surgical strike: asphalt aspirations

I always take note when education topics manage to bubble up to national media: it does not happen that often. Imagine my surprise with not only the presence, but also the content of a New York Time op-ed contributor piece today entitled Failing the Wrong Grades. Diane Ravitch therein points out some shortcomings in current well-intentioned efforts to improve public High Schools and lays much of the blame for the current state of affairs at the feet of the lower schools.

Those of you who have read here for a while will recognize one of my proposals from a while back in my piece entitled beginning at the middle. I have argued for many years that High School in its present form makes no sense and that we should transform it into a more flexible program that assists both college bound and trade bound students.

My hunch is that Ravitch’s op-ed and the book she is promoting therein will get less attention than the Alvin and the Chipmunks revival tour. Unlike the rest of the World, Americans do not care about quality education.

The general public’s lack of concern about the education of the next generation will undoubtedly puzzle me to the day I die. It just seems to me that even if I did not possess a quality education that I would still want that opportunity for my children and the children of society as a whole. What this reinforces is the truth of my claims that the selfishness permeating our whole society is truly pervasive and not just a matter of rhetorical excess on my part.

Education is relatively expensive as public works go and it is obvious that as a society we have decided that gravel roads will suffice because of the expense of asphalt. And I do not use the word “expense” to just mean financial capital, but to also include the personal cost extracted by dedication and concern. Education is indeed not one of the areas where I think the problem is primarily one of funding, but one of an even scarcer resource: genuine commitment to excellence.

While this sad state of affairs could cause one to lose hope and abandon the discussion, I am in no way more curmudgeonly than in my stubbornness, so you can expect these rants to reoccur.

beginning at the middle

As I sit down to organize my thoughts about the best approach to fixing our public education system, I feel a bit like policy makers must have felt in pursuing a fix of US equity markets after the crash of 1929. Events have demonstrated with devastating clarity that the system is broke and no serious person with any knowledge of the situation denies that repair are in order, but the task is so daunting that it is hard to know where to begin.

So, lets begin toward the end: High School.

High School in America is a joke for most children. Academic standards are ridiculously low and distractions are ridiculously high. I think more than any other phase of childhood education, this is where the most radical change will be necessary. Or at least radical in the sense of changing our collective notion of what High School is all about.

The problem of where to begin thus pops up immediately because the first change I would make in High School is to reintroduce the 8th Grade diploma. Bear with me: I have to start somewhere. For the purpose of discussion, I’m assuming some fixing has gone on at early grade levels because a functional illiterate who holds an 8th Grade diploma is no better off than a functional illiterate holding a 12th Grade diploma. My idea in this regard is that by 8th grade graduation, surely it is reasonable to expect that a pupil will have adequately covered the three Rs.

Creating this bright line distinction and enforcing that the diploma actually means something would free the High School years for something more useful. Anyone who has been to High School in the last forty years understands that are kids who are going to college and those who are not-High School should reflect that reality. Kids who are college bound should get a real college-prep school where things like Calculus, Greek and written examination are the norm and not just reserved for those that track high based on the tests. Similarly, kids who choose vocational programs should get the real deal: actually learning how to be an electrician and how to get a job.

And before I go further, comment posts regarding how great their High School’s Advanced Placement programs were will be summarily deleted: I’m talking about the real world, not the privileged suburbanite wonderland that most of this Curmudgeon’s friends went to school in and send their kids to as adults. OK, not really. I still have an open posting policy, but I will ignore such dribble.

Here is the great news in my proposed scheme: because the 8th Grade education means that the basic skills have been acquired, switching between College Prep and Vocational programs is greatly simplified. Certainly remedial work would be necessary going either direction, but the artificial wall that says, “since you scored low on an exam in fourth grade, there is no way you are getting into Calculus” can be done away with forever. And as a bonus, the High School drop out would find themselves looking for work yet possessing skills that would actually make them useful to potential employers. I’ll bet we can get Wal-Mart to pay for some of this just because of the tremendous off-set they would get from not having to perform so much remedial education.

This transition would be tough, but worth it. And though I like these ideas, I think they still come up short in addressing some of the underlying social problems.

Which, of course, leads me to other radical ideas.

Eliminating sports from public education really shouldn’t seem all that radical. But it is clear that we must do this if we are to get serious. Lets face it, the transition period alone will be so difficult that the kids must be freed from distraction. There is nothing at all radical about suggesting that our kids focus on academics. Sports is the 800 pound gorilla that dominates on our public school campuses and it is time to cage the beast.

If you are distressed by this possibility, I would ask you examine closely why it is so bothersome to you. Then weigh that against the inadequate education of generations of kids and see how the scales do not balance.

It isn’t that I think Physical activity is unimportant for kids, because I certainly see the utility. And I definitely would not abandon Physical Education for younger kids as the serotonin regulation is itself invaluable to a good academic atmosphere. The problem is the culture we create around athletics in the older grades that is damaging to the athletes and to the students. And frankly, it just isn’t as important as an education.

Hey, if you kid is the next Tony Mandarich, send him to an after school program for the physically gifted. There simply is no more time to waste on half-measures and idealistic bull-feathers.

And if you think this simple plan is radical, just wait till you hear what I want to do to elementary schools.

its the stupid, stupid

When you are a schoolboy, you do not necessarily stop and think about the education you are receiving in any structured way. Like you, my gentle suffering blog readers, I learned to think critically as a part of the process of learning. This is a most normal and natural thing.

I did not give it a thought that is until my Sophomore year in High School when I began tutoring. What stunned me in my experiences as a tutor was the discovery that most of my students were actually extremely bright and though obviously intellectually capable, they amazingly, had never learned how to think deductively. This was stunning because I never gave much thought to such matters. Stunning because the lack of these basic intellectual tools substantially impaired my student’s abilities to comprehend anything that required more thought than simple memorization. Suddenly it was brought into clear focus for me how poorly our schools were serving the majority of it’s students.

This whole experience jarred me in a profound way.

So, from a very early time in my life, it has seemed blindingly obvious to me that there is little in this world of greater importance than the proper education of our youth. It did not take any special insight then or now to see that a citizenry that does not possess even the most fundamental tools for critical thought dooms its nation to ultimate failure. How is a citizen who must exert themselves strenuously in order to make the simplest of deductions, if they are capable of even that much thought, to be expected to cast an intelligent vote? How can they be expected to hold any but the most menial of jobs? They obviously can not and the social ramifications of the resulting mass stupidity are of empire destroying proportions.

Sadly, very few Americans are concerned about the state of American stupidity. A bit of Googling unearthed an interesting summary of polling information about the priorities of voters that can be found here. What is clear both from my personal experience and this data is that though education may be on the list of the concerns of Americans, it is down there among the list of “other” things that people worry about in addition to the “big” problems.

Education is not a problem. Education is the problem.

It may in fact be reasonable to question my assertion that education is the most critical problem facing our society. Issues such as Global Terrorism and the Healthcare System meltdown have a rightful place at the center of our attention. But the present state of American stupidity is such that it exacerbates the pressing issues that typically top priority lists and therefore education assumes a position of greater significance than the politically minded might suggest.

A superficial examination of current events demonstrates the centrality of the role of stupidity in our current affairs. An America whose citizens reasoned well would have better understood the Middle Eastern powder keg and taken action long before the fuse was lit. If We The People were equipped by our schools to think critically, we would understand that not proactively fixing our healthcare system is inviting disaster. Eschewing substantive analysis, the people instead passionately respond to the sound bites that invoke symbols such as Patriotism and Socialism.

The undeniable passion of the people’s response can sometimes be so overwhelming that you can almost lose sight of the fact that there is no real content buttressing the convictions.

The political elite have learned to play this game well. A stupid America consistently elects politicians with no concern about any future which might exist past the next election. Politicians do not need to concern themselves with the Future because stupid Americans do not hold them accountable in a serious analytical sense of accountability. Rather, the political elite only need to concern themselves as to how effectively they can “spin” the outcomes when experience demonstrates their sweeping rhetorical flourishes to be nothing more than salesmanship.

That the word “spin” has become so much a part of our language that I could have properly omitted the quotation marks in the previous sentence speaks volumes regarding our intellectual devolution.

It is clear then that ranking education among the other issues confronting our society is dangerous and short sighted. While it is true that the incremental cost of additional stupidity is low, when you take the longer view there is nothing so certain to produce our downfall than a poorly educated electorate.

This process of destruction is in full swing already-just look around you. Or better yet, watch the upcoming Presidential debates. It will be sobering if you understand that the presentations, which are only nominally debates, are packaged for the level of education which is actually out there in our formerly great nation.

Once you understand the state of stupidity in our land, it is better for your mental health if you avoid the next step of logical deduction. Better to not realize how irrelevant you have become to our political process.

Far better to not grasp that swaying the stupid people is all that matters.