Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Miseducation of Education Reformers

Sultan Knish

Everyone knows that America's education system is broken. It's the one thing that Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Committees are convened, grants are dispensed and new studies are rolled off the educational assembly line every few months that purport to change everything by showing that the entire process of educating children from medieval to modern times was wrong.

Education has come to be a science of its own with a jargon full of nebulous pseudo-scientific
terminology impenetrable to the ordinary person. The majority of public school teachers now have master's degrees because it takes more than some ignorant BA to tell little Johnny to shut the hell up and pay attention in class or he'll never amount to anything in life.  

Unfortunately the majority of teachers were also so busy getting their graduate degrees that they didn't actually put in any classroom time. The students of tomorrow are being taught by other students who have an MA and papers on educational unleveling through cognitive disequilibrium across multiple modalities but very little actual experience with students.

Educational reform has become a ridiculously popular topic. Documentaries like "Waiting for Superman" have convinced everyone that they have what it takes to reform education. Everyone includes M. Night Shyamalan (the director of that movie where Bruce Willis was really dead all along) who has his own book out claiming to have the five strategies that can save education.

Only one of them involves ghosts and aliens.

But what if the surprise twist ending for education reform is that education doesn't actually need reforming? What if it doesn't require teachers with graduate degrees, a billion dollars worth of studies and endless hand-wringing and helicopter reforming by liberal tycoons?

What if Bill Gates can stay home in his mansion and M. Night Shyamalan can go back to making bad movies? What if the American educational system is doing about as well as can be expected considering the social conditions that it has to work with.

Most educational reformers would agree that’s a dangerous heresy right up there with not believing that the planet is about to go up in smoke because of cow flatulence. They point to how much better children in Japan or Finland are doing at math and warn that if we don’t spend billions more on studies that will tell us how to improve education, America will fall behind.

We’ll no longer be the country that invents things. Instead before long we’ll be ignorant savages fighting over scraps of raw meat in the back alley behind a Taco Bell. That is if we can’t put enough teachers with graduate degrees and mad text scaffolding skills into the classroom.

But after decades of these warnings, America is still the country that invents things; even if one of those things is an obsession with turning the little schoolhouse into a nightmarish blend of experimental psychology, sociology experiment, diet club, police state and TSA line at the airport.

It's an article of faith that our schools are failing our children. But most educational reformers don't mean that schools are failing their children. They mean that urban schools are failing minority children. Like gun violence, failing schools are largely an urban problem being passed off as a national crisis. And it's not the schools that are failing. It's the students.

The gap in test scores between America and other countries goes away when broken down by race. White American students top those of most European countries. Asian students come out ahead of them. It’s not that Asian students somehow have access to better schools. Often they go to the same urban multicultural schools that are “failing” everyone else.

The difference is that they are determined to succeed because their parents want them to.

Our schools are badly run and awash in ridiculous theories and worse budgets. But they aren't failing our children. They are functioning about as well as any part of government can and they are for the most part doing their core job. Any student who makes it through twelve grades without achieving basic math and literacy skills hasn't been failed by the school. He has made a choice not to learn. More often the choice has been made for him.

A school cannot take the place of the family. It isn't meant to. Nor are educational theories the determinant of whether a child learns or doesn't learn. Learning does not begin in the classroom. It begins at home. The first explorations of language and space take place in the nursery. And they determine more about the child's future than all the synergistic educational strategies for 21st century learners.

The school is not the most vital element in education just as the government is not the most vital element in the economy. Systems don't take the place of human relationships. Governments cannot replace families. Schools aren't failing children in Detroit or Chicago. Families are failing their children and the schools by not holding together.

Children from single parent homes are at double the risk of dropping out. That is a simple fact that no amount of educational jargon can plug.

Children with never-married mothers score worse than children with divorced mothers. Across the world, regardless of race or creed, children living in a normal household with a father and mother performed better in school than their counterparts.

It doesn't matter whether the MA's in their twenties who have spent more time being students than doing anything else manage to agendize their dynamic action plans or not. It does matter whether there is a father in the house. And that father can't be Uncle Sam.

It does not take a village or four administrators and three teachers, two school psychologists and an educational theorist to raise a child. It takes a family.

If the American school system is a mess, it's because it has been reformed to death until it has stopped being a system for educating children and become a system for educating teachers and administrators about all the latest trends in educational theory. The classroom has become an ER where all the children are assumed to be coming in with fatal educational traumas and can only be saved by using the latest techniques developed by a study funded by Bill and Melinda Gates.

Like so much of the nonsense that bedevils America, educational reform is based on the progressive assumption that students are static objects and that government education is a dynamic system. With enough research, the code to teaching students will be cracked and every student in the country can then be educated to become a supergenius leaving the People's Republic of China in the dust.

Progressive educational policies have as little to do with real life education as their economic policies have to do with math and human affairs. Progressive policies fail by ignoring human choices. They try to centrally plan everything and discover belatedly that they aren't in control because their plans are undermined by individual choices.

Education is not a science. It is a relationship. And like all relationships, it works best with a healthy beginning. In its truest sense it is not something that is inflicted from outside on a child, but is the expansion of that child's worldview.

Learning is not something that someone does to us. It is not the mere acceptance of teaching which is, for the most part all that schools can do for students, but applied curiosity.

Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers invented the modern world as we know it. They have one other thing in common. None of them actually finished their schooling. To the extent that they did attend, their grades were poor and their behavior would have landed them in Special Ed in any modern school.

Orville Wright was once expelled from elementary school and dropped out of high school to start his own printing business. Alexander Graham Bell was a bored and bad student. Thomas Edison hardly saw the inside of a school. The education of all three men came from a combination of self-directed learning and family homeschooling.

Any number of tech titans today were college dropouts who spent their high school years avoiding class and playing around with computers. Our educational system didn't fail them. They chose to accomplish their education in different ways.

Bill Gates has sunk a fortune into educational reform and yet he's a college dropout who by his own admission barely did enough work in school to get by. Does Gates really believe that Harvard and his upscale prep school failed him? Doubtful. When he talks about educational reform, he assumes that other children are machines who can be educated with a combination of new theories, but that his own experience is unique because he is an individual and everyone else is an interchangeable robot.

Big schools or small schools. Large class sizes or small class sizes. Recontextualize the paradigm or don't. These things don't matter very much.

Education is not a system. It is not a technique. It is a culture. The medium of education matters much less than the message. The content matters much more than the techniques used to teach it. Education teaches techniques, but it need not be a technique. And when it becomes a rigid set of techniques then it has already failed.

American education is only as strong as American culture. American culture isn't a technique. It's a way of seeing the world. It's an attitude, a sense of confidence and optimism, and a determination to tackle the difficult things. It's an art, a history and a literature that comes from these qualities.

Systematizing educational techniques cannot take the place of the family values that make for a healthy child and the national values that make for a healthy adult.

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