Saturday, September 13, 2008

Competitiveness - Part 3 - 1/13/08

[I've developed some of my ideas about education further, and will continue to do so, but this gives something of a summary of my feelings on the subject.]

Let's work out a hypothetical situation. Say we want to have a nation in which every person can high jump. We look at the problem, and we reason that we are unlikely to train a lot of adults to high jump; the specter of Grandma having to clear the bar in her short shorts is probably enough to cool us on this idea.

So we turn to our usual method of social engineering - we will teach all of our students how to high jump. That won't do anything for our adults, but they'll all die eventually, leaving us with a population of high jumpers.

We start by establishing standards for age-group high jumping. We'll be hard-pressed to find any world or national records by age for young people (if a quick Google search is any indicator), so we'll assemble a blue-ribbon panel of elementary and high-school coaches, maybe a few famous high jumpers, some human performance experts, and so forth. The panel will meet, perhaps in Washington, more likely in St. Kitts, and come up with grade standards: kindergarteners will need to clear 1'6", eighth-graders 3'0", seniors in high school 3'9", or some such.

Now we have our first big choice. Do we mandate the methods by which we must teach our students how to high jump, or should we simply publish the standards and provide negative incentives, that is, punish schools that don't manage to get every student over that bar? Let's say we believe in standard economic thinking, where creating proper incentives will solve every problem, so we'll take the latter of the two approaches. (This is also preferable to the former approach in that it allows us to duck the responsibility if our mandated methods fail to work.)

It's really important to us that everybody be able to high jump, so our negative incentives are quite harsh. We can even close schools if they don't get those kids over that bar.

Let's try to figure out what will likely happen. First, a lot of school time will be spent on teaching the high jump. Other activities will be curtailed in order to teach the Fosbury Flop, the proper run-up, leg clearing, and the like. Second, we will see a lot of experts emerge who understand how to get an eighth-grader over three feet. Some of them will be self-taught P.E. instructors who will buy the Complete Book of Jumps and apply that to all the kids, and some will be consultants who will charge a lot to do the same thing (but they're worth it, because the alternative is to CLOSE THE SCHOOL).

The other main thing that will happen is that we will stop training the naturally outstanding kids. We're devoting a lot of resources to getting every kid over that three-foot bar, so we're not going to expend a lot of effort on the child who lines up the first time and clears it with ease. (In fact, what we'll likely see is an attempt to have that child become something of an auxiliary coach; after all, you can't beat the cost, and we can convince ourselves that making a student into a teacher is a worthwhile educational experience.)

The problem with this won't arise until the Olympics of 20 years from now. We'll lose, and lose badly, because we haven't done the work necessary to develop near-8 foot high jumpers. Despite having the greatest national high jump training program in the history of the world, we won't be able to compete at the highest level of the sport. And we'll have almost nothing to show for this expensive program, as how many adults will continue to high jump once they're out of school?

Well, I've made the analogy too obvious, I of course am talking about No Child Left Behind. We mandate standards for all children, punish schools for not meeting the mandate, and ignore the truly gifted (they'll do fine anyway). No intelligent competitor would do it this way, not if they're competing in a global marketplace.

The intention is kind and nice, that we'll educate everyone equally. But anyone who has spent any time with children knows that they are endowed with different talents and skill levels. Equal education does not mean equal outcome, no matter how much we might wish it to be so.

Ultimately, NCLB will not make us more competitive in the world economy, not if it means that we are going to train every student down to an average level. Like it or not, it is the outstanding who lead the way, not having large numbers of the mediocre. The Chinese education is constantly winnowing at each level, trying to identify the students of greatest potential.

When we establish our highest educational priority as the minimal attainment for the maximal number, we will have a pudding of uniformity, and we will lose the top, the potential innovators. And that is no way to remain competitive.


Anonymous said...

K-12 has served use for a hundred years. our K-12 is not an Olympic training facility. It's a free, basic education necessary for civic and commercial success. I'm bitter about having attended public schools. But I think you're selling their social and commercial function short. With a diploma you can run the register. No, you can't be an accountant. But where are we if large numbers can't even run the register?

your reader,

Androcass said...

I'm not sure if we can say that it does lead to civic and commercial success any longer. But, even if it does, we could use a little more honesty. We spend large sums of money pretending to educate our mass of youth for the "world of the 21st century," when we're actually doing just what you say, training them to run the register.

Add that to the growing roster of companies who refuse to train their employees, and you have a whole lot of people wandering around with very little knowledge. Let's be honest, let's stop building diving pools and media labs in our schools, get some POS terminals in there and admit what our educational objectives are.

Anonymous said...

Even if the public system does not provide detailed training in advanced topics, it should provide some exposure if it can. That said, the educational careers and outcomes of one student to the next are often remarkably different. Public school is the base.

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