September 17, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

Solving Education's Problems

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.

H.L. Mencken(1902-1983)

When a president makes a decision to go to war he had a lot of help. He can count on a reasonably competent secretary of state, a reasonably competent military establishment and the best high-tech military hardware available.

What allowed our nation to win a few wars was that the goal was not to make or do something, but to destroy something; a relatively simple task compared to building something. Don't take my word for it; just ask any child. There is usually a clear end to a war; you win it or lose it. When it turned out that the end of the war is not really the end of trouble, we try to help a little, but really don't solve many of the problems. In short, you can win a war, but other things are a hellofalot more difficult.

More to the point, there is no yard stick to measure progress in anything but war or technology. The work that has been done in AIDS research is nothing short of miraculous. Since most people see the goal of AIDS research to be a cure, an almost impossible goal at this time, people view AIDS research as unsuccessful. Knowing what causes the disease and how to prevent it isn't enough for many people, just as being able to prevent most cancers deaths isn't enough.

Everything that Bush and Clinton administration's education people have proposed has been tried: better and universal standards, encouragement and other gumdrops. All have failed, time and time again, to provide a remedy for what is seen as the failure of education to get every kid through high school and many more through college. The only way that I know of to get every kid through high school is to imprison them and make school a lot easier.

What's wrong with better standards? It works, sort of, for the automobile. You can mandate safety standards for cars and they will help to prevent deaths with car accidents. You can mandate better gas mileage and fewer air pollutants. Suppose, as in education, we simply mandated "better teachers and students". What's wrong with that? One thing that is wrong is that we have no idea of what "better" means. If you know what it means, let me know; because I don't. You can encourage kids to stay in school but, as the old adage goes, "You can send your son to college but you cannot make him think."

For as far back as I can remember, people have assumed that if you spend more money on education you will get better education and if you spend more money on cancer research, you will get a cure for cancer; what I have referred to as "The cancer cure con." Unlike highways, spending more money will not necessarily get you the results that you want. Up to a point, money will help; but it is far from the whole answer. If you pay your legislators more, you will not get better legislation. Paying teachers more will keep more people in teaching who might leave because they need more money, but it will not get teachers to teach better and, more important, it will not get students to learn more. If you doubt this, ask any teacher if doubling his/her salary would make him do a better job than he is now doing.

I would know a good school if I saw one, and so would any competent educator. I can tell when students are enthusiastic and are learning, but I could not devise a written test to measure that. Why not? Because there is not a standard body of knowledge that you can say that "if a student knows this, he is doing well." The student who does not read well, but can fix anything mechanical is not a failure whether he stays in school or drops out. The vast majority of the 80% of the students who dropped out or didn't go to high school in the early part of this century were not failures. They got jobs and supported their families. Most made sure that their kids finished high school.

The buzz word now is "accountability." Accountability for whom? The teachers? The students? What are they supposed to be accountable for?

Industry wants workers who can follow written instructions. They are willing to pay for it too; but not any more than they have to pay.

What should we educate for? We really don't know. The needs 20 years from now may be very different from what they are today. Twenty years ago computers weren't important. Twenty years ago there weren't machines that could weld an entire car body.

I read about people being shocked that our kids know nothing about geography or history. So what's new? Except for the exceptional few who end up as contestants on Jeopardy, not many people ever knew much beyond their own geographic region. I know a bit about geography because I've travelled a bit and I read National Geographic. When I was young, National Geographic was to look at pictures of naked breasts. I got interested and began reading history at age 60. But that's another story.

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