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Thursday, September 29, 2011

"As Long As It's Black" and the Industrial Undead

When Henry Ford told a newspaper reporter that his customers could have a Model T in any color they wished, "so long as it's black," he was speaking as the foremost authority on industrial production.  The entire industrial era was predicated on the belief that uniformity and interchangeability were the key to efficient design.

It was at the ascendancy of the industrial era that our public school system was born. The main thrust of public education through most of the early 20th century was to prepare their products for consumption by the industrial world.  The focus of education for most students was obedience, basic skills, and a willingness to work.  There were, of course, exceptions, but for the most part the Factory Model School system was just that -- a practice factory for pre-workers.

It was only after Sputnik in 1954 that significant effort was channeled into creating a crop of young Einsteins and Oppenheimers to help us compete with the USSR.  This white, middle-class,Talented Tenth were the recipients of greater funding, more support, and greater encouragement than the remaining 90% of students.  This was the birth of honors classes and public school tracking.  The Talented Tenth took Trigonometry instead of Woodshop, Physics instead of Autoshop.  Their educations were focused on college because they were the great hope for the future of capitalism.  The rest were still going to work in factories.

And then the industrial era ended.

And then the USSR collapsed.

But we didn't change the schools.  They are functioning zombies from a world long dead, and they are in fact eating our brains.

It's not that we don't know what we want from our schools in the post-industrial era.  If you aggregate the body of notions regarding what we should be doing in schools, it comes out like this:

We need our schools to create adaptable, versatile, knowledge workers who will have the capacity to move between careers as the market changes.  Our schools need to create graduates that have a strong foundation in basic skills that allow them to be competitive with workers in other post-industrial countries and they need to be able to do this with all students, regardless of race, class, color, gender, or religion.

We know what we want, but we sure as hell aren't doing it.


We say that the modern worker must be adaptable and versatile, willing and able to change careers 5-8 times in their lifetime.

But we require extensive schooling and certifications for even the most menial positions, making it difficult or impossible for anyone who is not wealthy or well supported to change careers once they are established.

We say that our schools need to produce knowledge workers who are resilient problem solvers with a strong set of basic skills.

But we hamstring our schools with extensive, highly specific, knowledge standards that become the basis for the entire assessment of the institution, limiting their ability and desire to let their kids explore and solve problems.

We say that every child needs to have access to a quality education.

But we define quality education so narrowly that only successful college-preparatory schools meet the standard, implying that the only acceptable future for any child is a college education -- a political, demographic, social, and intellectual impossibility -- and tell all other schools and children that they are failures.

We say we need our students to be able to compete with the rest of the world

But we insist on local control of schools and then watch the localities slash education funding and add ridiculous mandates to the curriculum.  This doesn't happen in Japan and elsewhere because they have national education systems.

And then we're surprised when we continually pump educational products into the marketplace that seem brainless and that certainly aren't what we ordered.  No shit.

Instead, why don't we try this:

Eliminate the specific standards.  Students don't really need to know all 14 points of Wilson's 14 point plan, and if they need it, they can look it up.  What students need is the ability to look things up, and we suck at teaching that.

Eliminate the high-stakes multiple choice assessment.  Replace it with a battery of research and problem solving situations where students must prove that they are capable of accessing, self-teaching, and demonstrating learning from multiple disciplines and then applying the result in a real-world situation.

Bring back high school vocational training.  All of it.  Incorporate much of what is done in for-profit career colleges in vocational curriculum in the high schools.

End the "as long as it's black," belief about how schools should be.  We allow very limited variation in methodology in public education and absolutely no variation in expected outcome.  How on earth are we going to produce workers who are resilient and adaptable if they've all been forced to do exactly the same things for the first 18 years of their lives?   Set a minimum bar for basic skills and then allow for a diverse marketplace of schools that offer a diverse set of outcomes.

Federalize school oversight.  Not through punitive benchmark-based rigid tests, but through the process already in place through the school accreditation agencies.    Have each school set their outcomes under the supervision of the agency and have each school, under the direction of the agency, develop a curriculum to meet their stated outcomes.

Define quality education more broadly.  We cannot sustain a situation where every student must go to college.  Not only do large numbers not want to go, the reason that a college education is meaningful is because not everybody is able to do it.   People who work in the trades are equally as valuable and have the same (and oftentimes greater) earning potential and we need them a hell of a lot more than we need another communications major.   As long as we spend the money and the energy necessary to ensure that every community has both options and quality, we will be better off.  We are no longer in the industrial age and we don't need 90% of our educational products to have the exact same skills.

But all that would take money and political will, so I don't hold out hope.  Not right now.

But the zombies are still eating our children's brains, so our nation needs to either pony up or lower our expectations.

Of course, if the modern Know-Nothings take over, it's all a moot point, anyway, so disregard this post under a Perry Administration.

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