Monday, March 7, 2011

Our education system is broken

I have struggled over the years with a persistent feeling that there is something profoundly wrong with our system of education. I expect that everyone wonders, from time to time, if we might do things better. I am increasingly of the opinion that we could do things a lot better. However, I expect that this will require some very large changes to the way we do things now.

I am reluctant to criticize the way people working in a field conduct their business. I have spent a significant portion of my career examining how people do their work and I have invariably found that people are skilled, knowledgeable and conscientious. They know what they are doing better than an outsider would. Often, even though it seems from the outside that things do not work as well as they should, a closer look will reveal that the problem domain is larger and more complex than it looks and the solutions being pursued by working experts in the field are mature and effective.

I have spent a lot of time in our educational system as a student, a teacher, a parent and an advisor. I have seen the system 'up close' and I continue to feel that something is just not right. It has been my experience that when things appear to be a bit 'off' in an industry, they are not. An apprehension that things are being poorly executed is usually wrong. However, in this case, my gut will not let me alone. I cannot shake the feeling that our system of education is simply broken.

I will perhaps write about this at greater length some other time, but for now, I am making this entry here to take note of something that occurred to me after I encountered yet one more thing that tugged at my 'gut' instinct that something ails our educational system.

Below are two epigrams leading into the doctoral thesis titled 'Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software Architectures' by Roy Thomas Fielding.
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset.
— Crowfoot's last words (1890), Blackfoot warrior and orator.

Almost everybody feels at peace with nature: listening to the ocean waves against the shore, by a still lake, in a field of grass, on a windblown heath. One day, when we have learned the timeless way again, we shall feel the same about our towns, and we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow.
— Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building (1979
Life is an ineffably nuanced experience and it is profound. When good, it just feels 'right'. It does not feel quite right in our towns and cities, but it could, and someday perhaps will.

Whatever else we might say about our kindergartens, grade schools, high schools, colleges and universities, they do not feel quite right to many people. They are not natural and comfortable. For the most part, the things we like about them exist in spite of the schools, not because of them. For most (admittedly not all), going to school is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Were we to get it right, formal education would likely 'feel' much different than it does now. As it stands, the school system is a foreign thing. For more than a hundred years, we have lived with this contrivance and it has never felt right. I do not think that it can because it is predicated upon a variety of unnatural premises. Everything about the system is difficult, awkward and forced.

Those epigrams eloquently convey the idea that if things are as they should be, they 'feel' right. This implies that if things do not 'feel' right, then they are not right. They are not as they should be. That added a small bit to my conviction that things are wrong. Whether or not I can articulate the precise causes of our educational system going awry, I can tell that it is not right because it simply does not feel right.

For whatever reason, this finally caused something to settle firmly into place for me. I can finally reconcile my instinct that educators cannot be incompetent with the fact that the educational enterprise qua educational enterprise is a failure. You would think that if there were a better way there would be at least one jurisdiction to discover it and break from the pack. Since they appear to do it more or less the same way at least across all of North America, it would seem that this must be as good as it gets. They cannot, reasonably, have spent a century perfecting a system of education and be complete failures at it. Here is the flaw in that line of reasoning: It assumes that the genuine mission of our 'industrialized' school system is delivering useful education. We are assuming that the true goal of the people administering our educational systems is the effective delivery of a quality education to their students. If that were the case, I have no doubt that we would have an extremely effective system of education and we would know it.

If education is not the primary goal of the educational establishment, then what is it? To answer that, as with many other things, it is best to 'follow the money'. Where does the bulk of the money put into the educational system go? It goes to pay people within the system. That makes sense. It has historically been a labor-intensive pursuit. However, even if we assume that people are doing their best to ensure those salaries are the best way to deliver education; you can see that the 'tidal force' of all that money is likely to have some effect.

The people and other entities that have been involved in the school system do not effectively have education as a primary goal. Their primary goal is to serve the interests of the people running the system. The people running the system are not the students, their parents or any other similar primary stakeholder. The people running the system, I can see from close-up in my community, are the administrators of the system. The powerful teachers' unions prevent them from putting teachers at a disadvantage, but everyone else is fair game, including students, parents and their representatives on school boards.

I am not saying that educators and administrators show up every day concentrating mostly on furthering their own interests. As individuals, I am certain that the majority of people in the educational enterprise are focused primarily on the nominal mission of delivering education as well as they are able. As a former teacher in the college system, I know that my personal focus was exclusively on how best to deliver education. I cannot speak for others, but aspects of the teaching enterprise were frequently the topic of talk around the water cooler.

I also believe that other entities within the educational enterprise, as much as one can impute intent to them, are similarly engaged with the task of delivering education as well as they can.

The problems with our educational enterprise are structural and systemic. When it comes down to crucial funding decisions, when the rubber hits the road, powerful forces are at work to maintain the status quo. To the extent that changes take place, they have a tendency to act in favor of improving the lot of administrators and actors such as teachers. Once upon a time, teaching was near synonymous with poverty. Now, teachers are amongst the most financially powerful players in our society. This may have aided in getting better teachers and ultimately delivering a better education, but it would be foolish to think that the main goal of negotiations between teachers and school boards was the welfare of students.

One of the things that worry me is this: We devote time to helping the school with things like fund-raisers and still spend significant amounts of time teaching academic subjects to our own children. The school has been steadily abdicating responsibility for its primary mission since I was a student. I spend more time doing homework with a single one of my children in a year than I did in my entire school career from grade school through University. They are, I think, better than I was at that age, but at what cost?

One should not come to management with a problem without proposing a solution. I cannot reasonably propose an entire solution to such a huge problem. However, here are some ideas:

We should admit that our system is sub-optimal. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging you have one.

We should realize that the problems are systemic and require radical changes. Band-aid approaches will not work. Slower, more evolutionary changes will likely not work either. We need to re-think the entirety of the mission here and to restructure society so we more effectively support that mission. Right now, it almost seems as if the nominal mission is to produce a small number of joyless pedants at any cost and the hidden agenda is to enrich the segment of society that has gained control of our educational system.

We should alter the system completely, so that it properly serves the realistic needs and goals of the community.

Here are some ideas that I feel could help in developing a solution:

Even the stated goals of our system are wrong. We focus too much on straight academics as if the goal of the system is to turn everyone into professors. We attempt to place the school at the center of the community. That is fine, but not if we remove control from students and parents. That defeats the notion of community. Either the community has to be much more involved in the schools or the schools have to integrate themselves back into the community. More people should teach and more teachers should participate in other productive activities.

Beyond over-emphasizing 'hard' academic subjects like math and science, we under-emphasize music, dance, painting, sculpture, language and more. Vast areas of human endeavor are marginalized needlessly. This causes things like dance to become almost a guilty secret and interest in going to higher levels in activities like sports is left to chance and the resources of the student. If it is a human activity and it requires time and effort to master the required skills then it should take a place of honor amongst the teaching activities of the school as much as any other. What is an ordinary person more likely to use in actual practice: Dance or Calculus? It is not even a contest. If anyone should feel a little sheepish about learning a subject just for the heck of it, it is the mathematician. The dancer is more likely to give back in practice. There are plenty of dance studios around and plenty of places to dance. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing as a 'math studio' and there are not many people lining up to see a Broadway show with a name something like 'Integrate -- experiments in modern interpretive math'.

It may be that some core literacy subjects are required to learn other things. If that is the case, we should accumulate them while pursuing the other things. That will force us to be economical in delivering genuine skill as needed.

It may be that some subjects are just no fun but we need people to do them in order to support our industrial economy. That is fine, but if that is the case, we should say so and make financial rewards high enough to induce enough people to learn them without further coercion. Beyond that, since it requires some level of coercion, we should recognize it for what it is -- a necessary evil -- and devote appropriate resources to eliminating the necessity for that evil.

Note that coercion is real enough when it comes to education. In at least most of North America, students and their parents are required by law to ensure that the students attend school. Whatever we are doing in our schools, it is sufficiently noxious to some that they would not use them if they were not legally obliged to do so.

A subject that is difficult and unpleasant needs to be justified and the more difficult and unpleasant it is the greater should be the justification. I would say that many subjects in school such as History, Geography, Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, Physics, Biology and Chemistry are over-taught to people who neither need nor desire that level of knowledge in that subject. The level they achieve is not even retained. For the most part, it is just a lot of time and misery for everyone to no purpose. If nothing else, it should offend you because it is wasteful and sloppy.

One size does not fit all. We have a structured system of grades and subject matter that ensures mediocrity. It does this by stifling those with the greatest combination of ability and enthusiasm and overburdening those with the least.

We should decouple subject areas and areas of competency from one another. People should be able to proceed at the pace that is best for them. An ability at the 'grade 6' level in baseball is unlikely to be entirely matched by an exact ability in mathematics at the 'grade 6' level. By forcing everyone to take all subjects in lock step, you almost guarantee that every single person fails to meet their potential. They will be left with unrealized progress in areas where they are stronger while still feeling overburdened because they are being forced along at too great a pace in areas where they are weaker. Our choice should not be between the three mutually exclusive options of being promoted an entire grade with one's peers, being promoted an entire grade ahead of one's peers or being held back. None of those options is either good or necessary. People should proceed as quickly as they have ability and motivation in any competency. They should take whatever time they need to master a subject and should only master subjects they either need or want.

Our school system currently sorts students into groups representing failure, under-achievement, 'average' and over-achievement. Only one of these is seen as being something in which we can take pride (over-achievement) and arguably even that is not an admirable goal since most of the 'over-achievers' suffered at least a little to reach that level.

Instead of the current sorting as above, we should organize activities around competencies and should have only three categories: unlearned, learning, mastered. We should not be making some students 'better at grade 6' than others. Grade 6 is not even a subject area or competency. It is meaningless in the wild and we should not be trying to give it meaning.

We should abolish grades. To the extent that we track development in terms of age, this should be switched to doing it by month rather than year. Our current system places people who are sometimes effectively a year apart in age in direct competition with each other. If nothing else, this is unfair. It creates, unnecessarily, a 'lottery' of winners and losers based on date of birth. Life is inherently unfair, but that does not mean that we should not attempt to make a level playing field when we can.

Education may always be somewhat labor intensive. It is, if nothing else, something of a social enterprise, and that requires people to interact as students and teachers. However, not all of that interaction has to be between paid 'teacher only' teachers with college credentials and unpaid 'student only' students.

We should train our students as teachers from the beginning. As soon as they are able to perform useful work as teachers, we should set them to work a part of their day as teachers and pay them accordingly. That would ease the ultimate financial burden on families by lowering the total salary costs required by schools (a grade 6 student is not likely to be as expensive a hire as a college graduate) and providing some modest additional income.

Studies have shown that 'peer tutoring' of, say, grade two students by grade four students will have a net beneficial effect on the grade four 'teachers'. That is, if we take two of a student's six hours a day at school and set them to work as teachers, they will 'net' learn more in that six-hour day than they would have if they had spent the entire day exclusively in the role of student. The grade two students do not perform any worse with peer tutors than they do with credentialed adult teachers. Why bother spending the extra money?

We have, I think, a tendency to teach many things that are of little interest and little use. This is extremely wasteful. It discourages students. It decreases their 'buy in' to the educational enterprise. It takes time away from productive activities. Ultimately, they don't learn the subject anyway. It just means that instead of knowing one subject well, a student ends up knowing that one subject poorly whilst enduring and forgetting another subject.

It would be nice if all of us had the ability, training and interest to appreciate mathematics. However, we just do not. We should not be putting half the class through torture to learn, temporarily, how to do algebra. We should be integrating normal number sense into useful activities (that both student and teacher find useful) for most people. For some, mathematics is fascinating and worthwhile in itself. Instead of wasting classroom time forcing disinterested students to learn things they neither need nor want, we should devote additional resources to those who are keen to learn more.

We should engineer success for all the participants in the educational enterprise. Noxious stimuli do not result in maximal behavioral change. The best way to alter the behavior in animals is to place them on a variable intermittent system of reward based upon their behavior. Individuals will do best if we reward them for effort. It is up to us to engineer the situation where individuals have to 'stretch' to reach their goals, but have enough success along the way that the process itself is rewarding.

Put another way, we should do our best to determine what a student is capable of doing, encourage them to seek that goal and then reward them for reaching it.

All goals should be ultimately reachable, but we should focus our attention on the journey, not the destination. Rather than striving to spend only moments on the podium getting our diplomas every few years, we should be striving daily for all manner of small progress toward competency. We should be able to point daily to an enjoyable effort and weekly or monthly toward meaningful progress.

I honestly do not know if a system that only rewards the top three places in a competition with a hundred people is optimal. However, if I had to place a bet right now, I would bet against it. We currently have a system where top athletes overreach themselves, to their ultimate long-term detriment, and bottom athletes give up and don't participate at all. Everybody but the people at the top is 'a loser' and everyone at the top injures themselves to get there. Nobody wins this game.

The top few individuals in a given discipline appear to contribute disproportionately. Perhaps it is true. It may be that we are best served by creating extraordinary rewards for these individuals so that they will be as productive as possible. I am suspicious of this, but it is definitely worth testing. If it turns out to be true, I doubt many would mind giving a few of the top people more than an equal share. A rational way of reflecting this disparity in abilities would almost certainly be better than the current state of affairs. We currently have a small class of superstars with control of a wastefully disproportionate share of resources and a large underclass that wakes up facing insuperable challenges every morning and going to bed as failures every night.

As a society, we tend toward rewarding the fortunate and punishing the unfortunate. This is probably not the optimal way to proceed. It certainly can't be the most humane.

The process of education should be as natural and organic as learning to walk or (better) ride a bike. Almost everyone can learn to ride a bike, but for some it is effortless and for others it can be difficult. The age at which people learn to ride a bike varies much more than the age at which we try to teach them mixed fractions. We think little of a disparity of years for riding a bike, but currently we have a very hard deadline for teaching mixed fractions. If you don't get mixed fractions when we try to serve them to you, we don't really give you a 'do-over'.

The current reaction to complaints about our school system has been a shift toward 'high stakes' testing. This, in my opinion, is worse than useless. Half of what we are testing is not that important anyway. For things that *are* important, we owe the students more than putting a gun to their head and insisting they choose between misery and failure. We have responded to complaints of poor outcomes from our educational system by making sure that our schools are capable of reporting success on high stakes exams. What do we get from that? It is no secret that teachers begin teaching to, and students begin studying for, the test itself. Do we even get successful test-takers? Do we just get systemic cheating in the preparation for, administration of and reporting of exams?

In recent times, we have come to see primary and secondary schools only as means to an end. The entire enterprise is aimed at getting people ready for their 'real education' either at post-secondary institutions or on the job. Youngsters are trained through secondary school with the aim of 'getting in' to either good post-secondary educational institutions or jobs. There is an insidious assumption there that may have once had a basis in fact but is now yet one more evil in the educational system:

We have an artificial scarcity of places in 'top-quality' institutions and jobs. Enrollment is strictly limited and you have to be somehow lucky to get into them. In addition, institutions that are more exclusive are prohibitively expensive for a person of average financial means. As of this point in time (2011), there is no need for the quality of education at either an 'Ivy League' school like 'Harvard' or 'Yale' or a State University to differ in any significant way. In fact, there may not be that much need for these institutions at all, at least for most undergraduate studies. We should be attempting to limit our 'credentialing' institutions to validating and issuing credentials and we should insist that they do this with the type of economy that our currently over-educated highly automated society allows. No (at least purely academic) degree should cost more than can comfortably be borne by the public purse. That is, the limiting factor should be interest and nothing else. We can do this, of that there is no doubt.

[As an aside, I think the road to making 'factory degrees' (my coinage(?)) respectable is to make them slightly better than ordinary degrees and more uniform in terms of the quality they imply. This is easily accomplished. All you have to do is make it highly cost effective, validate to a higher standard and discourage/disallow equivalence. That is, you can't say you have the equivalent of that degree. Either you have it or you don't. Eventually, when a four-year 'factory degree' is universally known to signify the highest standard of quality what will happen is people from ordinary colleges will opt to test for and get the 'standard' degree. Over time, people will skip the old style degree and go straight to the standard. How students are educated is irrelevant. It may be that the storied grounds of Harvard are more efficient at delivering an education somehow. It doesn't matter. The only thing that counts are the results and the only thing the credentialing shows is results. If Harvard is that good it can sell its secret formula for whatever the market will bear. I predict that some time in the next twenty years the floodgates will open as schools like MIT come to offer higher quality, lower cost degrees via distance learning. If someone exceptional can travel to the end of a Doctorate for $10K in five years vs. spending $250K over more than a decade, the smart ones will opt for publishing for a half a decade longer and driving better cars rather than starving for the whole decade. At some point, the balance tips so that the more expensive degree is not only a poor asset but may become a positive liability.]

In addition to an artificial scarcity of educational opportunities, we also have what in my opinion is an artificial scarcity of quality jobs. The reason I say it is artificial is this: we currently have a significant proportion of all of society unemployed -- likely at least half of all adults are underemployed. Despite that unemployment, they are (mostly) fed, clothed, housed, educated and entertained. In essence, they participate as second-class citizens and are reminded daily that their ability to carry on is only at the sufferance of their betters. How long has this been the case? For likely a hundred years or more. Things have gotten worse in recent years, but at least during the great depression of the 1930s, we had massive unemployment. We have structured society so that some members are forced to occupy most of their time in paid pursuits away from their families and some are forced to remain idle and live in poverty. This is not some recent mistake. It is planned into our economy and has been that way for at least a century. It's how we roll.

Not the exact numbers, but the idea is there: half of us are overworked and have beautiful homes we never see and half of us are idle and live in less beautiful homes from which poverty allows no escape. Rather than force some to spend 60 hours of their time working to make money they cannot enjoy and others to idle their days away in poverty we should shift some of the work and wealth from one group to the other. Change the notion of 'full time' to be 30 hours and shift the other thirty hours from the overworked group to the group that needs work.

We have a shortage of labor-intensive medical care and a shortage of work. How can that be possible any longer than it takes to train a cohort of new doctors? Chances are good that we can't take all the new doctors directly from the unemployed, but I have no doubt that we can definitely take enough to satisfy our demand for doctors from the underemployed. I do not think that we have any shortage of people willing to become doctors. I think we have an artificial scarcity of medical training.

More and more time is spent by individuals doing 'self-serve', while we have people who want to work but can't. There is a disjoint here. Somehow, we have distorted things so that busy people are annoyed with all sorts of self-serve tasks and poor people are left involuntarily idle. We do not have to make one group directly serve the other. Perhaps we could all invest in automating things. We could train people to participate in the next generation of automation, for instance.

I don't think that we can stop elements of society from fractionating out one way or another. It was ever thus. People will create and institutionalize 'cliques' of one kind or another. Of necessity, some of these have to allow a disparate membership joined essentially only by their membership in the clique. Also of necessity, there will be rivalries and some layering will occur such that some clusters are perceived to be more valued than are others. However, I think most people would be fine with this and the more noxious characteristics can be mitigated by creating a general cultural ethic that helps everyone to contribute as well as they can and values every contribution for its relative effort from the contributor as well as the absolute value to society. That ethic, in my opinion, will create the maximum happiness and prosperity for everyone.

Our school system is very badly broken. The fix is a radical overhaul, not just of the system, but societal expectations and the whole way we structure our communities. It is not that we cannot improve upon education. I am convinced we can. At the very least, we can get the same results at a lower cost and in a more humane way. The problem is that the current system is very much entrenched. The whole of modern society is at least partially structured around the existing system. To fix our ailing educational system, will require sweeping and difficult changes, but I think we will see the benefits rapidly and I think it will be well worth the effort.

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