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March 02, 2007 09:55 PM UTC

The Dumbing of American Education

  • 2 Comments
  • by: yevrahnevets

Jeffco Public Schools is an outstanding example of a school district which systematically weeds out its highest quality human capital, though is by no means exceptional as such: The attrition rate for new teachers in their first five years in the profession is over 50%. Though I have no hard evidence to support my hunch, I am personally convinced that those 50% disproportionately represent the most intelligent and talented new teachers, for two reasons: 1) They are the ones who have alternatives, and 2) They are the ones most frustrated by, and often directly targeted as a result of, the systematic dedication to mediocrity in American education. There are plenty of teachers (and administrators) of minimal intelligence, talent, and charisma who are willing to make sure nothing disrupts the status quo in American education or in their membership in that club, because it is a public trough for them: There are few other professions they could have entered so easily, and be so well protected in, with complete indifference to their qualities as teachers, once they have managed to survive their probationary period (in Jeffco, 3 years) in one school. Brilliant teachers, on the other hand, want to see education work: They are in it out of love, foregoing higher salaries and higher social status, because they care about education, and as such, strive to improve it. Despite endless lip-service to the contrary, nothing is more anathema to the education sub-culture. So they (the best teachers) end up disproportionately frustrated with education’s failings, and disproportionately targeted for rocking the boat (such as, in the case of one Jeffco school riddled with internal and district-wide political problems, one excellent teacher having his career quietly destroyed because he defended his choice to teach evolutionary theory in social studies classes as an essential component of understanding living systems in general).

The public debates over school vouchers, standardized testing, NCLB, Pay-for-performance and other popular remedies to education’s woes, while useful discussions within their limited scope, all miss the fundamental problems education is facing, and divert attention from the fundamental solutions that are needed. We need to completely revamp how we administer our schools, freeing them both from the well-organized anti-intellectual minorities that cripple education (and sometimes American research science, as well), and from the vice-grip of the cowardly, self-serving bureaucrats whose guiding priority is the avoidance of any  negative attention (such as that which might be garnered by offending the anti-intellectual crowd). As it stands now, we systematically guarantee mediocrity in our education system, no matter how many standardized tests we impose, no matter how much school choice we implement, no matter how we reconstitute pay-schedules for teachers. None of those remedies will do anything to address the overall hostility of American Public Education to the best, most intelligent, most charismatic, and most valuable teachers.

I am not implying that there are no such teachers in education: There are still many. But far fewer than there could be, and far fewer than there should be. Some of those excellent, truly brilliant teachers may be satisfied, but more frequently they are the most aggravated, most disgruntled and disgusted members of the profession. That is why they leave in droves. One of our biggest political-cultural follies is to have designed an institution of education which is hostile to the most educated, and in so doing, to have deprived our public school students of exposure to forms of thought and perspeption that would far more successfully inspire and motivate them than the shallow, mechanical, fluffy educational paradigms discussed in professional training seminars.

Hiring committees are composed of people who often have only a basic, superficial understanding of their own discipline, and who look to hire people similar to themselves. They will generally pass up on the best, because they have no idea what the best looks and sounds like.

Not only in our selection and rejection of educators, but also in how we spend the limited resources available for education, do we set dry mediocrity as our educational priority. Enormous resources are clumsily diverted toward the least motivated students, in the vain belief that cushioning them in expensive educational bubbles will save them from their own indifference, while pretty good students who could become great with the same kind of devoted attention are largely ignored, because they don’t represent any “problem” (the very best students, admittedly, do have programs designed to serve their needs, though many of the teachers who teach in those programs are not exceptional themselves, since, as I’ve said, education is not geared to recruit exceptional teachers, and is, in fact, often hostile to them).

Without a social movement to break this cycle of mediocrity in American education, one that goes beyond superficial window-dressing, we will continue to be seen as, and in fact be, the intellectual light-weights of the developed world, in spite of the fact that we have a very small class of some of the most brilliant minds in the world. That’s because we have created a society in which our children are carefully protected from those brilliant minds unless and until the former go to college, neither exposed to their ideas, nor their passion, nor their perspective on the value of thought and wonder. And so we have the culture we deserve: One rich in mindless distractions, and poor in the love of wisdom.

Comments

2 thoughts on “The Dumbing of American Education

  1. There was much in your article I question, but since you began with the statement, “Though I have no hard evidence to support my hunch, I am personally convinced…” I guess asking for where you get your data won’t be productive.  However, I’d like to take some issue with your statement: 

    “Enormous resources are clumsily diverted toward the least motivated students, in the vain belief that cushioning them in expensive educational bubbles will save them from their own indifference, while pretty good students who could become great with the same kind of devoted attention are largely ignored, because they don’t represent any “problem” to them).”

    I don’t disagree that enormous resources are spent on our lowest performing students, whether that performance is due to lack of motivation or lack of ability.  My issue is with the implication that these resources are “clumsily” diverted, and that those ignored are ignored because “they don’t represent any `problem’ to them”  (And I’m assuming that the “them” are the school districts, or those “well-organized anti-intellectual minorities” you refer to.) 

    I would instead propose that public education has been straight-jacketed by mandate after unfunded or under-funded mandate, causing resources to be bled away from those kids who’s abilities fall into the middle or upper half of the bell curve.  It seems that every new national program or state legislation is targeted at somehow bringing the bottom performers up, rather than moving the top performers ahead.  IDEA, NCLB, closing “the gap”, decreasing drop out rates, increasing graduation requirements and so forth all seem to be blissfully ignoring the fact that 50% of all students are below average.  This is not some pessimistic viewpoint of American kids, it’s what “average” means.  Furthermore, no one seems to want to tackle the issue of the effects of poverty or low parental involvement in kid’s chance of success in school.

    I believe that schools are not diverting these funds “clumsily” or because they want to, but because bureaucrats keep mandating that they improve the performance of their poorest performers.  I don’t even have an issue with the idea that we could do more for those portions of our student body, but when those bureaucrats don’t have the courage to follow up those mandates with the additional resources they need to implement the programs that have an impact, it means that anyone performing at mediocre or better have to do with less.

    I hope you’ll check in on a diary I started yesterday on the graduation requirements bill working its way through the state legislature.  We may be able to get a lively debate going.

    1. I don’t think there is anything mutually exclusive in the notion of “resources being clumsily diverted” because the mid- to upper range students “don’t represent a problem,” and the fact that that very dynamic is in part expressed in the form of unfunded mandates. I certainly don’t disagree with the aspect of the problem that you identified, though I think you identified just one aspect of a more pervasive problem: It is a very pervasive belief throughout much of the education subculture that those resources *should* be diverted in the way that they are, and even in the absence of unfunded mandates, there is a lot of ideological pressure from within the general educational system to do so.

      By “clumsily,” I meant “inefficiently” and “ineffectively,” which I still maintain is the case.
      Besides spending excessive money on poorly (though elaborately) designed programs for low-performing students, they are also given inflated grades and social promotions on a regular basis, to prove that the programs are working. Since this combination strategy pleases everyone -parents for seeing progress on their children’s report cards, administrators and teachers for receiving fewer complaints from parents, and students for having been held less rather than more responsible for their own choices (and I am not implying that all low-performance is due to student choices, but rather that more of it is due to such choices than the current paradigm admits)- it is well-entrenched.

      I also agree that tackling poverty, or, more practically, investing in community development, family involvement, and early childhood (pre-school) education in low-performing school articulation areas is a better investment than tackling the problem after it has festered into intractability. I also don’t believe in abandoning low-performing students, but rather offering services dependent on their taking advantage of them, and rescinding the offer when such advantage is not taken (with parents engaged in the process, and aware of the deal, from beginning to end).

      I have to admit that I don’t take the time to get into all of the subtleties and qualifications of some of the dynamics I am talking about. The education conundrum is a huge, tangled, mess, in spite of many things that basically work within the institution. The essential problem that really has me animated is that one of education’s greatest assets, a large number of passionate teachers who teach because they love it and value education, is systematically undermined by the politics (both national and local) of education. It is an enormous tragedy, and an enormous injustice to students, teachers, and society alike.

      I’d be happy to check out your post.

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