The Future of Education in America

Several recent reports by educational organizations, groups, think tanks, etc. have been released recently either praising or condemning the No Child Left Behind Act.

Praise for NCLB
Many reports and educators praise NCLB for requiring more focus and accountability from students and schools. They feel this has inspired the schools and students to perform to a higher standard that had never before been required or expected. This is great for the schools in which it has worked. These schools have been those that have traditionally performed at lower levels than their counterparts, unfortunately usually housing disadvantaged and minority students. These students are suddenly being required to perform at or close to their grade level, and the expectations are creating great successes, much like they do in all the Hollywood versions of “To Sir, With Love.”

This is not a new concept, but now that it has been forced on schools and is actually being implemented, it’s yielding the results that all the inspiring stories said it would.

The Failings of NCLB
However, there is a large negative result to NCLB. In a recent story in TIME magazine (“How to Build a Student for the 21st Century,” Dec. 18, 2006), the authors cited the following crucial skills that must be learned to compete in the 21st century:
Knowing more about the world – “Mike Eskew, CEO of UPS, talks about needing workers who are ‘global trade literate, sensitive to foreign cultures, conversant in different languages.’” Unlike what we were taught in school, the world did not begin revolving in 1492.
Thinking outside the box – “Jobs in the new economy—the ones that won’t get outsourced or automated—‘put an enormous premium on creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos,’ says Marc Tucker, an author of the skills-commission report and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.”
Becoming smarter about new sources of information – “’It’s important that students know how to manage it, interpret it, validate it, and how to act on it,’ says Dell executive Karen Bruett.”
Developing good people skills – “EQ, or emotional intelligence, is as important as IQ for success in today’s workplace. ‘Most innovations today involve large teams of people,’ says former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. ‘We have to emphasize communication skills, the ability to work in teams and with people from different cultures.’”

NCLB forces teachers to teach to the tests that it requires be passed (and paid for) by the schools. For historically underperforming schools, this is a challenge that has inspired achievement. But for average and above-average schools and students, it’s a dumbing-down punishment. There is no time to begin exploring the above-mentioned skills—all time is spent preparing for the test. Curricula are rigidly constructed and adhered to based on NCLB.

I experienced this myself as a high schooler in preparation for the Advanced Placement U.S. History test. I spent two years, one as a junior in Honors U.S. History and another as a senior in A.P. U.S. History memorizing fact, names, places and dates to regurgitate onto the test. I passed the test, but as I have since learned about U.S. history, I find there is so much I missed as I was memorizing U.S. history.

The Competitive Advantage Slipping Away
NCLB will produce a whole bunch of basically competent people, some who wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to achieve it. But in the global marketplace, competence is becoming less and less rare. As India and China continue to produce more and more competent workers (remember, they only have to produce 1/3 the percentage that the U.S. produces to have the same number), millions of Americans will find their NCLB education is a commodity to be bought and sold based only on price—and the Americans will always lose a price war.

In business, a “competitive advantage” is something a company has that no other company can reproduce easily or quickly. The American competitive advantage historically has been that our employees have simply been more productive. Our strong economy and uncommon wealth gave us the opportunity for decades to develop new technologies faster and better than anyone else. But the rest of the world is catching up, and fast. They are not only catching up in technology, but in competence, and the price factor gives them a huge advantage on the world market.

The result of the current bearing will be millions of Americans who have three options: 1) increase their skills beyond what NCLB left them with (not easy with the Bush administration cutting funding for adult education by 70+%); 2) compete on wages with Chinese and Indian workers; or 3) be content with Great Depression-era unemployment numbers. None of these is acceptable.

What to Do About It
Talking about education reform on a national level is a moot issue. The federal government doesn’t have the knowledge, wherewithal, or desire to tailor education to the extent it needs to happen to provide for individual students. Ideally, each student would receive a specialized education, even in the lowest performing schools, to enable him/her to reach his/her highest potential. Like most other federal education policy, NCLB is a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet to kill a spider.

But, since the desire of the federal government to appear to be doing something about education will not go away, the beginning of a revision of NCLB is: the federal (unfunded) testing should be at the beginning of the schoolyear to find out who needs the rigidity and focus of NCLB. Those who score low should be placed in NCLB-like programs to push them toward competence. Those who score at or above a level of competence should be allowed to expand their minds in the ways listed above.

If NCLB is not jettisoned or drastically overhauled, the U.S. workforce in 20 years will look like all the others around the world, only more expensive. The competitive advantage inside the U.S. will go to home- and private-schooled children who were allowed the time and environment to expand their minds, but they may not have the workforce to support their aspirations and ideas. And within 50 years the middle class will vanish.

19 Comments

Mike W. says:

Dave,

Actually, the American education system since the time of John Dewey has prepared Americans for just what it’s preparing them now: for a job. It’s just that now the jobs (as you point out) that the system prepares children for are no longer unique or lucrative or even enough to generate a living wage.

I appreciate that you want to find federal solutions to these problems, but as you so astutely pointed out here: “Democracy must be chosen by the people, it cannot be instituted for them, or they won’t care about it and they won’t be accountable for it. In the same way, communism/The United Order must be a grass-roots movement.” Educational change must also occur in the same fashion. Otherwise the force that government brings to the table eliminates the freedom.

That said, there needs to be a quality public education system. I just don’t think that John Dewey’s “factory”-style method is the best way to teach children to think or to be free. It is a good way to teach them to be factory workers in an industrial economy. As for a solution, I think we need a dramatic curriculum overhaul and to change the way we teach so that thinking outside the box and questioning is encouraged, not oppressed.

Reluctant says:

Concerning education, I’ve got a couple questions for both of you:

1) What’s your take on Charter Schools? Good or Bad and why?

2) What do you think of privatizing public education? Meaning allowing privately run (possibly publicly traded) companies run entire districts? I know this has been done in some parts of the country and am curious of your thoughts on it.

Mike W. says:

I think that charter schools can be great things. It allows parents to control the curriculum to a degree and to establish things like a dress code that promotes learning (because it eliminates a lot of the social distractions that occur with the way most kids dress in public school). There is one in its first year in Washington Co. that is doing very well with a very rigorous curriculum call the Core Curriculum, developed by E.B. Hirsch.

The there are a few drawbacks that charter schools have compared with private schools
1. You can’t talk about God because it is a public school
2. You have to ultimately fall in line with the accepted public school curriculum, meaning you have to teach what the national education people want you to teach (this is somewhat state dependent also).
3. You can only have certified teachers. This means that inspiring mentors that have a degree in something else can’t teach there until they get a state credential.

Ultimately, I think that charter schools can be great because they give control of the education process back to the parents and the community, where it should be.

Centrist says:

Mike,

The Dewey system has worked until now because of the enormous economic and technological advantages of the U.S. I saw a documentary one time where a lady (high school drop-out) was paid $18/hr to man a labeling machine in a beer factory. She just kept it stocked with labels and made sure they went on straight. The plant was closing and she complained, “Where else am I going to find another job like this?” Nowhere is the answer in today’s world, because the factory is now located in Bangalore, Guadalajara, or Guangzhou and the pay is 20% or less of what she was making.

I don’t want a federal solution; any mandates coming out of Washington will be inadequate. I think states or even smaller governments need to take the lead on this like they have on so many other things and drive change.

Centrist says:

Dan,

I don’t know a whole lot about charter schools. I know that the idea seems good, but according to anecdotes ’round here, they are no more effective than public schools.

From Wikipedia “On August 22, 2006, the U.S. Department of Education released a report which found that students in charter schools performed several points worse than students in traditional public schools in both reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Critics of the study argue that its demographic controls are highly unreliable, as percentage of students receiving free lunches does not correlate well to poverty levels, and some charter schools don’t offer free lunches at all, skewing their apparent demographics towards higher income levels than actually occur”

My own opinion is that generally charter schools are no better than decent public schools. In Utah County there have been a half dozen pop up recently, and I haven’t heard anything revolutionary about them. I think they CAN be much better, but it takes a revolutionary approach and a great leader/principal/headmaster. I think parental involvment is great, but too many cooks in the kitchen. . . . That’s a compaint I have heard about local charter schools is that formerly home-schooled students are put in charter schools and parents want the same control in the charter school as they had at home.

I would really love to start a charter/private school and really produce some great scholars. It would be fun, rewarding, and worthwhile. Anyone in?

Centrist says:

Dan,

I forgot to address your questions about privatizing schools. I think it’s a great idea in theory. The problems I see with it are 1) that profit may become more important than product, and 2) that there may not be that much change in the end.

If it’s going to be done, it needs to be done by the right people with the right plan for the right reasons. I, for example, would be perfect for the job.

Reluctant says:

I think Mike is working on a private school down in his area. You and he should get together and see what kind of indoctrination you can come up with 😉

Seriously though I agree with you that Charter schools can be a good thing if they are run properly. But the same holds true for normal public schools as well. If you have bad leadership, any school is going to be sub-par.

Concerning privatization, I agree that there are perils because of the profit, but I also believe that there are good things that are associated with profit as well. Because we don’t live in the Idealist’s world, most people do things for profit. And the market will drive people to create a better product. Those companies who don’t produce the better product will be removed.

My only concern (and it is a major one) is while a district is trying to find the right company… we are losing out on years of education for our children. It’s not like we are just losing out on profit or something like that. It could be very damaging… but will it be any more damaging than a lot of our current public schools?

Mike W. says:

Dave,

I think your comment about Dewey is exactly what I was saying. His system prepared that woman for her industrial job, but did not teach her to think and truly solve problems and change her environment and situation. Can people who’ve gone through the Dewey system do these things? Sure, but they learned how from some other situation or they had an exceptional teacher/mentor who inspired them (like Jean Harris/Taylor/Partridge tried to do with me and I kicked against it; what a LOSER I am; I guess Ionic and Doric columns do matter after all!!).

Centrist says:

Dan,

I was just thinking about the privatization issue. Whom are the management companies making their money from? If it’s from the government, then the companies’ revenues should be paid on a per student basis, which completely removes the possibility, and thereby, the incentive of profit. If, on the other hand, revenues are generated from tuition, then they become quasi-private schools, which then excludes students whose families can’t afford the tuition, thereby continuing a class-based education system.

I have heard of privatizing schools, but I have no idea how “profit” is made, unless it is by cutting costs and taking the difference between what the government gives and what the management company spends. The problem is that this may in fact lead to worse education as more and more is cut to boost profits.

Does anyone else have a better idea of how privatized public schools work?

Reluctant says:

I was thinking on a per student basis as well. Even with that, you have to take into account recruiting (no longer just for sports) and other possibilities for profit hogging.

I would assume that the profit would mostly come from landing new contracts with additional school districts. And in order to land new contracts, you have to increase performance/scores/etc to prove that you manage the district well.

If it works the way I imagine it, it should be a beneficial thing. However, I’m not much of a critical thinker at this type of stuff, so I’m not sure if I am seeing all the possible pot-holes. Thus my posing of the questions to you all.

Centrist says:

As a businessman, I can see the opportunity for profit in cutting a lot of the fat and waste that are typically in a beaurocracy, and in benefitting from economies of scale in expanding into more schools, but eventually (and very quickly in this scenario, I think) you hit your point of diminishing returns, because 1) you start to cut so deeply that you affect your product (i.e., the education suffers), and 2) your expansion may lead to an unwieldy and less effective organization unless you have the right people in place. If the owners/investors in the management companies were content with steady earnings and not contantly wanting more, bigger, and faster, I guess it could work.

I would like to see non-profits in the game, but that’s essentially what school districts are anyway.

Reluctant says:

Yeah, I imagine it being something like what the public utility companies deal with. Because they are a monopoly, they are regulated. But these companies wouldn’t be monopolies, they would just be slightly regulated because they are dealing with our children’s education and they are funded by public money.

Mike W. says:

School districts are really not non-profits. Non-profits imply lack of government intervention. Although (I think) school districts optimally can function this way, influence is exerted by money. Wherever the money come from, that’s where the influence lays. If there were a way that a school system could be run like, say a non-for profit hospital system, then perhaps there would be government funding available without stiff strings attached.

I have spoken with headmasters at both private for-profit schools and private non-profit schools. They both have their advantages. The for-profit schools are completely independent and can accomplish a lot of great things. The tuition could get unwieldy if the owner want to have two vacation homes. However, the person I spoke to was a 70-something woman who had run the school “for profit” for 30 years and still lived in the same house she started in. Her “profit” gave her a living wage so she was able to keep tuition moderate.

Non-profits often have to do what their funders want them to do unless they can start from the beginning with guarantees of administrative independence from the fiscal influence.

Traveler says:

I thought I would weigh in on this. Privatized schools would be great but the reality will be the current problem in public education of student exclusion. As most school districts are organized, the courses are geared toward the separation of the students into various groups. Based on the performance of the individual, students are rated and better performance is rewarded with better educational opportunities e.g. smaller advanced level and AP classes with more hands-on experiences and one-on-one interaction with the instructors. Those who may learn at a slower pace or not through the methods taught by a particular teacher will be deemed average or remedial and never given the opportunity to excel. This is unfortunate.

Being a product of the public education system myself, as I’m sure most of us here are, the system catered to me just fine. I coasted through high school and was in the AP classes, but didn’t realize how good I had it. My youngest brother is currently in high school and is having quite the opposite experience. My parents approached the school to find solutions to help him such as after hours tutoring, help they could provide at home, etc. They were simply told that he didn’t fit into the educational system and should consider going to trade school because he would never make it into college. Needless to say my parents were floored. I was irate when they told me this.

Now to the point…NCLB is great on paper, but misses the issue. Classrooms are too crowded, teachers underpaid, and school districts are being forced to cut, in my opinion, essential subjects such as the arts, music, and drama (I know what your thinking Dave, and I’m no thespian). Overcrowded schools foster an environment of exclusion, particularly those with different learning styles or learning disabilities. Instead of helping these students with the individual attention they need to learn, we label them as remedial, special-ed, take your pick, and set them up to fail.

One solution, and I think the most logical, is funding. That’s the painful truth. I never thought I would advocate the “four letter word” tax increase, but where are the other solutions? The money may already be there somewhere in the abyss of state budgets, but how can we get policy makers to be fiscally responsible? They certainly aren’t getting any tips from Washington right now. We can argue the inefficiencies of government until we’re blue in the face, but the sad truth remains that most children are doomed to be educated publicly. Private institutions can’t solve this because not all families can afford private education. Yes, there are vouchers, but let’s fix what’s broken. The infrastructure is there, we just need the will to change. The separation of the haves and have-nots will continue to grow. Somehow we, the people need to realize that our future is not about us…it is about our children and their children. If we don’t invest in them now, then we have already sent them to special-ed.

Mike W. says:

Just another thought in this vein. John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (a great read, I would recommend it to anyone interested in that peripheral topic of freedom) makes an interesting suggestion about education. He feels that the State has an obligation to require education, but that it shouldn’t be involved in directing or managing that education. In his view, there is a necessity for diversity in education and competition, not so the State does it better (because competition always makes thinks better, right?) but because unless you have a diversity of education, you don’t have a significant diversity of thought. Without diversity of thought (and especially with a State-controlled curriculum) you have Germany circa 1935 or the U.S. circa now…Dan, calm down. My point is that it’s more the diversity in education that matters. How to pay for it? The State will supplement the education for those whose parents cannot afford to provide for it financially, but the State will have no say in the curriculum or methods.

Reluctant says:

Without diversity of thought (and especially with a State-controlled curriculum) you have Germany circa 1935 or the U.S. circa now…Dan, calm down

I’m calm, but please explain why you just compared the current U.S. to Nazi Germany.

Mike W. says:

It’s a joke!!!! I said it specifically for you.

It’s a commentary on state-controlled curriculum (instituted during Hitler’s rise and which we currently have), wherein you are taught what to think. The diversity of thought is critical. Admittedly, in higher education there is a strong bias against conservative thought in most institutions and I would liken that liberal one-sidedness to fascism when it comes to thought also. Do I think there are overt thought police around ever corner monitoring my every thought? No, but my point was that unless we have a diversity of education, we are easily controlled, duped, distracted, and manipulated.

Mike W. says:

Reluctant,

Maybe it was just that this was fresh on my mind:

“Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That’s easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and (key up Hannity and Rush) denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

How many times have you heard the right-wing talking heads say stuff like: “the liberal defeatists;” or “they just want al-Qaida to win;” or “if you’re not with the president on this you’re not a true patriot?”

The quote above was from Hermann Goering. Maybe that was why “se me fue la mano” (my hand just got away from me) on that prior comment.

Reluctant says:

Ahh… you needed an emoticon. 😉

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