A few days ago, friend and commenter, ralph, stated that his starting point to reform and repair our Republic would be the schools and the educational system. This is a common response among the political right, but something that seems to never get enough traction to become a reality. It is, however; an idea infused with a great deal of validity – and being the husband of a retired teacher who spent 30 years doing it, this has had no small amount of debate around our breakfast table.
Most of the discussions on the topic of education rest on a foundation of “reform” – basically to keep doing what we have been doing, just “better”, “faster” and with greater vigor. We are told that more money is necessary in education and the typical “beg” for additional funds usually includes the emotional hook that it is “for the children”. We are told that all that is necessary in order to “turn the tide” of failing schools and failing students is that society must “invest” more because the conventional wisdom says that society benefits from “education” without regard to the cost.
But that isn’t really true, is it?
Society not only reaps the putative benefits, it also bears the cost. The true benefit of education is the productive capacity it creates for society. The “net worth” of education is the real measure of the benefit to society. What we gain less what it costs is the real measure, not how much we spend. To factor the real worth of the educational establishment in America, we must also consider the cost of failure as well. Society bears a cost in support of uneducated, under-educated and failed students in unemployment, underemployment (a person invests 4 years and $150K in a college education and snags a job a Starbucks) and wasted time and effort of both the student and the teacher.
American taxpayers have been pouring dollar after dollar in increasing amounts into an institutionalized educational establishment since the 1950’s and suffering the results – results which are continually determined to be unacceptable to all. Curiously these poor results have been the basis for increased funding, rather than critical examinations of results. Since we have mountains of historical evidence that increasing the inputs (more money, more teachers, and more administration) consistently yield poor results, how much improvement can really be expected by simply spending more while running faster on the same treadmill?
It would seem that we should understand that doing the same thing, only faster, truly doesn’t help to reach a different endpoint. We get to the same failure point, just faster. When the number of inputs is limited and are manipulating those inputs does not change the outcome, the process must be considered for change.
At the risk of sounding like a Royalist from the 1700’s, there is a lot worth in considering something like the British educational system.
Many readers know that I lived and worked in Scotland for several years and in doing so, I witnessed this system through friends with children and I also hired the product of that system in the technical business that I managed. I found the graduates of the university system to be more mature, better prepared and more confident than those I have hired in the US. We found that our shop floor hires needed very little training in the basic subjects of reading, writing and math – unfortunately quite a departure from what I have personally experienced in America. We also were able to hire skilled tradesmen who had been trained in the art and science of tool and die, machining, electrical installation – and we also were able to support apprenticeships in several disciplines unique to our subsea oil and gas operations.
Very little would have to change in our elementary system – I believe that the British system places far more emphasis on drilling and memory exercises in the basic skills – but essentially the first 5 grades are about the same. Where it starts to change is at what we call the “middle school” level – or what the Brits call “Secondary School”.
At the Secondary School stage, the education becomes somewhat more directed toward three potential outcomes – a “6th Form College (we would call these “advanced placement classes), a “Further Education College” or “FE College” (basically what we would call a “junior college”) or work. Beginning at the age of 13, students are take tests to determine which of these paths they will be able to take – a student must enter a 6th Form or a FE College to go on to “Higher Education ” or “HE ” to receive a Bachelors, Masters and/or Doctorate, this is typically referred to as “university”. Where Americans typically use the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably, college in the UK refers to the last two years of what we call “high school” and university is post-high school degree granting entity.
You are also not guaranteed your university of choice, when you apply students list multiple universities in the order of preference and admission is granted based on the available slots and the ranking of the grades of the student. If all the slots for your desired specialty are filled at all uni’s, you may have to wait until the next year for admission. Many students in the UK do take a “gap year” or a year off to travel, do volunteer work or to do actual for-profit work to pay for school.
University is not free. It is state supported but tuition began to be charged in most circumstances in the UK in 1998 with certain exclusions – in Scotland, a native Scot can attend a Scottish university without tuition – again, very similar to our system of public colleges and universities.
If a student cannot pass the exams to go to 6th Form or FE colleges or choose not to pursue further education, they may leave school at the age of 16 and enter an apprenticeship or the workforce.
Britain does not attempt to progress every student to a university degree if the students do not show the aptitude or the desire and yet the literacy rate in Scotland, England and Wales is 99%. The reason is that even the school “leavers” who exit school at 16 are educated well enough in the basics to function in society. The breakdown in 2012 was about 33% went on to university, 45% completed either FE or 6th Form and roughly 12% left at 16 to enter an apprenticeship program or the workforce.
The educational system in the US seeks to educate every student regardless of capability or desire to a pre-determined level with academic courses when the student may be better served in a diversion into a technical training program or even being restricted by proficiency testing from progressing beyond 6th Form or FE college (the equivalent of an Associate’s Degree in the US). We waste the student’s time, the teacher’s efforts and taxpayer’s money by churning out graduates who are doomed to underemployment or spend years in school only to drop out with insufficient skills to support themselves in our society.
It is worth a look.