Retooling the Education Factory   (March 5, 2009)

The education industry/lobby generally presents the "education crisis" as the result of inadequate funding. But is the crisis a lack of adequate funding, or an essentially bankrupt ideology of what "being educated" should mean in a world careening toward "the end of work" and government insolvency?

Frequent contributor Michael Goodfellow and I have been corresponding on the knotty issue of education in the U.S. The exchange began with Michael's comments about the Obama budget's boost to education spending:

Education is another secular religion, like environmentalism and universal health care. From what I read, education spending, even per pupil in real dollars, has gone up and up (Cato harps on this a lot.) The problem isn't just low standards and lack of involvement by parents. Even when you get straight A's in high school, you come out not being able to actually *do* anything. A liberal arts college education isn't much better.

If I were running things, I'd do a lot more practical projects in K-12, then encourage people to start working right away. They can take professional courses as well as liberal arts in smaller chunks spaced through their careers. I know that seems philistine to most educated people, but from what I can tell, most college graduates don't retain much of their education anyway. There can't be much of a benefit from a liberal education if you don't even remember it!

Education has been an interest of this blog since its inception in May 2005: A Degree of Success (June 2005). As a carpenter with a degree in Philosophy (I told you I was an idiot!) then I find great value in knowing how to do things in the real world. Some of this stems from the era I grew up in; the Counterculture was not all about pot brownies and rock-n-roll--it was also about self-sufficiency and the creation of an alternative to a corporate-cubicle existence.

Thus "self-education" was a key value of the Counterculture. If you wanted to learn to tune your Volkswagen Bug or van, you bought "The Idiot's Guide" and learned on your own. Ditto baking bread, growing food, and later, using computers. The Web offers resources for self-learning that we in the early 70s could not even imagine.

I did not learn these skills growing up, nor did I learn them in school or university. Skills-in-the-real-world have more than market value; they ground one's self-assurance and identity. Give me a pile of 2X4s and plywood and a handsaw (yes, a saw without power other than human muscle) and a few other simple tools like a square, chalkline and hammer and I can build what was known in 1907 San Francisco as an "Earthquake shack"--a simple sturdy shelter. If the situation calls for it, I will build it for free. (One such simple shelter we built without power is still in service some 30 years later; some Earthquake shacks are still standing after 100 years of service.) But the market value of these skills is not zero, even if the pay is zero; in many ways, the value of Skills-in-the-real-world is incalculable.

So it is no surprise that I responded that tradecraft jobs like welding and pipefitting have been going begging as the young generation has apparently been more interested in pursuing careers in entertainment and the Web. Who Will Fill Baby Boomers' Big Work Boots?

Michael's response is thought-provoking indeed:

I think the standard education establishment view of these things is that they are equipping people with basic skills (reading, writing, math) and then some kind of overall familiarity with history, science, etc. Without that, the bright students wouldn't know about the professions that exist out there, no one would be prepared to go into academics, and the average students would be even less informed than they are now.

I don't really buy the argument that there should be a lot of vocational training, esp. hand skills like machinist or welder. I have no problem with teaching those things to kids, or reminding them that you can do well as a plumber, but I don't think it's a big part of the answer. On one side, you have a world full of people in poorer countries perfectly willing to learn those skills (also immigrants to the U.S.) And on the other side, unemployment is much lower for people with Ph.D's, Masters and 4-year degrees than it is for the general population. It would be great if some of the people working retail had technician-level skills, but there are trade schools for that too. And we don't need millions more people in trades, just tens of thousands.

I definitely don't think you want to force kids into vocational "tracks" in school based on some test they take at age 12. We're not that kind of society, and I don't think we want to be.

The big problem I have with schools today is the unfocused, factory-style teaching. The whole drill of sitting there taking notes while the teacher talks and scribbles on the board, then regurgitating it on a test and forgetting it as soon as possible! I think a more project-oriented style of teaching would integrate the material much better, make it more useful, and not turn students off to learning by the time they are in third grade. I also think we should do away with lectures. Put it all on video (of really *good* teachers), then let the students work through it individually. Let the teachers coordinate projects, answer questions, motivate the students, and point them to new material that will solve the problems they have with their projects.

I don't think the answer is tougher tests and more drills. Other countries do that, and we hate coming in low on the international rankings, but it has very little to do with economic success. Not for the student, and not for the country.

Here are some anecdotes:

New York State had the "Regents" exam when I was in school, and a lot of teachers taught to that test. I think it covered most subjects and most grades. When I took chemistry class in high school, the teacher was obsessed with his students doing well on that test, and just drilled us on past tests every single week of class. It was mind numbing, and I think every single kid in that class ended up hating chemistry. High standards and a drive for better test scores will force just this kind of behavior out of teachers.

Another year, I was wrongly scheduled. I wanted "Regents English" and got "Remedial English" instead (someone saw "R. English" and was confused.) For a couple of classes, I was in with the bottom of the barrel kids who could barely read even in 10th grade. First class, they gave us a reading speed and comprehension test, which I aced in 10 minutes (out of the 20 minute limit.) The text was so easy you could just skim it, so I clocked the max reading speed of 800 wpm. Many of the other kids were coming in under 100 wpm, and they were appalled at how well I did when we read off scores. Afterwards, the teacher mentioned to me that it was interesting having me in the class, because these kids just didn't know what a good performance looked like, and had no real idea of where they stood. She also said it was a hard class to teach, because they dumbed themselves down by refusing to make each other look bad. That's what you get if you "track" students by ability.

When a computer terminal became available in school, I got a book on programming and taught myself to do it. It was a revelation for me. First, I realized that I didn't understand how to apply a lot of the math I'd been taught. I had learned to do textbook problems which have all the information you need presented in the problem, with nothing missing and nothing extra, and use the formulas you just learned in that chapter. In programming, I was running into unstructured problems where I had to think through what information I had and what I could do with it. It was completely different from school work, and I was shocked to realize how much harder it was. Second, just trying to do projects I picked out of the air, I was running into all kinds of math that I'd never studied, and using the math I knew in ways that weren't covered in the book. I was actually going back over old material that we were "done with" and trying to relearn it for real this time. After that experience, I decided if you hadn't done a project with what you learned, you hadn't learned it at all.

There's a similar anecdote in one of Richard Feynman's books. He was asked to review some physics class given in Brazil or someplace (I've forgotten.) He was very impressed with the class, which had students doing complex physics problems. One student was given an oral exam in front of him and did some really complex calculation to solve a problem. Then Feynman turned to the student and asked him a question. Again, I forget the details, but he basically rephrased the question the student had just aced. The student was completely confused, and under questioning, it was obvious that he didn't understand the material at all. He was just going through the problems by rote, as he had been drilled to do. This is a useless education.

I don't know what the answer is for the educational system. If we just keep pressuring students on grades (as in No Child Left Behind), we are going to get more useless factory drill-style education. I understand that student projects are hard to manage and hard to grade for teachers. But what we do now really doesn't prepare students to do anything. I understand the point I made at the beginning, that you get familiar with a broad range of knowledge. But it's not enough if you just forget it all. It's worse than useless if it turns the student off education generally.

They say that 40% of the public don't read even one book a year for pleasure. I assume than an even larger percentage never read a serious book that might teach them something. With a world full of motivated poor people ready to pick up all the jobs we won't do, I don't think that's good enough.

Here are a few thoughts on Michael's astute comments.

1. We know a number of dedicated, energetic smart young people who have become teachers or are completing their teacher training/fifth year. The situation reminds me a bit of the U.S. Armed Forces: the people serving are so often outstanding, so whatever problems exist are not the result of those in frontline duty: they result from sclerotic bureaucracy and rules, dysfunctional management and bankrupt ideologies on both the left and the right.

2. Union rules which were designed to protect teachers from political interference have morphed into a protection racket for the worst, most incompetent teachers who gave up caring or teaching long ago. If you deny this, please go ask some young teachers for a reality check.

3. Adjusted for inflation, funding has risen even as schools have fallen into disrepair and in-classroom staff reduced. Many in the education industry/lobby are quick to blame Prop. 13 tax cuts as the "problem." Really? Everyone who bought a house in California in the past 8 years is paying stupendous sums in property tax: over $1,000 a month in many communities.

What no one in the education industry cares to examine is the growth of non-classroom staffing, i.e. the rapidly rising costs of off-campus administration. I don't mean the school secretary, janitor, etc.--I mean the school district and other bureaucracies within the industry.

Now as cuts become inevitable, we see reports of teachers getting axed and admin. staffs taking non-cuts, i.e. unfilled positions being axed in bogus cuts in which nobody actually loses their job. Before you claim I don't know what I'm talking about, please be advised my stepmom worked for 25 years in a major California school district. Nuff said.

Yes, some of this growth in administrative costs is due to ever more onerous reporting rules and regulations imposed by legislatures and other well-meaning "reformers." If this is part of the problem, then the education industry needs to aim its immense lobbying power on reducing/axing the rules and reporting required rather than endlessly begging for more funding.

4. We might also profitably compare (adjusted for inflation) the cost of teacher and senior administrative staff's healthcare and retirement costs circa 1965, when everyone agrees California schools were the pride of the state and well-funded, with today's costs. I think we'll find that these costs have spiraled out of control, beggaring classroom staffing and school maintenance. We might also compare the ratio of admin staff to teachers in both eras.

5. Much of the current education curriculum at the Master's level is jargon-filled to the point of parody. Again, for a reality check, try reading a few recent theses and a few texts assigned at this level. The industry at some levels has reached the point of irrelevance via self-reference and ideological tail-eating.

6. In general, the Left favors "whole student education" and other wholesome-sounding ideologies, while the Right (surprise!) prefers a test-based system of basic-skills mastery. I suspect much of the current obsession with testing results from the apparent "success" of Asian-style academics in which rote learning and math are emphasized to the exclusion of all else.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. we have a system in which many students do not graduate at all. Michael sent in this link with this comemnt: "Note the graduation rates (21% in Detroit)." the-10-worst-cities-to-raise-a-family.

7. If there is anything most people can agree upon, it is that "innovation" will be key to the economy of the future. yet few ask if rote learning and testing produce innovation. A great number of locales around the world have attempted to replicate Silicon Valley and very few if any have succeeded in the long-term because highly educated people are only one part of the equation. You also need strong intellectual property rights, excellent flows of ideas, patents, funding and personnel between government, universities and private enterprises, and a world-class locale to stimulate newcomers and entrepreneurs.

8. A remarkably large number of innovators were not academic stars, which should suggest that academic testing success may not be the best or only "answer" to cultivating innovation.

9. Regardless of what education we provide, what do we do with people in an "end of work" era?

Knowledgeable correspondent Matt S. recommended The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin some time ago, and I wrote a series on the topic in December 2008:

In this challenging report, social activist Rifkin (Biosphere Politics) contends that worldwide unemployment will increase as new computer-based and communications technologies eliminate tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors. He traces the devastating impact of automation on blue-collar, retail and wholesale employees, with a chapter devoted to African Americans. While a small elite of corporate managers and knowledge workers reap the benefits of the high-tech global economy, the middle class continues to shrink and the workplace becomes ever more stressful, according to Rifkin.
End of Work, End of Affluence V: Government--Reinvention or Insolvency
(December 12, 2008)

End of Work, End of Affluence IV: Crime and Prohibition
(December 11, 2008)

End of Work, End of Affluence III: The Rise of Informal Businesses
(December 10, 2008)

End of Work, End of Affluence II: 3 Ways to Lower the Cost of Housing
(December 9, 2008)

End of Work, End of Affluence I: Cascading Job Losses
(December 8, 2008)

End of Work, End of Affluence
(December 5, 2008)

10. The U.S. educational industry is built on the assumption that life skills like balancing one's accounts, purchasing homes and insurance policies, planning one's retirement, preparing a healthy nutritious diet, etc. will be taught in the home. Given that this is so obviously untrue for a vast swath of Americans, perhaps we might profitably divert some resources from theoretical math to practical math, such as grasping rent-vs.-buy, mortgages, insurance, 401Ks, investing, credit, interest amd some basics of health beyond everyone's favorite bugaboo, reproduction. How about some basic nutrition, cooking and fitness knowledge?

11. I agree with Michael about emphasizing projects and work, even if it unpaid/internship. Problem-solving and learning to work with others in actual work environments provides valuable real-world applicable skills. As for algebra 2: if a student is interested in engineering or other applications wof math, then they will probably be more motivated in algebra 2 if they're actually using math in projects which interest them.

12. Michael's last paragraph is especially worth pondering: perhaps we as a culture and economy have grown soft expecting to "get a job" rather than "create a job." Maybe we should make lifelong self-learning to the level of mastery a key goal of our "education factories."

NOTE: The serialization of my new ebook "Survival +" starts March 21.

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