Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Education Today: What awaits an optimistic grandchild?

I recently searched my text files for matieral I had collected on C.S. Lewis' "The Abolition of Man." I found it in "April, 2012." While there I came across a piece I had written reflecting my hopes for my grand-daughter's educational progress as she was abou to enter high school. I post it now since she will return to us next month to finish her final year and then, perhaps, college. I have made two minor modifications, both marked off by brackets.

Has American leadership failed once too often? A 2005 Harris Poll indicates it wasn't that high to begin with. Figures revealed that Americans distrust government by a 57%-22% margin, distrust the political parties by 77%-8%, and distrust Congress by 56%-22%. The ongoing Real Clear Politics website shows congressional distrust leading by a 60%-30% margin. Nevertheless we are being asked to believe that these same groups are on the threshold of solving our energy crisis, our health care crisis, and our financial crisis...within six months.

The press (distrusted by 62%-22%) paints a picture of a handful of legislative Neanderthals attempting to cripple legislation which, if passed, would usher in a new era of prosperity, unprecedented good health, and permanent energy security. Unfortunately, I look to history for guidance and it indicates that the wag who suggested that the last "big-scale" government triumph was World War II (a military venture) is correct. All the other biggies (all social ventures) from Social Security to Medicare/Medicaid, the FDIC, Amtrak, the post office, and  prescription drug legislation, are notable for two characteristics: first, each has gone broke or is in the process of doing so and, two, those politicians who supported their passage were easily re-elected. 

I'm confident our current federal representatives, like their predecessors, will successfully bungle them all. I would hope, though, that Education, being a state and local issue, we might fare better as local representative must face their neighbors regularly and can't hide behind a phone-in Town Hall meeting.

Historically, Tennessee education has been a key issue for a whole string of governors. It has been suggested that Governor [now Senator] Alexander was appointed Secretary of Education largely on the "success" of his Better Schools Program; Governor McWherter was widely lauded for the Tennessee Education Improvement Act and the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). 

A year ago Governor Bredesen came forward with the Tennessee Diploma Project (TDP), a program "designed to challenge students and better prepare them for college and the workforce." Then former Senator Frist introduced SCORE, the "State Collaborative on Reforming Education...[which] will focus on jumpstarting reforms that will help Tennessee schools, teachers, and students meet this bar."

Despite the fulsome praise given these programs, educational achievement levels remain discouragingly unimpressive. They're certainly at a level that leaves our graduates at a significant disadvantage when competing against the best this country and others will produce.

While we might hope that new thinking will lead to new approaches, an overview of the current batch indicate they all contain elements first put forward in the 1983 landmark study "A Nation at Risk." That report put forward 38 solid recommendations - none were adopted. Twenty-five years later many are being reconsidered, although in modified form. 

To date almost every major study, blue ribbon report, or idle thought has been put forward by members of either the education or political establishments. Not surprisingly, many of the notables from the political sphere continue to shield their children from the public education system. Interestingly, their private-school educated offspring often follow them into political office (e.g, the Kennedys, Bushes, Dodds, Bayhs, Byrds, Udalls, Romneys, Gores, Sununus).

It would appear our leaders are certain as to what they wish their children to be exposed to educationally. By extension, we must assume our public schools do not provide it - although much in the various curricula would not exist without an approval by them or their staff.  Am I upset about this situation? You bet...and with adequate reason. 

No less an individual than Bill Gates, whose foundation has poured over $2 billion into the public education system has said "It surprises me that more parents are not upset about the education their own kids are receiving....Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way....These tended to be the schools that did not take radical steps...We had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school." 

In the spirit of Gates, then, I speak as an adult with a grand-daughter in the system, Here's what a high school graduate wishes for her:

First, I want her to learn that her real education begins after she's finished with school. Ideally, she will learn how to learn - how to gauge a problem, develop a solution, and attempt to implement it. And, of greater importance, proceed to another solution if the first fails. 

This leads naturally to the second, which is to learn that failure is an essential part of growth; in fact, it's an every day event that must be dealt with. I expect her to get D's and F's if that's what she deserves; praise ought to be used sparingly and for unusually high performance. 

I want her to discover that learning through reading is greater than that achieved by watching and listening. Reading is an "active" pursuit, one that fully engages the mind. Watching videos or listening to recordings are passive and far less effective since it's easy to get distracted and miss the message. Lectures, regardless of the skill of the presenter, can be very effective only with superior note-taking - an art form that must also be learned.

I want her to learn that there is greater satisfaction in accomplishing a minor skill than in daydreaming of performing impractical ones; that knitting an Afghan is a towering achievement that makes creating a spreadsheet appear a pedestrian endeavor. That building a tree house is a monument that mocks the transience of a Power Point presentation.

I want her to learn that no virtue is more highly prized than trustworthiness. We are where we are because we were betrayed by  governmental and business interests in whom we had placed an inordinate amount of trust. If we had only heeded the answers provided to the Harris poll we might have avoided some of this. Unfortunately, despite our better instincts, we want to believe in our major institutions; they are, after all, the ones that "have made us great." 

Yet even the most cursory study of our history would reveal that we have been proven fools time and time again. Leave it to a Russian, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once imprisoned for speaking out to give appropriate advice regarding politicians: "Don't believe them, don't fear them, don't ask anything of them." But governments and businesses can come back with different names and faces and, once again, ask for and receive our trust. With an individual, though, once trust is lost, it's usually lost forever.

For that reason I also want her to learn that guilt can be a healthy emotion. There's nothing pathological in a conscience telling the individual that she knowingly acted inappropriately and that, if possible, apologies must be given and amends made. This is especially important in this time when cheating has become so big and so prevalent, that success is gauged by the what degree to which it is limited; no one seriously believes it can be stamped out. The reason it can't be eliminated borders on the obscene - no guilt is attached to indulging in it. 

Some studies find that as many as 80% of high-achieving high schoolers and 75% of college students admit to cheating. More telling is why they cheat. As they move from grade to grade they gradually discover that despite previous high marks, they are ill-prepared for the bigger challenges. So, many feel it's necessary to cheat and do so - with no remorse (and why not, they might argue, the system has "cheated" them by awarding promotion despite substandard work). 

Their comeuppance occurs in the commercial world where cheating and substandard work are grounds for dismissal. This point shouldn't be interpreted as a blanket indictment of the teaching profession. In a report issued by Arthur Levine, a well regarded writer on education, he comments that "Teacher education is the Dodge City of the education world,...There is no standard approach to where and how teachers should be prepared...A majority of teacher education alumni [61 percent] reported that schools of education did not prepare graduates well to cope with the realities of today's classrooms..."

I want her to be required to state her views, with substantiating documentation, on a variety of issues appropriate to her age level. And I want those views challenged if they merit challenge, and support if they merit support. But, under no circumstances, should her right to state them be prohibited.

I want her to learn that each learning discipline has its own rules and procedures. For instance, natural science is one thing, and political science quite another. Politics operates on consensus: 50% plus one will generally carry the day. Victors frequently claim (speciously) that they were on the "right" side. Science is based on evidence gained through experimentation which is falsifiable - that is, the experiment can be repeated over and over by other scientists in other locales with identical results. Even then it isn't proven or "right." As Einstein observed: "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." (As a matter of interest, neither Darwinism nor Creationism are falsifiable…both persist on faith.)

I want her to learn perspective by studying the order in which things are prioritized. She can do this by being taught how to observe what her friends and acquaintances believe is important; what her parents, teachers, ministers, and other elders believe. If, for instance, she sees that over half of the teaching staff, and learns that more than half of the school budget is expended on non-core pursuits, then perhaps the publicly proclaimed core is not the real core.

I want her, through an examination of history, to appreciate that she lives in very unusual times. For thousands of years humans, regardless of their country, lived hand-to-mouth existences. Abundance was a rarity, thrift was a necessity, and old age was fifty. Children then, as now, were regarded as precious - except that "then" their value was measured by the amount and quality of the labor they could provide. 

Each was expected to contribute more than they consumed (profit); failing that (loss), their hours were extended or their food portions cut. For about four generations, though, we have experienced an explosion of wealth; even the poorest among Americans today live much better than 99% the people who populated this country in 1909. As a result of this abundance, in many households children are treated as perfect little beings of high value, extreme fragility, and modest expectations. When does this obsessive sheltering end? According to some Human Resource departments, it has reached the point where parents are calling the employers of their adult children demanding that they be treated with more respect. Apparently it was a successful tactic during their school years.

Once she grasps the importance of history and where we stand in relation to prior events of similar magnitude and duration, I want her to ask the obvious question: Can these boom years continue unabated? If the answer isn't a clear "yes" and there's no [biblical] Joseph stocking the silos with surplus, then it's time to learn to live with less, maybe much less. If things do become so economically severe that the toys and/or activities she uses to amuse herself become unavailable or too expensive, she will have to rely on imagination and creativity -  a life of the mind -  to create a fulfilling and meaningful existence. 

This can be accomplished cheaply through reading and contemplation. However, if we she's unaccustomed to challenging her intellectual faculties, she's in for some hard times. In "The Rhythm of Life" Matthew Kelly writes, "In the silence, we see at one time the person we are and the person we are capable of becoming... It is precisely for this reason that we fill our lives with noise, to distract ourselves from the challenge to change." If anyone doubts this I ask them to consider the recent riot at our local jail was triggered by the removal of radios from prisoners' cells.

I want her to realize that what "is" is not necessarily what "ought" to be. And that if "what is" can be changed for the better then change ought to be pursued; if it can't then it must be recognized and endured. But to attempt change for change's sake is an empty and, perhaps, dangerous gesture. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas usually have bad consequences. However, one must be solidly grounded by a stringent moral code before presuming to tell others that they are in error - which is why the Platonic ideal is to see things as they are and to simply accept them. 

One current "bad" idea is the contention that positive change naturally follows additional education. While this may be applicable to some, a recent study of employers' hiring practices revealed that "...two-thirds reported rejecting applicants because of a lack of 'basic employability skills,' such as reliable attendance and punctuality." All the schooling in the world will not improve the employability of an individual who, when given the choice, chooses the deer stand over the job site.

There are just a few more specific things I would like her to have learned by the time her schooling is completed. I'll limit my reading list to two. The first would be a short piece of commentary written in 1914 by Elbert Hubbard called "Message to Garcia." It should be read once a year - by just about everybody. The second is a short Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken." 

In the field of general education I believe there are some concepts and individuals which/who receive little or no attention, but which/who can be enlightening. Among them are: the Stockdale Paradox, the Law of Diminishing Returns, the Lorenz Attractor, the Pythagorean Theorem, Pascal's Wager, Moral Hazard, the Invisible Hand, Maslow's Theory Z, Occam's Razor, Kant's Categorical Imperative, the Code of Hammurabi, Wagner's Law, the Rule of Three, and, finally, the Trivium and Quadrivium. Individuals worth knowing include Wat Tyler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rose Wilder Lane, Daniel Shays, Horatio Bunce, G.K. Chesterton, Jonas Salk, Emily Dickinson, Eric Hoffer, Richard Feynman, John Taylor Gatto, and Albert Jay Nock.

Finally, there is an area of education I don't want her exposed to without prior consultation. It is in the realm of contemporary values. If the mandarins of education and their legislative princes feel the Christian values we try to instill in her should not be taught, I can accept that. However, should the administration decide to promote a set of values contrary to those already prohibited, we are going to have major problems. 

Let's not be genteel about this. Our children are in the public education system because the law demands it. The law further demands we pay for it through our property taxes. However, we are not entirely powerless and will demand (vehemently if necessary) that her "captivity" not include an indoctrination that includes alien concepts and theories. If any one set of values is deemed repugnant and prohibited, then all sets of values must be prohibited. To do otherwise, amounts to a tacit endorsement of those values no matter how benign the stated intention. 

We are asked to trust that our children are receiving the best the state has to offer and that recent results indicate improved performance. However, history reveals that past promises of a similar nature have fallen short. Additionally, the Cato Institute reports that in some states authorities have been known for "...setting standards as low as they can, defining proficiency as loosely as possible, and administering easy tests, thereby avoiding the law's penalties to the greatest extent possible while still claiming success." 

I don't know how high Tennessee has set the bar but if it's too low, the impact will still be felt 50 years from now. Can we really afford to tinker with a mediocre system hoping for marginal improvements? Or is it time to make radical changes, concentrating on the core, eliminating much of the extracurricular fluff, and make schoolwork hard work? I vote for the road less taken.