"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Education Views - Two Ends of the Spectrum

Before anyone can answer the question, "What do we do to fix education," they first must answer, "What is the purpose of education?" There is not as much consensus on the answer as you would think. The next question that should be asked is, "What is the best delivery mechanism for education?" Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes it is the public school system. But then again, if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Is school the best way to deliver education?

This young man from the UK gives his answer to both these questions in a very thought provoking way in his video "Why I Hate School But Love Education."

Contrast his viewpoint with that of Sec. Duncan who was interviewed by Reuters.

Duncan states, "We have invested massively in school-improvement grants ... and we have, partly as a result today, 700,000 less children in what we call "drop-out factories." (But) we have about a million young people who drop out of school each year in this country, and that is obviously economically unsustainable and it is morally unacceptable."

Children drop out of school for any number of reasons; to start working, pregnancy, apathy, because the family moves, mental challenges that make traditional learning very difficult to impossible. The tracking for drop outs is very poor so we don't always know the reason. We also don't know if they remain in the drop out category or simply move to another education opportunity. Some of the kids who drop out simply aren't ready to make it in the mass production system that is public education. When they are ready, they often get their GED. The point is, society has provided the school to the best of its economic ability, but the student decides not to avail him/herself of it. How exactly is that a moral failure on the part of society? It is very annoying when government bureaucrats throw around highly emotionally charged words like morality to make their issue (and themselves) seem vitally important.

When asked about equal access to higher education, Duncan's response included, "(For) the jobs of the future you've got to have some form higher education…. If you drop out, there is nothing out there for you. And if you just graduate from high school, very few of the high-wage jobs are there."

This young man's video challenges that common perception. IF you plan to simply participate in the school process (note he's not saying education), where you memorize facts or processes in order to spit them back out on an exam and then promptly forget them, and IF you then plan to wait for someone else to come up with an idea and then wait for them to hire you to help them bring that idea to market hoping that your college degree will be assurance enough for them that you can be taught to jump through the right hoops, then YES a college degree is necessary to have a job.

There is plenty of evidence that a college degree is not necessary for economic success.  The young man in the video happens to point out the extreme examples that everyone is familiar with, but there are plenty of examples out there are people who have had reasonable economic success without the degree. What separates them from those who are unsuccessful without a degree is their personal drive and interest in education which can be obtained from many sources besides college.  Reuters at least had the journalistic integrity to ask the follow-up question: "Research suggests, and conservatives argue, that just creating a highly educated workforce doesn't spark economic growth. For example, North Carolina has had better growth than Massachusetts. Do you agree?"

Unfortunately Sec. Duncan just can't help pounding the nail. "I think this is a huge piece of the answer and not the exclusive answer.… I think a skills crisis is a significant part of the challenge. So, again, it is just so critically important that we again lead the world in college-graduation rates. I think that would be a huge step forward in strengthening our economy, keeping good jobs in this country rather than going overseas… and reducing unemployment rates."

Just guaranteeing that kids graduate from college is the key to future success? Having graduates with massive student loan debt and a corresponding high expectation for high salaries to pay that back as a result is somehow going to keep jobs in this country? Flooding the market with educated labor (because skilled labor comes from other places than traditional college) is going to reduce unemployment? Perhaps Mr. Duncan should have stayed for Econ 102.

The critical mistake that Duncan and so many others make with a college education is the assumption that college is a transformative process. Underlying the focus on a college education is the belief that colleges and universitieis can take any raw material (student) that comes to them and transform them into people who will be successful in the business world.

The real push to get kids into college comes from historic statistics which show that people with a college education tend to make more in a lifetime than people without. This is true, but placing the credit for their success on the old sheepskin is a false correlation. Traditionally colleges and universities only accepted students with a proven track record for acedemic excellence and a personal drive to learn and succeed. If this were not the case, then Harvard would just take the first 2,000 students who apply. Instead, they only accept the cream of the crop. Is it any wonder that their graduates go on to be leaders in industry and very successful financially? They were driven to do so on their way in. The same is true of lesser esteemed institutions of high learning just on a lower scale. Yet even state schools have certain minimum scores and academic standards.

The push to put everyone through institutions of higher education believing them to be transformative is like taking a random group of kids to Neiman Marcus, dressing all of them in high end clothes and expecting them to suddenly start acting like cultured individuals. It is not the outer dressing, it is the person inside who matters.

Reuters also addressed the issue of inequality by citing Massachusetts which has seen "one of the biggest increases in inequality in the past 20 years." Forgetting that the state's nick name is Taxachusetts, they ignore certain economic realities that have little to do with education and a lot to do with human nature. There are fewer middle class living in MA because the cost of living is so high. Having parents who still live there I can attest to this problem. Their home is now worth more than 10x what they bought it for. That's great for them if they decide to move, but it is a killer for retired folks to pay the property taxes on that value. With high state income and sales tax, it is an expensive place to live. Neighboring states like New Hampshire have no state income tax so many middle income Massachusans have moved there. It is in our nature to make the most of our limited personal resources. The only people who can afford to stay in MA are the very wealthy and the very poor who live off government entitlements and subsidies. To lay this split at the foot of education is more than a bit disingenuous.

Sec Duncan, however, seeing another nail, is happy to pound away. He sees the split as a reason to step on the gas with changes to education. "... this movement towards quality, toward access and toward early-childhood education has to reach every child and every community who needs it. And that is simply not the case yet in Massachusetts and around the country. So it's not a reason to back off. It's a reason frankly to double down and to accelerate the pace of change."

The USDoEd would like everyone to run out and plop down a whole bunch of cash to buy a nail gun, and ignore the fact that many times some glue, or tongue in groove, or nuts and bolts would work much better. In the end it looks like we are going to get screwed.


  1. Nice Job Angie.. well done.

    This may sound a little callous- but Obama, and Duncan are products of academia, neither knows much about anything else. We see it in their lofty ideas that they have no money to pay for, but are willing to impose by executive fiat..

    The more kids they can convince get to spend their money on education, the more money goes into the coffers of academia..

    In a way Congress does their version of the same thing, we elect lawyers to write our laws. In turn they write laws that are guaranteed to keep a lot of lawyers employed finding loopholes in the law.

    BTW; the idea of Duncan with anything heavier than a toddlers plastic hammer is scary- him with a nail gun would be terrifying

  2. Grumpyelder - Him with a pen or computer is scary enough.


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