Why You Can’t Reform Education

There’s an interesting debate over at Andrew Sullivan’s place regarding teacher tenure and whether it’s a good thing. I always find focus on small details like this on education policy to be fascinating, because it’s based on the odd premise that some minor tinkering with the system is somehow going to make things drastically better. Even proponents of school choice seem to be under the impression that all that’s really needed is to have more private schools, which is absurd, because the primary reason primary school children do better is through a process of self-selection. Parents who are more involved in their children’s education and place a high priority on education are more likely to send their kids to public schools. Those kids are already growing up in an environment where education is valued, which gives them a leg up over their peers.

As I wrote over a month ago, the reason for the poor performance of American schools isn’t the system, or government control, or anything like that. It’s the fact that American culture simply doesn’t value intellectual achievement.

Given the general American cultural attitudes towards intellectual pursuits, it is little wonder that are schools are consistently failing, no matter how wonderful our teachers are (and most of them are) and how much money we throw at the schools (which is a lot). Even market based reforms such as school voucher programs don’t show any significant improvements in educational achievement. And why should they? Children pick up their attitudes from the people around them. Football players are popular and liked. Chess masters aren’t. Magazines are devoted to the personal lives of pop stars and actors, not inventors. Everybody knows the names Babe Ruth and Tom Hanks. Nobody knows the names Norman Borlaug or Jack Kilby—even though they made the world we live in possible.

Given these facts, it’s a miracle that any kids at all desire intellectual pursuits. However, one thing that is clear is that educational reform is doomed to failure until American society itself changes.

Frankly, I don’t see that change happening anytime soon.

FILED UNDER: Education,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Dantheman says:

    “Even proponents of school choice seem to be under the impression that all that’s really needed is to have more private schools, which is absurd, because the primary reason primary school children do better is through a process of self-selection.”

    And the second reason is because private schools have the ability to throw out disruptive or slacking students, and to refuse to accept those with disabilities or special needs.

  2. Bobbert says:

    Frankly, I don’t see that change happening anytime soon.

    Neither do I, Alex.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    I absolutely agree with Alex’s assessment. Parenting is the most important aspect of a child’s education. Teachers can only do so much and all the testing in the world doesn’t make the kids smarter just more tested.

    Politicians, administrators, professors of education, and many others continue to say they have the answer and treat our children as lab rats as they test each new theory. What’s important one year is dropped the next.

    I decided years ago the person most responsible for my child’s education (he’s a high school senior) is me. No one else has the same vested interest or the same detailed knowledge of what’s going on so why expect them to get it done? It may be a hard truth for some parents but it is the truth.

  4. Bithead says:

    Let’s see, here. Teacher tenure? What drives that, again? Unions?

    Nah… couldn’t be.

  5. odograph says:

    In budget beleaguered California we could probably spend a little less on sports, much less band and cheerleading competitions, and a little more on classes … but that said parent involvement does indeed count for more. Parents that demand learning will get it.

    My favorite story comes from a co-worker who was scolding a nephew about homework. The kid said “I don’t want to be Asian anymore.”

    … telling in a couple ways. Do Aunties in other cultures scold about homework?

  6. Floyd says:

    Education has little to do with intellectual pursuits or a placing a value on them.
    Education has to to with instilling an interest in useful knowledge and skills.
    The more you raise the floor of the social safety net to comfort level, the less you encourage education.
    Many kids learn to to operate computers,blackberries,and video games, then act all confused when it comes to something like a ratchet, rake or a lawnmower.
    When a nation punishes work and skill,and rewards sloth and incompetence, it doesn’t take much intellectual prowess to predict the results,yet the intellectual crowd generally insists that this formula produces social justice.
    It is not the denizens of Ivory towers that produce a nations prosperity, but rather the carpenter, the plumber,the mechanic, and the architect who builds those towers.
    Towers from which they can be looked down upon as being uneducated.
    True education is that which develops talent into skill and instills the value of determination manifested through struggle.
    A nation’s prosperity, indeed it’s very existence, depends on recognizing this fact.

    Intellectual discourse is important to any society, but only when it lacks self-importance, and learns first to value those efforts that allow it to thrive.

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    Let’s see, here. Teacher tenure? What drives that, again? Unions?

    Nah… couldn’t be.

    Welp, the state I live in now, SC, doesn’t have a teachers’ union, but does have tenure. The state I moved here from, MO, had one, but there was no collective bargaining; it was really more of an interest group.

    Funny, too, SC has some of the worst achievement scores in the nation. Must be the penumbra effect of unions from FL or VA.

  8. tom p says:

    As I wrote over a month ago, the reason for the poor performance of American schools isn’t the system, or government control, or anything like that. It’s the fact that American culture simply doesn’t value intellectual achievement.

    Anybody ever been to a school board meeting? They are long, boring as hell, and almost completely devoid of parents. When my sons were in school, I went to every Parent/Teacher conference… the schools rewarded the students if their parents just showed up. My ex rarely, if ever, did. When we divorced (a very messy divorce), I insisted that my sons would go to a parochial school (we lived in the inner city and the public schools were a mess). She tried to push back, but the judge sided with me (it was about the only thing he sided with me on) Over the next 4 yrs, they went to 4 different schools, and time and again, I found myself paying my half of the tuition as well as what she had not payed the year before… The story goes on. Dysfunctional does not begin to describe.

    Through out the years of their schooling I worked with them on homework (when I had them) paid attention to their grades, and always, always, told them that they would graduate HS.

    Meanwhile my ex got worse (she had married a violent drunk). My sons came to live with me when my oldest was a Sophomore, after things had gotten so bad that he was sleeping with a loaded shotgun at the foot of his bed. I won’t go into all of the legal wranglings that went on during those years (I blew a lot of money on lawyers) but it finally culminated with her going to prison.

    My sons’ grades were never as good as they could have been… As, Bs, with a few Cs, and every now and again, a D. On avg, good enuf. Considering the circumstances, I was willing to accept that (tho I never told them that). When my oldest graduated, he told me that he knew the only reason he made it was because I never gave up. When my youngest finally graduated this past spring (things were far harder for him)(he ended up in a private school) he was given an award for being the “Student Least Likely to Graduate but Did it Anyway”. My ex’s mother (a teacher herself) told me, that I was the only reason he made it.

    Some students excell no matter how bad the schools are. Some students fail, no matter how good the school is.

    It always comes down to the parents. Do they care?

  9. Grewgills says:

    I decided years ago the person most responsible for my child’s education (he’s a high school senior) is me. No one else has the same vested interest or the same detailed knowledge of what’s going on so why expect them to get it done? It may be a hard truth for some parents but it is the truth.

    Exactly right.
    When I was teaching the parents that would show up at open houses or come in for conferences without some coercion were the parents of the students who were already trying hard. This was almost universal. I had some excellent students that had poor home situations but very few of the inverse.

    Education has little to do with intellectual pursuits or a placing a value on them.

    In my experience you could not be more wrong.

    Education has to to with instilling an interest in useful knowledge and skills.

    That is true at some level, but a child’s understanding of what will be useful or not is not always the best informed decision.
    I certainly made every attempt to do this and got positive, but the kids who didn’t value education in general failed at a much higher rate.

    It is not the denizens of Ivory towers that produce a nations prosperity, but rather the carpenter, the plumber,the mechanic…

    and where exactly would our society be without the engineers and scientists?
    That is not to say the professions you listed do not contribute, but to make the claim you did is just silly.

    The absolute most important factor outside of the child in any child’s education are the parental figures. After that come, teachers, peers, and environment.

  10. Bithead says:

    Welp, the state I live in now, SC, doesn’t have a teachers’ union…

    heh… So, the unions are taking the Willie Sutton approach?

  11. Drew says:

    What a mess.

    75% of the football and basketball players in colleges and universities have no business being there. But its big business. So they are there. We don’t REALLY care about education.

    Blacks who aspire to academic excellence are accused of being “too white” by their peers. Better to aspire to be a rapper or NBA player. We don’t REALLY care about education.

    Hollywood adulation trumps scientists. Idiotic sitcoms trump homework. Screw the braniacs.

    And so on and so forth…….But this isn’t new………..Hollywood and sports heroes have been the object of adulation forever.

    What’s new is two things: 1) international competition has been rising, and these malformations of culture and values are no longer sustainable, and 2) we have built a social welfare structure that subsidizes these malformations.

    Alex is spot on IMHO. Parents/values are the primary issue.

    But I also think Alex is correct in his pessimism, although I suspect for different reasons than I conclude. We just elected a President who’s primary message was “elect me and I’ll give you stuff for free.”

    The growing chasm between rich and poor has nothing to do with tax policy, and everything to do with the increasing economic return to brains, skills and risk taking in a more complex and competitive world. Sorry, folks. Its economic Darwinism. ‘Spreading the wealth’ through redistributionist tax policy won’t fix that. Telling people ‘a vote for me will set you free’ won’t fix that.

    Mark my words. 10 years from now the capable and enterprising will still be economically better off, and even more so than today. And those who chose to simply vote themselves other people’s money will be – with blank stares – wondering what went wrong.

    Same as it ever was.

  12. just me says:

    I work in education in a public school. I absolutely agree that how much a parent and culture values education has more to do with how well a child performs overall than the details of the education itself.

    I am often amazed at how many parents allow their kids to stay home just because. We had a child last year who was absent or tardy 158 days out of 180. Then there are the parents who teacher try to contact, but don’t return calls or answer certified letters. We had a student that was in danger of failing. Her parents were contacted in October (about 6 weeks into the school year). They never returned phone calls, missed scheduled conferences, and failed to respond to three certified letters that they received. Her parents learned she didn’t not promoted to 3rd grade, when they got her report card indicating placement in 2nd grade for the next school year. That was when they called the school to complain. She missed on average 1 day of school per week.

    Until attitudes about education change, there is only so much a school system can do to get kids to learn.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Why can’t we reform education? Simple. Gammon’s Law. Outputs per input (however measured) are going down. It has less to do with tenure or unions than with bureaucracy.

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    Those kids are already growing up in an environment where education is valued, which gives them a leg up over their peers.

    Which is clearly unfair. So lets gimp these children by putting them with children whose parent’s don’t care if their children grow up to ignorant dolts. Equality of outcome I say! A mediocre workforce FTW!

    Why can’t we reform education? Simple. Gammon’s Law. Outputs per input (however measured) are going down. It has less to do with tenure or unions than with bureaucracy.

    True, and what does government excel at? Bureaucracy. So clearly we need even more government!

    Nevermind that more money wont make a difference implies a corollary that we can actually reduce spending with little impact on educational performance. Nevermind that choice at least gives those parents who do give a damn about their children’s education, but lack the financial means for private school at least some additional options.

    One size fits all!

  15. Spoker says:

    Perhaps the real question is ‘How do you reform a system run by the beneficiaries of the power, that wish to remain in power, and reap the benefits of that power rather than use the power for the benefit of those served by that system?’

  16. Steve Verdon says:

    Perhaps the real question is ‘How do you reform a system run by the beneficiaries of the power, that wish to remain in power, and reap the benefits of that power rather than use the power for the benefit of those served by that system?’

    You can’t. The solution is to get rid of the system. Seems pretty obvious to me.

  17. just me says:

    I think one thing we can do-stop making a college degree the goal of the high school education.

    I think for kids who don’t really want to go to school, allowing them to begin learning a reliable trade at 16 (around 10th grade) would be the better option.

    But I also think demands have been lowered-I think sometimes this is because it is easier for a teacher to collect their paycheck and not really bother teaching. But I am often appalled at the writing expectations. My oldest daughter isn’t a terrible writer, but she has gotten A’s on reports and essays that wouldn’t have gotten A’s when I was a student.

    It is almost like, in our district at least, kids are pushed-at times overly pushed in the elementary years, and then once they hit middle school the goal is to move them along not necessarily educate them. There are very few teachers in our elementary school that I think are unqualified, I could easily list 10-15 teachers at the middle and high school level that don’t even try. They are on my list of “total waste of taxpayer dollars” because all they do is just enough work to collect a paycheck.

  18. Steve Verdon says:

    I think one thing we can do-stop making a college degree the goal of the high school education.

    Makes sense. If a child and the child’s parents have no interest in getting that child educated, then it is a waste of resources to continue beyond a certain point.

    I think for kids who don’t really want to go to school, allowing them to begin learning a reliable trade at 16 (around 10th grade) would be the better option.

    And possibly less cruel. After all a child who doesn’t care about education and his parents don’t either, then forcing this child to finish a school geared to going on to college will leave them ill equipped for a life that does not include college.

  19. Floyd says:

    “”and where exactly would our society be without the engineers and scientists?””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    Grewgills;
    I did not intend to present a comprehensive list,
    notice I did not include the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker, or bankers , doctors, lawyers, machine operators etc.
    Just in case you misunderstood,I said nothing to belittle intellectualism, but NONE of the above are intellectual pursuits, including engineers and scientists. I apologize for neglecting any skill,trade,or productive profession but space would not allow.

  20. Grewgills says:

    NONE of the above are intellectual pursuits

    Really? Then what exactly is your definition of an intellectual pursuit?

  21. Grewgills says:

    I think for kids who don’t really want to go to school, allowing them to begin learning a reliable trade at 16 (around 10th grade) would be the better option.

    Certainly for some that would be a better track. Learn your trade in HS rather than JC, or at least begin learning it there, then arrange for summer or after school internships.

  22. Grewgills says:

    A problem I have noticed in the lower grades is math phobic teachers. People who want to teach younger children too often are not very comfortable with math and pass that on (unintentionally I’m sure) to the kids they teach. I have spoken with a number of other teachers and school administrators who have all noticed the same problem. (In HI, CA, and AL)
    In general math phobia and innumeracy are far too acceptable in our society in a way that illiteracy is not. How many times have you heard someone otherwise well educated say, “I’m just not good at math”? How many times have you heard an otherwise well educated person say, “I’m just not good at reading”?