Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Employees and Citizens

In my post about the supposed conflicts between the sciences and the humanities (yeah linking to myself!), I believe I briefly mentioned that there might be a prejudice towards employees - as opposed to citizens - under certain models of education. This is an important distinction, because while it is easy to decry the horrors and failures of the modern education system, it is a lot harder to say what we should be doing to better educate our students. Indeed, it seems to me that we've all bought into the idea that our schools in America are struggling and, what's more, worsening continuously (and have been for some time). We rarely ask what that means, unfortunately, and who's data backs up this conclusion. We almost never challenge the terms and slogans that have become watchwords for educational crisis: "the achievement gap" is probably the most prominent, but you've probably heard that we're "falling behind other countries," and "our schools are underfunded" and "there aren't enough good teachers."

It is undeniable that these conclusions come from somewhere, but I'm not convinced that the crisis is as bad as it is. Or, rather, I'm not convinced that the crisis is what mainstream media says it is. While it is easy to conclude that our schools are insufficient in some fundamental way, it is also true that schools today are about as successful as they've been (in terms of graduation rates, dropout rates, percentage of students enrolling in college, and international test scores) for the last century or so. Granted, complaints about how ineffective schools are are nothing new, and neither are attempts at reform.

A simplistic, but informative piece of data is this (from the Measuring Up Internationally report in 2006): The percentage of Americans aged 25-34 with a college degree of some kind is is 39%. The percentage of Americans aged 25-64 with a college degree of some kind is 38%. In short, there are almost exactly the same percentage of students graduating from college in the United States now as there were in 1980. What has changed, more than anything, is the percentage of people in countries like Japan, Canada, Korea, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden that are enrolling in college and completing degrees.* The United States isn't falling behind, per se. Other countries are catching up, and it's a strange view of the world that says that's a bad thing.

*For example, in Japan, 37% of people age 25-64 have degrees, while 52% aged 25-34 have degrees.

While the United States has fallen behind quite a few Asian and European countries in terms of percentage of the population with a college degree, where the United States still rules is in percentage of students with at least a Bachelor's degree. The incredible gains made by countries like Japan are contingent upon Associates and vocational degrees. Translated, the United States still produces more academically educated students than anywhere else in the world. Where is lags is in producing professionally educated students.

So what's all the hullabaloo? Obviously it would be nice to have more highly educated people, and perhaps the quality of the college education Americans are receiving has decreased (though I have no evidence either way on that point), but comparing today to the past is not a good way to argue that our schools are "failing." If you do look at the past, it becomes clear that our schools are failing now in exactly the way they've always failed.

What way is that? We're failing - and always have failed - because students from rich families in rich neighborhoods almost uniformly get a better education than students from poor areas and poor families. Because of the history of our country, it also turns out that "rich" and "poor" can usually be substituted with "white" and "black" (or "latino," or any other minority). It is somewhat scary to learn that wealthy students with a D average in high school are as likely to go to college as poor students with straight As. That is the true failure of our schools, and it always has been: there is no (or little) semblance of social, racial, or economic justice in the college application process, in the design of assessment or curriculum, and in overall federal policy. Those programs - College Summit, for example - and (usually charter) schools - South Valley Academy, Summit Preperatory - that break this mold are very much exceptions, and, while bold attempts to address a larger problem, are usually under-supported.

The national "solution" to failing schools pays lip-service to these issues, of course, but under a different guise. What is a concern, above all, is that students are not adequately prepared for the job market. Their colleges do not teach them employment skills, and their high schools and middle schools are too toucy-feely and unaccountable. They need to be taught, the argument goes, according to rigorous standards and skills that will prepare them to meet the challenges of a dynamic and technological job market.

The real crisis is the transformation of schools from places of learning to places of training. The Community College and Charter movements are both powerful sources of educational innovation, but often those very tools of progress are co-opted to serve business purposes. Charter schools, for example, may engage students who would otherwise drop out, allowing them to expand their minds and better understand their culture, their history, and their purpose in life. But what really counts - to funders, to the government, and to school boards - is whether Charters do a better job on assessments crafted, frankly, to fit the needs of business.

That may sound a bit conspiratorial. It is certainly not the case that Lockheed Martin is writing the SAT. But it certainly is the case that the same companies which shape national policy on War, Human Rights, Health Care, Agriculture, and Trade also shape national policy on Education. The rhetoric - the United States is falling behind - is a carefully crafted message, because it is simply not true unless you look at the data from the perspective of business. The United States has a fine public education system - one of the very best in the world (and don't let anyone tell you otherwise) - but it has one of the worst vocational education systems.

The philosophy behind American Public Education is and always has been this: to run effective Democratic Republic, we need citizens who understand the fundamentals of history, literature, and science. Above all, we need citizens who can think critically, who can make effective decisions on behalf of their fellow countrymen, and who can have a reasonable and intellectual debate on a national scale. Now I'll be the first to admit that we certainly have nothing of the kind - and never have - but the ideal has always been there. Now that we have, increasingly, the tools (technological, pedagogical, etc) to provide that kind of education to an increasingly large (and increasingly diverse) percentage of the population, the question is whether we will choose to do so.

Or will we, instead, choose to pursue the vocational route that has been so successful in Japan. That seems more likely, but at what cost? Good citizens can easily become good employees - because good citizens are critical thinkers, and tends towards adaptability and work ethic. Good employees, however, who lack those skills that make good citizens are unlikely to be good citizens under even the best of circumstances. They're likely to listen to slogans and propaganda and hype, trusting "experts" without figuring out who the real experts are.

The issues surrounding education are, of course, more complicated than I can address here, and I know that I've oversimplified horribly at many points. But I do so to frame a question that otherwise might seem overly philosophical: What is the purpose of education, really? And why are we so willing and eager to settle for policy built around an answer that, in the end, does not satisfy?

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