His first complaint goes to history: I wrote that once we had a broad consensus on the value of education. Mark wrote:
In colonial (and I presume probably pre-Civil War Virginia) the Chesapeake bay/plantation folkway had a … hegemonic attitude toward education. In fact, while the plantation “masters” were 100% literate, the servants and other classes in the society (white) were some 70% illiterate. It was something of a point of pride that public education was not generally available. Literacy and education as well, was not emphasised in the backcountry as well (which continues (I think) today in Appalachia for example). So of the four folkways which made up our early nation, only two held that education was of value.
That official policy prevented education as a mark of oppression and/or racism only makes the point. Infamously, some states and localities at various times had laws against teaching slaves to read, or to educate slaves formally in other ways. Denying education is a traditional form of oppression. This does not change the consensus that education is valuable, but instead is a dramatic demonstration that the policy makers regarded education as valuable and as a political tool for change. At the same time that these governments forbade educating slaves, they established schools for other people.
Such bans on education are exceptions, and I hope without looking for evidence that they were — are — rare in American history. More commonly related in a history of education in America are the laws that required some villages to establish schools, and more importantly, the establishment of schools itself. By the time of the American Revolution the notion that education was valuable had already taken hold, and heroes of the Revolution itself demonstrated the potential, in people like George Washington, Nathanael Green, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Knowledge and the education to get it were key drivers in the lives of all of these men. Green’s military acumen was entirely acquired from books, books he sometimes purchased from Knox. We see the consensus on education demonstrated in the series of laws to “dispose” of the lands west of the Appalachians, the Northwest Territories. From the earliest of the Northwest Ordinances, in 1784 (before the republic), education was provided for by setting aside a few sections of land to finance a school or other educational endeavor.
Education has been seen as a tool against tyranny for hundreds of years. It is such a powerful tool that slave states prohibited giving such tools to slaves, who, once educated, might rise up against their masters or the system itself. Frederick Douglass’s story of learning to read despite the law only confirms the consensus.
I wrote earlier of the civic value of education:
One thing we know from our brief history as the United States. The moral issues do not get easier the more we know. To function as a free, democratic republic, and as a free society, we need good information, and our kids need that information and the reasoning tools to use it to make good policy.
Among other things, I was referring here to the theory of evolution. It’s one of the great ideas of western civilization, and understanding it immediately helps one to understand wildlife management, agriculture and animal husbandry, and a great amount of medical practice, especially public health. Because each of these areas is important to public policy, and because every citizen plays a role in public policy, I find it essential that citizens understand how evolution works, even if they choose do “disbelieve” it.
I think Mark thinks I’m simply defending ‘leaving things as they are.’ He wrote:
However, this certainly does not mean that the status quo is preferred. We have both an astounding lack of both diversity in methods in our public schools (with a fairly uniform curriculum) and a astoundingly poor result given our outlay of cash.
No, we need to dramatically improve teaching in evolution, and in several other areas. Generally, I’m for tougher academics across the board. Kids are more sophisticated today than they were 200 years ago, but we live in a vastly more sophisticated and complex world. More and better education is what we need. And while I tend to agree on the lack of diversity in delivery methods, I think we’ve gotten a stupendously good deal for our outlays of cash to support education. Our educational system brought us through two world wars on the victorious side, and was a key contributor to the west’s “victory” in the Cold War. Products of U.S. public schools have won and will continue to win the largest portion of Nobel Prizes, often the majority. American education is still the model for the world, and a key reason people struggle to bring their families to the U.S. By almost any measure, our educational system is a success. That is not to say we cannot do much better, or should not.
Mark then lays out a specific education plan, and to avoid errors in summary I quote the rest of his post:
But I think he has partially hit it on the head. Our kids need good learning skills (”reasoning tools”) and this in important for our society from a pragmatic and moral standpoint. However, what is the best way of getting this? In the past, I’ve proposed the following, and I’ll invite Mr Darrell to tell me why it’s wrong.
As Mr Darrell points out we need our kids to become good … well … at learning. But that means we don’t test their improvement in their ability to learn, but just in their mastery of a (shrinking) set of skills and facts. It doesn’t, as Mr McCulskey indicates mean that our non-insistence on Creationism vs Darwinian evolution is “to be decided” by consensus. What it means, is from the point of view of our state, what is important is how good our kids are at learning new things.
Thus our schools need is not standardization on curriculum and method, besides a very small core curriculum of basic skills. By this I mean English and I’d like us ala the Classical Greeks and Homer to have us all in this country to have a common set of story/saga from which we might draw on. But, that part, and picking of the core texts is not the main point. What the main thing the state needs from its schools is the development of good students. There are four main skills which a good student needs
- Memorization – To remember what is presented.
- Reasoning – To be able to make connections within (and outside) of that material and to utilize that which is memorized.
- Diligence – To be able to take care in your work.
- Perseverence – To be able to finish what is started and to follow through with your work.
My contention is these skills are all a student needs and it matters much much less the particulars of what subject matter he studied in order to develop them.
If a student arrives in college with these skills well developed, he will do well no matter what curriculum was presented. To put it in a more pointed manner, it doesn’t matter if a student has never heard of Darwin or evolution for his developmental/evolutionary biology class. If he remembers what he is taught, works hard, is careful, and can make connections he will do well and in fact better than a student who does not have these skills but has had a two week “module” taught in a high school science class on evolution. College classes these days depend on very little material to have been presented prior to arriving in the introductory classes.
What this would entail is that a “voucher” system can free up our schools to teach by whatever methods and whatever material that those schools chose to teach is fine. But the “vouchers” and how much federal, state, or local support might be offered be contingent on demonstrating improvement in each of its students in those four skills mentioned above. More improvement should yield more money. Less yields less. This also lets the “magic of markets” back into our classrooms and perhaps, if we concentrate on what we need (good students) we might get what we desire. Specificing “how to do it” is not the way. Specify what you want. This also would have the beneficial result of not “teaching to the test” because the “test” doesn’t test mastery of particular fact sets or material but uses a metric to measure how much each student has improved in the four skills since the last test.
First, an educated person has more than just the ability to learn. By the four skills Mark notes, some people could be considered educated by the age of 8 or 9 — but no one would seriously claim most of those people are ready for college. There is a substantial body of knowledge required for citizenship, and most of that should be in place by the time of high school graduation. The older consensus held that schools needed to teach reading, writing, solid basic mathematics skills, a core of world history and national history, a core of geography including understanding of the world, a core of literature, and a core of science. One delightful presentation of some of these skills is laid out by Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Sent back a few centuries, the mechanically-minded American survives and thrives on his wits, and what he learned in public schools and on the job.
Kids need to learn not only how to memorize the Gettysburg address, they should understand the circumstances of the address, and especially its effect on expanding the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and how that expansion drove the expansion of rights up to the civil rights movement, how it drove the civil rights movement, and how it affects our concepts of human rights on the larger international stage today. In order to do that, kids need to have a core mastery of history, geography and literature, beyond the ability to acquire such mastery.
It’s not enough to know how to learn, in other words. High school graduates should have learned something worthwhile. Here in Texas, our state examinations are skewed towards the skills Mark mentions, though they require mastery of the subject matter, too. In my view the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) is skewed too far to Mark’s idea; my experience is that the skills Mark notes are best learned and best demonstrated in the acquisition of the core knowledge. It is in that core knowledge that the consensus about schools breaks down, alas. That is a key part of the problem. There is great disputes about teaching kids the facts of science, the facts of history and government, and even the “facts of life.” Those disputes damage our ability to thrive as a nation.
Second, we need to understand that many citizens will not “arrive at college” right out of high school, but instead will be applying what they have already learned. Most successful people will get education beyond high school. Often that will occur years after graduation. People are full citizens almost from the time they graduate — they need to be able to function with the core knowledge citizens need, for public policy and business reasons. Arriving at college ready to learn is a great ideal. It does not adequately serve those who do not arrive at college freshly out of high school.
And, for that matter, I disagree that college courses depend little on what has been presented before. I teach at a rather technically-oriented university locally. Most of my students are already working, and many have their own businesses. I teach business law. These students do better in class, and they do better in their business, if they have solid understanding of how our government works, and why we have many of the laws we have. I do not have the time to give them the full background.
Third, I reject the argument that we need to insert “competition” into education, or that a voucher system would do that. Not all free marketry depends on competition, and not all competition is fair. I especially dislike vampire vouchers, those proposed systems that take money from struggling public schools and give it to less-regulated, less-rigorous private entities. Propose a system of vouchers that gives kids real choice, that allows them to choose to increase the investment in their public schools, and we’ll be talking. Most voucher systems are choice-restrictive — a kid may not choose to use it at his neighborhood school, for example. Why not? Recent studies raise questions about the ability of private schools to produce any significant increase in student performance, as voucher advocates argue. It is clear from the structures of the proposals that most voucher advocates fear the success of the public schools, and so they propose to hobble public school finance in order to hobble the schools.
But beyond that, we have no evidence that competition produces better education — none. I know Milton Friedman is hot on the idea, but we have in history no successful private system that produces quality education on any scale comparable to the success of U.S. public schools. It is important to recall that we have public education to fill a need, and that our current public education system was created because private education did not provide the goods. Private schools existed in colonial America, but as Mark notes, they were highly discriminatory in their good effects. The success of private schooling in America today is dependent largely on their ability to cherry-pick students. The success of America is dependent on NOT cherry-picking students. I believe that the drive against public schooling is not only damaging to the public schools, but damaging to our nation’s intellectual and moral infrastructure, too. Our democratic ideals are promoted by public schooling, and they are frustrated by any failure of public schools.
There are some enterprises where competition is not the answer: Foreign affairs, defense, many public health areas, and education, are a few of those enterprises.
Finally, I reject the idea that vouchers lead to a broader education, or a more useful education. Voucher advocacy groups include those who want to restrict science knowledge in biology (evolution) and physics and chemistry (Big Bang), those who want to restrict and distort history for propaganda gain in politics (dominionists and others who arge against the Constitution’s separation of church and state), and those who want to sacrifice public health for unproven ideas vaguely related to a misapprehension of morality (sex education, especially prophylactics). Big Bang may not be essential for making public policy decisions (though I suspect it helps, especially in defense and industry). In sex education and evolution, the issue is a desire to stop the spread of knowledge, in a rather Stalinesque way, solely for propaganda purposes.
And that was my complaint about the earlier posts on vouchers, from McCulskey especially. He was arguing to allow parents to censor their kids knowledge, to avoid a fight about what is important to know, and what is true. While I think parents should have great sway in the religious upbringing of their kids, at some points those kids become citizens, and it is a disservice to the rest of us to have those kids propagandized and fed bad information even for religious reasons. Creationism can do nothing but cripple our national drive to elminate the cotton boll weevil, for example, and it totally misses out on the foundations of the campaign against HIV/AIDS. As we have discovered with recent measles epidemics, there are real public health consequences to ignorance about how and why good public health occurs. We shouldn’t have a voucher system that promotes such ignorance. To create such a system to avoid the debates on these issues seems doubly damaging — kids given misinformation cannot participate in the real debates about how to apply the knowledge they missed to public policy. And for what it’s worth, if they lack the information to even get in on the debate, they cannot possibly tell when the debates go awry due to bad information or bad reasoning.
Students need knowledge, as well as the skills to acquire it, when they graduate from high school. Vouchers to allow kids to miss out on that knowledge is bad public policy.