Beyond Labels

A 360° Discussion of Foreign, National and Local Policy Issues

Education: Is it successfully preparing the next generation?

This topic was discussed on August 5, 2013

  • Who needs to be better educated?
  • What does “better educated” mean…college, vocational skills, critical thinking, practical “life skills?”
  • How do we emphasize more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, which seem to be in high demand from employers?
  • What is the role of, and outlook for, social studies, foreign language, English?
  • Is this an issue that should be dealt with via Federal policy (regulation, mandates, etc.) or at the state and local levels?
    • How should Federal, state and local input be coordinated?

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The $4 Million Teacher (WSJ 8/3/2013)





  • Everyone needs continually to become better educated; it’s a lifetime process. It is very important that this process begins well–in a way that fosters strong intellectual curiosity. In the last two decades, most young students have been increasingly confined to rigid curricula that are designed to prepare them for generally mindless standardized testing. This approach to schooling leaves little room for imagination and experimentation–by either students or teachers. Educators who are happy to be told what to do and how to do it are not really teachers in the traditional sense; they are more a species of ed tech.
    Yes, Math skills in the U.S. tend to be weak. And, as Math is the lingua franca of the sciences, our schools tend to be weak in the sciences as well. Too many schools are not even trying to find Math teachers who are imaginative enough to make their students look forward to the next class; schools increasingly hire Math teachers who are happy to teach to specific tests. If the U.S. is to remain an important player in technological innovation, Math teaching needs intense revision–yesterday.
    Imaginative teaching is needed in English and foreign languages, as well. Imaginative teaching is needed for every subject–at every level.
    The inclusion of History and Ethics in school studies would likely help students gain perspective that would help them see themselves and their potential role in our society more clearly.

    • I agree and respect your comments and perspective. But what is to be done? You seem to imply that there is a lot wrong with the system…”mindless” standardized testing, many(?) teachers who lack creativity and imagination, etc.

      1) How do we attract teachers with the desirable skills/attributes you describe? Combination of respect (for teachers), flexibility, compensation and competition (tenure reform)? And what’s holding back the good teachers?
      2) How do we know whether students are, at the end of the day, learning the skills, etc. required to optimize their future potential to themselves and society (i.e., the impetus behind standardized testing)? Is it better standardized tests or some other evaluation method?
      3) Do charter schools (generally), supposedly with more flexibility, etc., achieve better results in this area?

      Although I’ve participated in lots of discussions, I don’t feel that I know enough to believe I have a strong sense of direction on this issue (other than tenure reform (for K-12 teachers) combined with more formal teacher performance evaluation, which I think makes sense. (Maybe the “accountable care organization” “outcome-based” philosophies embedded in the healthcare overhaul should be applied to education as well?)

  • (Reference – Google: Economist – Declining by degree – Sep 2 2010)

    The cost of higher education has been rising at a rate higher than the inflation rate, the price of energy, housing, even higher than the concerning cost of medical care. (In medicine aging population and the demand for expensive technology and pharmaceuticals are the usual suspects but that can not explain the inflation in the generally low tech and young demographic of education) Will the quality of US higher education continue and in its present form? Can the cost continue to inflate at the historic rates? Will the effects of technological efficiency of on line courses be adopted uniformly throughout the traditional university setting or will it result in catastrophic paradigm shifts in higher education as it has in the news paper, book store and other traditional information industries? Who will be the winners and losers?

    • It seems to me that the Economist piece takes a position on your questions, and I find their cautionary piece quite plausible. I guess the resulting question facing us is what should “we” do about it (and who is “we”). As I recall, there is some recently (proposed?) legislation associated with the student loan program renewal requiring colleges to publicize some statistics that will enable students and their parents to evaluate their choices on a “non-bling” basis…job placement rates, dropout trends, etc. These seem like a step in the right direction (though I’m not sure legislation should have been required to make this happen…I would have preferred that the colleges do so voluntarily as a result of competition for good students).

      I don’t think online courses will be adopted “uniformly,” but I do expect their use to continue to grow. Today’s technology offers a great way to provide both one-way (books and lectures) and two-way (precepts, discussion groups, private tutorials) in an online forum. In a way, I think there’s a parallel between online distribution of lectures (replacing in-person ones) and the way printed textbooks supplanted the old, old way of teaching (always face to face and verbal). And I think that’s generally good, since it lowers the cost, expands the audience, and allows the teachers (professors) to focus their time on the really value-added part of teaching…interacting (two-way) with their students.

      I don’t think this paradigm shift (which is under way) is “catastrophic” at all! (Unless you’re an academic equivalent of the dinosaur.)

      Winners: colleges and professors who add value, employers looking for an increased pool of well-educated employees
      Losers: colleges and professors who do not adapt AND cannot ultimately deliver comparable (or superior) value using the old methods.

      • Right. “Catastrophic” is the wrong word. “Disruptive” is more appropriate. The thesis of Clayton Christensen (Inovator’s Delemma) that dominant firms or institutions are not irrational or incompetent (dinasoars) in their failure to adapt to new technologies may be instructive (Kodak, disc storage, steam shovels etc.) Bling is rational.

  • Mike,
    Fine comment!

  • Richard, You bring up some excellent issues!

    Two of the reasons that cost of education continue to have risen (they slowed a bit this past year) so rapidly are: 1) colleges need to take in ever more money from full-tuition students in order to give more scholarship money to the less well-off, to guarantee a varied student population. This has been a spiral. Also, despite the economy, most colleges have been adding not only better academic space, but also more attractive rooming options and expensive amenities. There are signs now that the tuition has become so high, especially in private colleges, that those who can pay full tuition are rethinking their positions. Some colleges are thinking that their offering of on-line courses will help float their campuses. This may be a risky assumption, because hard information is beginning to come in that indicates the quality of most on-line courses is significantly below that of in-the-classroom versions of these courses. I’ll see if I can relocate the specific references.

    • I agree with Mike…college pricing seems to have some parallels with hospital pricing: high “list” prices for those who can easily afford to pay subsidizing lower costs (after grants, subsidized loans, scholarships) for those who cannot.

      I’d love to see some research on the relative quality of online vs. in-person courses. My son has recently been taking some of each via the UMaine system. As you might have guessed, I think the online ones are great…for the “right” student audience. And I have participated in several so-called “MOOCs” myself to further my education…how else could someone in rural Maine have done so? But the online course is obviously no panacea, and it is still relatively new “technology” (in the broadest sense of the word) in which (I believe) there are significant improvements in form and function to be developed.

  • Good brief article in NYT of 26 July 13: “Why Tuition Has Skyrocketed at State Schools” by Catherine Rampell.

    What makes this phenomenon particularly important is that public colleges and universities educate 75% of all U.S. College students. State subsidies to these schools are falling, exacerbating the tuition problem.

    • Indeed. State support for higher education has dropped significantly mostly since the recent economic crisis. A discouraging editorial in this weeks Ellsworth American regarding low 6 year graduation rates at U of ME is an argument for linking state support to improving graduation rates.

  • Richard, Many thanks for tipping me off to this excellent piece by Stephen Weber in the 25 July “American.” He neatly puts his finger on major problems with the U Maine System: a bureaucracy that keeps adding unnecessary (and highly-paid) layers; the simultaneous weakening of the System’s support for its students. Before Weber dives, as he must, into the statistics, he makes a very important reference: “These numbers represent real human beings.” In the forty years I’ve lived here, 20 of which I taught English at the high school in Orono, I have observed my students increasingly struggle to graduate from the UMS colleges in four years. The System needs to hire full-time faculty to fill the long-standing gaps in many departments, gaps which make a four-year graduation difficult in many majors. Also, the students need support before, during, and after their bachelor’s programs. The UMS needs to mend fences in Augusta, as the legislature, understandably, has grown disturbed by the System’s priorities for the use of public money. Much more of that money needs to go to the direct support of student education.

    • This seems like a specific example of many of the concerns raised in the Economist article (admin overhead, too few teaching professors per student, money spent on fancy facilities (“bling”) as opposed to hard-core education…). It also sounds like you agree with the Economist that one of the key issues is an administration (whole system?) that is focused on professors, research and facilities moreso than “student education.”

      I’m curious what you mean by the comment about need for “student support:” is that because they’re not suitably equipped to enter college after graduating high school? What sort of during- and after-college support are you thinking of? Career services?

  • About the need for more student support: Too many high school students are allowed to believe that fluent writing skills (and, to a lesser degree, critical reading skills) need only be developed in English and foreign language classes. Because most students will have only one, or, at the most, two, classes a day where good writing is required, many reach graduation with poor writing skills. This deficit means that most students who go on to college, two-year or four-year, need substantial remedial work when they arrive on campus. These students often need remedial work in analytical thinking, too, as good writing depends on analytical thought. Recently, in the NYT and other papers, there have been articles noting that, in most state colleges, for the first two years of a four-year program, the student learns much less new material than was the case three or four decades ago. Having arrived at college with weak basic skills, these students are stressed and often discouraged. And, when they graduate, they will not have had the opportunity to learn as much about their major as students in the past. This makes successful job interviews difficult.
    Student academic support needs to start early–in elementary school. If they are encouraged and inspired by imaginative teachers, little kids can begin to learn to think well, read well, and write well. These skills must continue to be promoted throughout middle school and high school–in all subjects. If children need extra help, this is the time to provide it–not after the fact, when underprepared students arrive at college and find themselves feeling overwhelmed.
    For students who do not have the opportunity to go to college, the ability to think, read, and write well is even more important.
    School systems must start focusing on the hiring of well-educated and imaginative teachers, people who have the skills to make substantive learning interesting. To hire such teachers, the states will need to spend money.
    From my point of view, putting public funds into better teaching in primary and secondary schools makes much more sense for the future of the students than continuing the destructive practice of adding high-salary positions to the already-thick bureaucracy of post-secondary public education.

    • I understand and agree with your comments. Two further observations:
      1) It’s not just money. My understanding is that, in Scandinavia, local teachers are considered a highly respected professional group and treated as such (like doctors, lawyers, etc.). I don’t think US teachers get similar respect.
      2) I agree that more funds may be required (though I know there’s an active debate about whether we’re getting our money’s worth even today). The related political question is who should pay for it? Local? State? Federal? In what proportions? Should the Feds (or states) be allowed to dictate unfunded mandates and standards? Can the details of primary and secondary education be left to the communities, or is it so important that control needs to be centralized at the state or federal level?

      See? I can shoot out a stream of questions/issues on almost any issue! I’d be interested, in particular, in the group’s thoughts on who should pay and, presumably, control the education agenda.

  • The problem is definitely not just money. I like the Scandinavian model of teacher education. To become certified, a person must not only study his/her intended subject–and philosophy of education–at university; there is also a lengthy period of practice under the tutelage of experienced teachers. If you want to become a teacher in these countries, you’ve really got to want to. And, with the admission to the profession this demanding, you are probably in it for the right reasons–sharing your knowledge with kids in an imaginative and encouraging way. Because becoming a teacher in hard and selective, teachers in Scandinavia receive a lot more respect than they do here.
    I believe strongly in local control of education to the highest degree that is practical. If our teachers were as strong as those in most of Scandinavia, far fewer administrators would be needed. There likely should be a national curriculum (who should collaborate on building and updating that?!); strong teachers, supported by a solid principal, who involve parents in positive ways, could probably tailor this curriculum to the needs of most individual students. This is prime local input.
    Probably, teachers’ salaries should be paid by the Feds–but only if we can institute a tough system of teacher education a la Scandinavia. School buildings should also be paid for by the Feds, to insure that all facilities are of uniformly good quality. Supplies, maintenance, food, transportation, and any extra-curricular activities should be paid for by the local community.
    Such a system would be very expensive, especially in start-up. However, well-educated children are our future, and they are worth the cost.
    Sadly, I don’t see this kind of major educational reform taking place in the U.S. It would, first of all, mean diverting vast amounts of money from what President Eisenhower warned us about!

  • Here are a few tables and articles available on-line that pertain to spending on education by country and to the details of teacher-education in Scandinavia–esp. Finland, which is generally considered to have the most effective national education program worldwide:

    1. List of Countries by Spending on Education (% of GDP)
    2. Mercatus Center, Goeoge Mason University: “K-12 Spending Per Student in the OECD” Veronique de Rugy. 20 DEC 2010
    3. SIPRI Yearbook 2013–World’s Top 15 Military Spenders
    4. Stanford Center For Opportunity Policy in Education: “The Secret to Finland’s Success: Educating Teachers” SEPT 2010
    5. BC Teachers’ Federation: “Finland’s Education is Tops: Here’s Why
    6. Academia. edu Discussion Paper: “School Autonomy and Educational Performance: Within-country Evidence” Marijn Verschelde, 2010/82
    7.”How Finnish Schools Shine” The Guardian, 21 MAY 2012 (amended)

  • To end teacher tenure as part of educational reform strikes me as illogical. If the U.S. were to follow the Scandinavian model of teacher training, those applicants who make it through such a highly-demanding process should be considered tenured. Clearly, even tenured teachers should be removable for cause, but that cause should not be based on the performance of their students on standardized measures of achievement. A teacher should be removable only by a consensus of his colleagues, principal, and community.

    About pay: all teachers should have the same pay, based on the number of years they have taught as tenured professionals. The pay level should in no way be based on student performance on tests. Nor should pay be based on teacher performance on tests; to complete the lengthy training to become a teacher, they have already been extensively tested. I can see the argument for extra pay for teachers with exceptionally demanding assignments, but, in general, I don’t favor the idea, as it is open to abuse.
    There would need to be regular continuing study requirements for tenured teachers, just as there are now for licensed physicians.

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