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Public education would benefit from improvements on three levels:

 1) improving the quality and quantity of encouragement and support that students receive outside of the school,

2) improving the “student culture,” such that kids encourage one another to engage in behaviors that are conducive to learning, and

3) improving the incentive structure that teachers and administrators face, so that educating kids replaces avoiding problems as their top priority.

 These can be addressed by

a) reconceptualizing schools as centers from which the educational mission is pursued rather than as locations and hours to which the educational mission is simply relegated,

b) creating opportunities and incentives for parents (particularly of at-risk kids) to receive support and education regarding how most effectively to support their children’s education,

c) using established programs, such as “positive behavioral support,” and other innovative ideas, to give positive reinforcement to kids not just for engaging in educationally conducive behaviors, but, even more importantly, for encouraging other kids to engage in educationally conducive behaviors.

The current emphasis on “accountability” is in reality a passing-of-the-buck down the hierarchy, avoiding a society-wide confrontation of the structural social and cultural problems crippling American public education, and succeeding only in creating new disincentives to the most talented potential new educators, pushing them into other more lucrative careers.

The notion that creating a competitive “market” will improve the quality of education presupposes that parents making those choices will be acting on reliable information about what constitutes higher quality education. In order to facilitate such accountability, there is an increased emphasis on concrete measurements of student achievement. While probably a necessary component of a well-designed complete educational policy, this current over-emphasis on concrete measurements is problematic for a number of reasons: 1) It devalues investment in unquantifiable foundational educational experiences, such as in music and arts, though there is substantial research to indicate that such investments are very conducive to long-term educational achievement; 2) It further encourages already rampant practices such as grade inflation and overly rosy feedback from teachers and schools, since many parents rely on such grades and reports in determining how well their children are performing; 3) It skews education toward emphasizing easily measured “mechanical” skills rather than harder to measure analytical and higher cognitive skills, though the development of such analytical and higher cognitive skills is of critical importance; and 4) It places almost no value on seeds planted by inspirational teachers which might germinate years later, though the planting of such seeds may well be the most important of all educational successes.

While I do not believe that the “school choice” movement addresses the most fundamental problems with our public education system, and am concerned that this movement in some ways undermines our commitment to maintaining high quality neighborhood schools, I oppose any state or national standardization of educational policy on legitimately unresolved issues: Local experimentation is the best way to discover what does and does not work.

A more promising initiative, which I enthusiastically support and would work hard to implement, is to promote and facilitate increased community involvement in neighborhood schools, particularly the utilization of professional and retired volunteers who want to come in, give their time, and help both struggling students to succeed, and highly motivated students to pursue their interests.

Students thrive on positive attention, on the encouragement of engaged parents, charismatic teachers, and a supportive community. If we want to improve the quality of public education, we need to work hard on improving the context within which public education takes place. Nothing short of that, or which attempts to circumvent it, is likely to perform as advertised.

I believe that affordable and flexible higher education options are necessary to a well-developed and productive work force, as well as to the provision of opportunities to our young adults. Investing in our human capital yields remarkable economy-wide returns and mitigates a host of costly problems. Controlling tuition costs, increasing the availability of low-interest student loans, and ensuring a variety of options for students of different abilities and preferences, are necessary components to a complete education policy.

Most importantly, we need to foment a cultural paradigm shift, one in which “education” comes to be perceived as a fundamental aspect of human existence, a life-long endeavor, and the most basic tool at our disposal for improving our individual and collective existence. The greatest tragedy facing humanity today is the underutilization of the human mind, for all other tragedies could be more effectively addressed were it not for that one. And a society that cultivates an appropriately exalted appreciation of the importance of education is a society of people who not only thrive better economically, but also live richer and more meaningful lives

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  • Elly:

    My son, aged 3 1/2 won’t enter kindergarten for another 2 years, but I’ve been researching the schools in my area nonetheless. This post has given me food for thought.

    I’ve also been thinking about our educational system as a whole lately. There seems to be a push to make a university education into something more similar to a trade school with an emphasis on acquiring jobs upon graduation. I happen to believe that a university degree should be held to a different standard, and set apart from just getting a job. A university should teach students to think for themselves, to learn, and graduating students should have a certain level of knowledge of history, the arts, literature, math, and science.

    The European educational system is based on different tracks for different students. I can see how tracking students from a young age (I believe students are started on a track somewhere in the equivalent of elementary school) seems to be the antithesis of egalitarianism and classist, and it goes against the American Dream, but part of me wonders if it could work.

    I’m not sure I could really endorse a tracking type of system. How would students be evaluated? IQ? The IQ test has been shown to be ethnocentric and sexist to some extent. It really does go against the ethos of America. The belief that with hard work and perseverance, a person can achieve anything is swept aside with tracking. I now realize that it actually is very hard for a person to break the class boundary, and a tracking system would make it even harder.

    I believe the solution involves making primary and secondary education the jumping off point for where each student wishes to go. A student getting a High School Diploma in America should be equally capable of going to college, a trade school, junior college, or straight to their careers. Granted, at most high schools there are loose tracks for college preparation and vocations, but those tracks aren’t set at age 8. It’s what the students, along with their parents, should choose for themselves.

  • I totally agree with you, Elly; I think of it as “flexible tracking,” in that instead of treating education as one-size-fits-all, we should allow some early preparation for alternative paths depending to some extent on skills and preferences, but without foreclosing the possibility of changing direction. Also, i couldn’t agree with you more about a university education: We don’t live just to live, but rather to have rich and meaningful lives, something that a truly robust university education contributes to.

  • David:

    Excellent thoughts on the educational system. I think something that’s lost on students (and many teachers) is that, somewhere along the line, these students need to find their place in the world.

    I wouldn’t be where I am without a few dedicated teachers and professors taking time to ask what my plans are, and making some gentle suggestions.

    I’m not sure many teachers understand the impact they can have on a student’s life. I think some of them are afraid of parents being offended that a teacher might know more about their kid than they do. There’s a distance between the everyone involved that gets wider as the strands of our society’s web become looser.

    Parents need to become more involved, which could lead to teachers becoming more invloved, strengthening our communal web.

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