Collection of thoughts about

the U.S. educational "system"


Chuck Doswell


Posted: 13 March 2006 Updated: whenever

As usual, this is my opinion and feedback, positive or negative, is always of interest.

1. Introduction

This amounts to yet another rant about something that bothers me, a lot. Ever since my days in grade school, I've been aware of the importance of education. My mother was something of a fanatic about the subject and consequently was a committed member of the PTA through most of my grade school days, and beyond. She infused in me a sense of the importance of education and how it's a critical element in determining not only individual futures, but that of our entire society. I've never lost that sense of the fundamental importance of education. One thing that my mother worried about was the miserly attitude when it comes to funding public education, which I have found to be a continuing disgrace that says very bad things about the selfishness of my "baby boom" generation. If there's anything that taxes should be used for, it's the substantial support of public education. Our future as a nation depends on it, and yet it's a constant struggle (that we seem to be losing) to provide for decent teacher salaries and educational resources to be available to all students. The current political climate seems to be even more hostile to public education than ever.

Some recent e-correspondence has motivated me to write this and post it. To call our public education a "system" seems inappropriate to me. It's anything but systematic. Rather, it resembles many other human endeavors by being dominated by politics, selfish economic thinking, and outright stupidity of monumental proportions. This is true at all levels, from kindergarten through to our public universities. As I've written elsewhere, it seems that our commitment to providing quality education to students is always being hampered by various clearly irrelevant considerations. I'll attempt to describe several here in this essay. Others might come to mind.


2. The two different "School Systems"

In analogy with what I described in my rant about NOAA and the National Weather Service, there really are two very distinct components within any school system, from K-12 and on through the universities. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig described his view of the difference between what he calls the "real university" and the "physical plant" - this was in reference to the distinction between the interaction between teachers and students (the real part), and all the rest of the university (administration and the other components of a university, including the physical plant). I'd describe the situation in somewhat different terms. On the one hand, there are the people who do the actual teaching and thereby are the only productive members of the system. On the other hand, there are the bureacrats and administrators, who should be actively engaged in supporting the labors of the teachers - instead, they form a classic Parkinsonian bureaucracy, whose main working hypothesis is that the teachers work for them, rather than vice-versa. As the administrative overhead associated with our schools has expanded, the resources devoted to productive teaching are being correspondingly eroded. Teachers not only are underpaid by a huge margin in relation to the importance of their work, they are vastly underpaid in proportion to the bloated nest of parasites that form the administration ostensibly there to help teachers accomplish their job. Teachers are also not afforded the respect that their work deserves, but are often seen as recalcitrant underlings by the arrogant bastards who are nominally in charge.

In many ways, being a teacher in today's school system is quite comparable to being a forecaster in the National Weather Service - except that the salary base is far beneath that of an NWS forecaster. Small wonder that many teachers regard their work virtually as a charitable contribution, done mostly for the love of what they are trying to accomplish - certainly not to fill their wallets! In this environment, it isn't uncommon for good teachers to give up and go on to a better-paying job. Unless a teacher is highly motivated and able somehow to survive on the pittance that is their salary, it simply doesn't make sense to work that hard to get so little in return (including so little respect, to say nothing of income). Thus, we have a steady drain of talented people who get fed up and leave. What we have left is a small cadre of highly qualified people striving in obscurity to educate our children in the face of persoanl poverty and bad treatment by the very people who should be supporting them - and a majority of folks who probably aren't all that good as teachers and/or don't care all that much about educating, but who are simply going through the motions and collecting their paychecks.


3. Schools of Education and their influence

It's a source of considerable dark amusement to me that with my Doctorate, I'm considered qualified to teach college undergraduates and graduate students, but I'm not qualified to be a teacher in K-12 education, since I don't have my diploma in "education". This exclusion is but one manifestation of the influence of the so-called "Schools of Education" who have mandated that to teach in public shools, one needs an education certificate from one of the accredited schools of education. This amounts to a union card, and the K-12 school system is what amounts to a closed shop - only union members need apply.

This is especially pernicious for teaching in science and mathematics, where people such as myself, who might be willing to serve as K-12 science and math teachers are systematically excluded. Instead, these subjects are taught mostly by education majors who know little or nothing about what it means to be a scientist or mathematician. I remember these teachers from my time in K-12, and most of them were clearly incompetent nincompoops, who had little or no grasp of what they were trying to teach. Some exceptions can always be found, but they're far less common than they should be. I'll have more to say about this later.

Another bad influence of these so-called schools of education is what I call the "plan of the month" approach to teaching people how to be teachers. From time to time, in academia, new ideas about how to teach spring up like dandelions in the spring, and fall into (and out of) favor as time passes. Each cohort of prospective educators might be exposed to one or two of these educational fads, and they form the basis of how the graduates are trained to do teaching. For example, there was a new program for teaching mathematics when I was in high school (in Illinois where, coincidentally or not, the program was developed by the University of Illinois), as well as a new program for teaching physics. Thus, as a student, I was taught according to these new concepts for math and science education. The fad program for mathematics managed to leave out trigonometry altogether (!), so I had to learn that subject on my own, while I was an undergraduate student in college. Subsequently, I'm sure these programs were replaced by newer fads, and so on, in what could be considered a neverending procession of fads. When my children were in school, the notion of classrooms had given way to "open classes" which turned out to be a cacaphony of distractions that was extremely detrimental to learning - but this was considered to be the optimum teaching strategy at the time. Many of these fad teaching methods are simply balderdash and work poorly, if they can be said to work at all. However, the academic theorists sell their books and reap the rewards of having their fad be accepted. Of course, new up and comers in the education business have to sell their own fads to achieve fame and fortune in the education business. Our teachers must be certified if they want to have jobs, so they must at least pretend to believers in this ceaseless wind of new plans for how education should be done.

The real losers in all of this are the students, who are constantly being used as guinea pigs in the "plan of the month". The teachers wind up being forced to implement programs they might not even believe in, but the powers that be have determined that this is the way education should be done.

Of course, there are political aspects to this, as well. The so-called conservative movement has mandated "back to the basics" and universal achievement testing as the answer to our educational shortfalls. Besides being outright nonsense, this has created what amounts to schools being forced to "teach the test" (also mentioned here), instead of providing basic educational skills. This is not likely to be a successful strategy, but it apparently is the current plan. Who knows what plan will follow?


4. Math and Science education, K-12

I find myself increasingly concerned about what is happening to math and science education in our society. It's been my experience, and that of many other people, that math teachers are typically some of the worst in our schools. They create a climate of fear around the very topic they're trying to teach, and they seem almost universally committed to inculcating the notion that math is difficult and only the elite few are ever going to be competent at it. Most students stay away from math courses if they possibly can, and seek only to scrape by with the minimum necessary to pass whatever required math courses they're forced to take. We have wound up with a society that is the equivalent of illiterate (sometimes called "innumerate") with respect to math skills.

Many years ago, I discovered that a close relative of mine, older than I, was a fully functioning adult but did not understand the concept of fractions! This was a profound revelation to me, because this relative was surely not stupid. This caused me to think about where I was at the time - still learning (and struggling with) calculus - I had some abysmally bad professors. Nevertheless, I was light years ahead of my close relative when it came to mathematics. This got me to thinking about how someone so innumerate could function. How different a world view would be associated with an inability to grasp the concept of a fraction? I was boggled with the very idea - and yet, reality surely was consistent with the notion that many people are functionally innumerate. Imagine what a tiny percentage of people in this country have a grasp of calculus, to say nothing of more advanced mathematical concepts. In a world dominated by technology that grows directly from the use of science, which in turn is heavily loaded with mathematics, such people are little more than savages (metaphorically), having absolutely no comprehension of the underlying principles that dominate their technological world.

And the widespread innumeracy of the American public has a direct impact on their understanding of science, which is even more directly responsible for our technology-dominated world than mathematics. If you can't handle the math, the chances are you won't understand the science, as well. Without the science, you have no basis for making important choices for our nation. What should we do about potentially disastrous climate change? Should stem cell research be permitted or not? What role should recombinant DNA techniques have in the future? What resources should we be spending on scientific research? What are the real risks associated with various hazards that confront us?

People ignorant about science have no clue how to use science in their lives, and have the false belief that they won't ever have to do so. Any citizen in this technological world that lives in a democracy has to make choices that will affect us all. Without the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff in a debate about issues involving science, such citizens are effectively abdicating their responsibilities as citizens in a democracy, and leaving the decision in the not-so-deserving hands of pundits and politicians. Bad idea. Very bad idea.

Science teachers are also tyically not very good. Therre are many ideas about how to teach science, but the most effective teacher of science, it seems to me, would have to at least have been a scientist at one time or another prior to being a teacher. How can you teach a topic well, when you've never practiced that discipline and have no clue about its realities? How can you convey a proper sense of excitement associated with learning about the natural world when you have no grasp of that excitement yourself? Most K-12 science teachers are not scientists and so can't begin to teach it. You can't teach what you don't know. Children are remarkably good at spotting a phony, many times, and I recall that we, as students, knew pretty well when someone did or did not really know the materical they were trying to teach.

Of course, in today's world, if you get a science degree and show some real aptitude for it, you probably will go on to a job that pays a lot more than what you would be getting if your were a K-12 science teacher. Why waste all that hard-earned knowledge on a low-paying job? We've created a situation where science-capable teachers are going to be in very short supply. That means, in turn, that we will teach science to our children poorly. Thus, our science education tends not to be very good. It's becoming a downward spiral.

With lousy math and science teachers, it's not surprising that our math and science skills have declined as a nation.


5. Final thoughts

Most students find school monumentally boring and apparently irrelevant. Some of this is the fault of the existing education "system" and some of this is attributable to parents not emphasizing the importance of education. Many parents seem to view school as a way of getting their kids out of the house for several hours, five days a week. They don't get involved in school programs, they don't help reinforce the lessons that good teachers are trying to teach, they are simply not inolved. Without that support, even the few good teachers are frustrated with the results - the kids have a lousy attitude toward education. It seems mostly a thing to endure, not the beginning of a lifelong adventure in learning. I've mentioned some of this elsewhere.

If we refuse to accept our responsibilities as parents and as citizens, then we are effectively turning our back on our children and grandchildren, abandoning them to whatever fate will befall our society when our citizens are illiterate and innumerate. Our children are our future, including all children, not just our own. I've discussed elsewhere (see item 2) how important it is to support education throughout the nation, just not the programs in which our own children are involved. To do otherwise is terribly short-sighted. Other nations, especially in Asia, have shown a cultural commitment to the value of education and they are beginning to reap the rewards of that. Even as we slide backward among nations in terms of manufacturing, and are experiencing huge trade deficits, these Asian nations are prospering and climbing toward possible world domination. I beliieve that our collective lack of a real commitment to education is a major part of our economic woes. In a technological world, we must have a continuing influx of new scientists, mathematicians, and engineers with fresh ideas and the tools to make those ideas turn into reality. Are we doing our best to make that happen? I don't think so. We will fall back to second-rate status in the world if we don't improve our collective commitment to education.