NO to subjects and NO to requirements

I have been spending a great deal of time in Europe lately, where the talk is about what to do about the awful governments that countries like Italy, Greece and Spain seem to be saddled with. (I am not saying the U.S. Is any better, maybe it is even worse -- I am simply reporting what I am hearing.)

In the course of one of these conversations, the talk turned to education, as it tends to do when I am around. The suggestion was made that schools should require students to learn about how government works, or maybe how it should work, in order to help citizens make better choices about who governs them and to be better at it when they are actually part of the government.

I replied that this was a fine idea, especially if we let students run simulated governments rather than simply learning political theory. Feeling emboldened, a woman who had raised a family and who, I think, felt that she hadn’t done such a good job, asked if maybe some courses in child raising shouldn’t also be required.

I certainly agree with this as well. I tried to convince the developmental psychologists at Columbia, when I was building Columbia on line, to do exactly that but they, of course, wanted to teach about research.

Whenever there is a roomful of people talking reasonably about education there are many reasonable suggestions. The problem is, that soon enough, well meaning people would wind up designing a system that looks a lot like the one we already have in place.

No one ever agrees to eliminate history and all agree that mathematics must be useful even if it never has been useful to them. This goes on and on until students, in the hypothetical system being thought about by intelligent people, is as awful as the one we have now.

At some point people, and by this I mean school boards, governments, universities, and average citizens have to get over the idea that there should be any requirements at all in school.

Now I realize that this is a radical idea. Do I mean students would not be required to learn to read or write or do basic arithmetic? No. I mean after these skills have been mastered, students should be let alone, or rather enticed, to find an interesting path for themselves. The schools ought to be constantly and diligently teaching students to think clearly and should not be trying to tell them what to think about.

We will never change education as long as we hold on to our favorite subjects and insist that they be taught. Everyone has a favorite subject, or has an axe to grind, or has a stake in something not being eliminated. Soon enough it is all sacred and school is deadly boring and irrelevant.

Anyone who has ever been part of a curriculum committee in a university knows what I am talking about. Everyone fights for their subjects.

NO to subjects and NO to requirements. Let students learn to do what they want to learn to do. Schnoling should be about helping students find a path and succeed at what they have chosen to do.

Fidel Castro, Greece, Spain; how education can fix an economy

A friend of mine went to visit Fidel Castro a few years back. (He is not your typical guy and I have no idea how this was arranged.) They got into a conversation about education. My friend mentioned me and Castro asked whether I might want to be the Minister of Education of Cuba. When my friend told me about this, he asked what I would do if I had that job. I replied that I would ask Castro what Cuba wanted to be.

My friend found that an odd response. Some days later, Castro shot some people and the U.S. prevented my friend from visiting Castro again so that was the end of that.

I was reminded of this incident because, as I write this, I am on a Greek island and, not surprisingly, talk centers on what to do about the economy. Having recently been in Italy and Spain as well, it is obvious to me that the problems these countries are having stem from issues in education.

When I say that, the response is usually less than enthusiastic, because it seems an odd idea, so let me explain.

When I mentioned what I would want to ask Castro, this is what I had in mind. Education is meant to achieve something, although this is usually forgotten in education reform conversations. The people who designed the U.S. education system around 1900 knew this well. The country needed factory workers, so keeping students “in dark, airless places” doing mindless repetitive work, seemed like a good strategy.

Today we have the factory worker strategy still in place, reinforced by a push for standards and multiple choice tests everywhere. The fact that there are no more factories seems to have skipped people’s attention. Also we have a big push for making sure everyone goes to college, despite the fact that college produces students who study what the professors happen to teach which means English, History, Mathematics, Philosophy, Sociology, and any number of subjects that will not make students in any way employable.

In the U.S. we have gotten away with this attitude for many years because we simultaneously had a big push by the Defense Department for new technology and thus were able to create Silicon Valley and enable an atmosphere of technological innovation. So while we have no factories, we do lead the world in software. It is almost as if someone in the Defense Department in the 60s and 70s were planning this. (I was there. They were.)

Now think about Spain. Its number one industry is tourism. You would think therefore, that in Spain the schools would be pushing hospitality or cooking or hotel design. But they are not. They have their enormous share of useless language and history majors as well and the University establishment works hard to keep things as they have always been.

Or think about Greece. Their number one industries are tourism and shipping. I have been an advisor to a Greek shipowner for over a decade now, and I can tell you it isn’t all that easy to learn about shipping in a Greek university. Nor is it easy to learn about tourism, because Greek universities, like those everywhere, are run by people who are worried about insisting that things stay the same so that their professorships are still relevant.

What Greece and Spain need to do, what Cuba needed to do, what any country that is not big enough to do everything needs to do, is pick its spots.

Universities offering a classical education are fine when only the wealthy elite are being educated. But mass education requires that schools be run people who are trying to educate for the future. This does not mean educating for “21st century skills” whatever that might mean. What is does mean is that schools need to do two things.

First, they need to teach general thinking skills, not math, but planning, not literature but judgement, not science but diagnosis.

Second, countries need to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Cuba, had I been running the educational show there, would have had to decide what the wanted to be the best at. Biotech or Agriculture or the Technology of cigar making. And they would have had to offer something less than everything under the sun to their students.

To fix an economy in the long run requires planning. The planning has to start at the beginning by creating citizens who can both think and find useful employment in the sectors of the economy that the country already has or wants to have.

Education is where everything starts. Countries can simply decide to be good at something and make themselves good at it. The U.S. decided exactly that about computer science 40 years ago. But it doesn't require the wealth of the U.S. to do that. Modern educational techniques, especially high quality experiential on line education, can make any country a specialist in any industry that it can realistically dream about.

War on Teachers?

Cross-posted from JDS Social Issues:

From my inbox almost two months ago:

So, where did this war on teachers, and other public employees come from? I certainly didn't see that coming.

A former colleague (a faculty member in a humanities department) was responding directly to word that Pennsylvania was cutting P-12 funding and slashing state support for public higher education. But her consciousness was framed by events in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

So I have been paying attention to the news in a new way. Is my colleague right? Is there a “war on teachers”? I think she may right that there is a “war” going on but I’m having a little more difficulty determining just what it is we are fighting about and fighting for. Are teachers the target? Or are teachers collateral damage in a larger struggle –because teachers (and their students) don’t fight back and because everybody feels entitled to an “expert” opinion about educational matters generally?

I hope to think more about this over the summer and invite any readers to join in with news items, anecdotes and analyses that help us all figure out where we want to stand in what is clearly a struggle for the social, economic, political and educational terrain within our own communities and our nation.

Here are a couple for starters:

· Randy Turner, commenting on the Huffington Post about new education legislation in Missouri, asks whether public school teachers are an “endangered species”? His question is motivated by regulatory proposals that seem to suggest that all teachers are lazy perverts.

· Paul Mucci, a fifth grade NBPTS certified teacher, asks

“since when did teachers become the bad guys?” Mucci is in Florida where education is rapidly being “reformed” on the backs of teachers: “elimination of teacher tenure, teacher pay based on student performance, increasing teacher contributions to the Florida Retirement System, raising the retirement age/years of service, increasing student testing and reducing the number of "core" classes to name a few.”

He conveys his demoralization clearly:

“More important, gone is the respect teachers once had. The steady erosion of respect is palpable in parent conferences, in line at the grocery store and in politicians' statements in the media.

As one legislator said to me, ‘The public deserves accountability they deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.’ In one respect, he is right, but what good are numbers and test results if we lose our integrity, our compassion, our humanity along the way?”

Mucci notes that it is ironic that the rhetoric is all about “good teachers” but in the process they are destroying any chance of respect [for teachers].

· Bill Haslam, Governor of my new home state of Tennessee apparently hasn’t met any Paul Mucci type teachers. Last week he rejected the Tennessee Education Association’s claim that “teacher morale is flagging,” despite passing measures that limit collective bargaining and proposing others that would end any licensure for educational professionals. (More on events in Tennessee in the days to come.)

As someone who spends a fair amount of time cultivating partnerships with public schools so that we can jointly (university/school) provide substantive and challenging but guided practical experience for teacher candidates, my sense is that teacher morale is fragile at best. Neither principals nor teachers – no matter how accomplished --generally feel free to take on novice teacher candidates. Even when they can identify the value of teaching collaboratively with a young person with energy and ideas, they are hesitant, even fearful, about jeopardizing their compensation and even their jobs (based largely on student test scores). Everybody is looking over both shoulders at once.

What do these snippets suggest?

Whether or not there is a war on teachers, teachers are feeling under siege. And the march of legislation that targets the teaching profession is undeniable. But the point of the legislation is harder to tease out. Limiting collective bargaining might be a cost-cutting measure. It might be an undercut-the-unions measure (my favorite theory with thanks to Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow). The undercut-the-unions theory is supported by proposals in Tennessee to get rid of teacher licensure all together. Put this together with the appointment of a new Commissioner of Education with a Teach for America and charter school background and it does appear that the war is not on “teachers” per se but on the public school “establishment” (whatever that is).

The point then is an utterly free market for education? (Odd that we would seek a free market for the development of human capital when we have no such truly free market for any other commodity – oil subsidies, farm subsidies, interstate highway systems anyone?)

But this is a kaleidoscopic phenomenon, I think, and this particular ideological interpretation is just today’s turn of the barrel. What does it look like to you? What will it look like tomorrow?