Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Reform Worth Our Time - commentary

A reform, to be worth our time, must get at real problems. Most reforms stop short of this because they come in conflict with those who have a vested interest in things as they are. If we won't fix real problems, then all our reforms will be limited in the good they do. I am reluctant to even mention one of the real problems because of the hue and cry that will come from so many quarters.

Let me preface my observation with three quotes: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear -- an old Hindu proverb.

"The passion to teach is far more powerful and primitive than the passion to learn..." -- Eric Hoffer, unschooled author who was popular in the 70's and 80's.

And, an aphorism of my own, "Those who feel a need are not necessarily those who have the need."

Each of these quotes gives insight into one of the real problems that plague our schools: its compulsory nature. We spend too much time trying to teach students before they have an interest in learning. Compulsory education at the secondary level is destroying our system.

Compulsory education came about during the early 1900's through the work of child advocates and labor unions in an effort to curb child labor practices. These practices allowed children as young as 10 years of age to work in mines and factories six days a week, ten hours a day. These much needed laws compelled kids to be in school until age 14, which is about the ninth grade. However, these laws have been amended in most states to age 18, and this is a problem.

Certainly, we don't need 10-year-olds working in factories and mines. And, in a democracy, we do need a literate citizenry. Compulsory schooling helps in both instances. Basic literacy, however, should be achieved by the ninth grade, and by the ninth grade many students have already decided that school holds no interest for them and they shut down. The numbers who drop out mentally continues to grow with each ensuing grade.

Forcing these people to go to school is destroying our system. To really understand this you have to try teaching in a classroom with a handful of students who don't want to be there. It only takes a few such students to seriously disrupt the teaching and dilute the learning for those who want to be there. If parents who really desire a quality education for their children understood this, they would be up in arms.
You cannot force learning; you can only force schooling. Schooling does not equal learning; even fish run in schools. A 15, 16, 17, or 18 year old who doesn't want to be in school will not work, but he will keep others from working and will make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the teacher to teach.

What is the justification for forcing these people to be in a classroom? They are too young to make such decision on their own and when they get older they will thank us for making them hang in there. They will take jobs away from grown men who need them to support families. They will flood the labor market with cheap labor. They will just hang around on street corners and in malls causing trouble and running away customers. We need an educated workforce if we are going attract industries that will bring good jobs.

As to the first argument, it would make more sense to structure our system of education so it would be more convenient for these people to drop back in when they are ready to learn. (I’m glad to see, according to a recent news report, some educators in Osceola are thinking in these terms.) This should be at no cost to them in that we were willing to pay for their education at a time when they weren't yet ready to learn. We could make this delayed education less expensive by requiring them to only complete the core curriculum for a diploma. A motivated student could complete the high school core curriculum in a couple of years rather than the customary four.

Did you notice that only the last argument has to do with education? I would say that the last argument alone would justify compulsory education if in fact it led to a better educated work force, but it doesn't. Because the forced students depreciate the learning environment, it leads to a less educated work force.
As to the other arguments, they each represent a social problem that may need solving, but solve them in some way that will not dilute the education of those who want to learn. To hear politicians argue that we can't have these young people hanging around on street corners causing trouble, so we'll force them to hang around in classrooms is incredulous. If they're getting in trouble on street corners, what do you think they will be doing in school?

I don't expect any in positions of power to buy into this argument and change the law, so we will continue operating with a system that is flawed at its roots. We will continue to spend ever increasing amounts on reforms, some of them quite exciting. And, we will continue to congratulate ourselves over every little gain in test scores when we could be experiencing real progress.

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