Monday, February 18, 2008

The Problem with Education

The problem with education is that no one knows what the problem with education is.

For as many people as you hear bemoaning the state of public education in the county you will hear an equal number of rationales for why things are the way they are. Like the joke about economists, you can lock three educational reformers in a room for an hour and they’ll come out with four conclusions. And they’ll probably be willing to fight to the death for each one.

Ask parents in good schools what the problem in bad schools is and they’ll tell you poverty. Ask the parents in the bad schools what the problem is and they’ll tell you racism.

Is it that standards aren’t set high enough or that too much time is spent testing the standards? Is it that teachers aren’t prepared with a good education background or that they aren’t prepared with a good content background? Is it that parents aren’t providing support at home or that teachers aren’t engaging the students? Too much phonics or too much whole language? School day is too short, school day is too long, school is just in the wrong part of the day for kids to learn? Each of these views has a devoted following who can offer up as many facts and statistics as you please. Each will say that if the schools did things their way all the problems would be over.

One of them may be right. Heck, they might all be right (though that stretches logic a bit). The one indisputable fact is that we don’t know. And therein lies the rub. If we don’t know, how do we fix it?

The nature of the beast is that we try to find the problem by finding a solution. Education reform often takes on a striking resemblance to TV’s Dr. House (who is considered reckless even in the fictional world he inhabits). House diagnoses his patients through treatment. If the treatment works, his diagnosis was correct. If not, on to another one until the solution is found and the hour is up. It works well in fiction.

If only education could be reduced to an hour long TV show. Maybe it could be made a reality show. That might get some results and some decent ratings.

Running these kinds of experiments on kids is something very different. The stakes are much higher because we’re talking real lives with real consequences. A wrong turn doesn’t just mean a big “uh-oh moment” before a commercial. It could literally mean someone’s life. Those are the stakes we talk about when we talk about education reform.

The point of all this is not to spread hopelessness. Rather I want to lay the proper foundation before talking about the issues. Despite the conflicting claims of educational salvation, I think that there is a way out of the forest here and I’ll share more of those ideas in a later post. The point is that anything I (or anyone else) says on this has to be taken with several grains of salt.

No comments: