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Thursday, August 18, 2011

A message to Bachman, Duncan, and every other politician who thinks he knows how to fix education

Michelle Bachmann, who is beginning to look to be someone who those of us who have been scoffing at will have to take more seriously, has an education agenda. All politicians have an education agenda. They all are sure the schools are broken.

This leads to two obvious questions:

1. Why do they all agree the schools are broken?

2. Why are their solutions always to the left of insane?

As for the insanity question, bear in mind that this is simply not a matter of politics. Bush’s policies in education were insane. Obama’s policies are insane. And, all the people running against Obama have insane educational policies. Why is this? How can this be?

The obvious question is what is insane about them. To answer that we need to address question #1.

Here are some reasons we hear about why schools are broken:

1. There is a lack of discipline

2. The teachers are often not very good

3. Tests scores in basic skills are bad

4. The average American doesn’t know: (fit your favorite in here, who George Washington was, the capital of Delaware, where Iraq is on a map, the quadratic equation…)

5. Everyone needs to go to college and high school isn’t preparing them properly

6. We need citizens with 21st century skills and school isn’t doing this

7. We need more scientists and engineers

8. There needs to be more religion in schools

9. Schools don’t teach everyone to love America enough

10. Schools are dangerous places

Here are my quick responses to each of these:

1. You try making 30 kids sit still all day, especially in the modern era.

2. There certainly are mediocre teachers but there are also some very good ones, which is amazing because it becomes more difficult each day to put up with the rigid system we have created for them to teach in.

3. Tests are moronic. Yes, moronic. If the tests tested performance they might have some credibility, but multiple-choice tests test nothing. Every driver who has to take a multiple choice test to renew his license has to study the manual first no matter how good a driver he may be. Multiple-choice tests test only one’s ability to prepare for and tolerate multiple-choice tests.

4. Knowing facts really doesn't matter in any way. Because schools teach facts and test facts we have become convinced that facts matter. Facts that do matter in your life tend to be learned while doing (like the names of streets are learned by those who walk or drive on them.) Otherwise it is knowing how not knowing that that matters.

5. Everyone does not need to go to college. College as it exists today bases its curriculum on a research model that is driven by faculty recruitment. Universities teach students to be researchers not practitioners. Even masters programs which are supposedly designed to train practitioners, tend to be dominated by theories and arcane subjects that will never matter to a practitioner. We need to move to a more practical notion of education that leads to jobs. Liberal Arts colleges eschew this notion. We can’t afford many more Literature majors.

6. I am not sure what 21st century skills are but I am pretty sure they include reasoning, communication, and human relations, which were good in any century and are really not part of K-12 curricula. What we need is a populace who can think clearly, which, judging from the extant political candidates, we clearly do not have.

7. We have plenty of scientists and engineers. If anyone thought we really needed more they would create a high school engineering curriculum. But that would mean throwing something out and the 1892 curriculum has become sacred.

8. Really? There needs to be religion in schools? Whose religion exactly? And why? So we can ram more facts into kids heads. Facts are only the medium of education because religious institutions were the designers of the schools in the first place.

9. School should teach students to criticize America not love it. With thoughtful criticism comes change.

10. This last one is right. Schools are very stressful places and they are places where bullying happens and where kids learn to feel bad about themselves unless they have a really good teacher who can make sure none of that happens.

My message to Michelle Bachmann and Arne Duncan and all the other fools who pontificate about education is simply this. If we had a good education system, maybe you all could reason better and would stop saying and doing insane things about education.