The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, October 29, 2007

American kids, dumber than dirt?

Came across this article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The writer offers conjecture on the decline of education in America, and relates the following from a teacher with whom he corresponds:

No, my friend takes it all a full step — or rather, leap — further. It is not merely a sad slide. It is not just a general dumbing down. It is far uglier than that.

We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

It's gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement, he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking — and nearly hopeless — dumb-ification of the American brain. It is just that bad.

Read the whole article and tell me - is he right, or is this the same cynicism towards the young felt by every generation as it advances?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Housing slump and tax collections

From an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 12, which starts with the following:

Georgia's tax collections fell slightly last month, following a trend across the country where the housing slump has begun to affect state budgets and sparked talk of spending cuts for education and health care.

Read the whole thing here.

Hat tip to Rory at Parentalcation, who connected the housing slump with education funding well before I did.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why do we educate?

It’s tempting to jump straight into the specifics of the existing system and to start pushing buttons and turning knobs in an effort to reform. But fiddling with the “how” is often done without any consideration of the “why” – specifically, what is the purpose of public education? After all, trying to reform the current system without any sense of the purpose of the enterprise is pointless at best and damaging at worst. And I would submit that we have no common agreement as to the purpose of this massive system – something that must be resolved before we can find a way forward.

When we launched a formal public education system in the mid-1900s, it was done with a clear purpose in mind: to create a workforce with the skills required to work in the exploding industrial economy. It was an economic investment in the country’s future – we had a largely agrarian workforce that needed to be retooled to fulfill the needs of the nation’s factories for prepared workers. If we had not made that investment, our growth would have been crippled.

Shortly thereafter, we expanded the purpose of public education. Thanks to our economic success, we began to attract large numbers of immigrants, and we needed to turn these people into Americans. Public education’s job was to create a public, a group with a shared understanding of the country’s origins, ideals, and operating principles.

Up through these two stages, we had a clear and compelling purpose for public education, and our efforts – curriculum, structure, and the like – were all aligned with our desired outcomes. Since that time, however, I believe we’ve largely forgotten (or at least become unfaithful to) those original purposes, and that we’ve failed to update our defined purposes, if indeed they need updating.

There are no shortage of reports showing that our K-12 education system, and the requirements of both the workforce and higher education (which is just an extra step towards entering the workforce), are badly misaligned. Not only are we failing to teach children to our stated standards, but the standards that we have by and large don’t link to the next step in children’s lives. If public education is a workforce preparedness system, it is a badly broken one.

And how are we doing at creating an American public with our public education system? How many understand the basic operating principles of our system of government? How many understand and share our founding beliefs? How many can explain the advantages of the American system over alternate systems? I’m not suggesting a propagandist approach – we have erred as a country in the past, and we should acknowledge and discuss those. But our principles are noble, and they should be understood and shared by the public – a public forged within our nation’s schools.

But let’s come back to the original question: why should we educate?

I submit that there are now three societal needs that public education should be retooled to address. The need for a prepared workforce remains, and we must take a fresh look at our efforts here in order to meet the new standards for the term “prepared.” We also need to return to our roots of taking a mass and preparing a public. While we no longer have the influx of immigrants that we once had, there continues to be a need to provide our youth with a shared understanding of what it means to be an American.

And the third, and new, grand purpose would be consumer preparedness.

Over the past one hundred years, due in part to the success of the industrial revolution and the changes it brought, we have moved from being a society rooted in the family structure to one that is significantly fragmented. As a result, the skills and knowledge required to be self-sufficient are not being passed down through family channels as they used to be, and we have either lost those skills (from tying ties to being involved in the community) or replaced them with consumer alternatives (eating out or microwaving instant meals versus cooking at home).

As a country, we need self-sufficient and capable citizens, and if the traditional mode of transmission has been fractured, we should find an alternate path for conveying the knowledge and skills that people need to live independently.

Is there any doubt that doing more to encourage cooking and healthy eating skills would reduce obesity? Is there any doubt that improving financial literacy would improve our low savings rates, high debt levels, and rates of bankruptcies? Is there any doubt that introducing media literacy would help people make more intentional choices about consumption, including consumption of media and consumption of goods and services?

I may or may not be right about any of these purposes – these are just the thoughts of one person, and it will take the collective voices of many to identify our country’s needs, and to determine which needs are appropriately filled by a public system of education. But it’s certainly a conversation that needs to be had – we cannot move forward successfully based on assumptions frozen in place more than a century ago.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The coming funding crisis, part 5

I’ve written before about what could be a fundamental change in funding for K-12 education in the near future. A couple of recent news items that reinforce that premise:

The Wall Street Journal,
through an in-depth analysis (subscription required), noted that the subprime lending issue is going to be far worse, and far more widespread, than people thought at first. Remember that property taxes are a substantial source of revenue for local governments, which in turn provide close to 50% of the funding for local schools.

Increased property values over the past several years, and the property tax revenue that has resulted, has made it easy for local officials to increase funds to K-12 education. Once property values are readjusted downward, and defaults increase, there will be much less revenue available – and schools will feel the pinch.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) just
inked a deal with GM that shifts much of the burden of healthcare costs to a union-established trust fund, a move that transfers up to $51 billion in liabilities to the union. This highlights the issue of healthcare costs, which are rising at approximately 10% annually. According to USA Today, the cost of Medicare alone has risen from $7.1 billion in 1970 to an expected $787.4 billion in 2015.

The implications here are twofold. First, government employees (including those in the K-12 system) typically enjoy a solid benefits package, and the cost of healthcare for these employees is substantial and will continue to grow. Money spent on benefits packages will be unavailable for other areas, such as facilities and instruction; considered against a static or shrinking budget for the system, these costs will create a major challenge for school and district budgeting.

Next, as the boomer generation continues to age, federal, state, and local healthcare obligations will continue to grow, effectively removing more and more funds from public budgets. Again, K-12 education will feel that pinch.

It’s certainly true that this country has faced economic crises in the past and that we’ve always found a way through (though not always along a painless path). And it’s certainly true that there could be a way to address all the major changes I’ve been flagging over the past few months.

But I haven’t seen it – and I believe the wiser course of action would be to prepare for a harsh economic climate for K-12 education than to look for a “white knight” solution that can make all of these issues disappear.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A must-read review of "Tested"

This is one of the most insightful pieces I've read all year. It's a review by Education Sector's Kevin Carey of the new book, Tested - a brilliant analysis that brings several important issues to the forefront.

Insulated against reform

One of the biggest challenges in public education today is that it’s so insular: there’s a strong line of conventional thinking and acting on most issues, and adherence to the currently accepted approaches has produced not only the public schools we have today, but also the private and charter schools as well.

Last year, people hotly debated whether public schools were better or worse than
private or charter schools based on two reports (and ongoing reinterpretations of those reports). But by and large, we missed the larger point: that no matter who edged out in front, they were all neck and neck – despite the freedom to innovate, charters and private schools took the same model as public schools and generated essentially the same results.

The same thing happened recently with
the new NAEP test results: we saw an increase of one or two points in most areas, and people started instantly debating whether this was the result of NCLB, missing the point that such a small increase is hardly material or sufficient at a time of seismic change.

Why is there so little innovation and real leaps forward in education, when we see it happening in just about every other field? Why is there such strict adherence to certain ways of doing things? Is it the inevitable result of government management? Is it the near-monopoly status of public education? Is it the near-monopoly status of teacher certification and induction by colleges of education?

And how can we shake things up to align public education with the needs of contemporary society?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Origin of public education

At a time when some hold corporate involvement in education with such disdain, it may be helpful to remind people where the support first came for an organized system of public education in this country. From "Frontiers of Change" by Thomas Cochran:

That free elementary schooling advanced more rapidly just before and after mid-century is partly due to the business boom from 1843 to 1854, but also to the persuasive abilities of the Boston lawyer, Horace Mann. Mann left his law practice to help create a Massachusetts board of education in 1837 and as its secretary to persuade businessmen that "education has a market value; that it is so far an article of merchandise, that it may be turned into a pecuniary account; it may be minted and will yield a larger amount of statutable coin than common bullion." In report after report, including the widely read Fifth Report (1842), Mann kept emphasizing the value to business of free education. And gradually he persuaded businessmen, starting with those in Massachusetts, of the truth of his argument. By 1850 the northeastern United States had joined the world's leaders in free elementary education.