Monday, March 16, 2009

American Education

Have you ever seen a 20/20 show or read an article about the American Education system. How Americans don't know crap about where Argentina is, or Australia, or perhaps our kids get confused between Australia and Austria. Then there are the test scores, especially in math and science. It makes Americans look bad.

And how do we respond? Some Americans say really stupid things like, "Well, we may not know where Iraq is, but we sure did blow the country to hell and back." And it makes us look arrogant and stupid.

Then we look at our University educational system, and, well, the US has some of the best Universities in the world. I saw a stat recently that said that of the 100 best universities in the world, American Universities represented 75% of them.

To summarize: American primary and secondary education sucks but higher education is among the best in the world.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately.

How can the educational system fail so many so early, and then do so well after Americans become adults? And I think it is not about money – it is about competition.

For the most part, primary and secondary education is a monopoly. The local government funds, with some help from the state or the Federal government. Sure, there are private schools, but most of us are in the public system. And I know, people will talk about how we are not spending enough on education (we spend more than most countries per pupil). It is not that we don't spend enough but that there is no real incentive to change. Anything. Sure, there are some dedicated teachers doing a fine job, but when we look at a system, we need to look at how everyone fares.

We can talk about the school year being too short or the teachers teaching to a standardized test, but that does not get at the heart of this non-competitive environment we find ourselves in. If you live in a particular neighborhood, you go to a particular school. That's it. If they do a good job or a bad job, it does not change where the neighborhood girls and boys go. In fact, relatively better schools just improve property values of a neighborhood because people realize we don't have much of a choice.

I have been against school vouchers for quite some time, but that is really inconsistent with what I am now realizing: that school choice matters. The problem is that if we initiated a voucher system, some schools would fail. And as Americans, we don't like seeing schools fail. Heck, recently, we don't like seeing banks, auto companies and others fail because of their own actions as well.

Now, if you want to discuss longer school days or school terms, that could be decided in the marketplace. Or school times – why have all of the high-schoolers get up at 6:00 to get to school early? Just have different times in the marketplace, perhaps? Or a more flexible high school experience where you could start at second period and just finish the day up later.

I mean, look at the university system. People decide where to send their children, and the universities in the US are really good. That is because if they were not good, they would fail. And good is such a self-definable term. If they are good enough for the parents to send their children, then they are good enough to succeed.

I know this type of thinking is foreign for most. I mean, people like all of their children to go to the same school, have the same mascot, play in the same band. But you know, you could choose to do that if that is important to you. Or if parental involvement is important, choose a school where the parents have to volunteer.

Right now, we have lots of kids being educated by parents with no formal teaching experience. And some of these kids are doing so well. Some of them, it seems, are more apt to be working at Burger King. Which may be fine. I just think kids should not have limits placed on them by a school system.

See, this whole education thing is not very market oriented. And neither is the government bailout of the banks, the auto companies, etc. Sometimes, as Americans, we need to trust the markets. I mean, sure, use the government to make sure companies are not out of control (as in pollution, or monopolies, or workplace safety), but let the markets work.

I love Jimmy Carter, but I never really liked that there is a cabinet-level position for Education. That seems like a way to retard innovation. Just my two cents. I don't want a half-hearted effort of giving vouchers to some or rebates to rich and middle class parents who send their children to private school. I want an overhaul of the system so that these kids can support me in my old age. We need tax revenue from somewhere, and I would rather be getting it from people who are curing cancer and devising new ways of using technology than from people who are serving me the best soft-serve ice cream in the mall.


Debbie said...

I think you have some excellent points and ideas here! Definitely somethings to think about and discuss.

Grant said...

Although we do have some good schools like Yale and MIT (although most studies that rank the quality of the education say that Harvard falls short of its rep), we do have many successful bad universities as well. They succeed because many corporations demand that people have a degree before being allowed to work in a technical field or in management, so many people I know endured the crappy useless "education" so we could get the piece of paper that allows us to do the jobs we were capable of doing in the first place. Not that I'm bitter.

LarryLilly said...

The way to make education better is to get the parents involved at the local level in the K-12 system. When parents are involved, then kids do better.

Colleges and universities generally do well since its not often that a kid that doesnt want to go attends. So its a field of interested students. But to get kids to want to go you have to get them to see that it pays to be smart. Cut out sports crap, one, its money hardley ever gets cut and two, how many schjools hire a football coach who also happens to "teach" english. But he is really a FB coach and he "knows" english or social studies or some other non math/science/foreign language skill set.

Thats a start.

Karen said...

You make some excellent points. I am life long product of private schooling...and always the first one to say that boarding school is not only for parents who want to get rid of their children.

It is sad to say, but like most things in life, to a certain extent you get what you pay for. Some public school systems are wonderful, but some are not. The only way parents can have more control is to enroll children in different programs - which is not an option for everyone, I realize.

Gary Baker said...

If you want to make meaningful change, you've got to dump the teacher's unions first, or at least get them under control. In most places they've cemented a system in place where only hideously bad teachers can be fired and there's virtually no extra reward for being a stellar teacher. You also need to revamp teacher training and certification. Get the politics out of the classroom, and stress learning, not social activism (or social justice, as it now seems to be called). It's hard to make a meaningful difference in the world if you can't even do a cost benefit analysis on whatever agenda you happen to be pushing.

As it stands right now, we seem to be going in the opposite direction that you recommend. Instead of widespread improvement in lower level ed, upper level ed is being dumb'd down to accommodate the lower level of students being accepted for political reasons. That, and colleges have gotten the message that fewer people will come to a university where you actually have to work for a degree.

Other things are great. I'm all for parental involvement, but there is no way for a school to enforce that, and there are also plenty of schools that show that good teaching and admin can overcome a lack of parental involvement. Likewise, there are plenty of schools that are successful at teaching poor kids, minority kids, English learners, and discipline problems. The commonality is the willingness to put teaching and accountability first and use methods that are proven, vice the latest flavor of self-esteem enhancement that comes out of the schools of ed.

Prata said...

Now take this post and comment on the brain drain that is going on. We may have great universities, but those universities are taught (in some cases) and filled with large numbers of foreign nationals that return to their country and statistically speaking America is getting dumber, because apparently it's better to have everyone win than to foster true intelligence.