Anson Burlingame, who has actual experience teaching in the Joplin school system, has once again questioned the quality of American education and bravely challenged school board applicants to address problems realistically. I too have addressed the topic in previous blogs, “Skinning Cats”, and “What’s A Sheepskin Worth, Any Way?”. They got some interesting comments, but I thought it significant that none appeared to be from any member of the educational establishment. I wondered, does the establishment consider criticism to be unworthy of comment, or do they themselves have no credible defense?
Like Anson I have often pondered the significance of academic grades. People like him and me who have traversed the American education system from kindergarten to graduate level know that grades always have an element of subjectivity. I would suggest
that math grades would be low on the subjectivity scale, there being only one right answer (except in calculus) and perhaps English composition might be high, but that still begs the question: what does an “A” or a “D” grade really mean?
Back in the early days of TV there was a program that pitted teams of students against one another in a contest of knowledge. It was called “College Bowl”. What made it interesting in my opinion was that it involved not just interesting questions and answers but that it involved competition. That was the measure of success, not any absolute standard. I believe there is a strong lesson in this example. Just as capitalism outperforms any other economic system, so perhaps should competition win the day in education.
There may have been a time when grades really did mean something, when a child was actually held back a grade if she didn’t pass. I understand that is unthinkable now. I also perceive that grade inflation is rampant, as is computer-aided cheating. The Dean’s list
for Missouri Southern and the Honors list for Joplin High each fill more than half a newspaper page of fine print, leaving me wondering just how bad a student’s performance must be NOT to be on the list. With apologies to Garrison Keillor, not all children are above average.
My grandchildren attend public school in Joplin and I was struck by an educational statistic today. After missing nine days of school because of bad weather I was informed by my son that they would be missing a half day today as well. But, I said, the weather’s great now! Why? “Well, Dad, it’s Valentine’s day.” Wow. Our educational system sure does have its priorities, doesn’t it? My son also tells me that Missouri law stipulates that ten days of lost school time is the maximum that must be made up elsewhere in the schedule. (Cue the music: “Let it snow, let it snow, let . . . “)
Having thought about the subject at length over the years I have come to the conclusion that American education has descended into hopeless mediocrity, a condition which is apparently defended by teacher’s unions in the interest of controlling their shared ownership of a societal monopoly, a monopoly powered by the social meme that an advanced degree is an essential ticket-punch for entry into “success”. Our government supports that flawed notion by subsidizing college education through low-interest loan programs and outright grants (Pell, et. al.). And, I can’t help thinking that the more government tries to take ownership of education, the less incentive parents have to feel responsible for doing so themselves.
Consider, please, a philosophical aside. When everyone has the “right” to “everything”, what happens to quality? The answer is left as an exercise for the student.
While I consider myself politically moderate, when it comes to education I seem to have become a libertarian. I can not conceive how the schools could be any worse if government got completely out of the business. Yes, I know there is the occasional bright spot – charter schools or the occasional talented and dedicated teacher. I believe those occur not because of the government system but in spite of it. I would very much like to see a voucher system, along with well-publicized data on an independent system of knowledge competitions. In other words, real competition. And wouldn’t it be interesting if vocational schools engaged in similar competitions? Professional educators could compete for places on judging panels. I can even envision a Super Bowl of Education. (If you read the link for the College Bowl you saw that there was a great upset between colleges in 1966.)
Children in Singapore, Finland, China and elsewhere are metaphorically eating our lunch on education. It is long past time when some brave (or suicidal) politician declares that it is time America fought back, and to do so competitively.