Friday, December 23, 2011

On education.

A plea for sanity in education policy:

First, don't expect the educational system to make up for our utterly screwed-up system of child-rearing. It's an open secret that parents are responsible for only a small fragment of a child's development; most is done by the peer group and community at large. If parents can't do everything, why should we think teachers can?

Honestly, the teacher-as-superhero thing is incredibly irritating. Most people in education got into it for the same reason people get into any field: because they were decent at it, because it seemed like a good gig, because it was something they could stand to do on a daily basis. Only a tiny minority see it as a grand, quasi-religious calling. If the system starts to require people whose devotion is extranormal -- beyond what we expect from the average bank manager, say -- then it will, inevitably, fail. Those people are the exception. They are not, and never will be, the rule.

Second, don't expect the educational system to teach our children everything. I've seen recently calls for teachers to teach students "financial literacy", which is simply mad. Teachers have no training in this, for one. For two, teachers have no power to ensure that these lessons take in everyday life. Parents are actually around and can control the flow of money to the child. So who, really, is better situated to teach these lessons?

The same applies to all sorts of things. Socialization, for example. The educational system can't teach children how to interact with other children and adults, except at the extremes: don't hit, wait your turn, and so on. When it comes to making friends or dealing with conflict, nothing can replace an involved parent or guardian putting the child in a variety of social situations and helping them work through them, in that very moment.

Third, don't insist that all children should receive education up through university, and then refuse to fund it adequately. And that's not just giving people free tuition. Which is a bad idea, anyway, as it encourages the already prevalent tendency to treat university as a continuation of high school. Student debt is a real problem, but the solution is not to detach student commitment to their education from the cost of that education. The right solution is to reward commitment by reducing cost; and punish lack of commitment by increasing cost, if not revoking the opportunity.

It's also providing adequate institutions for education -- sufficient classrooms and specialized equipment. It's also providing adequate opportunities for educators -- our classes are far too large for students to learn, and we are churning out more and more people who are seeking fewer and fewer jobs in education. It's also about providing adequate post-educational opportunities for graduates -- that is, a reasonable job-preparation program.

Yes, this all costs money, but unlikely endless corporate tax cuts, these will actually pay for themselves.

Fourth, don't insist that educational outcomes be "measurable", and only measure the failure of educators. I'm all in favour of merit pay, as long as it's actual merit pay. If you're good at your job, you do better; if you're bad at your job, you do worse. But all proposals I've seen all talk about restricting pay and firing, and don't talk about improving pay and hiring. Furthermore, since education involves students, whose behaviour is not entirely within the educator's control, it's not fair to measure merit solely by student achievement. Never mind what the universities are currently doing, where student achievement is secondary to student opinion.

(Not that student opinion is irrelevant, but it's a ridiculous basis for hiring decisions, if those decisions are supposed to meritocratic.)

I've got all kinds of problems with the educational system -- I've taught at enough universities to know that the colleges are doing a better job of education; I'm close to enough teachers to know that the high schools, and lower, are having serious problems -- but the policies that are being proposed on the right and the left are little more than cheap pandering and vote-buying.

If you want to fix education, I'm all for it. But let's focus on what really matters. #NDPldr candidates, are you listening?

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