Saturday, October 2, 2010

Education ideas

I'm linking to a few articles on education that have intrigued me in the past few months.

The first points out the problems generated by the US system of local control of schools. I agree with the author's frustration. For instance, school boards in Texas or Kansas shouldn't be able to make up things to teach and force kids to swallow them. But I always cringe at any prospect for de-federalizing things in the US. Federalism is a good thing, and I wouldn't want to lose it. In the case of schools, this plays out in a number of ways. Some schools and school districts have been able to do fascinating, positive things precisely because of parental and community involvement. A case in point is Nettelhorst school in Chicago. It would be stupid to stifle such examples with heavy federal control of schools, further separating schools from their local communities. That said, the author of the NYT article proposes three things I can agree with: a national curriculum, national teacher training standards, and [uniform] federal support for schools. After all, federalism shouldn't mean that richer states and towns are better off and poorer places are screwed. And these three policy moves wouldn't stifle community involvement in schools. Parents and neighbors could still plan activities, help out at the school, offer input and make demands of teachers, etc. But what's taught wouldn't be up to the whimsy of every little town or city. For that matter, I think private and charter schools should be subject to the same standards and curriculum requirements as public schools are. Parents and children in private schools are after all our neighbors and compatriots, even if they don't want to acknowledge their belonging to the collective!

The next article complements the first by dispelling a few education myths, namely that charter schools are a silver bullet for education, and that teachers' unions hold back progress. The first point is especially important for me, because the charter school craze fits into a trend I detest in the US. Charter schools are basically another iteration of the "this is hard, let's abandon it and try a whole new thing" mentality that has plagued the US for decades now and made us mediocre. Why would any sensible human being think that throwing together a bunch of novice teachers with little outside oversight will result in good schools?

The last article discusses a seeming epidemic of college student cheating, and the efforts of some schools to fight it. I think it's a damn shame that cheating is so rampant and accepted by students. It shows a lack of character on their part and on the part of the parents and teachers that raised them. But the heavy surveillance measures described in the article seem just as repugnant to me. The cheating and the surveillance are part of the same trend, a seeming breakdown of values or trust or something. On the other hand, I like the approach of other colleges profiled in the article that make it clear that cheating is unacceptable, but in a constructive way, through tutorials about plagiarism, or explicit honor codes. Now that I think of it, this debate around cheating has a lot to do with how colleges view themselves, and indeed how our society operates. Are they places for people to get trained for high-end, frivolous jobs, with the consequent feel of a "degree factory"? Or do schools live up to the original ideal of a university, a place for learning, exchange of ideas, creation of new knowledge? The first type of school will churn out people who thrive in the mendacious, sham economy of advertising or Wall Street, the model that has recently driven US society to the point of collapse. The latter type of school might yet salvage our best traditions of honesty, integrity, creative and critical thought, and hard work.

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