Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Lawrence Johnson on FB has sparked yet another conversation related to education and culture, drawing on an example of textbook company incentives and the seeming de-emphasis of the value of hard work required for excellence in learning: use this tool and student performance will improve. The conversation is proceeding but as I don’t like the FB firewall, I’ve decided to provide a more open discussion on the weblog.

From my point of view the United States is suffering two crises: a learning crisis and a governance crisis. The learning crises is described as a growing disconnect between higher and secondary education, the measurable lack of critical thinking skills of incoming freshman classes, and the amount of resources in education systems, which the current budget won’t really change. The second crises has to do with how we govern ourselves and the belief wall, where every issue and subject is viewed through the ideological glass. This crises is a long one. What’s the significant difference between the Conservative Coalitions now and for Roosevelt? Witness the current gripe on the right on the subject of the CRU Hack. The list of ergo propter hocks is astounding. The best writing on this is still Orwell. When a Congress person can claim miming a baby as grand appeal in the commons, the governance crises shines through in all its ironic illumination. What was it that Twain said about how fast lies can run?

Budgets are lots of things. They are expressions of value. They are also expressions of the future, as every budget will reflect the language of the next. I write this to suggest that the defense vs education budget is a statement of value in the marketplace of ideas and to also suggest that such a budget signals the root of several other problems not directly tied to line items.

In economic terms, things these days are overvalued, which is bad news for homeowners and solar cell makers. A computer’s value, for example, can be assessed by how it’s used and by its potential. Even the stingiest laptop can create what only a movie studio could do years ago. Laptops have lots of “potential” value that goes beyond their “market” value. The value of a thing is tied to the value of its potential, which, is, of course, difficult to turn into data, as good carpenters and surgeons know. We can, to extend the notion, re-conceptualize the value of a college degree to include the amount of effort students and faculty put into gaining learning vs. market vs. system costs. People who waste their time making minimum effort cost the public system more. If it’s a top dollar school, what is fifty thousand dollars of student effort even for best and brightest? If the answer is a grade, then individual grades are now worth $5,000 (and Shadegg would have received an F in public speaking class). But is the significance of learning tied somehow to the cost of lighting and the physical plant? Yes and No. The best answer is No.

Conclusion: Does the United States value education by investing and vesting in it? Not in my opinion. While most people agree that public education is a “need” we don’t really put the money behind it. But every politician will still claim the “need” and “value” of a college education. If you turned them around, however, they would be secretly tapping the keys to their cell phones and updating their Twitter accounts to assure their publics that they will never raise their taxes.

I often ask the question: what does an automobile really cost? This is tough as we would need to assess the value of things that aren’t cars but could be used to make them, from petroleum to the cost of electricity at a given time. Here’s another way of asking the question: what is the value in not making cars? Well, we saw how the bailout responded to that question. What, therefore, would be the value of not providing excellent learning opportunities for adults? What would be the answer to that? More money for defense, I assume.

I have some solutions to the learning crises but the governance crises would see them as anarchical. One item would be to base-line teaching pay at 60K starting but at the same time make education schools very difficult to enter. (My students and I came to the conclusion the other day that to raise pass rates all an institution has to do is triple tuition rates. It’s the same idea but with a different context.) The other incentive is to eliminate grading systems and move to performance measures described in narrative terms. Not A but “this is what this person did and can do,” given that forklift operators know how to drive forklifts and surgeons typically don’t slice into that 30% percent of the brain that they missed on the exam. This method would make learning transfer easier to understand grade to grade as it would involve answering the question why does grade 9 come before grade 10 in ways other than the obvious. There’s a fairly deep elitism in this proposition, but I don’t mind taking the heat for that.

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