Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Answering a comment

In reference to an offhand comment in my Economy post, Coralius said:

I curious as to what you think the core problems in education are.
That's a question good enough to warrant a sizable response, so here goes (and I'm sure I'll cover more of this when the "Education" segment of the Agenda comes up).

In the educational system itself? The biggest would be teacher training and retention, systemic focus on testing over thinking, and basic classroom budgets. The first is an issue for maintaining school quality. Many systems require ongoing training and learning, but don't have a good measure of effectiveness, nor is the training necessarily related to subject matter (the training is often more about method than content). Add to that problems in pay, benefits, and general job satisfaction, and you've got a high turnover, even among the best. Secondly, the focus on testing has driven me crazy for years. Standardized testing isn't a good model for learning or thought, particularly with how districts try to manipulate scores. Poor scores also tend to result in punitive measures, like funding cuts. That makes sense, right? It's a carrot-and-stick system where the carrot is made out of plastic, and the stick has a nail in it. Finally, classrooms have nowhere near the funding they need for basic supplies. Going to my kid's "technology night", I was impressed by the Smartboards they had for use in several classrooms. I'm less impressed that I was asked to donate glue sticks and other basic supplies, both now and at the beginning of the year. The balance is wrong there, as you are well aware.

However, even if these issues are fixed, they weren't the problems I was talking about in the main post. Socioeconomic status is a far better predictor of scholastic success than the quality of the school or teacher. The biggest problem in education is poverty. As I argued elsewhere recently, social safety nets do more than provide basic needs. When a person doesn't have to worry about whether there is food at home, or a place to sleep, or if they can afford the doctor, they have more time, energy, and inclination to devote to improving themselves. It's they hierarchy of needs; other considerations only come in when survival needs are covered. A strong social safety net not only keeps the least fortunate from falling off the map in society; it also gives them the opportunity to make sure they don't remain the least fortunate. Work on poverty, and educational success will begin to follow. That was the point I was trying to make, above. A new computer lab is great; retrofitting outdated school buildings is necessary. Neither of those will address the fundamental point that a poor student is less likely to graduate with an adequate skill set, if at all. And that's part of what we need to work on.

A friend just today pointed out that things that lots of us take for granted about how to survive in a society are actually learned skills. Things like "not selling the refrigerator to go to the movies", or even just changing speech patterns in a formal setting like a job interview. The same person who pointed this out referenced this paper as an example. Without passing judgment on the whole paper, I have some experience with the ideas therein, and can say that they are somewhat accurate Looking at the differences on how classes perceive similar, basic, situations and the habits for dealing with those situations is as key as any type of social help and education.

Like I said, too much to leave languishing in the comments. I hope that at least partially answers the question.

1 comment:

Coralius said...

Thanks for the in-depth reply. This mainly lines up with my own thoughts, but I was curious. TTFN.