Thursday, August 28, 2008

American Education; A Little Shop of Horrors

I've long wished that education could be the magic pill for curing societal ills. That's what motivated me to get a Ph.D. from Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of education.

Alas, subsequently, I've had the opportunity to review a number of so-called "national models" for education, for example, Jaime Escalante's Ganas math program, Debbie Meier's Central Park East, and yesterday, another one. (I am precluded, at this point, from mentioning its name.) Invariably, I've found "model programs" to be wildly disappointing: usually the teaching and learning are--not withstanding transient, unreplicable blips--no better than in other schools. And in the "national model school" I reviewed yesterday, it was, on average, worse.

After 35 years in education, I have come to the conclusion that a "model school" is one you haven't visited. They become "models" more because of PR than of substance. These schools create a compelling soundbite: "an urban public school that's like a New England prep school," "a school that suffuses technology throughout the curriculum, "a program that enables inner-city kids to do well in calculus." The school or district's PR machine then orchestrates media tours and promulgates data that obfuscate what's really going on. Hollywood loves "teachers that make a difference" stories, so they make movies about such schools or teachers, replacing the inconvenient truths with feel-good fictions.

I've also concluded that among the most potent ways to improve education while returning significant money to the taxpayer would be to eliminate 95% of the education bureaucracy. Right now, in, for example, California's public schools, a teacher's behavior is restricted by six separate bureaucracies' rules: school-level administration, district administration, county administration, SELPA administration (a special regional entity regarding special ed kids), state administration, and federal administration.

Each bureaucracy imposes on teachers its own assemblage of rules and restrictions: occasionally contradictory, often motivated more by politics than pedagogy, usually complicated and costly, and rarely sufficiently benefiting what goes on in the classroom to justify the time, costs, restrictions of teacher freedom, complications, and contradictions.

Remember the failure of the government to even marginally address the Hurricane Katrina disaster? The largest cause was overlapping, labyrinthine bureaucracies that rendered each other paralyzed, inert. That's analogous to what goes on in the public schools.

I believe that education could be dramatically improved if our mammoth education bureaucracy were replaced by a single, small federal agency or private entity. Its main functions would be to pay the bills, recruit the best teachers, and develop and disseminate model curriculum developed by teams of the nation's best teachers.

That would, at once, improve teaching quality, eliminate the strangling regulations impeding teaching, and provide teachers with excellent curriculum. Some of the cost savings would go directly to teachers to spend on materials, field trips, etc. Some would go back into taxpayers' pockets.

Alas, such a proposal doesn't stand a prayer of enactment. Extraordinarily powerful interests benefit from the status quo, and somehow, the media rarely questions the cost-effectiveness of the Education Blob. The media merely advocates that we feed it more money, like the metastasizing plant in Little Shop of Horrors that grows by feeding it employees' blood.



Viennesian said...

Isn't "small federal agency" a contradiction in terms? What about getting government out of the business of education entirely?

KT said...

Are our government, our democracy still of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Matthew said...


I'm curious to know what you think of the Hillsdale Academy model ( and what its pros and cons are in your eyes. I've read a lot about it and find the concept of a more "traditional", humanities-based education appealing.


Marty Nemko said...

I believe that humanities are ONE component of a good education, and only to the extent that it is taught well: for example, requiring an only modest-length and accessible reading list that has broad applicability to becoming a thoughtful member of the planet. That way, it can realistically be expected that students will take the time to truly digest and incorporate the material into their ways of thinking and being.

I am not familiar with the teaching quality at Grove City, Hillsdale or Great Books institutions such as St. John's in New Mexico and Annapolis, but nationwide, it is my opinion that unfortunately, only a small percentage of such humanities classes meet those criteria.

Also, just as I am concerned that the vast majority of colleges dispense a very leftward-biased education, I'd want to be sure that places like Grove City and Hillsdale fairly exposed students to left-of-center ideas.

I believe the best education also includes practical matters: conflict resolution, public speaking, relationship management, financial literacy, and yes, career preparation taught by master practitioners, not theoreticians.

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