Friday, September 24, 2010

Toward Real "School Reform"

Every American president dutifully takes a crack at what has become an expected modern-day ritual. The latest example of this is the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” handout of $4 billion of federal grants to a number of chosen states. The typical pattern is this: A new president roars into office, vowing to “do something” about the dismal state of American education. Every four – eight years, we get another president; and another man with another plan. Once in place, the president spends the rest of his time in office trumpeting the improvements his plan brought to the public schools. This “improvement” lasts until he leaves office, at which time the next president declares the state of American education to be dismal, vowing to “do something”, and starting the process all over again.

What do we taxpayers get for these “Groundhog Day” efforts? Though the amount of tax money spent on primary and secondary education has soared extravagantly, the answer is: not much. Robert J. Samuelson, an intelligent reporter, addresses this periodic charade, and takes a crack at an explanation for “School reform's meager results”:

[F]ew subjects inspire more intellectual dishonesty and political puffery than "school reform."

Since the 1960s, waves of "reform" haven't produced meaningful achievement gains.

Standard theories don't explain this meager progress.

After citing some of the standard theories, he zeros in on what he believes is the real culprit:

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don't like school, don't work hard and don't do well.

But Samuelson reverses cause and effect. School reform isn’t failing because of lack of motivation. The fault lies with the government-run schools themselves, dominated as they are by the progressive education establishment of John Dewey. It is not a dislike of school, but the schools themselves that is killing student motivation. The school environment is simply not conducive to the needs of the child. Rather, it is conducive to the convenience and interests of the adults and to the progressive drive to impose conformity to the group or “social adjustment”. Ignored is the metaphysical reality of the autonomy of the individual human mind, and the required freedom that that mind needs to develop. The natural and insatiable desire of the child to learn about the world around him is systematically squelched by the boredom of having to comply with the establishment formularies.

To explain this in more concrete terms, I’ll turn to a short interview with a homeschooling mother. Bobbi Burger Brunoehler had this to say to New Jersey Star-Ledger reporter Julia Scott:

Q: When students are not interested in learning, how do you motivate them?

A: If they were interested in the subject and now they are not, you go back and find when they were last doing well. You find what they didn’t understand, some word or symbol. When there’s a subject that I’ve got to get them interested in, I will get them to follow me into some sort of activity. If a student wasn’t interested in math, I’d say, “Here’s $10. We’re going to Toys R Us. What are you going to buy with that $10?” Get ready to spend four hours in Toys R Us while they look at the prices of everything because now math is important. There has to be a purpose. You can’t just talk about it. “Well when you’re older, how will you do your taxes?”

Q: What, if anything, do you think your kids are educationally deficient in?

A: Deficient? The only way to answer that is to tell you what I think is important. There are a bazillion facts they haven’t learned.

What is important is reading, writing, arithmetic and research because then you can find out anything you want.

You’ve [sic] never going to be able to learn everything and smash it into your head. You have to be able to think logically and know how to find out about things.

Notice that Ms. Brunoehler doesn’t sit back and lament “lack of motivation”. In answer to the first question, she looks to connect the subject to an interest of the child: in this case, math to a toy store. She searches for ways to make learning relevant to the child at his particular stage of development. In short, she respects the autonomy of the child.

The answer to the second question is more profound, because it goes to the very overriding purpose of education. Ms. Brunoehler makes a monumentally important point that is applicable not just to homeschooling but to education generally.

It is not the mere “learning” of facts and knowledge as such that is the essence of education, but the training of the child’s mind. The proper purpose of education should be to teach a child how to acquire knowledge, to understand it’s hierarchical nature, to organize it according to abstract attributes, to integrate each new fact into the wider context of his knowledge via abstractions, etc. Educational researcher and entrepreneur Maria Montessori, creator of the Montessori Method, understood this. What’s most important, she said, was not primarily to give the child knowledge content, but to give him the proper mental order for that content, and the means for acquiring it. Rather than attempt to mold the child into group conformity, as the progressives strive to do, “Montessori’s goal was to have the children ‘become as powerful in their concentration, as independent of spirit, as strong of will and as clear of thought as the world’s greatest geniuses’ ” (Beatrice Hessen, page 847). It’s the educational equivalent of the saying: “Give a man a fish, and you’ve fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime”.

Montessori would provide multiple paths to learning, so the child can gravitate toward a path that interests him, thus feeding his motivation, without sacrificing the educational purpose at hand. Though her focus was on early childhood education, the principles that she found to work are applicable to education at all levels, I believe.

I do not know if Ms. Brunoehler is familiar with Montessori, but her methods – at least the ones discussed in the interview – are certainly consistent with Montessori’s and not the progressives. Which philosophy of education is likely to maintain and enhance student motivation, and which is likely to kill it? The answer is obvious.

With all of the rhetoric and posturing going on about education today, the philosophy of education is the all too often neglected elephant in the room. Yet, that is one of the main keys to understanding the sad state of the American schools. I’m not sure that she thinks of it in these terms, but it’s obvious that Ms. Brunoehler is focussed on the philosophical elements – and the right ones at that. I’d guess that she is a very successful homeschooling parent.

Establishment educators will undoubtedly protest that such individualized attention is not “practical” when schools must contend with hundreds of students in large schools. High schools in particular, which Samuelson cites as the area of greatest failure, have become campus-like behemoths holding thousands of students. With so many students, the individual needs of the individual students can not possibly be a primary concern, right?

Wrong! My answer to them: If you can’t do the job for the children – all of them - then get out of the way. The public school monopoly collects its revenues and its customers by force – i.e., through taxes and compulsory attendance laws. Samuelson doesn’t question the real “unmentionable” – the coercive institution of government-run schools, which freezes out all ideas except government-approved ideas. (I can’t let this pass without taking a swipe at the hypocrisy of the consumer "protectors". They cheer federal antitrust enforcement against successful private companies, such as the current attack on Apple and AT&T, as alleged "monopolists". Yet, the most destructive monopoly - the real kind that maintains its privileged position through government power - gets a pass. The consumers of education, the children, warrant no protection from the protectors against the public school monopoly.)

I am not a proponent of homeschooling per se, or of any particular structure child schooling should employ. Nor am I an education expert who can lay out a concrete curriculum. But one doesn’t have to be an educational expert to understand educational philosophy. Not being an expert myself, I want to free the educators from the entrenched, self-proclaimed “experts” who coercively rule over America’s schools. As a human being possessing the faculties of reason and free will, I am fully qualified to judge issues of philosophical fundamentals – and so is everyone else, if they so choose.

Therefor, I advocate the separation of education and state, or free market education, as the answer to America’s education problems. A free market will open the school doors to a badly needed philosophical revolution in education. One of the best, though little appreciated, attributes of a free market is the division of intellectual labor. In a free market, educators and education investors are free to implement their educational philosophies without the permission or approval of some elected board, government official, politician, or other central planning authority. They are not bound by government-imposed standards that treat all students like interchangeable cogs. They are free to choose the curriculum, textbooks, teacher credentialling, and so on. What they don’t have in a free market is the instrument of force. Parents are free to voluntarily choose from among the array of offerings provided by the educators, and to judge for themselves the success or failure as it relates to the person they are the best experts on – their child.

It’s impossible to say with certainty what the shape of education would look like in a free market. It seems likely, though, that the current assembly-line-like model would disappear in favor of a diverse array of smaller institutions (if you want to call them that) catering to the needs of children based upon their wide variations in needs. What is certain, though, is that free market education would unleash a gale of fresh ideas to blow away the stale, suffocating, mind-numbing fog of bureaucratic control and progressive education. Not all ideas would be good, but all ideas would get a chance, and allow the best philosophies to prove themselves and win.

After citing pie-in-the-sky fantasies of modern school reformers, Samuelson ends on a note of sad resignation: “With this sort of intellectual rigor, what school ‘reform’ promises is more disillusion.” But his pessimism is misplaced. It is not “school reform” as such that is the problem, but the nature of the alleged reform efforts. It is the basic premises of our school system that must no longer be off the table. The real alternative, the intellectual dynamism of the free market, must no longer be ignored. It’s time for a radical new direction. There is one thing I am sure of: The Robert Samuelson’s of the world will continue to be perplexed by the perpetual failure of “school reform” until they understand that the schools must be liberated from the grip of the central planning government monopolists.

[For more, see Heike Larson's "The Montessori Method" in The Objective Standard. For a comparrison of Montessori vs. Progressive education, see Beatrice Hessen's "The Montessori Method" in The Objectivist and Ayn Rand's "The Comprachico's". Also see the works of and about Maria Montessori.]

- Mike LaFerrara

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