Beware the Potholes on the Road to Educational Reform

ford-model-t-pics-17837Some years agos, a story appeared about the efforts undertaken by a certain midwesterner to keep his antique Model T running. The tires were increasingly difficult to find. He lamented that, even in junkyards, it was nearly impossible to locate spare parts. More than once he had been obliged to improvise temporary repairs. The gentleman so loved his old car that he would take broken or worn parts to a local machinist and have them rebuilt from scratch for what might be considered extravagant prices.

He was frustrated that he could only take his car out late at night or early Sunday mornings because it could no longer compete with the faster automobiles of today and their increasingly impatient drivers. Even tractors had more acceleration than his carefully maintained relic.

He confessed an irrational inability to let go of reminders of the halycon days of his youth.

His situation is an apt metaphor for the perils of Public Education in our time.

In my father’s days as a student, and to some degree even my own, the goal of Public Education was to supply an adequate education for all students possessing the will to avail themselves of the opportunity. A high school drop out rate of twenty-five percent was acceptable. Another twenty-five percent placed in college was a laudable goal. Fifty percent of students went out into the world with no more than a high school diploma.

Generally speaking, dropouts were consigned to menial or manual labor a century ago. If students left school able to read well enough to follow instructions and if they knew enough math to balance their checkbooks, then they could find a job in the industrial manufacturing base where the wages, if not conducive to comfort, were at least livable. Those who furthered their education found positions in leadership and management.

It may not have been the best possible system in educational achievement. However, the need for unskilled labor was great, so it was deemed generally utilitarian.

Recently, however, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of industrial manufacturing jobs. In the never-ending quest for profits, Capital is taking advantage of an increased reliance on robotics here at home or cheap labor overseas. Hence, the set of skills required by our young people to compete in the post-industrial society has changed irrevocably.

More importantly, the compendium of human knowledge has doubled in size every seven years during the same period.

Children entering school today will have to know more upon receipt of their high school diploma than college students needed to know upon graduation a couple generations ago.   Furthermore, the base of children who will have to meet such standards in order to be considered “educated” has widened to exceed 90%. Today, the goal is to educate very nearly every student (even those unmotivated to learn!).

The goals of Public Education have changed immeasurably in the last fifty years. Our schools are beset by ever increasing responsibilities and expectations. Unfortunately, the models of the school day and school year have changed negligibly. The allocation of resources as a percentage of the Gross National Product remains stagnant.

This nation still employs the 42-week agrarian calendar although our children-of-the-cornucopia no longer typically spend their summer in the fields.   We still place too many children in front of too few teachers for too many minutes of the teacher’s workday with minimal resources at hand. Working conditions for our educators are scarcely adequate to execute appropriate custodial care, much less so when it comes to setting rigorous and meaningful academic standards.

There will never be an educational model that solves this nation’s academic woes if it does not address the following:

  • more reasonable caseloads.
  • fewer minutes of direct teacher/student interface time for teachers.
  • more time-on-task for students across the calendar year.
  • compensation & benefits packages that will attract more of our best minds to the teaching profession (and, hopefully, keep them there!).

Any proposals that do not address these four fundamental issues are akin to tinkering with a model that has moved beyond obsolescence toward the status of an antiquity.   Educators continue to point to the absurdity of it all, but few policymakers elect to process the message.

Bureaucrats and policymakers pretend that holding teachers and/or students “accountable” will improve performance. In the meantime, our schools are on the verge of becoming little more than Standardized Test Administration Centers.

If tests improved education, teachers would give a test every day. Meanwhile, psychometricians are driving educational policy while teachers watch still more instructional days disappear from the calendar. What is achieved via testing? An old Model T on a modern dynamometer is still going to exhibit the emissions of an old Model T, isn’t it? Only so much improvement can be coaxed out of an archaic technology.

  • Boost the octane to improve engine performance? The engine breaks down.
  • Replace the engine with a more modern one? The transmission fails.
  • Load it with too many occupants? The suspension collapses.
  • Enter it in the Indy 500? It will finish dead last.
  • Blame the driver? A résumé will go out in the morning.

This is what it is like to teach in the Public Schools today. Teachers endure every day the unbearable prospect of being expected to accomplish the improbable with the often unwilling while supplied next to nothing to perform the task, and all the while being publicly ridiculed by certain conservative radio talk-show hosts for “failures” that are due to circumstances entirely beyond their control. Do you really wonder why half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years?

How long would you drive a Model T before you decided it was time to try another mode of transportation?

The former president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase, beseeched our membership not only to teach students the Pledge of Allegiance, but also to teach America to pledge allegiance to her children. It is clear to many educators, however, that too many citizens prefer to drive the Model T instead and just complain about the lack of performance. Let’s cover it up, put it in the museum where it belongs, and figure out how to finance a better performing model.


[The original version of this commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette circa 2014. It has been slightly revised.]

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