Education reform has become a buzzword, that is a word that is devoid of content. At age 62 I have heard talk about our failing schools all my life. After the Sputnik launch, there was a mad rush to improve science and technology training in US schools. Lots of science books and gadgets were rushed to market (or existing products promoted as being ‘educational’). That was a nice fad if you were a young boy interested in everything from dinosaurs to exploding stars. During my lifetime there have been numerous fads from the new math to phonics. Today’s latest fad is educational choice (aka vouchers).
In 1983, the Reagan administration issued a report called ‘A Nation At Risk’. It claimed that the US educational system was failing to produce the people a competitive workforce needed. Since that report education reform has become a hot topic in Republican circles, after all the silly liberals controlled the education system and this report claimed they made a hash of it. Naturally public employees (that is teachers) and their unions were blamed as the cause of poor education.
The first question one should ask is whether schools are failing. Education historian Diane Ravitch says no and has recently published a book on the subject called ‘Reign of Error’ . If on can summarize her conclusions I would say it claims US schools are not failing and where they are perceived as failing it is in areas of high poverty. She also says that the US has never done particularly well on international tests and it is not doing any worse now than it had done in the past. She also points out that there is no connection between the condition of the economy and the results of international test. Germany does relatively poorly for example. She goes into great detail but I think my summary is fair.
Still there are good reasons to wonder if education could not be improved. We have had a technology revolution in the last 50 years and there is a feeling the schools aren’t using technology to the fullest. One needs to learn how to tell the difference between fancy ideas and real solutions.
The Cato Institute is probably the most extreme among major conservative players. Their message has been to completely privatize education. With the fall of communism central planning was discredited therefore they assume the solution is to allow markets to create better schools: http://www.cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp-023.html . This simple discussion ignores the fact that the market can only decide among options, it doesn’t create those options. Unlike a market for transportation that has moved from horse carts to cars in 100 years, there isn’t any existing education market at least not at the elementary and high school level.
Still one cannot watch education expenses grow over the last few generations and not wonder if something cannot be done, but they current popular approaches, such as buying Ipads for schools are simply stabs in the dark. There is a general GOP effort to attach public employee unions as a way of lowering employee cost. There is not doubt that can lower costs but there is no proof it won’t hurt quality.
There are ideas out there, such as moving much instruction to web based learning while having the flesh and blood teacher address the more needy students. There is some possibility that it might work but it hasn’t been well tested.
In an era when many of the most strident critics of American education think that we do not teach students enough in school it may be impossible to both improve the content while reducing cost.