not in another school that expects above average results in all areas. As I said, that discussion is for another time; right now, we need to agree that the one size fits all approach to education does not benefit the academically challenged or average or gifted as much as a tailored approach would.

Reform can only occur once we move past the politically correct view that all kids need to be provided with an equal opportunity in the form of identical education. Not only is this egalitarianism misguided in terms of egalitarian thought (students may be given the same education but their backgrounds differ widely, creating different abilities to use the identical education), but the egalitarianism itself is misguided. We need not try to make everyone happier and better by the same quantitative measure; our goal needs to be to equip each and every student with the tools and skills that will help them make the most of their individual lives. The heterogeneous nature of human beings require many different solutions; forcing all down the academic pipe clogs up the pipe for those of an academic nature while being a hell for those who do not belong. Equality in a most literal sense rarely works in practice, however nice it may be in some people's philosophy. Until we overcome this mental and moral hurdle, students will continue to receive an inferior education leading to an inferior future.

[UPDATE] After speaking with a bright friend who teachers secondary education and having spent some time in schools myself, I believe the best way for choosing who would take the academic route or the more apprenticeship style approach would be to let the students and their parents decide rather than the school or state. Most students have a pretty good idea by that time whether they have the ability and the drive to make it in a challenging academic environment or whether there is a particular subset of skills they really want to enhance. This method also puts responsibility for the success or failure of the choice on the student and parents, which will give them added incentive to make the right choice whatever that may be for them. Being as I doubt the state or school's ability to choose for us in any aspect of our lives, I'm rather shocked and embarrassed this solution to not appear to me in the first place. Kudos to that smart friend for bringing this solution to my attention.

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