Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Good Ideas Gone Wrong

November 4, 2015

Any idea can be carried too far. When that happens, good ideas become bad ideas. As examples, consider the Veterans Administration and the American public school system. Neither institution does what it’s expected to do. How did they go wrong? And are there lessons in why they’ve failed?

In both cases, the failure is caused by believing that government programs can be operated like a business. Eliminating waste in business makes the business more competitive. If carried too far, market influence will force a correction. But schools and the VA aren’t businesses and they aren’t subjected to market forces. Instead, they’re controlled by politics. Politicians invariably cut too much, because claiming they’ve eliminated ‘waste’ appeals to voters.

But what happens when you cut too much? You make the programs ineffective at doing what they’re supposed to do.

In both of these systems, the operating budget controls everything that’s done. The focus should be on the outcome, on what the institutions do, but invariably it’s on the budget. As a result, underfunded institutions don’t do what they’re supposed to do, educate students in the case of the public school system and provide for the needs of veterans through the VA.

Both institutions must select between two choices: provide a quality product to the few, thereby rejecting others, or provide substandard services to the many. We’re seeing that now. Our public education system does not educate students, the VA does not provide adequate, timely care for veterans. Uneducated students can’t successfully operate their own businesses. They lack the qualifications needed to work for others, and there are few good middle-class jobs anyway. This leads directly to high rates of criminal activity and huge prison populations. As for the VA, veterans die while waiting for care.

Testing in schools highlights the system failure, but does nothing to solve the problem. And Mr. Trump plans to ‘reorganize’ the VA if he’s elected. It’s funding, not organization, that’s the real problem.

We can do better. We must, if we expect the American nation to endure.

Opinions and Authority Figures

February 25, 2013

About education, and thinking, and opinions:

“There are almost as many routes to a Thomas Edison degree as there are students. In a way, that is the whole point of the college, a fully accredited, largely online public institution in Trenton founded in 1972 to provide a flexible way for adults to further their education.

“We don’t care how or where the student learned, whether it was from spending three years in a monastery,” said George A. Pruitt, the college’s president, “as long as that learning is documented by some reliable assessment technique.”

“Learning takes place continuously throughout our lives,” he said. “If you’re a success in the insurance industry, and you’re in the million-dollar round table, what difference does it make if you learned your skills at Prudential or at Wharton?” ”

The above clip from the NY Times caused me to reflect on some of the writing I’ve done and the occasional arguments that have arisen because of that. For too many, I think, academic credentials count for more than the thought behind a concept, even when a brief examination should indicate that there is no relationship between those credentials and what’s being discussed.

In many disciplines, there are schools of thought that emphasize a certain approach. In economics, you were likely to examine trends as a monetarist or as someone who favored taxation as a tool to examine and manage a national economy (at least, when I took economics, that’s changed now in a number of ways, as economics progresses as a science). By favoring one or the other school of thought in a discipline, education forces the student to adopt a viewpoint of what he’s studying and often this viewpoint reflects that of the teacher. As a result, well educated people may often disagree profoundly with other well educated people based on differences in schools of thought.

And for those who have educated themselves outside of mainstream thinking, those same well-educated types might reject any ideas put forward. For those outside the thinking, they rely on those magical letters (PhD) to provide legitimacy…even when the degree was achieved in a field that doesn’t relate precisely to what’s being discussed, as for example someone trained as a tax attorney who’s now going to have to focus on monetary policy because he’s been appointed to the Federal Reserve.

Not that the above has happened; it’s just an illustration. Another illustration might deal with medicine; orthodox medicine, oriental medicine, holistic approaches via herbs….

But I also comment on things like global warming, and the discussion got quite heated (:-)) in one venue. Most people now accept that the planet is warming up, and that human activity is at least partially at fault for this. And so we turn to accepted authority for answers and policy guidance, and never question whether their opinions are really relevant because they were educated and have since done their research before global warming was accepted fact. And we also find that politics and greed enter the discussion, because those PhD’s are readily sold to politicians or industrialists who use them for their own selfish purposes. Confusion is easily exploited for profit by the shortsighted and greedy.

Another area I comment on has to do with dark matter. I thought the mathematics was at fault for a time, but I’ve since changed my mind. It’s the interpretation, not the math, and the assignment of mathematical symbols to real-world data and then manipulation of those symbols without sufficient regard to just how descriptive they are of the data they’re supposed to represent. And there are any number of ‘authorities’ on dark matter out there, PhD’s and academic degrees in plenty, professorships barely behind that…and yet, no one has actually DETECTED anything that could be dark matter. Undeterred, the ‘authorities’ on dark matter soldier on, spending enormous amounts of money and much time down in dark holes in the ground. Somehow, investigation of dark matter apparently is best done down in the guts of old mines. Even when the investigation has so far failed to find anything of significance.

There is no authority on global warming. There is no authority on dark matter. Whatever authorities there are who deal with economics, they tend to disagree with each other to the point where one must question their standing as an ‘authority’. There are just people with opinions, and some of them have advanced degrees. Just not degrees in the topic they’re so certain of. Meantime, it’s up to all of us to actually think about the topics we discuss before we decide to believe, or how much belief we’re going to invest in opinions.

One day there may be true authorities on these subjects. But not yet. As a final illustration, Linus Pauling published an essay regarding the structure of the DNA molecule. He had already received a Nobel for chemistry…and his model was wrong. After Watson and Crick, the discipline began to really take off, and now there are real geneticists and even something undreamed of back then, epigeneticists. But UNTIL Watson and Crick published their hypothesis, there were only people with wrong opinions.

Even if they did have advanced degrees.

A Vision for a Better America

September 1, 2011

Without regard to Huntsman, who like all presidents has to deal with congress to enact his ‘promises’, lets look at his plan.
Tax reform, yes. Urgently needed, and wiping out the special advantages for wealthy individuals and multinational corporations would help. Lowering the corporate tax rate as a part of this is good, so long as the special deals are eliminated at the same time.
But free trade without some kind of parity agreement is foolish. We’ve had that. We freely buy, but can’t freely sell, because we’re selling to nations (China, and now India) who have huge populations who can’t afford our products, but must work at whatever poor wages are offered there under whatever conditions employers impose. No ‘regulations’ to deal with, such as those that keep workers safe and provide for their well-being. Think sweatshops. Corporations are happy with this, because it increases their profit margin, lowers taxes, allows huge paychecks for the managerial elite. The real effect is to force a machinist in Ypsilanti or Cleveland to compete with one in China or India for his job, and if they can work for less and survive, then that American worker will have to do the same or watch his job outsourced. We’ve seen this happening now for years.
Free trade…but only between nations that are approximately equal in per-capita income. The only good reason for importing manufactured goods is if the quality is higher than what’s produced at home. Trying to produce goods cheaper is a game a developed nation can’t win.
I propose a gross receipts tax for all goods sold in the American market. American firms could offset this by the amount paid as corporate taxes in America. But if you don’t pay those corporate taxes, then the gross receipts tax kicks in, and it should be adjusted to provide price parity between imports and domestic production.
I also propose a tax increase on all fuels except those used for agriculture. All other fuels, no exceptions. Begin with a $.25 increase (a quarter), increase that annually by another quarter every year, until prices for gasoline are at least an additional dollar per gallon. The money raised goes to the government to build infrastructure and possibly reduce the national debt. Meantime, you can cancel the phony ‘fleet MPG average’ and let the market work. If you’re paying $100 to fill up your gas guzzler, fine; but a lot of people won’t want to do that. Hello electric vehicles. Automotive stimulus, parts stimulus, all sorts of benefits.
Reform immigration; go to a single-payer medical system, something the bastardized Obama plan wanted but couldn’t get. Take that burden off the jobs creators. Reform banking, and put in a special tax rate for the highest income people. Don’t reward excessive greed. Make it easier to earn money by creating things that contribute to the national wealth than by manipulating money, which creates nothing but excessive pay for the very few at the top. Reform the interlocked boards of directors who control the economy for the benefit not of the workers or the nation, but for the benefit of the managerial elite class.
Reform education. Make schools a place for education rather than a place for social reform experiments. Clear out the deadwood, teachers, administrators, and students. If they can’t teach, fire them. Make principals and school boards responsible for the results achieved by their education system. Teachers have very little power to cause change; put the responsibility on those who have the authority. If a student has reached the maximum benefit from public education, as shown by inability to pass standardized exams, then dismiss him. The idea that a student must stay in school a prescribed number of years is foolish and outdated. At the same time, provide alternatives such as remedial classes (for a limited time) and non-college training or apprenticeships so that a student leaving the public education system can immediately qualify for a job. Allow those who can qualify, by grades and demonstrated ability to continue to benefit from education, to continue with the public paying most of the costs. Possibly not for all career fields; if you want to be a lawyer or psychologist, then pay for it yourself. But engineers and scientists and business managers and entrepreneurs should have our assistance, because the investment pays off in later years.
If I can think of these things, why can’t our elected ‘leaders’ in government?
The answer is that they are more concerned with getting reelected, seeing their party in power, and personal advantage or power. We need term limits to reduce the accumulation of power, and development of a multi-party system that reduces the power of the majority parties. That is something we must do, as a voting electorate. We can’t blame this on congress. And they won’t take action unless we force them to do it.
I have a vision; it’s there above. Where is Mr. Boehner’s vision? Where is Ms. Pelosi’s vision. Where’s Mr Obama’s vision? I can be specific because I’m not afraid I might lose a vote or two; they’re all fearful, as is everyone in the government.
The above? That’s a real change you can believe in. Not that it’ll happen. See the concerns they have in the paragraph above. Feel free to share this with anyone you want. Copyright hereby renounced.

March 6, 2011

On American Society; Why We’re No Longer Number One.

I’ve written on a number of topics in the past, for everyday readers and also for Mensa International in their online Forum. I think it’s time I extended one of those topics to American Society. I have been influenced in this decision by Mr. Fareed Zakaria’s writings in Time and by his on-air comments that he airs on CNN.

Time’s edition of the week of March 5 2011 has some of his writing and also a counter argument from another writer; both are well worth reading.

But I have argued in the past that there are three things that American Schools and American Society fail to teach, and the lack of this teaching is what really hampers student progress. After listening to Mr. Zakaria, I realized that the same three characteristics are what is hampering American Society. And if we ever plan on turning society around, we need to start with these three things. A good place to start would be in the education system, although that has now been so compromised by politics that I don’t expect to see any improvement in my lifetime.

There are people in our society who have acquired these qualities. At the same time, there are millions who have not done so.

But to the three lacks:
The first of these is discipline. Discipline may be defined for the purpose of this writing as willing cooperation with the aims of society. Discipline allows an individual to pursue goals without becoming distracted. While there are disciplined individuals, I think it is fair to say that American Society has become undisciplined. Along with this lack of discipline, there is found the second great lack: we no longer have the quality of self-responsibility. It’s far too easy to expect that someone else will provide for our well being or care for us when we haven’t made provisions to care for ourselves. And the third lack is a sense of ethics.

There is little doubt that ‘recreational’ drugs are an evil. And yet, millions of persons will, despite the best efforts of educators and leaders and law enforcement entities, use drugs each year. It’s well known that these drugs are addictive, but this won’t deter new users. There is no sense of discipline, no responsibility, no ethics that will prevent this.

American Society is at least overweight, at worst obese. We tend to blame restaurants for serving too much, or vendors of prepared foods for using too much fat or salt or preparing high-calorie foods, or advertisers who constantly urge us to buy more, consume more, eat more prepared foods. But in the end it comes down to choice; we make bad choices through a lack of discipline and then blame our bad choices on others because we lack self-responsibility.

We as a society want everything, and we want it now. There isn’t the discipline to wait until we’ve earned those things or to say “no!” to the relentless barrage of advertising. We want the newest iPad or a new, expensive car, or smartphone, or a lifestyle that our own efforts can’t buy. There’s always plastic; so we in our undisciplined rush to have it all turn to credit and buy-buy-buy. And rather than call it undisciplined, we call it a disease. In this way we can push responsibility onto someone or something else. There are indeed personalities that are prone to addiction; but they all start somewhere, and it’s a lack of discipline and a lack of self-responsibility that enables that first small step that leads to addiction. But there’s always rehab; blame someone else, then expect someone else to get you out of the trouble that your own behavior has gotten you into.

I’ve spent less time discussing ethics in this paper, but the lack of ethics underlies many problems of society. It’s not ethical to push people to consume more, to make choices that are known to be bad by the person who urges us to make those choices, and yet this is done. It’s not ethical to urge bad choices on financial markets, and then, via hedge funds, bet against those choices…but it happens. It’s not ethical to use the mechanism of government to enrich one’s private accounts, but that happens all the time. It’s not ethical to take money from a contributor for a political campaign and then repay the contributor with public money or political favors; and it isn’t ethical to contribute money in expectation that public funds or favors will be forthcoming. And yet, these are the ways that we select our public servants. It’s not ethical to make bad business decisions and it’s not self-reliant to expect government to bail us out…but that’s what has happened.

So…number one? I don’t think so. We’re dependent on a remnant of a society where discipline, self-reliance, and ethics built something that was the envy of the world. But we’ve squandered most of our capital and little by little we’re losing what that earlier society built. The evidence is all about us. Virtually all our political leaders are corrupt to one extent or another. We follow the antics of ‘celebrities’ while realizing that these persons have little or nothing to contribute to society that’s more beneficial than short-term gratification. Who are our entrepreneurs or scientists or educators or physicians? But of course, we know all about sports figures or entertainers, if only because we’re horrified by their behavior.

Nations rise, and then they fall. I think we’re seeing the early stages of that fall. We have, in the past, responded well to challenges. I just don’t see the ability remaining in American Society to respond to the challenges we’re seeing now.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

March 12, 2010

Are you familiar with the Law of Unintended Consequences?

A number of years ago we were told that students had actually progressed through 12 years of school and had received a high school diploma without ever having learned to read.  It was also revealed about this time that American students fared very poorly when compared with their counterparts in developed nations such as those found in Europe and Asia.  The American students were particularly deficient in science and mathematics.  While elementary students compared very well with their foreign counterparts, they began to lag in middle school and the deficit became pronounced when high school students were compared.

A number of fixes and tweaks were suggested.

Districts which had been “socially promoting” lagging students now had to subject their student body to end-of-year testing.  In time there was No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  Social promotions were given to students who had failed two or more years, and the justification was to keep such students from being left too far behind their peers.  It was thought to damage their “self esteem”, and avoiding such damage resulted in a better student and better educational outcomes.  Such repeated failures, with low self-esteem, tended to drop out and never receive a diploma.  It was further believed that this problem of self-esteem carried on into life and tended to make people less able to function in society.

The solution to the lack of qualification of American students in math and science was to extend the requirements for graduation and to require an additional year (sometimes two) of science and math.  The Texas Legislature passed this when George W. Bush was Governor and the legislation was duly passed and signed into law.  Similar policies have become part of Federal education. Prior to this the high school student might take General Math and one or two years of Algebra.  They might take Physical Science and Biology.  These were beginning level classes and most students could pass them without too much effort.

With the new legislation, they now had to add more math and science to their graduation plan.  The only classes available were Plane Geometry and perhaps Trigonometry or pre-calculus, and after that there was only Statistics or Analytic Geometry or Calculus.  The additional sciences available were likely to be Physics or Chemistry or possibly Anatomy and Physiology.

The advanced math and science courses were no longer simple.  They had been designed and normally taken by students who were going on to college and planning on majoring in math or science or engineering.  These demanding courses were taken by students who planned to take classes in medical science and similarly demanding curricula.

It was not really possible to lower the level of these courses without harming the students who needed them in order to do well in college.  Some dumbing down has occurred.  “Regular” classes are now paralleled by similar classes labeled AP, for advanced placement, and IB, for International Baccalaureate.  AP and IB classes are taught at university level, and students who pass such, and who also pass an end-of-course test conducted by a university, can gain university credit, thus getting double credit.  At one time they gain credit for high school graduation and also university credits giving them a head start on a college education.  So you have regular Anatomy and Physiology and also A&P (AP) for future physicians and nurses.

Even so, A&P requires a lot of work.  The student who has been cruising along without doing much studying or much homework will have difficulty in passing such  classes.

The legislatures, however, have mandated that students take these extra classes.

It is left to the schools and, ultimately, to the teacher to enforce these mandates.

No amount of legislative mandate can make such classes easy or interesting unless that student can see an immediate use for the knowledge he gains.   It is often pointed out that, after school, most students will never have any use for Algebra again.   The same is true for Physics and Chemistry.

So the student who has struggled with, say, Biology, is now facing Anatomy & Physiology.  The student who has never mastered quadratic equations must now take Analytic Geometry.  And if he doesn’t pass these subjects he is not going to receive a diploma.

Enter the Law of Unintended Consequences.  The student drops out.

The only real solution is a restructuring of the public school system.  Instead of most classes being college track, for students planning on going on to college, most students should have an opportunity for career education so that they can get a job after school.

Few high school graduates are ready for a job (note that the newest “standards” presented to the National Governors Conference do not even suggest that the student should possess  job skills; these standards expect the student to be able to attend college or job training)  Graduates end up working in construction or possibly in fast food because those places have menial, labor intensive jobs available.  The high school graduate is not qualified to be a machinist, or a mechanic, or a technician at any level.  So the high school student who wants to work as an airframe mechanic, as an example, must take a vocational course, at a Junior College or possibly through a correspondence course.  Neither of these is free.

European schools separate their students into tracks based on aptitude.  Those whose scores indicate that they aren’t best suited for University are placed into an apprenticeship or similar track.  These students attend school half a day and are taught the specialized practical physics or mathematics or mechanics for the program they’re enrolled in and then spend the other half-day actually working as apprentices in their future career.  They typically continue such a course until they are 20 years old, and then they go to work for a company (possibly for the one they apprenticed with) or they get low-interest loans that enable them to start their own business.  The companies providing the apprenticeship training receive subsidies from the government to offset the expenses incurred in training the student.  The student may also receive some small pay for the work he does.  Such a program would work well in America and would increase the number of graduates who are prepared to go to work when they graduate while reducing the dropout rate, and simultaneously remove nonperforming students from college prep classes so that teachers can concentrate on those who would be most likely to benefit from teacher help.

There would be more room at high schools.  Students in career tracks might have classroom work in the morning, apprenticeship work in the afternoon, and for half of them, this would be reversed.

I would also recommend that students be held responsible for their own results.  Students who demonstrate by misbehavior or repeated failure that they are no longer benefiting from a public education should be dismissed.  There may first be attempts at intervention to see if remediation is possible; but when a student demonstrates he is no longer gaining an education through attendance at a public school, he should be dismissed.  It is counterproductive to keep such a student in a regular school.  It harms other students by preventing them from acquiring a quality education and does little or nothing to educate the non-performer.

So…reform public education.  I’m realistic enough to expect that such reform would be at least as divisive as health care reform has been.  Still, we’re going to be forced into major changes by competition with other nations.  We shall need to direct those required changes in the way that’s best for us.

In this way we may, indeed, repeal the Law of Unintended Consequences…at least as it applies to public education.

Fixing America’s Schools: A Blueprint for Change

March 11, 2010

There are a lot of wrong ideas about American schools:

1.  American schools cannot provide a quality education for students.

The fact is that you can, right now, get a quality education in an American school.  Hundreds of thousands do it every year.  Those students go on to get jobs, go to college, become professionals in various fields, staff our military including the officer corps…if the schools didn’t prepare them to do this, then who did?  Of more importance is the question: why didn’t others manage to acquire a quality education?  Where did the failure lie, and how could this be eliminated in the future?

2.  Many students don’t get a quality education.  This is the fault of their teachers.

Teachers teach what they’re told to teach, when they’re told to teach it, and to the student audience they’re told to teach it to.  Often enough they’re also told how to teach it and given whatever tools their school district is prepared to pay for to accomplish this.  Most teachers I’ve known supplemented their school-supplied budget by buying supplies with their own money.  This is widely known, but often not considered when teachers are accused of not caring enough about their students. If there’s fault, it lies in the system, not in those who teach.

3.  Requiring advanced degrees for teachers will result in a better education for students.

New Mexico requires their teachers to obtain a Masters degree; Texas requires only a Baccalaureate degree.  Texas teachers are generally paid better than their New Mexico counterparts, despite the requirement set by New Mexico for higher education.  Texas students generally fare better than NM students on standardized tests, in most cases.  Teachers who are able to do so look for jobs that pay better or are in more desirable schools (think of how difficult it is to get teachers willing to teach in ghetto or barrio schools!).  Enough said about this.  Some teachers would benefit from an advanced degree, or at least additional education.  For others, it’s not really cost effective.

It is, nonetheless, true that American schools rank very low among developed nations in the quality of the education they provide, based on rankings of students by achievement on standardized tests.  There is a failure here, in that relatively few students achieve the education that the schools are expected to provide.

President Obama follows President G. W. Bush in attempting to address the deficiencies in American education.  I doubt that his solution will be any more effective than President Bush’s attempt (“No child left behind”).  I’ve listened to Obama’s speeches, as I listened to GWB’s during his administration.  Both presidents’ attempts have in common that their proposed solutions sound good to politicians but don’t address the real failing of the school system.

The problem isn’t the teachers; each year, a crop of new teachers comes out of the education departments in the universities and others enter the profession from other careers.  Older teachers retire, new ones replace them, and some younger ones stay a year or two or five and then leave the profession.  This latter group is sometimes made up of people who just can’t function effectively in the classroom, but sometimes it’s because they can get better jobs outside the profession.  Better pay, less stress, more respect, less frustration with the bureaucracy of education…these send them into other fields of work.  The ones who leave aren’t the worst of the lot, either.  The ones who stay in the classroom are the ones who really love the idea of teaching or the ones who can’t get those better jobs.

Some few teachers are so talented that they are able to function within the limits of the system and still achieve more than might ordinarily be expected.  Those who only work within the system, as they’ve been trained to do, don’t achieve as much.  A few unqualified or ethically unsuited teachers get almost all the attention, and so it’s easy to blame the education failures on poor teacher quality.  Based on my own experience in three schools, I would maintain that, as a group, teachers are much more ethical and qualified than virtually any other professional group.  Consider some other professions; police officers?  Politicians?  Priests?  Business leaders?  Bankers?  The fact is that NO profession is 100% perfect, nor will it ever be.   A few teachers are so talented and energetic that they rise above the system. The rest achieve only what the system permits.

You can’t even blame the problem on administrators.  They, too, move around from school to school, and generally they don’t make any significant difference when they leave or when they arrive at the new school.  Some few administrators are able to work outside the system and achieve more, but again, those who do the job we’ve trained them to do don’t achieve much.  If a few achieve more than others, they do so despite the limitations of the system.

You can reasonably assume that the system itself is flawed.  Administrators and teachers work within the system but have no authority to change it, they move around, they enter or leave, but no change takes place. The system itself must be changed.

American schools once worked.  Look at what was expected of a high school graduate around the turn of the twentieth century; it’s an eye opener.  They were expected to do much more in the fields of math, language, writing, geography; possibly less in science, and nothing in some of the fields that are considered important now (computers, etc).  The schools we have now are lineal descendants of the schools we had then.  It is fair to conclude that the system was effective in the late 19th-early 20th century, although fewer students remained in school for the full twelve years. There are now more students and new tools to help manage education, but the system has not kept up with changes in society.
It is much less effective in providing a quality education than it was in the early 20th Century.

Schools fail to teach discipline or personal responsibility.  They rarely teach ethics or morality.  These topics were once taught by family or social entities, or by religious institutions.  Parochial schools teach a religious version of morality and sometimes ethics, but this often fails to translate into non-religious life.  Even religion doesn’t often maintain the hold on people that religious leaders would prefer, and attendance at church and the idea that church is very important in everyday life are both much less common today than they once were.  Religious ethics and morality appear to be as much a failure as any other aspect of education.

Discipline is defined within the military services as willing obedience to orders.  Obviously this isn’t what schools should teach; but schools should instill a willingness to cooperate for the good of society, or willingness to work within a system to achieve common goals.  The students who learn this get an education. Those who don’t, fail or drop out.

There is little sense of personal responsibility among many students, particularly among those who are failing and who are most likely to drop out.  Failure is not considered to be the fault of the student, it’s the fault of the teacher or the administration or society.  It’s the fault of race, or poverty, or low self esteem.  How often does anyone in authority say “it’s the fault of the student?”  Failure…there is no consequence to falling short.  Laziness?  Perfectly acceptable.   Sit on the couch and watch the TV, but don’t do anything for yourself.  Get the right brand of shoes and you too can jump like Michael Jordan, without having to work for his skills.  With the portable gym and 5 minutes a day you too can look like Schwartzenegger.

I didn’t hear much from President Obama about discipline, willingness to cooperate with the educational process, or personal responsibility on the part of the student, and so I think that his approach is going to fail just as did the efforts of his predecessors.

Discipline: what happens to students who refuse to cooperate with the education system?  What about those who commit crimes, who take drugs, who paint graffiti over the walls, who engage in destruction simply because they want to and nobody can stop them?  What about the gang members: is it anything except a stopgap to forbid gang members from displaying their membership by wearing gang colors?  Do uniforms really get students out of gangs?

Students were expelled from school for antisocial behavior a century ago; nowadays, the buzz is “we can’t deprive a child of an education”.

Politicians equate time in school with educational improvement.   This is demonstrably false.  Quantity does not equate to quality.  A variety of laws supposedly compel students to attend school for 12 years, and students are expected to complete this by the time they turn 18 years of age.  If this were true then this essay wouldn’t be required.

Ethics: cheating is rampant.  The fact that cheating is an ethical failure is not even considered.  The only rule is “don’t get caught”.   Even if you do get caught, your parents will keep any consequence from happening to you.  Everybody does it.  And if everybody does it, it can’t be wrong, can it?  If you’re caught cheating on a test or plagiarizing a paper in college, you are expelled.  In high school, the same behavior might result in a failing grade, but often not even that.   There are already so many failures that teachers are forced to pass students who don’t earn a passing grade.  They haven’t done the required work…but they will be passed anyway.

Should we blame the schools for not insisting that students develop discipline or ethics or morality?  Should we blame the educational establishment that exists above the level of the school or school district?  Should the departments of education insist on or even test to assure that students are achieving this?

Is anyone really to blame?

You can blame the political entities.  You can blame the school boards and the departments of education at the state and federal levels.  You can hold them responsible for the mess that they have created.   Until you, the voters and taxpayers do this, until failing schools result in the removal of school board members, nothing will change.

The solution will have to begin with a reorganization of the political system.  This is the difficult part.

Theoretically the school boards control the schools in their district.  This is not precisely correct; there are numerous state and federal entities that channel money to the districts and establish rules on what is to be taught and how the school boards can operate.  The main function of school boards is to establish a budget, set tax rates, and hire a superintendent.  They may also get involved in purchasing contracts, hiring principals and other staff, setting payrolls, establishing programs…but these are peripheral activities.

The tax function passes the blame to the electorate; they generally vote in board members who will promise to keep tax rates low.  School boards don’t insist on a quality education.  They may pay lip service to this, but they WILL insist on the district living within the budget they set.  In Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and in California, perhaps in other places, teachers are being encouraged to turn off classroom lights and function using natural light; they’re also setting thermostats lower in the classrooms and turning down the thermostats on water heaters.  They’ve already cut the quality of the lunches they serve, to the point of classifying ketchup as a vegetable rather than a condiment.   Teachers may be laid off and schools may be closed; the school week may be cut to four days.  There is no pretense that these steps increase the education provided to students.  The overriding consideration is that the schools live within their budget.  If a restrictive budget hampers the educational process, too bad; but the budget remains the driving force behind school activities.

President Obama wants to hold teachers accountable for student achievement.  He does not, however, plan on giving teachers authority to go with this responsibility.   Responsibility without authority is guaranteed to produce failure.

The political entities, from President to Governor to Legislators to judges, retain all educational authority; we, the voters, need to insure that they also are the ones who are held responsible.  If there is a teacher who is doing an unacceptable job of teaching, you can be sure that someone has the authority to remove that teacher from the classroom.  If a student is no longer benefiting from attending public school, then someone has the authority to remove that student from school, but it won’t be the teacher or administrator; if the student is disrupting class to the point that other students are also not receiving the full benefit of the educational process, then someone has the authority to expel that student.  The person with the authority must be the one that we hold responsible.  Instead, the teacher, who has no such authority, is often the one blamed.  And political figures are the first to blame someone else for failures caused by their policies.

There are currently several approaches being tried in schools in order to raise academic achievement and the test scores which measure this.  One of these segregates the best students into advanced placement classes.  These students are virtually guaranteed to pass all their mandated achievement tests; that’s how they got into AP in the first place.  You might conclude from this that all AP teachers are superb teachers (their students pass mandated achievement tests, after all), and those who teach “regular” classes are mediocre at best, because fewer of their students pass those tests.  Those “regular” classes contain the disruptive students (control of disruption, usually referred to as “discipline”, is time not spent on teaching), the special education students (federal policy, possibly federal law, requires “inclusion), and whatever is left after the better students are removed; some of these special education students are low-IQ, some are physically handicapped, others have failed two grades in the past (in Texas, such students were routinely steered into special education categories, and “placed” into the next higher grade; failing two grades was considered evidence of special needs) and some have learning difficulties, such as dyslexia.   When these students are placed in regular education classes, they take more of the teacher’s time than regular students do, and they benefit less than would regular students who aren’t getting that time from the teacher.  Only the individual needs of the special education student are considered; no one outside the classroom considers the result of this and other social engineering policies on the regular education student.   This is an example of an unfunded mandate.  If the teacher had ten or 15 students (which would require that more teachers be hired), then he/she might well be able to devote the time to the special education student that he/she needs.  When classes are 35 or more students, there is no way the teacher can help any of his students very much.  Aides might help, and teachers who teach in self-contained classrooms for special-needs children have such aides.  Aides are generally not required to have a baccalaureate degree, and they are paid less than a fully-qualified teacher.  But as a general rule, regular education teachers get special education students but they don’t get an aide to help with teaching.

Funding: It isn’t possible to treat all school districts as equal.  Some have a tax base based on agriculture, others have an oil field in the district.  Some have major industries in the districts that can help support a large tax base.  This inequality in funding means that there will be inequality in the schools.  Some schools have computers, some have pictures of keyboards for the students to learn keyboard skills on.  Eventually, the only equitable solution is some sort of federal funding.  It is important not to fund down to the poorest schools, but to fund up;  raise the poorer districts to parity.  School districts and the school boards that control them also bring religion, ethnic and cultural bias, sexism, and a host of other local issues that reduce the effectiveness of their schools.  With federal funding comes federal control…and that’s what’s going to make the reorganization difficult.  Local boards don’t want to give up control.  Consider the recurring attempts to make school an extension of religion; prayer, teaching creationism instead of evolution, just as examples.   Not only science but often social studies have to pass the local-board examination.

Reorganizing the schools: that’s actually the easiest part of the equation, although it will  require a new approach.

Decide what the school is to accomplish.  Hire a principal who can supervise teachers who will make that happen.  Provide enough staff and supplies to do the job.  Fund the school according to what the job requires, rather than provide a set level of funds and tell the school that they must do the best they can with what is provided.

Some schools may require more staff, others may be able to function with less.  Some may require more security, others again may only need a campus security guard.   Some schools may need teacher’s aides to help, while others won’t need that.  Teachers should teach, period.  Currently they are required to perform security duties, attend various meetings, any number of distractions.  They watch the hallways between classes.  They perform bus duty to make sure that the gangs don’t have a free hand to bully or spray graffiti or destroy property.  Let teachers teach, and if they can’t, get rid of them.  Smaller classes with more teacher contact are critical in the early grades; larger classes may be effective in later grades, but again, one size does not fit all.  Low-income, inner-city districts are likely to need smaller class sizes.  Give the principal the authority to make such changes as he finds necessary, and then hold him responsible for what he accomplishes.  But first, give him/her the tools to do the job.  If it costs more, pay the costs.

Students: in the end, teachers can’t really teach; they can only assist students to learn.  The final solution is to motivate students to learn.  A number of approaches might work.  See the later essay on the NO FAILURES program.

As a suggestion, no one should be able to get a driver’s license unless he is at least 16 years of age and has passed his high school competency exam (students can usually take the exam for the first time in 10th grade).  If he can’t pass the test until he’s 17 or 18 or 21, then he waits to get that driver’s license.  Driving without a license sets the process back a year for each infraction.  Absences, failures…the work must be made up on weekends.   In a word, make it easier to pass than to fail.  Make failure have real consequences; make passing have real benefits.

Schools need to be for education.  When a student can’t benefit from a standard education, remove them from the school.  Don’t make school a place for institutionalizing those who can’t benefit from education.   Establish a set of standardized criteria for remaining in school.  When a student can’t meet those requirements, channel them into other types of education: vocational education or apprenticeships, for example  (this is currently done in Germany, among other places).  Don’t require the school to warehouse “students” who demonstrate that they are not progressing in a standard classroom setting.  Inclusion is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, I’m told.  There are children who can’t function in a classroom setting, and it’s time to recognize that.  We recognize that there are few athletes who can function like Michael Jordan…but we refuse to see that the same is true on the cognitive level.    Continuing the analogy: could the Bulls have won national championships if they were required to include the short and the physically weak or inept on their team?  And why should we expect schools to function when we require them to perform the same sort of thing in their field, academics?  I think we should do all we can for those who are handicapped by birth or circumstances; but we should not handicap all the others who are fortunate enough to be in “regular” classes.  Raise those who need help as high as we can; but don’t lower the others to make it appear that the playing field is level.

About sports: one or more students die every year, and many more sustain serious injuries, playing sports in middle and high schools.  Imagine the outcry if a student died in class, perhaps doing a science experiment!  Add to that the amount of school time lost to sports, to practices, to leaving early to get to a game; think of the time that players don’t spend doing homework, or copy from others because they’re too tired after practice to do the work themselves, or simply because they consider sports to be more important than academics.  Sports may still have a place in school, but not the place it currently holds; it needs to be toned down until it’s done for the benefit of the student, not the school, and not the vicarious thrills that parents and coaches obtain from the efforts of the kids.  It just isn’t worth what it’s currently costing.  Put sports achievement on parity with academic achievement.

Organized sports currently teach a lesson we don’t want taught, that it’s alright to cheat, just don’t get caught.  Anything goes if it helps generate a win.  Play by the rules and lose, and you’re a loser; cheat and win, and you’re a winner.  Winning isn’t the best thing, it’s the only thing, and sports teaches you about life…we’ve all heard that.  And we’ve also seen the results, in politics, in economics, in life.  When your HMO cuts you off, despite the promises they made to get you to sign up and pay your money, hey…they’re rich, so they’re a winner.  Wonder where they learned that?  When a lawyer lies to get his client off, well…he’s a winner too.  Guess who the losers are?

When our schools don’t educate students, guess who the losers are?

The American Education System: an Analysis and Critique

March 11, 2010

It’s an accepted fact that the American public school system is broken.  Only a little more than half of the students who enter the system in Kindergarten will graduate on time 13 years later.  When they finally graduate, their diploma is almost worthless.  Some of these (possibly 70%) will go on to college (also referred to as University; the terms are used interchangeably in this document), and of these, many will begin their college career in remedial classes because they are not prepared to do the work that a university expects them to do.  They will be required to take classes in mathematics and other core subjects such as English Composition.  Some of those who enroll in college will never get past this barrier.

This condition arises because our public schools urge students to go on to college, whether they are suited for such a course or not.  This is generally the best course that a high school can recommend, because the school has few other options for its students.  The counselor will recommend college, or possibly a community college, because there are no good jobs for high school graduates.  They have few marketable skills.  The only jobs open to them are menial in nature, unskilled, jobs such as are found in the fast food industry or as unskilled labor in construction or similar industries.  And yet, a lifetime of television advertising entices them to get a good job, make a lot of money, buy luxury goods and get a credit card so that these items can be paid for.  They’ll need good credit because that new car they’re urged to buy costs a lot of money.  The jobs the high school graduate can qualify for are poorly paid as well as being menial.

The public school system has failed them.  They have failed themselves.  And together they have failed society.

There are a number of people who are seeking solutions to this problem.  That unemployed “graduate” might go into the armed forces (who will first have to provide an education as well as the physical conditioning that the high school grad doesn’t have) but many of them are unemployed or underemployed for at least a year after they leave high school.  Because they are unemployed and life is passing them by, they become a problem for society.  They may engage in antisocial behavior (gang activity, graffiti) or take drugs or drink excessive amounts of alcohol.  This behavior is concentrated in the minority Hispanic and Black population because these are the ones who are most likely to fail to gain an education in the public schools.  Such minority students can learn; many do.  But not all of them.

Nothing less than a restructuring of the American public school system will solve the public school problem.  Such a restructuring will not be completed in less than 10 years and it may take much longer.  In part this is because we have a system, however poor and inefficient it is.  Parents, voters, legislators, and administrators are familiar with the current system; it’s the one that brought them to where they are now.  So they conclude that with a little bit of tinkering the system can be made to work.  We, as a society, have been trying that little bit of tinkering for many years.  It’s an item on the agenda of every new president and every governor and legislators at every level.  There are new directives every year, and frequently these directives are not accompanied by the funds to carry them out.  And the situation gets worse every year.

This restructuring may cost money, but probably not as much as you might expect.  It will, however, cost school districts that local control that they cherish.  Local control is inefficient and ultimately unfair.  Most districts are underfunded.

Those districts which have a tax base that can support high pay for teachers get the best teachers.   A teacher who does not measure up will be dismissed; there is sure to be a waiting list of eager, well-qualified teachers to replace the dismissed one.  Teachers can work in relatively pleasant surroundings in suburban schools or in less pleasant inner city schools.  They can have sufficient funding to support the education program or they can be forced by necessity to purchase paper or other supplies from their own pocket.

The best performing districts, those which have the highest percentage of graduation when compared to enrollment, are generally the ones with the best funding.  But it does not have to be this way.  I would argue that this comes about because schools with the extra funding are able to succeed not because of the educational system but despite it.  The reality is that we must somehow provide a quality education to all students in all our schools, not just in the few.  That quality education must specifically address the needs of Black and Hispanic students, because they are the ones least served by the current system.

Restructuring needs to begin with the needs of the student.  The current system assumes that all students have the same needs and does not attempt to tailor the student’s education plan to individual circumstances.  This one-size-fits-all approach works fairly well in elementary grades, although even here some students require special programs.  The standard class does not provide a challenge for a few students, so they may receive more demanding classes.  This is the student considered particularly gifted and/or talented.

Other students are at the other end of the spectrum.  They require extraordinary support because they cannot benefit from a standard education.  The student may be physically unable to attend regular classes or absorb the material being taught.  He/she may be dyslexic or be diagnosed as AD/HD (Attention Deficit , in that he cannot concentrate as well as his peers, and Hyperactivity Disorder, in that he cannot control his physical activity).  He may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Down’s Syndrome or simply not develop as fast as others for whatever reason.  Such students require more adult assistance and may, even with such assistance, not progress very far.

The remainder of the students are expected to progress through the mechanism of a “standard” education.  They do this without extra support or special classes.  Most of them succeed through the elementary grades.  Elementary education should provide the student with general skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic, keyboard skills and computer literacy, and elementary knowledge of the structure and functioning of American society.  They should have some idea of what science is and how science works and of the role of technology in a modern society.  Students who need extra help should be provided that help, but it must be recognized that some students simply cannot perform with their peers.  No amount of legislation can alter this.  Students who are identified as being unable to function in a standard school should not be left in the schools, even in some supportive setting.   Decisions as to when such dismissal is appropriate should not be arrived at without a lot of thought and only after every attempt has been made to help the student become able to continue with his peers.  But after it has become obvious that the student has had all that the education system can offer him, it is counterproductive to allow him to remain in school.  Keeping him in an educational setting is social engineering at this point; it is not education.

Students should be tested at the end of the elementary grades to determine their ability to continue in the standard educational “track”.   If they have not mastered the elements of an elementary education then they cannot be expected to function in the more demanding atmosphere of middle school.   This testing must be mandatory and the student must demonstrate mastery in order to continue on the standard school track.  Failure here puts the student into a different track, one which leads to a career in some field other than those taught by universities.  Such a career should not be viewed as menial or low-paid or uninteresting.  Consider that there is no requirement for a degree to work in the field of movie production.  Carpenters, electricians, dolly men, camera operators, costumers, model makers, and computer operators are all part of the modern movie business.  Medical technologists operate x-ray and scan systems, and veterinary assistants help the vet care for arnimals; robotic systems installers and mechanics work in industry; heavy equipment operators build roads and airfields.  Aircraft technicians are well paid and work in interesting, challenging fields such as airframe maintenance or engine maintenance or avionics maintenance and repair.  There are also policeman and fireman that are the basis of ambition for many young students, but there are also ambulance attendants/drivers, bus drivers and truck drivers, farm technologists such as combine operators and maintenance people, welders and wind or solar power technicians…and all of these offer careers that are superior to in every respect to fast food jobs.

Testing is being conducted at various points along the academic path, but such testing is primarily used to determine whether the school is doing what it is supposed to.  There are no consequences to the student for failing these tests.

There will be other posts in this series discussing what schools fail to do, and why, and some suggested solutions.