Can we change our fundamental assumptions about education?
In his article, Gatto notes that Bill Gates, a college dropout, has been telling anyone who will listen that in order to remain competitive, the US needs to make college prep the sole function of secondary school and ensure that every student is ready for, and attends, college. He then goes on to highlight what Gates is not talking about when it comes to international competition:
They (China and India) don't make things better than we do, but they do make them just as good and cheaper, by a factor of from six to thirty. It is fanciful to say, as Mr. Gates did, that if we just have more schooling, we'll be okay. In the next 10 years, China and India, et al., will release ten million well-trained engineers in excess of domestic needs on the world's skilled labor markets.
These men and women will bid for work against your own techie sons and daughters.
At sixteen cents or so on the dollar, the effect on wages will be a catastrophe for this important segment of middle-class life. Mr. Gates didn't bother to tell his audience that Microsoft has already opened large colleges in China and India to train young people in those nations to its own specifications.
That puts a new spin on his appeal for universal college training doesn't it? Perhaps you believe the corporate policy of Microsoft will prefer to continue to pay high wages when a stream of its own foreign graduates becomes available.
Unless you do believe that, it becomes a duty for all of us to wake up and warn our children because one thing is certain: Schools won't.
For those unfamiliar with John Taylor Gatto, he spent several years as a teacher in New York City and was proclaimed New York's Teacher of the Year on three separate occasions. He resigned while still NY Teacher of the Year with an op-ed in Wall Street Journal, claiming that he was no longer willing to hurt children by being part of the educational establishment.
It's refreshing to hear the thoughts of people like Gatto: most reformers operate in parallel to the school system, hollering for tweaks to the system (more or less technology, more or less testing, changes in teacher training methodology, etc.) without ever questioning the underlying assumptions. As Mike Sullivan notes in an essay titled "Needed Now: A New Model for Pedagogy" in Future Courses:
Educational practice has changed very little since Horace Mann convinced the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to establish common schools. The two primary observable changes have been in class size and instructional materials. The pupil/teacher ratio has shrunk from 35:1 in 1890 to 17:1 in 1991. Instructional materials have changed from what we now call "authentic" materials, such as actual works of literature and the Bible, to basal-type texts with specially written, illustrated material contained in comprehensive books. And, of course, the average time spent in school has increased from 8.1 years in 1910 to 12.7 years in 1991, and the length of the academic year has increased from 135 days in 1890 to the present 180 days.
These changes are more cosmetic than substantive, for the basic practice of instruction is still very much the same as it was 100 years ago. A teacher presents a lesson orally, perhaps with homemade illustrations; students read corresponding information and answer questions about the material; students then recite or otherwise demonstrate mastery of the material. Following a number of lessons of this type, the students take an exam of some sort, and the grades are reported home.
Gatto has cut ties with convention and questions education at its roots, which makes him a hero to the alternative education movement and a fringe radical to people invested in our current system. Which is unfortunate: while our education system may at one time have paralleled our society, the radical changes in society, compared with the virtual standstill of our education system, has created a tremendous disconnect, and it is only through questioning and rethinking the underlying principles of education that we will be able to realign the two. Tweaking just won't cut it.
Gatto states this more eloquently:
Saturation schooling, kindergarten through college, was a leadership response to the demands of a centralized corporate economy that replaced American/Canadian entrepreneurialism between 1880 and 1920.
What corporatism required was two things: A laboring mass - including a professional laboring mass of doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and schoolteachers - who did what they were told without question, and a citizenry in name only, one which defined itself by non-stop consumption, one which believed that choosing between options offered by management was what democracy was all about.
Lockstep schooling, driven by standardized testing, testing not to measure learning but obedience, was the mechanism used to drive out imagination and courage. It worked and still works superbly, but, like the little mill that ground salt when salt wasn't needed, this brilliant utopian construction is about to kill us.
And also offers a solution, if only at the conceptual level:
We need to follow the path opened by our unparalleled jazz domination of the planet.
Over in China, at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (the oldest continuous music school on earth) they have a hard time believing that jazz can even exist, that with imagination and courage you can hear a piece of music once and ring dazzling changes on it forever.
Jazz writ large has always been the key to North American genius. As David Richardo, the great philosopher of capitalism often said: The road to wealth comes from understanding what it is that you do best, then doing it. It's time we abandoned the cowardly path of imitating what China and India will do best in the future, realizing that our own security can only be preserved by encouraging imagination.
Are we bold enough to rethink our assumptions? Can we forget about reforming schools and establish a new form of pedagogy based on the needs of contemporary society?
Mike Sullivan (from the same essay in Future Courses) suggests how Horace Mann would look at things:
Of course, Horace Mann did not base his concept of the common school on research findings. He observed the world and designed a school that reflected the needs and practices of the world. He observed the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the efficiency of mass production, the need for a moderately well-trained work force to emerge from a huge group of immigrants, and he created the appropriate school.
If Mann were alive today, he would most likely look at the world around him and conclude that a new form of pedagogy is needed. He would not have to examine the research or endlessly debate the meaning of standardized test scores or public opinion polls. Mann simply would observe that the theory of pedagogy reflected in current educational practices no longer reflects the needs and practices of our world.
Where is today's equivalent of Horace Mann - and will anyone listen to him? Or will anyone offering new thinking from the ground up be heard against the vested interests of our juggernaut of an education system, 3.5 million teachers and 50 million students strong?