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What's wrong with American Education?

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Along with the Iraq war, dealing with immigration, and health care, the poor performance of the institution of American Education is among the most severe of the problems seen facing the nation. Yet, depending on the source, the definition of our unease varies widely.

The definition of Education’s failure comes in many forms, largely based on the source from which it originates. The victims (students) of course, have their own definition – school is boring, useless, with its only value one of meeting friends and, for some, participating in sports. Try asking a kid what he learned in school today, and you will get the “thousand mile stare,” which quickly informs you of your membership in the group of those, intellectually challenged.

Parents have many complaints. If children are in their teens or older, they have changed from the compliant, respectful children so fondly remembered, to defiant, lying, empty-headed, drug-using, promiscuous brats. (Think Beaver Cleaver morphing into Damien). They are certain that it results from their kids’ heads being filled with all kinds of ideas that have no place in a traditional American home. Worse yet, if the parents are financially supporting a $25,000 a year college tuition to get these results.

Teacher look at their unmotivated, cheating, noisy classes, with occasional deadly violence thrown in, and either leave the profession, or stay, longing for the days when students were eager to learn, respectful, did their homework, and trembled at the threat of a parent conference or a failing grade.

Employers come closest to describing the problem as they bemoan the inability of employees to perform their jobs, their lack of productivity, motivation, and perhaps most of all, honesty and integrity. Remedial and on-the-job training have become the norm rather than the exception in the private sector. There no longer exists a ready pool of exceptional candidates for positions requiring knowledge, skill, and judgment, even with many more graduates coming from the colleges and universities. Instead, employers seek an increasingly immigration-restricted pool of foreign technical and scientific workers. In Government, from the President of the United States all the way down to the lowliest DMV clerk, raging and complete incompetence is the rule of the day. None of them can get it right, even when they try, and most of the time they’re not even making the effort.

If all of the above is true, how have we made the enormous leaps in technology, science, medicine, and consumer electronics during the last half century? The answer, it seems to me, is that this progress has resulted in spite of, rather than because of the institution of Education in this country. From the rebellious drive that fostered the Revolution through the tenaciousness of the 19th century inventors, to the non-conforming brilliance of Einstein and the purposeful drive of the thousands of university academics and their graduate students, we still maintain a hugely rich source of intellectual power. Yet, we no longer stand alone as the world’s leader in brain power.

Billions of dollars, a giant bureaucracy (the Department of Education), new Internet instructional tools, and thousands of people have been thrown at the challenge, with no evident reversal of this problem. All of the statements above represent different perceptions of the results of educational failure, but fail to make clear what is and has been missing. Thus, it seems appropriate to attempt a specific description of those elements of the educational process which have proved to be so intractable to any and all efforts to remedy them.

If we look at the research, and engage in honest discussion with the participants (educators and students) the missing or distorted pieces of the puzzle are really not that difficult to isolate. They come down to three specific failures: Neurobiology, Mission Ambiguity, and Untaught Skills. The origin of these failures and how to fix them are well beyond the scope of this article; the dialog which must first be opened is to secure agreement about just what needs to be fixed.

Knowledge of Neurobiology:

Some things about the development of a growing brain are very evident. You don't expect a seventh grade student to handle the concepts of calculus. You don't need formal training in neuroscience to understand that this particular brain is just not ready to deal with such complex ideas.

Yet, parents and teachers are puzzled and concerned at the emotionally driven behavior demonstrated by high school students. Promiscuous sexual behavior, emotional outbursts, drug and alcohol use, and dangerous driving all come from the same cause.

That part of the brain responsible for careful judgment has far less power than does the amygdala, the center of the brain driving emotional impulse and behavior. Having peers around makes the situation even worse. Still, with all the research already assembled, many adults fail to accept that this is a part of the adolescents storm which must be weathered. Nonethelesas, adults interacting with this kid tend to react with anger, and mete out punishment, rather than providing responses appropriate to helping him gain control over his problem.

Mission Ambiguity

Ask any high-school student to name something he considers important, that he has learned today, this semester, or for that matter, during his school career to date. The chances are pretty good that he is going to have a difficult time providing a credible answer. Have friends who teach? Ask this: “Suppose the classes you teach were removed from your school’s class offerings. What would students taking these classes have lost?” If everyone is being honest, any answer other than conformity to social expectations is going to be hard to find.

Students spend their lives in public schoosl, (and a good chunk of their undergraduate education) wondering just why they are there. For many, it is like learning a role for a play. You play your part, are rewarded with “good grades,” but when the curtain comes down (graduation), what are you left with? It seems to me that this ambiguity, this undefined sense of purpose and value, explains a good deal of the failure of the institution to impart genuine learning. Without a perception of real value, motivation directed at making use of what is offered simply is not going to be there.


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An OpEdNews editor, Sherwin Steffin is a retired educator, and research analyst. His working career ranged from classroom teacher, university administrator, founder and CEO of two software companies, independent consultant, (more...)

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