Things I Think About Education – Part I

Education may be the last bastion of mediocrity left in America. It also has become a contributing factor behind the massive inequality that now plagues our country at levels not seen since the lead up to the Great Depression.

By “education,” I mean our formal educational system. Fortunately, learning is far more important than education. And, fortunately, motivated people will figure out how to learn what’s important, with or without a strong educational system behind them. Moreover, there are still some great teachers in the system and pockets of excellence throughout, so the situation isn’t as bad as it could be. But it’s getting worse.

A lot is a stake. A poor or mediocre system imposes a cost. It diminishes not only the prospects of individuals but also the prospects of our society.

Our individual and collective output is highly dependent upon our capacity. When our children don’t get the education or training they need to succeed in a technologically driven economy, and when high school and college graduates can’t communicate effectively, can’t do simple math, can’t analyze and solve problems, can’t anticipate and function well in a complex, ambiguous world, don’t have an understanding of what they don’t know, and can’t tell the difference between charlatans and people with serious ideas, then our aggregate capacity and output suffers, as do our democratic principles, systems and institutions. Indeed, our future is diminished.

Now I realize many people don’t agree with my premise. They think our system is strong. I think they’re dead wrong.

Part I of II

There are pockets of excellence, of course. Those pockets exist in the K-12 age bracket as well as higher ed. As for the latter though, our nation’s true strength lies in our world-class graduate programs. The state of our undergraduate colleges is not good (again, with notable exceptions, particularly in engineering and the physical sciences).

If you can fog a mirror, I can get you into a college. And that’s about all it takes to graduate from many of them, too.

Standards and expectations have been falling for decades. A friend of mine has three girls who attended an elite girl’s school (by “elite,” I mean one that caters to people with lots of money and, therefore, has a privileged student body comprised of kids borne to smart, high-achieving parents). All three attended elite colleges. Each said high school was more rigorous than college.

A college student once told me that high school in his home country was more rigorous than college in America (at least the one he was attending). His home country was in Africa.

An employer I talked to in Pennsylvania had to send its new hires to community college to bring them up to an 8th grade level of math, the level required to operate the equipment in its manufacturing plant. The new hires had high school diplomas, but they hadn’t managed to get an education along the way.

Such is the overall state of much of education in America today. And I don’t draw this conclusion only from anecdotal evidence. There is ample scholarly work and other evidence that paint a dire picture.

Many high school graduates can’ t even write or do simple arithmetic. Most don’t know what the EU is (see my prior post) much less why it might be important to us. Many college graduates can’t write a coherent paragraph or even put together a respectable resume. Something is seriously amiss.

Frankly, there are only about 100 colleges I’d consider attending now that I have a better understanding of the true state of our colleges — well, perhaps I could stretch the list to 150 if I were in an overly generous mood. But there are over 4,000 undergraduate institutions. You do the math.

As for the lower grades, things are a mess in many places. The superintendent of the Reading, Pa., public school system once told me that one of his biggest challenges was 6th-graders getting pregnant. And he had guards patrolling the high school cafeteria. Metal detectors are common in many districts. Do we really think that running schools like prisons is the answer?

But the problem isn’t restricted to poverty-ridden urban districts. And it’s not an entirely new phenomena. I attended a small rural high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Looking back, it’s obvious the quality of our overall educational experience was very poor. School was primarily a social experience. I rarely had to take a book home. We had some teachers who could bore a rock. Yet no one seemed to care.

So what are some of the reasons for our systematic underperformance?

Here are just a few:

  • Formal education is a system where mediocrity and poor performance are tolerated. You don’t have to be good to be a teacher or administrator. Some are. Indeed, some are very good. But many aren’t. And, apparently, that’s O.K. After all, there are very few competitive forces exerting any real pressure on the system.

The current state of affairs is driven in large part by the fact that our systems of education are not student-centric. The interests of faculty, staff and alumni typically trump those of the students in most institutions. I’ve seen it in K-12, and I’ve witnessed it first-hand at the collegiate level.

In colleges, we’re more interested in teaching what the professors want to teach (i.e., what they know or what they have spent considerable time researching and writing about in their dissertations) than what the students actually need to know or are interested in learning.

  • Our model is deeply flawed. In K-12, we seem to think effective teaching just happens. So we fail to afford our teachers the time and support they need to excel in the classroom. Teaching a class well requires a lot of preparation, yet we deny most of our teachers the time to prepare. We expect them to grade papers on their own time, so they’re incentivized to give objective exams that are easier and quicker to grade.

Frankly, I don’t know how good teachers manage it. I don’t know how they all don’t burn out. I don’t know how they take the abuse some students, parents and administrators heap on them.

I respect good K-12 teachers immensely, in part because they’re doing something I know I’m not strong or good enough to do.

  • Another culprit is the widespread acceptance of an educational philosophy advanced by 19th century industrialists that caused us to deeply embed our formal educational system with the principles of indoctrination and compliance. Perhaps it’s because that’s what our civic and business leaders wanted: well-behaved, compliant citizens and workers. Or perhaps it’s merely because that’s what the teachers and administrators wanted. In any case, we seem to be more concerned with dispensing “knowledge” and rewarding regurgitation and compliance than we are in creating independent, deep thinkers and fostering sound judgment and wisdom.
  • We also have compartmentalized learning. Even the so-called liberal arts colleges (so-called because the vast majority that call themselves that truly aren’t) have followed suit. Integrated or interdisciplinary approaches to education are disfavored in highly compartmentalized, politicized academic organizations. If only life were so nearly segmented. Is it any wonder our graduates struggle with complex real-life problems and often think in overly simplistic and compartmentalized ways?
  • We often rely on a model of instruction that fails to engage its participants in active learning. Too many of our teachers think students learn by sitting and listening. We expect teenage boys to sit passively and listen attentively to uninspired lectures and then are surprised when many either drop out or underperform.

Is it any wonder most students are bored by school? If they weren’t, I’d be really concerned. So long as they’re bored, there is hope.

To counter this boredom, some teachers resort to gimmicks and stunts. I’m embarrassed for them, even though they don’t seem to be embarrassed for themselves. Surely, quite a few of them must realize it isn’t working.

If students are bored, the teacher or the system, or both, are doing something wrong. Yet usually we blame the kids. Or their parents. Or the admissions office. Or our culture. Or whatever.

We know a lot about how people learn, yet we fail to incorporate that knowledge into our methods. Instead, too often we fall back to what we know best and, quite frankly, to what comes easiest: teach others the way we were taught, whether it was effective or not. We’ll tell the students what we think they should know and insist they memorize it. And then give them silly recognition tests to reward their memorization efforts and punish the slackers. Oh my.

  • We have allowed standards to erode and expectations to fall. If you show up at just about any school, they’ll graduate you (many will even if you don’t show up).

A’s are the most common grade given in colleges today. At private nonprofit colleges (full disclosure: I was the president of such a college) roughly half the grades given (I intentionally did not write earned) are A’s. C’s are a rarity at the vast majority of schools. If your GPA is below a 3.0 (a B average), something is seriously wrong. Knowing what I now know about grade inflation, if I were hiring newly minted graduates from most colleges, I wouldn’t even consider anyone with a GPA under 3.75.

Our students have responded as one would expect: the amount of time they spend reading, studying and writing has fallen considerably over the past generation or two. Rigor is an alien concept in most schools and programs (with notable exceptions of course).

It matters not to most people. Alumni judge their schools by enrollment (if it’s growing, it’s good), their sports teams’ won-loss records and championships (the only thing some alumni and trustees care about), and the appearance of their campuses. Student outcomes garner much less attention.

  • Teaching no longer attracts our smartest.  You would expect a system that tolerates mediocrity and poor performance to have trouble attracting top talent into its ranks. And you’d be right. The sad truth is, few of our best college students are majoring in education. But it is the major where you’ll find many of our poorest students. (Of course, there are exceptions; however, the exceptions are not sufficient to save the system, especially after factoring in the high attrition rate within the K-12 teaching ranks.)

Pay is part of the problem. Smart, talented people can make far more in other sectors of our economy. As you would expect, people within the system think the solution is raising salaries. But many people outside the system (including me) know that the principal effect of raising salaries without changing the system is rewarding mediocrity even more. Throwing more money at this problem won’t fix it. It could be part of an overall solution, but, alone, it falls well short a fix.

Working conditions are a problem too, which I mentioned above (lack of adequate prep time, large classes with a wide range of cognitive abilities, hostile work environments created by inept administrators or aggressive parents, or both).

Frankly, I’m amazed that any really smart, conscientious, high performing people still go into education (people like your mother, Vera). But I also recognize that many of them don’t, and many who do don’t stay.

The attrition rate is sky high within the K-12 system. It’s lower at the college level because, quite frankly, it’s a much easier job. In fact, a tenured position at many colleges is a downright cushy part-time job.

Of course, even many of the dedicated teachers generally aren’t well trained. Deficiencies in our teacher-education programs are legendary and well documented. And college professors generally receive no instruction in teaching. They learn a subject deeply, and the assumption is they will magically become effective teachers in that topic. The fact that smart people make such stupid assumptions should tell you something about the system.

  • Many of our curricula are seriously outdated. Too often we’re teaching kids things don’t need to know and not teaching some of the things that are crucial (such as finance and life skills). And we still try to shoehorn students into our models irrespective of their interests or talents. As a result, much time is wasted and opportunities lost. Most colleges are still basing their curriculum on the model adopted by Harvard a couple centuries ago. You’d think the world hasn’t changed. Indeed, perhaps it hasn’t on many high school and college campuses.
  • The system’s dysfunctionality also stems, in large part, from the lack of accountability that permeates the system. I’ve never seen a system that blames its failures on everyone else but stubbornly refuses to accept any responsibility for its own shortcomings. Or that quibbles over the trivial and insignificant while tabling indefinitely or endlessly debating the crucial issues. Often, the faculty loves to get exercised about the trivial, yet rarely shows the same zeal for the things that truly matter to students and their futures. The reason is simple: students aren’t the most important constituency at most schools.
  • We tolerate massive inequality within the system. The gap between the schools in Haddonfield, New Jersey and those in Chester, Pennsylvania, not far in distance across the Delaware River but light years apart in most respects, is vast. The gap between an undergraduate education at Washington & Lee University, which has more money in the bank than it could even dream of spending, and nearly all the other Virginia private colleges is vast as well.

To make matters worse, you have a much better chance of being admitted to a well-resourced college if you come from a wealthy or privileged background. In short, our educational system is not a meritocracy and it most certainly is not a system that affords equal opportunity to its students; rather, it’s a system that helps perpetuate and, indeed, contributes to inequality within our society. It helps create and foster what Chris Arnade calls a “faux meritocracy run by a global migratory educated class.”

Tradition is a pathetic excuse for inertia and sloth

Now, it’s true that there is much good within education today, which I have given short shrift to in this post — for the obvious reason: what’s good doesn’t need fixed. And it’s also true that my observations are neither new nor unique. Indeed, they have been voiced by many others, many of whom are far more experienced and knowledgeable in these matters than I.

Such observations have spurred a school reform movement, which, unfortunately, has often been as misguided as the system it seeks to reform. Others have acted on their perception of our system’s inadequacies by removing their kids from the system. Home schooling is a growing phenomenon in 21st-century America. Now there’s a surprise.

To be clear, my main grip isn’t with the teachers; rather, it’s with the system. Caring, well-intended people, many of whom are quite capable and some of whom are quite remarkable, can be found at most schools. Yet the system pulls people down and dilutes their desire and performance. So I suppose in the end it is about people: systems don’t exist in a vacuum; they are the product of people’s choices, competencies, values and priorities.

What’s abundantly clear to me is that it’s really hard to excel in a system that values conformity and the interests of its internal agents (teachers and administrators) above those whom the system is supposed to serve (students). Fixing a malfunctioning system like this is both amazingly easy and incredibly hard if not impossible.

“Care deeply about our students and be very good at what we do.”

When I was a college president, I explained it in simple terms to make the problem manageable. I said, “Our task (indeed, our mission) is to care deeply about our students and be very good at what we do.”

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Will the system allow its ranks to be filled by people who are very good at what they do? Probably not.

Our misguided system of tenure is partly to blame. It’s nearly impossible to hold a tenured collegiate faculty member accountable for anything. And they know it. The predictable consequence of such a system is organizations replete with people who aren’t very good at what they do (or who are “O.K.” but far less good than they could be) or who are just flat out lazy. Professors who have “retired in place” can be found at all schools and are a common gripe of college presidents who feel hostage to a system that not only fosters but protects mediocrity and poor performance.

Fortunately, the system doesn’t diminish everyone. I suspect nearly all institutions have a cadre of amazing teachers whom I’d be honored to have teach my kids. But it’s the ratio that’s troubling. And the curriculum. And the predominate teaching methods. The cadre of excellence is often overshadowed by the mediocre and downright poor.

Something has to give eventually, one would think. But I’ve learned that dysfunctionality and underperformance can continue for a very long time — perhaps indefinitely.

At K-12 we’ve dealt with the problem, in part, by creating quasi-private schools in our well-heeled suburbs and expensive, elite, urban schools accessible only to a privileged few.

In higher ed, we’ve been propping up an underperforming undergraduate system with debt. Colleges have taken on a tremendous amount of debt this century to finance their arms race (mainly, buildings which they know will help attract more tuition-paying students to fund administrators and faculty salaries, etc., because, in America [at least in higher ed], aesthetics count for a lot). Institutional and government debt also props up an antiquated system of small rural colleges, whose need and role in society have long ago been diminished but nonetheless are sustained by massive debt-financed public subsidies (even the so-called private nonprofit colleges, which aren’t private in any strict sense of the word since they, too, receive these massive public subsidies).

But even more troubling than the escalating institutional debt and wasted pubic subsidies is the amount of debt taken on by students and their parents: roughly $1.4 trillion. The millennial generation is now filled with debt serfs. We (the baby boomers and generation Xers), and the institutions we run, have done a great disservice to our youth.

That can’t continue. Eventually, more and more people will come to realize they’re being duped. And eventually taxpayers will tire of absorbing the mounting losses from defaulted loans (default rates are very high). Or at least you would think so. But I’m no longer certain.

Will students, parents and society continue to spend a lot and go deeply into debt for something that’s not worth much?

I remain perplexed why so many kids choose to attend schools with such poor outcomes and prospects, but it continues to happen. Is it any wonder many college graduates are stuck in jobs that don’t even require a college education? The return on investment (ROI, another concept that makes academics cringe) is very poor or even negative at many colleges and in many programs. Yet students continue to enroll at those institutions and in those programs.

But how is an 18-year-old to know?

As a college president, I don’t think a prospect (high school student who was considering our school) or parent ever asked about our outcomes. What evidence did we have that our students were learning, much less learning the things society valued? What evidence did we have we were honing their critical thinking abilities? What skills did we help them acquire? What was our job-placement record? What evidence did we have that we were “really good at what we do?” Strangely, no one seemed to care — neither the faculty, nor the students, nor the parents, nor the alumni (with very few exceptions).

Students and parents were more concerned about a lot of the superficial stuff that wouldn’t have much or any bearing on their long-term prospects — things like the appearance of the campus (hence, the greater focus on buildings and landscaping than programs), the price (when they should have been concerned with value), size of the institution and classes (in reality, you can encounter very poor quality at any size school and even in small classes), etc.

Trustees are often guided primarily by sentimentality. And faculty and administrators, by self-interest.

And, of course, more than a third of the prospects and their parents seem most concerned about the sports programs. Sports is what keeps most small private nonprofit colleges afloat. Parents and students are willing to pay more and to borrow a lot for the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate sports, even at the Division III level (which isn’t allowed to provide athletic scholarships).

Prospects also were concerned with the “feel” or whether the college was a good “fit.” Rationality took a back seat to emotions in many people’s decision-making process. And colleges are very good at appealing to the non-rational side of the human brain. And they make it very hard for anyone to uncover the data and information that bears on the true quality and value of the faculty or educational experience. They want you to make an emotional decision.

So is it any wonder our system produces so little relative to the amount of our societal investment? Is it any wonder that the real issue isn’t money.

Fortunately for us, smart people will learn, and curious and serious students can learn something wherever they happen to be (even at a school that is mediocre at best). And if we have enough of such people, they will innovate, discover and excel at what they do, and the rest of us will reap at least part of the rewards from such innovation and discoveries.

But this is no way to run a railroad. What it is a prescription for things like gross inequality, Brexit, Trump, a dysfunctional Congress, societal and political polarization, racism, and, ultimately, civil strife.

So what would I do if I had a school-age kid today?

  • If I were the parent of a young child today, I’d pay a lot more attention to our educational choices than I did when I was in that situation in the ’80s and ’90s. I’d seek out those pockets of excellence and, if necessary, move to be near them (although I realize that’s a luxury few can afford).

I’d seriously consider a Montessori school. I’d definitely consider a school that truly valued and supported great teachers and showed a genuine respect for the students and their interests and development as independent thinkers.

  • I’d also try to resist the temptation of thinking education as something we outsource. I’d take a more active role at home in nurturing my kid’s innate curiosity and ensuring his or her interests were allowed to run. By that, I mean I’d be more concerned with attending to my kid’s true interests, talents and aspirations and not assuming their needs were being met by the school. I’d be more inclined to have the mindset that our home was a school and each of us was a teacher.

We’d take more trips, exploring the earth, nature, politics and science first hand. I’d be more concerned with providing active, engaging learning experiences. I’d be more concerned in ensuring learning was fun and alluring.

I’d be more concerned with creating a lifelong learner than one who was merely a high-achieving student within a system whose values I don’t fully share.

  • I’d also probably place less emphasis on sports (unless the kid truly had professional level abilities and desire, which few do), not that we were sports crazy. What I would do, however, is heed the advice given by the Pittsburgh Pirates coach to the parents of our community youth baseball league — advice that was soundly rejected by all of us parents (at least as best I can recall). Pointing to a nearby hill, he said to us, “Go sit on that hill.” In other words, let the kids play. Don’t be obsessed with their achievement. Don’t pressure them. Don’t take the fun out of the game. For heaven’s sake, it’s play. Let them be children!

But it wasn’t in the nature of parents in that high-achieving, Type A suburb not to be heavily involved. I absolutely love Pittsburgh, but one thing I don’t like about it is its obsession with sports. In hindsight, I would have stayed away more. I would have allowed the kids to play without my oversight and the pressure of my presence. I’ve come to learn there is a big difference between play and performance, and that sometimes the best gift a parent can give is to let the kids alone.

Part II of this post (choosing a college) including its conclusion will be posted Wednesday.

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