The New York Times editorial on education from this morning’s paper is better than one might expect, insofar as it compares the US system to other more successful countries rather than postulating that completely untried systems such as vouchers and charter schools will automatically fix things, but there’s still a persistent blindspot, as illustrated in this paragraph:
Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do. High school teachers provide 1,080 hours per year of instruction in America, compared with fewer than 600 in South Korea and Japan, where the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans. These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes education an attractive profession for talented people.
Emphasis added. Of course, there is literally no follow-up on the highlighted sentence. Instead, we plunge into a bold plan to transform teaching into a “profession” more akin to medicine or law, even though the author had previously conceded that our school system has not fundamentally changed in approximately a century. I don’t know that Americans are really good at fighting institutional inertia, and they’re certainly not good at increasing professional autonomy nowadays. But I think that we as a society can handle the administrative burden of writing checks and mailing them to people. Maybe we should go for the low-hanging fruit of more robust support for poor children before diving into the radical reformation of one of the largest professions in the US?
I suppose we should be glad that the author even brought up the poverty issue, because another major difference between the US and, say, Japan or Finland jumps out at me — they don’t face anywhere near the same level of racial division that the US does! I’d further assume that even in high-achieving South Korea, some of the same disparities and problems would suddenly emerge were the two Koreas to reunify and the Korean school system had to absorb millions of impoverished and immiserated Northerners. Yet coincidentally, one of the tested and proven methods of improving educational outcomes, namely desegregation, is not “on the table” in this proposal, either.
Durkheim argues in Suicide that we should not look for education to reform society, because it reflects deeper social structures rather than changing them. In the American system, it seems hard to argue with Durkheim — the things that are broken about our schools are the same things that are broken about our society. Nevertheless, American education policy has always been an effort at base-superstructure inversion. This goes all the way back to Horace Mann in the 1830s, who observed that vast inequalities between workers and owners was causing a new form of feudalism and proposed to change that with… education! (The idea of making people more equal by, for instance, taking money from the rich people and giving it to the poor people was not considered.) Similarly, today we see a society riven by inequality and racism, and we can supposedly fix it with… education! If we give poor people the theoretical possibility of rising up the social ladder and make sure that high-achieving minority students get a chance at a quality education, then inequality and racism surely disappear!
I view education as an inherent good, so I take some comfort that we’re at least delivering that, at least to some degree. And I’m sure we’ll continue to deliver it, because this kind of magical thinking on education is apparently an essential element of the American social compact at this point, completely invulnerable to all evidence and reason.