WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE SCHOOL SYSTEM?
by Lawrence Wilson, MD
© March 2011, The Center For Development, Inc.
Two prominent economists were recently asked what is the greatest challenge facing America. Both agreed it is not the gas prices, terrorism or health care, but the decline of the American system of education.
In summary, the problems are:
1. Declining test scores and knowledge learned. Test scores and knowledge is worse than most industrialized nations. This is especially a problem if America wishes to stay competitive in science and technology, an area she has done will in.
2. Skyrocketing costs. This is well-known. Most is due to high pensions, and administrative costs.
3. High dropout rates in some areas, up to 20-30% or more. In other words, too many children are very unhappy in school and just decide to leave, regardless of the laws.
4. Other problems of the children, such as ADD, ADHD, autism, delayed development, dyslexia and other learning disorders. These just impair school performance more, and raise costs tremendously in some cases to pay for special education classes, remedial programs and more.
5. Other social problems that affect the school systems. These include teen pregnancy, drug abuse, which is getting worse and worse, high divorce rates, illness in families, financial hardships, and more.
The last two items listed are not school problems, per se, but they greatly affect the school system, as they add to its burdens and problems in a staggering way, at times. In other words, the problems end up in the schools and affecting education.
CAUSES OF THE PROBLEMS OF OUR SCHOOLS
1. THE POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC WAY THAT PUBLIC EDUCATION IS STRUCTURED IN AMERICA
Let us begin with a purely economic look at the public school system. Like health care, many politicians and others are loathe to apply simple economic principles to the schools. This is terribly sad, as they are economic systems, first and foremost.
A MONOPOLY ECONOMIC SYSTEM
The most critical problem in education is its structure. The public school system is a monopoly. This is the least flexible and most difficult type of system to change imaginable!
Let us understand this very well. A monopoly in business terms means there is no meaningful competition. This means there is little real incentive to change and modernize in any fashion.
Voucher programs and charter schools in a few states help level the field, but in reality public schools still receive many perks, tax breaks and other advantages that are not given to charter schools, voucher programs and similar attempts to break the government school monopoly.
A GOVERNMENT MONOPOLY
A government monopoly is the worst kind of monopoly imaginable. Unlike private monopolies such as the former monopoly of AT&T (American Telegraph and Telephone Company) in the phone industry, and similar ones in some other industries, the school monopoly is paid for by everyone without a choice. Money for it comes from your taxes. If you don’t pay up, you are jailed or would lose your home. This makes this monopoly even harder to break.
A UNIONIZED GOVERNMENT MONOPOLY
To make things much worse, teachers are highly unionized, more than almost all other industries. These unions are the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association or NEA.
Unions can be a good thing. However, in the schools they are not at all good. They spend millions or more to maintain the status quo and oppose change that might cause reduced employment or reduced pay of teachers.
Among the many negative features the unions have insisted upon are:
1. Tenure. This is the system that once a teacher has taught for a few years without being fired, they cannot be fired except for horrible crimes, even if they are not good teachers. The ones who are hurt by this rule are the children, and they are the ones that are supposed to be the beneficiaries, not the ones hurt.
2. Generous pensions and other benefits. Teachers, we often hear, make little money. It is true they do not make as much as some jobs. However, they work only 9-10 months a year and have excellent health care, and retirement benefits. Some earn every penny them make, and deserve more. However, many do not deserve to earn more, yet the unions are always pressing for more benefits, whether or not the teacher’s performance is up to any standards.
3. Blocking change and innovation. The teacher’s unions billions lobbying local, state and federal governments to maintain the status quo and opposing any program that would affect their members. In other words, they work for themselves, not for the children, no matter what they say. They support mainly Democrat party candidates who will stop education choice and change in education, since that is anti-union.
RESULTS OF THE HIGHLY UNIONIZED, GOVERNMENT MONOPOLY
1. Education is still in the dark ages, technologically. Education in America and most other nations, is one of the least technologically advanced sectors of the economy.
I enjoy the work of R. Buckminster Fuller. He wrote a wonderful book called Education Automation that I read in 1973. It predicted much of what is happening today, almost 40 years later. He also predicted that education would improve dramatically, thanks to video, compact discs, widespread use of televisions in schools and so forth.
He forgot about the unions and the government monopoly in education. One can learn so much more in a much more exciting fashion using modern technology such as television, for starters.
For instance, there is no comparison between The History Channel, with its dramatizations of history compared to a boring teacher or reading from a boring textbook. No wonder the children are not excited about school
Newer technologies are even better, such as interactive learning programs and much, much more. That computers are hardly used in school is a shame, as again their capabilities are huge. Instead, money is spent on outdated and politically correct textbooks that the children hate in some instances.
2. The consumer be dammed. One obvious result of government funding of education and union power is that the children and their parents are not in charge of the system at all. It is a bloated bureaucracy controlled from above, in almost all cases. Whoever funds education controls it.
3. Change is very slow, no matter what is promised. There is simply little incentive to change.
2. OUTMODED TEACHING METHODS AND PHILOSOPHY
Teaching methods and educational philosophy in schools have changed little for the past century. Methods that we ought to question are:
1. A highly authoritarian system that forces all the children to learn at a pace, a place, a time, and in an order determined by a teacher's convenience or by administrative decree. This may have been necessary 100 years ago. However, modern technology and communication have changed the situation.
Even without modern technology, Maria Montessori found that children could have a different type of relationship with a properly trained teacher - not an adversarial relationship. Children can be trusted to learn at their own pace, in their own order, in a properly designed environment. However, her innovations have not filtered into the public schools much at all.
2. The Holy Classroom. Classrooms may be good for some children, but not for others. At one time it was the only way to do things. But this is no longer true. For some, learning should be more active. Apprenticeships would be much better at times, for example, rather than sit all day surrounded by 25 others who don’t share your interest in the subject.
Home Learning Centers. Perhaps some children should have a 'home learning center' consisting of a computer and certain hook-ups. Children could learn at home any time, and get help by dialing up a central 'teacher' any time they need it, or asking another adult such as a parent. School tends to insulate and divide homes. Parents with great experience are locked out of their child’s intellectual and emotional development.
Home Schooling. This movement is growing fast, because it works. Even without using advanced technology, it is far more efficient than classrooms. This article is not about home schooling, but much more could be said in praise of home-schooling or groups of home schooled children learning together.
A few misinformed parents believe their child needs the “socialization skills” learned in classrooms. This is totally untrue, if you ever been around home-schooled children. They are as socially advanced or more so than public-schooled children, or better.
Many other arrangements are possible as well. Some small schools group children of all ages together with excellent results. The point is, we are stuck with a one-size-fits-all approach that is no better than expecting everyone to wear the same size shoes. It is terrible for a majority of the children and contributes to ADHD and hundreds of other learning problems.
3. Rewarding uncreative behavior. The child who gets the best grade is generally the one who can repeat like a parrot what the teacher says. Those who think independently and creatively are often punished for their independence. Yet creative, independent thinking is critical to modern society.
4. A negative reinforcement system. Present grading systems label children as "C" students, or even failures when they just learn a little slower than others. This is pure insanity. They are not failures. Some children learn faster than others. Some learn differently than others. Negative reinforcement through grading may be fine for some, but is harmful for many.
It also sets up a reward system for learning that does not help students to be self-motivated. In fact, quite the opposite. The children become motivated by grades and pleasing teachers, so when they are not “forced” to learn they don’t want to bother. This is a terrible situation that is a direct result of the present public school system.
I once taught a health class to high-school dropouts, using a positive reinforcement grading system. The students were told they would all receive an A in the course. If they did not obtain a perfect score on each daily quiz, they would repeat each test until they did obtain a perfect score. Students were skeptical. But the following year ten of the twelve students decided to go back to school. Their self-esteem improved by receiving good grades and not because my standards were lower. This might be called "success-oriented education".
5. A focus on physical and intellectual, but not spiritual development. Physical and intellectual development are stressed in school. This is okay, but it ignores the basis of life, which is necessarily spiritual. By this mean that the physical world emerges from an unseen energetic world. Formerly, the bible was taught in school. This was an aspect of spirituality, though I believe it is not quite complete as it does not discuss nutrition, lifestyle and some other modern problems enough. However, the bible does teach morality, with stories of heroism and courage, and much more that is missing today from American education, in particular.
All of these aspects need developing in children, not just the ability to pass tests and please teachers by being on time and so on. This may be the worst feature of today’s public schools.
Spiritual values, such as following the truth wherever it leads, have been replaced by new values, among which the worst are censorship, revisionist history, political correctness, “relative truth”, and a culture that worships the self instead of the creator of the selves. This is the deepest failure of today’s government schools and their union members.
This they call “value-free” education, although it is anything but value-free. What they mean is it is free from traditional values, because new values have replaced these in some measure. However, there is no such thing as value-free education.
Few realize that Harvard University and most “Ivy League” colleges began as schools to train ministers. Today, however, religion is considered “value” education and is not permitted in public school. What a shame!
The importance of spiritual education is to help children to understand that their true nature is they are spiritual beings having an earth experience. They are not just bodies studying mathematics, or, heaven forbid, they may learn they are just glorified apes. Each child is a unique manifestation of the creator’s love in physical form. This is who we really are, but it is not taught in school, or even in most Sunday schools.
Ever since the 1960s or so, all references to religion and spirituality were forced out of the public schools. This, I believe, has contributed greatly to the decay of the public school system. No amount of money, technology, new highly-paid teachers or other fancy programs can compensate for this serious problem with education.
6. Forced Learning. J. Krishnamurti wrote a small book entitled Education and the Significance of Life. He stated that the purpose of education is to help a person find that which he or she truly loves to do.
This does not mean children should not learn the 2basics of mathematics, science and literature. However, children do need to explore freely and not be bound by hours of homework, in order to find what each enjoys. The present system has a hidden presumption - that if children did what they liked, they would not become productive members of society. So children are forced to learn at the teacher's pace, whether or not the child has any interest. Again, it is little wonder that many rebel against the system and stop learning altogether.
The only way to fix the structure of education is to return control to parents in the form of school choice. I doubt there will be much constructive change otherwise. An excellent older book about deregulation of education, loaded with statistics and excellent reasoning, is Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Here are a few suggestions that I doubt will be implemented unless a crisis intervenes.
1. Separate education from the government. Funding ideally should be private, through foundations or other means. Vouchers and charter schools are improvements, but still rely on the government and so are still subject to bureaucratic control of the curriculum and the structure of the system.
The Milton Friedman Foundation is dedicated to choice in education. Like health care in America, the current system is over-regulated, run by a monopoly and, in large part, subsidized by the government.
2. Get rid of the unions. This is hard to do as they are quite entrenched. However, they depend on laws that make union membership almost mandatory. If these unfair laws were repealed so that teachers could choose freely and were not subtly forced to join a union, the situation might be different.
Once again, unions would not a bad thing if they served the children, the real subjects of the education system. Too often, however, they just serve their members, or they really serve no one but the leadership, which is often communist in their attitudes. The teachers unions are among the most left-wing in the nation, another reason the school system is failing. They simply do not believe in American values of hard work, excellence, truth and other simple values that build strong nations and strong youth.
3. Restore spiritual values in school. Without this aspect of life, the rest makes little sense to many children and adults as well. In their effort to secularize America, the left-wing people in charge of the schools have succeeded well.
With this has come much more premarital sex, drugs, pregnancy in the teen years, violence, delinquency and so many more evils that affect our young people. It is time to reverse the trend and realize that without a spiritual perspective, which is not the same as a state religion, life is not that meaningful for many people.
1. Illich, I., Deschooling Society.
2. Krsihnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life.
ADDENDUM - QUESTIONS ABOUT CHOICE IN EDUCATION
2) Does school choice violate the Constitution? The First Amendment prohibits Congress from "making any law respecting an establishment of religion, or preventing the free exercise thereof".
School choice does not mean at all that the government 'establishes' or favors a particular church or religion. We presently give tax deductions to churches. Yet no one claims this is unconstitutional, although it is a form of support of these groups. The intent of the Constitution is to avoid a state religion and preserve choice. Choice in education does not violate this intent at all.
2) Are the poor really able to choose the best school for their children? Elitists believe that only a select few can make good choices for children’s education. Selecting a school involves a similar process as picking a car mechanic or a doctor. It is the height of arrogance to believe that only a few are able to choose a school for their children. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, the best principle is to give power to the people, not to central authorities.
3) Wouldn't educational choice ruin the public schools and cause chaos? The answer is no. What it would do is force the public schools to improve by offering people competing options. This is what the unions and some others who desire total control do not want to contend with.
4) What if school choice doesn't work? It does work. In fact, many home-schooled children easily are outperforming the government schools hands down at a far lower cost and requiring far less time to learn as well.
5) If Japan, Germany and other nations have workable public schools, why can't we? The fast answer is these nations are not in better shape than we are. In fact, many are in worse shape. Japan is so competitive the suicide rate among students is enormous.
Other nations spend almost as much as we do. Many are more corrupt than ours. So we cannot look to Europe for answers, just as in health care options. Better to look to our heritage as a nation that believes in the power of individuals to solve problems without government interference.
What is the proper role of government in education? It is to establish and maintain laws that protect parents’ rights to educate their children as they see fit. Systems that are successful will be copied. Those that are not will die a natural death. Those who cannot pay for an education will be helped by private charities and perhaps a government safety net, as we have for welfare.
However, I doubt this would be necessary if taxes were lowered to permit parents to keep more of their funds. I do not mean only the income tax, which is already not paid by poor people. I mean all the other taxes one sees on one’s phone, electric and other bills, gas taxes, corporate taxes added to the price of all goods and even services, sales taxes and so many more.
The most insidious tax our government levies is inflation. This must stop by putting the money back on sound footing such as gold and silver, not paper money that can be printed as needed. Read about Inflation, The Hidden Tax, by clicking here.