Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Educating Rita

In one of our regular bar room debates, my friend stated that at the 4th grade level, students in the US rank near the top when compared with other countries. By the time these same children reach their Sr. year in high school, they have fallen badly behind their international peers.

Now, assuming this is correct (although I've had trouble fact checking it, it does appear we spend more per student than any other country but one, and we do fall - and continue to fall - in relation to other countries in terms of high school and college grads - link)...

What are we doing wrong?

Of course, being a good conservative, my friend blamed it all on the educator unions and the politically correct, self-esteem based precepts that took hold in the education degree programs. And while I'm sure there is some validity to these arguments, that can't be all of it.

Sidetrack - Why do I give these arguments any credence at all? How about take tenure as an example. Tenure was a concept that developed to protect from termination university researchers who have demonstrated their ability to do good work, to allow them to pursue research that may go against common wisdom, politically incorrect research, the kind that hopefully overthrows crufty old paradigms and replaces them with newer paradigms that suck slightly less.

So explain to me why a primary school educator needs tenure? To protect all that research he or she is doing? No - tenure has been adopted by the unions as a euphemism for seniority based preference. Systems based primarily on seniority tend to not be as adaptable, flexible, and responsive to change. And the only constant in life is change. If these institutions were faced with an outside competitive threat, they would die the dinosaur death that most companies that don't adapt do.

But wait! you say. There are competitive, market based institutions of learning. They range from religious based private schools to the more modern "privatized" programs like Edison. Why haven't these alternatives taken off? Do they indeed provide a better education?

Getting unbiased information on the relative success of these programs in educating students is very difficult. This usually indicates a lot of vested interests with lots to lose in any change to the status quo, or alternatively high potential of financial gain with any change (in the "right" direction). While the Edison site lists a number of stats indicating improvement in comparison to peer schools, the gains are incremental, not overwhelming. And they've been at it for 10 years now, supposedly with the most researched curriculum and programs in the country.

Is there no valid scientific basis for learning? And if there is, then why haven't we refined it and used it?

Perhaps increasing advancements in brain science, particularly the combination with objective data from brain scanning technologies combined with more "qualitative" cognitive science will make some progress here. But only if we (society) want it to. Do we?

I can come up with a dozen whacked out conspiracy theories as to why we don't, the simplest being that those in charge usually prefer that they control the information and that the populous stay ignorant and therefore more easily manipulated by emotional arguments that create fear and uncertainty and trigger the pack animal instinct to seek out and kowtow to an alpha personality. "Tell us what to dooooo!" Most organized religions and world governments adopt this attitude in general.

But I don't think that's it. I think we just don't care. We have food. We have shelter. We have sex. Only a small percentage of a population is driven to achieve more. What good is knowledge and the ability to reason? If too many people were too smart, then too many of the world's problems would just get solved, and then there wouldn't be anything to friggin' do every day.

Except eat, sleep, and fuck.

(Hmmm. Maybe that's not such a bad plan after all...)


At Monday, October 10, 2005, Blogger ABCD II said...

I am not a conservative, I am a (little 'l') libertarian. Unlike myself, conservatives are not okay with abortion, gay marriage, prostitution, and recreational drug use.

Upon sober reflection of the education issue, I'd like to add a bit more nuance to my stance. Probably the biggest challenge we have today is parental apathy. If more parents cared enough to pay attention and get involved, I would be suprised if the stifling grip of the unions did not weaken. But this is a tough nut to crack that would require a fairly fundamental shift in our society, IMO.

In the mean time, we can and should put the NEA, et al. over our knees and smack them very hard. Even if they are not at fault for what ails us (and I'd be suprised if they weren't owed part of the blame), they often stand in the way of trying to fix it.


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