Education Americana

February 23, 2009


I believe in government as more than a vehicle for comic relief, but sometimes you have to wonder about the collective intelligence of people drawn to government service as a profession. The "No Child Left Behind" legislation and debate is an excellent case in point.

The "No Child Left Behind" legislation has the deserved reputation as, "The most negative brand in America." Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees. "Let's rebrand it," he said in an interview. "Give it a new name."

I love some of the suggested names:

But I have a problem with the whole concept here. Changing the name of the legislation isn't going to have a valid effect, anymore than being "incarcerated" is any different from "being in jail." What are we trying to do here? My theory of government is that most of its functions should generally fall outside of the realm of public relations.

The biggest problem with the "No Child..." legislation is that it attempts to quantify an essentially qualitative judgment. Learning is an art form, for which some people have native talent and are particularly adept, and which some people can master with effort and application. Like other art forms, when you are assessing how well someone has learned, you are asking how well they do something. How well someone does is largely a matter of opinion and perspective.

Teaching is also an art form at which some people are particularly gifted, and which others can learn to do given enough effort and application. It is a performance art form, rather like being an actor or a standup comic. Some people can do it and others cannot. It is not a matter of knowledge. It is not a matter of desire to do a good job. Some people just cannot act. Some people just cannot teach. The trouble is that we now have a theoretically based education establishment who think they understand what teaching and learning are. They like to think that they have perfected a number of methods for instruction. Anyone who is sufficiently schooled in such a method, and executes it properly, will be successful in teaching.

By this theory, any student who is exposed to these techniques will inevitably learn - and if they do not, it is neither the fault of the teacher nor the method. According to this preeminent view of modern education, students who fail to learn are defective. It is as if you took a dozen people at random and put them through clown college and expected them to be world class comics. Some people just are not funny, even if they are doing good material and aping every nuance of a real comedian. The educational establishment is blaming the audience because the comic isn't funny.


Don't get me wrong, there are some excellent teachers out there. That they are there is largely despite the current state of education, not because of it. Good teachers get burned out every year fighting with nonsensical requirements, programs, and interference from administration. Teaching is hard enough without all this extra overhead.

So, do I have an answer? Not really. It is a difficult problem. Most of what is wrong with education in this country is that it has all the problems endemic in our society. It is very difficult, possibly impossible, to fix education without assessing the core problems in our society and fixing them. In terms of getting value for our tax dollar in education? For a start, stop trying to evaluate everything to death. It is very expensive, counter-productive, and it seems to be highly ineffective as a means of improving education. Pay good teachers to teach, stop assuming that more education makes better teachers, eliminate useless levels of education management, and grow education as a community activity that involves teachers, students and parents in a cooperative, collaborative setting. Step back and allow the process to work.

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