The Christian Science Monitor reports on a new paper by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce with some curious recommendations for educational reform. Even though the paper is informed by an impressive “bipartisan group of scholars and business leaders, school chancellors and education commissioners, and former cabinet secretaries and governors,” its recommendations are inevitably controversial:
• Offer universal pre-kindergarten programs and opportunities for continuing education for adults without high school diplomas.
• Create state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move either on to community college or to a university-level high school curriculum.
• Improve school salaries in exchange for reducing secure pension benefits, and pay teachers more to work with at-risk kids, for longer hours, or for high performance.
• Create curriculums that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.
Even modest educational reforms typically founder on two factors: funding and methodology. No matter what grand ideological scheme is promised to deliver better results than the current set of results (1970 is looking pretty good compared to 2007), implementation stinks when there’s not enough financial support or well-thought-out lesson plans in the hands of teachers who face students in classrooms. Let me comment briefly on two of the four recommendations above.
First, moving on to college at age 16 is a egregiously poor idea. Even if radical reforms in education were accomplished to make this possible for a majority of students, a 16-year-old is not yet an adult in the legal sense, and residential colleges and universities would be forced into the position of proxy parents, or in loco parentis as it is frequently called. At this stage in history, we simply aren’t equipped to hand over widespread parenting of minors to educational institutions (who really believes that most 16-year-olds are ready for adult responsibilities, even if that’s only attending college?). Boarding schools are the exception, not the rule.
Second, curricula that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts sounds like a liberal arts approach, which has been pretty soundly rejected by most people over time. They want professional training. This recommendation is rather ironic coming from a group with the phrase “Skills of the American Workforce” in its name. In point of fact, I’m a supporter of fostering creativity and abstract thinking rather than emphasizing workforce skills, but it’s a mistake to believe that the rote learning and factual mastery inhibit creativity and abstract thinking, as their juxtaposition in the recommendaton above suggests.
My final comment before the discussion begins relates to the ridiculous phrase that the paper “is calling for a certain revolution, but it hasn’t been put together by revolutionaries.” Are we supposed to turn off our brains because the speaker used different forms of revolution in the same sentence? He reversed his position even as he spoke it. If educational reform calls for a radical reorganization of the very institution, then I should hope for some revolutionary thinking, not rhetoric. There’s been plenty of that already.