Creative Destruction

May 25, 2007

Education Reform

Filed under: Education — Brutus @ 12:44 am

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.

12 Comments »

  1. 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.

    Agreed.

    The obvious solution, then, would be to have the government-run schools provide a classical liberal arts education, since that’s a public good which private individuals seem to rarely choose. Since people want professional training, they will stir themselves to find, pay for, and complete it, and so the public school system need not concern itself.

    Everybody wins!

    Comment by Robert — May 25, 2007 @ 1:07 am | Reply

  2. […] Education Reform 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 … […]

    Pingback by History Of Education » History Of Education May 25, 2007 2:42 am — May 25, 2007 @ 2:46 am | Reply

  3. One problem is that some kids are smart and some kids are stupid. Any plan to improve our educational system has to realize that there are innate differences in abilities between different students.

    Comment by Glaivester — May 25, 2007 @ 4:48 pm | Reply

  4. Even more important than variation in ability, there is variation in motivation. Our educational system should take into account the fact that there are people who do not want to take advantage of it, insure that those people are receiving whatever the minimum standard is, and then providing graceful exit points for them.

    Comment by Robert — May 25, 2007 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

  5. Robert, would you suggest that we convert our educational system into something similar to the German system? A system where those who are not intellectually capable of continuing to the university-level education are given a sequence of vocational training, plus continuing basic skills courses, in preparation for a future career?

    After all, it has done wonders for the country over the past 60 or so years. Admittedly, it has done so with the initial assistance of reconstruction efforts by the United States. However, it does continue to be a general positive for their economy.

    The downside: the level of play in the NCAA, especially in the football and basketball seasons, would decrease accordingly. Can America survive without March Madness and the Rose Bowl?

    Don’t mind me. Just giving both sides of the debate some ammunition.

    Comment by Off Colfax — May 25, 2007 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

  6. Yes. I strongly support an extension of our vocational educational system. There are a fair number of people out there who are sitting bored listening to someone drone on about classical music, when they really ought to be in metal shop.

    Comment by Robert — May 25, 2007 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  7. I agree. We need expanded vocational training. Our goal should be to help the non-college-track students to make the most of their own potentials, not to try to turn them into intellectuals and then get upset when we fail.

    The downside: the level of play in the NCAA, especially in the football and basketball seasons, would decrease accordingly. Can America survive without March Madness and the Rose Bowl?

    Steve Sailer has a solution for this: end the moronic idea that in order to play sub-pro level sports, you have to be a college student. It’s a grand conspiracy, among other things, to enrich the university fatcats at the expense of the players.

    Comment by Glaivester — May 26, 2007 @ 12:37 am | Reply

  8. I’m happy to have a far flung discussion, but does no one have comments on the CSM article?

    Comment by Brutus — May 26, 2007 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

  9. More early childhood education is a proven, sensible thing to do.

    It is appropriate likewise to acknowledge that the current high school curriculum which is self-consciously college preparatory, and becoming even more so, is doing a disservice to the 40%+ of students who aren’t going to college. The non-college bound, in existing tracking practices, are simply fed a watered down version of what the college bound students are receiving, instead of a curriculum tailored to their needs. We do know with considerable certainty by the time kids are 16 whether they will be ready to go immediately to college after they graduate or not. Why should someone not college bound have to sign up for the Army and do a four year stint to learn how to be a mechanic or electrician or EMT, when they could do that in their last couple of years of HS instead?

    The plan’s notion that you can fund early childhood education with reduced provision of education to high school students whose needs are picked up by colleges or vocational programs, is wrongheaded.

    Comment by ohwilleke — May 30, 2007 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  10. “… 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.”

    I’m curious about these assumptions, but further the educational approach you describe sounds dreary and underreaching. What professional training are you referring to? These days, even accountants and computer programmers lose their jobs to offshoring. Specific skills training is not only insufficient in helping obtain long-term economic self-sufficiency, it isn’t going to keep America in the lead. Education shouldn’t neglect the fundamentals to focus on creativity, but why do the opposite and focus on the bare minimums and ignore the abstract? We can teach the basics in an integrated way that cultivates higher-order thinking skills and competencies – innovation, leadership, and so on. In the corporate world, I see the global employers investing in teaching their top leaders “emotional intelligence” and a number of behavioral competencies that enable high-performing individuals to lead others, see the big picture and sustain their capacity over time. Sure, they want their people keeping up with the basics too, but the basics are just that – basic, assumed and taken for granted. There’s nothing wrong with skills training and the fundamentals are essential – but we need creators, designers, innovators. I don’t think that is something “most people” would reject. Check out this article on Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.02/brain.html

    Comment by Glen — June 6, 2007 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  11. I don’t think he means reject as in “this sucks, let’s burn down the libraries”. He means “not choosing for themselves”.

    I enjoyed my liberal arts education. I use my business degree. Does my liberal arts background inform and enrich me, and make me a better business person? Certainly. Would I recommend a liberal arts background as the fundamental unit for people planning on starting businesses? No way.

    Comment by Robert — June 6, 2007 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  12. Robert is right, I mean that people vote with their feet, going to the degrees and subject areas they want and rejecting others. I haven’t yet read the Wired article, but I’ll get to it.

    We’ve had the idea of “multiple intelligences” floating around for about twenty years now, which basically asserts that people can be smart or stupid and different things. Well, that’s a statement of the obvious, but it’s also a red herring, as it implicitly lends support to the idea of fragmented intelligence (and character, and purpose, etc.). It goes with specialization, which is all the rage these days. The baby thrown out with that particular bathwater is the integrated personality with a broad skill set and knowledge base — the things valued by a liberal arts approach to education.

    Instead, we have today the specter of most folks making mad dashes at professional degrees, such as MDs, JDs, MBAs, so that they have specialized skills to ply upon graduation. No matter that they all require lengthy apprenticeships, now called mentorship, residency, or on-the-job training. And even though there are still millions of English majors out there, few of them have a convincing rebuttal to the throwaway question “What are you going to do with an English degree?” The common wisdon is that being able to set up a spreadsheet or webpage is more marketable than being able to synthesize information and write a report.

    Comment by Brutus — June 7, 2007 @ 11:29 pm | Reply


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