Ironies of the Education Crisis: Stop Selling Hope

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Angry Bear guest poster RJS has a sobering list of news on education budget crises responses across the nation. It’s very much worth reader attention. The writer notes the irony:

while there are those in congress who pretend to be worried about leaving debt for the next generation, they are leaving the next generation without the tools to compete in an increasingly challenging future…

There’s another side to the problem of any disrupted school year or block of school time. College admissions seasons are dependent on graduating classes from high schools. In other words, graduating classes set the tone for the two and four year schools, as freshman classes are a block, excluding transfers, that form an institutional narrative. Not all freshman will actually make it through to graduation at least in four years and six is a more typical average. Off the top of my head it’s probably less than a quarter of students who will finish a degree in four years and that’s probably a conservative number.

The problem, however, has to do with that representative student who enters grade school, then moves on to high school without having a mastery of the fundamentals (whatever this may mean. I have a good idea of what it means in my own experience, who started off as a good speller, then fell off that wagon in and about the fifth grade when I took it upon myself to stand on my chair during class and fell from the good graces of the school gods). That student and his or her class will go to college carrying non-mastery with them. A few bad years of grade school, for whatever reason, let’s say it’s cuts to music (and this student has talent for music) will carry through to freshman experience. I see this every day in my own teaching. And I see how difficult it is for students to develop a skill without prior reinforcement. Certain cognitive experiences cut across disciplines. (One item I won’t cover in this post is the relentless push for student to go to college in the first place, which is, I think, a problem as state learning standards don’t map well to the college expectation.)

This translates to generational damage that can’t really be repaired. It’s my own estimation that a “schooling/learning generation” is about seven to ten years: a senior in high school doesn’t have a lot in common with a fifth grader, in other words. Worse, a student can never have their fifth grade opportunities back. Once they’re gone they’re gone. Put in other terms, if a senior in high school doesn’t read Plato’s Republic, their experience of that text as a senior is gone “forever” once they graduate.

Cuts to school programming now will always prove a deficit for higher education in the future. People who don’t teach might suspect that classrooms filled with students who are just trying catch up is a more difficult teaching job. Good college teaching is about encouraging students to learn independently of guidance; if students have difficulty learning independently, they will certainly not be of much assistance to the team, to the boss, or to company, or to the lab, or to the non-profit. Opportunities for learning at school cannot be made up. If a class size goes from 20 to 40 for next year’s kids this effectively degrades learning opportunity and prohibits the effectiveness of teachers, whose decisions have already been hamstrung by testing culture. I’ve pretty much come to the decision that those things students learn in high school don’t prepare them for college work.

One mistake RJS makes in his conclusion is this question of the “challenging future,” which is a problem of logic. Let’s articulate a thesis: is any future more challenging than the futures of the past if people are given an honest opportunity to prepare for their daily lives (think Benjamin Franklin here)? Americans in 1860 certainly faced a challenging future, just as those Europeans who turned 1 in 1899 and would soon go to war.

We have years to guide us. I can’t say that any future will be more challenging than the next. I can stress to the people I know that if we take away opportunities now, those opportunities are gone and will never come back. This is what Lancaster as “Moonlight” Graham meant when he said that once it’s gone it’s gone, but at least he had other possibilities. We seem to be forgetting this in our endless memory loss.

I’ve been arguing that we have a learning crisis in the United States. This crisis has nothing to do with math scores. The crisis can be articulated in ironic terms: we want an educated population but we want it on a shoestring. If the counterargument to my claim is that we really really don’t have the money for competent public education, then my answer is this: stop selling hope and definitely stop selling practicality.

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