The Always-Wrong Answer

I just read yet another article on the need for education reform in the United States, with its semi-standard prescriptions of better teachers, more focused resources, higher standards, and greater accountability for teachers and schools. This particular article was written by a former CEO of one of the larger U.S. corporations, and he should have known better. In fact, most of the so-called reformers should know better, because almost all of their solutions fall into the “emperor has no clothes” category.

That’s because of the fallacious assumptions that lie behind their recommendations. I may not identify all of the faulty assumptions, but here’s my list:

All or at least most students want to learn.

All students can and should succeed.

The responsibility for student learning lies primarily, if not entirely, upon the teacher.

Formal, classroom-style education is the only way to success in a modern technological society.

First off, speaking as someone who has taught, and coming from a family with a long and broad line of very successful teachers, I can say that very few students actually want to learn if the subject matter is difficult and if they’re given almost any options or excuses not to learn. They talk about wanting to learn, but most don’t want to put in the work required. This is nothing new. It’s a fact of human nature noted all the way back to the time of Socrates. Most students would prefer to be spoon-fed just enough knowledge to obtain their goals.

Second, ALL students will fail at something, somewhere, if they try enough subjects, although the most able may not fail until they’re on the doctoral level in a subject not tailored to their background and inclination. A small percentage of students simply lack more than very rudimentary intellectual skills; a much larger number are good at basic subjects; from then on, the percentage of success will decrease as the difficulty of the subject matter increases. Contrary to popular and political opinions, this is not debatable, but a simple fact of the distribution of human abilities and intelligence.

Students vary greatly in their levels of intellectual capability, their ability and willingness to concentrate, and in their emotional maturity. Setting uniform standards penalizes both the most able and the least able and effectively limits excellence. Equally important, given the variability in student abilities, any system or curriculum designed on the basis of universal student mastery of skills is doomed to failure, either because some students will indeed be unable to master the subject matter and under current political conditions, that is unacceptable, or in fact the standards will be so watered down that they are meaningless, or students will be taught skills by blind rote so that they can pass the appropriate assessment tests. Educational systems — those serving large student bodies — with either excessively high or inordinately low failure rates are themselves failures.

Third, as I’ve noted in an earlier blog, if the teacher is solely responsible for a student’s learning, most students will take the path of least resistance and show little or no initiative. Since they will achieve little, more blame will fall on the teacher, especially if no meaningful adverse consequences from failure to learn fall on the student. The assumption of total teacher responsibility means that the student faces no adverse impacts for failing to learn and can take no earned personal credit for whatever learning is achieved.

Finally, just how many indifferent business school and college graduates, or drop-outs, do we as a society need? We need electricians, mechanics, information technicians and a whole host of professions requiring specialized on-the-job training or at least on-the-job internships. We also need people in service industries. Assuming that classroom education is the only effective form of education is a one-size-fits-all solution that serves no one well and packs too many high school and undergraduate college classrooms with high numbers of students who have little real interest in being there, and even less in learning.

The bottom line, in my book, is simple enough. If you design a system on faulty assumptions, it won’t work, or not well, and the vast majority of proposed educational reforms incorporate at least one of the assumptions I’ve listed above.

Why do they persist? That’s simple, too. It’s the Lake Wobegon syndrome: As a society we have to maintain that all children are above average in intelligence, initiative, and ability, even when it’s painfully obvious that they’re not. But until the “reformers” address their faulty assumptions, American education will face an increasing downward spiral, regardless of standards, legislation, and increased resources.