Whatever else we might say about our kindergartens, grade schools, high schools, colleges and universities, they do not feel quite right to many people. They are not natural and comfortable. For the most part, the things we like about them exist in spite of the schools, not because of them. For most (admittedly not all), going to school is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Were we to get it right, formal education would likely ‘feel’ much different than it does now. As it stands, the school system is a foreign thing. For more than a hundred years, we have lived with this contrivance and it has never felt right. I do not think that it can because it is predicated upon a variety of unnatural premises. Everything about the system is difficult, awkward and forced.
The problems with our educational enterprise are structural and systemic. When it comes down to crucial funding decisions, when the rubber hits the road, powerful forces are at work to maintain the status quo. To the extent that changes take place, they have a tendency to act in favor of improving the lot of administrators and actors such as teachers. Once upon a time, teaching was near synonymous with poverty. Now, teachers are amongst the most financially powerful players in our society. This may have aided in getting better teachers and ultimately delivering a better education, but it would be foolish to think that the main goal of negotiations between teachers and school boards was the welfare of students
The current reaction to complaints about our school system has been a shift toward ‘high stakes’ testing. This, in my opinion, is worse than useless. Half of what we are testing is not that important anyway. For things that *are* important, we owe the students more than putting a gun to their head and insisting they choose between misery and failure. We have responded to complaints of poor outcomes from our educational system by making sure that our schools are capable of reporting success on high stakes exams. What do we get from that? It is no secret that teachers begin teaching to, and students begin studying for, the test itself. Do we even get successful test-takers? Do we just get systemic cheating in the preparation for, administration of and reporting of exams?
In recent times, we have come to see primary and secondary schools only as means to an end. The entire enterprise is aimed at getting people ready for their ‘real education’ either at post-secondary institutions or on the job. Youngsters are trained through secondary school with the aim of ‘getting in’ to either good post-secondary educational institutions or jobs. There is an insidious assumption there that may have once had a basis in fact but is now yet one more evil in the educational system:
We have an artificial scarcity of places in ‘top-quality’ institutions and jobs. Enrollment is strictly limited and you have to be somehow lucky to get into them. In addition, institutions that are more exclusive are prohibitively expensive for a person of average financial means. In fact, there may not be that much need for these institutions at all, at least for most undergraduate studies. We should be attempting to limit our ‘credentialing’ institutions to validating and issuing credentials and we should insist that they do this with the type of economy that our currently over-educated highly automated society allows. No (at least purely academic) degree should cost more than can comfortably be borne by the public purse. That is, the limiting factor should be interest and nothing else. We can do this, of that there is no doubt.