Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sweeping Education Reform: Some Thoughts

I am not a politician or a trained child-educator, but since I have kids who are passing at several levels through the public school system and since I am an educator, I have several thoughts on how we might completely overhaul the American educational system. Here are my principles:

1. It is important to teach elementary school age kids how to read, write, and do basic math. But in the United States, we are at a breaking point societally.

Character education should be the number one business of the day. Values education. I know this really scares a lot of Christians and such curricula would need to be very public. But I believe we should all be able to agree on things like anger management, being kind to others, the need to take responsibility for others and not just yourself.

I'm not talking values clarification, that noble failure and poster child for anti-70s education reform. Values have to be indoctrinated. The notion that people somehow have natural goodness inside them to discover or even that people should be free to choose their own values simply aren't true of a 6 year old.

We are not free to murder others or steal from others or disregard the laws of the land. These are not innate values or necessary human values. They must be force fed into the brains of our children when they are at their youngest point or else they will never have these values. Natural human nature for most is selfish, period. But the greatest of America is not in selfishness but in altruism. Call this Judeo-Christian values if you want, but whatever you call it, it was our greatness.

We have enshrined selfishness as a virtue, resulting in economic and moral crises that we must now decide whether to pull ourselves out of or not. I oppose thinking of health care as a right or entitlement for this same reason. I would like it to be available to all--as a privilege of living in the United States and under its social contract.

The underlying problem here is not our schools, though, which is why I believe No Child Left Behind is mostly a failure. The problem is that the parents didn't have this training. Is it possible that even the majority of American parents are miserable failures at one of the most important jobs there is and one that requires no education or prerequisites at all? We could never do it, but I would have no problem in theory with physically making it impossible for kids to have children until they are 21, and only then after they have passed some serious training classes.

The number of crack babies and fetal alcohol babies, kids on all sorts of medications because their parents basically have messed them up--no doubt astounding. Anyone have some stats here?

2. I am mostly opposed to mainstreaming.

Our current philosophy basically takes our best and brightest and pulls them down by putting them in with all the discipline problems. Those that want to learn or might be enticed to learn endure what is instead a never ending battle to keep so and so under control whose mom sold his meds instead of giving them to him so that she could buy drugs.

I'm not talking about absolute separation. Anyone should be able to jump into any track at any time. But there's no point in dumbing down America and putting the future of a nation at risk because we want Johnnie-who's-parents-smoked-crack-when-he-was-in-the-womb to be exposed to some normal people. Again, I'm not wanting to throw Johnnie away. I want systems in place to try to redeem what little can be redeemed of his horrible life.

Again, it could never happen, but if prisons can't rehabilitate people who will eventually re-emerge, we have to somehow set up parallel universes for these people. I don't care whether they're government run or not-for-profit work programs, but we have to get a whole lot of unemployed, low capability people off the streets and off to work. I'm not at all wanting to throw them away. I want systems in place to redeem what little there is of their mindless lives.

I know this sounds horrible but I think it is an honest assessment of where a whole lot of America is right now. And both parties, in my opinion, have it wrong. The Republicans basically take a "tough luck" approach. You're a loser so you can just die. Wake up, you narcissists. You're part of the problem. But then the Democrats largely want to take care of the weight on society without doing anything to pull them out of their tail spin. That just perpetuates and reinforces the problem. Both paths are a one way ticket to America going down the toilet.

3. Dual tracks that emerge in high school

The Germans and others do this. The vast majority of our students are not going to be leaders in society. There's no point in requiring them to take some of the courses we're requiring them to take. Anyone should be able to take Calculus. But most should take Real World Math.

In short, most students should take a vocational training program in high school that involves transition to jobs from the ninth grade on. Those who are going to go on to be engineers or work for a pharmaceutical company can go on to take Chemistry and Calculus. And there should be definite rewards for taking the harder way. Again, anyone can jump tracks if they want to.

There could also be special tracks for those who are more interested in literature or the arts or in teaching. My impression is that the senior year of high school in America is basically a waste of time except for those really planning on going on with more academic pursuits. Let's do what Britain does and get people moving toward careers in high school.

OK, there's my rant for the day. Have at it!


Jason A. Staples said...

Excellent post, Ken. I've been thinking a lot over the last year or so about that second point—getting low-skilled unemployed people off the streets, and I've concluded (following John McWhorter) that one other component of this reform would likely have to involve drug/narcotic legalization. Effectively, we would have to make selling drugs less profitable, forcing other ways for these groups of people to make money.

I really like your case about health care as a privilege, not a right. I've been making it for a while. The whole "rights" discourse is flawed, as you know.

Keith Drury said...

You write so cute when you are mad... I do agree that America needs a totally redesigned educational system--from kindergarten through college...

But first we need a healthy discussion of two [competing?] core values of American culture... Freedom and Equality--and what each of these mean and to what extent we are willing to tradeoff one for the other... I think this discussion is at the core of health care as well as education... you lead the discussion and I'll come ;-)

Ken Schenck said...

I agree and think that the skewing I mention lines up with both of these, Republicans and Libertarians with a skewed sense of freedom and Democrats with a skewed sense of equality. Each side tends to treat their champion as an absolute when neither is.

J. Allen Crowe said...

Read my book, The Fatal Link. I contend that up to 30% of our children in school have been prenatally exposed to alcohol and we are seeing the brain damage behaviors that are linked by research in our schools. I am a long time educator who spent 18 years in the epicenters of prenatal exposure to alcohol and can see it more clearly than most. My research reveals an irrefutable connection between school shooters and heavy prenatal exposure to alcohol.

Melissa Esh said...

Hey Ken,
You definitely identify some of the most difficult issues in education today. As in any discipline, terminology is so important. The mainstreaming issue is complex and there are benefits on both sides (as a classroom teacher in the public schools, I saw the best and worst of each side). It may be a mistake to call students with learning disabilites discipline problems. Granted, sometimes students with disabilities are disruptive, but so are other types of students. You may be speaking to a specific situation where the terms apply, but in general it's important to delineate between behavior problems and students with learning disabilities.

Your point regarding parents is spot on and so important when it comes to behavior, values, and learning. Just as parents of low-performing students need to work with their kids at home, parents of more gifted students can do so much to challenge their students at home (much like your tackling recent history with your kids). This doesn't take the place of the classroom experience, but, I'm my experience, parents have much more to do with their children's success in the classroom than many of them realize.

Another thing worth discussing and perhaps the subtext to each of these issues is socioeconomics. It's too big of an issue to cover here, but there are correlations between economic status and behavior as well as learning ability. Similarly, there are divisions based on gender. At some point separating out the "problems" and creating homogeneous classes does more harm than good. Finding where the line is a daunting task.

I'm sorry for such a long response--I'm in a doctoral program in education and am always thinking about such issues.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree that liberty or equality cannot be absolute, but they can be ultimate, because without liberty there is no respect. And without equality there is no responsibility.

Respect allows another liberty of choice, the same liberty one would want for oneself in opposition to authoritarianism.

Equality means of "human worth" or "value", which is also a respectful term in behavioral standards.But, the conservative would value a responsible personhood, while the liberal deems it better to entitle.

People can loose respect, as well as earn respect.

Do those in power deem respect, when they have behaved disrespectfully? Those who are under authoritarianism without their consent, should have the right to dissent.

The military is an authoritarian structure, but unless there is a draft in effect, we have a voluntary army. Some think that military service should be required for every young adult.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks all,

Melissa, yes, I sure wouldn't want to give the impression that it is those with learning disabilities who are the only discipline problems. There are spoiled or troubled rich kids who can be horrible. There are special needs kids who are an absolute delight.

Thanks for bringing some nuance and expertise to the topic!

Cora White said...

I completely agree with dual tracking and the idea of seperating those who are college bound in high school. That is in my opinion at least what we need to copy from England, not healthcare.
Keep community colleges strong because they provide an easier jumping back in point for those who are late bloomers. That piece is not as robust as in England. This will allows those who were vocational early on in high school to jump tracks as you speak of in the post. Because after 3 years some basic foundations will be lost.

The values stuff as a Christian i feel needs to come from the bible. Because when it was centered more in our culture, even non-believers seemed to have those basic values in them.

Bill said...

The best, most practical and most unpoliticized character education I've seen (in 4 districts in 3 states) is Boys Town Skills. The old Father Flannagan model branched out and it's wonderful.

If you looked it up and had any pull with your local district, it would probably be just what you're after, assuming buy in + effective implementation.

On points 2 & 3, the problem is that two tiers would *appear* discriminatory in urban areas. (Yes, to the point, we care more about appearance than actually helping kids most appropriately.) Figure out how to get around that one, and I'll vote for you. :-)