The problem is usually not a lack of knowledge. There is enough knowledge out there to solve most of our problems. The problem is getting the people in power to drink of the knowledge that is available. A case in point is our system of public school education.
Claudia Goldin, in a June 2001 article. “The Human-Capital Century and American Leadership: Virtues of the Past,” written for the Journal of Economic History, showed clearly how the United States in the early 1900s led all other developed countries in the development of its own human capital. The United States was first, and for a long time alone, to make a four year high school general education available to all.
Goldin enumerates a number of what she calls the “virtues” that characterized this development of the country’s human capital. Such things as public funding, openness, gender neutrality, local (and also state) control, separation of church and state, and an academic curriculum.
These “virtues,” she said, then gave rise to corollary virtues such as the use of property taxes, competition among school districts, and permitting students to repeat grades (what she refers to later as a kind of “infinite forgiveness”).
All this took us up to the 1950s, at which time the US lead in making a public school education available to all young people was indisputable. The lead was short lived however. The other developed countries quickly caught up with us, and now, today, the United States is no longer first and may even be well down the list of developed countries when it comes to making comparisons of the academic achievements of school kids up to and through high school.
What happened? Was it simply that others would inevitably catch up, and that there was nothing we could do to keep our lead? Or was it, as Goldin clearly implies, that the “virtues” were not longer virtues, but were now holding us back? And that we hadn’t adapted to the new times and new circumstances?
Each of the characteristics she lists — open, forgiving, small fiscally independent districts relying on local property taxes, academic, secular — was once a virtue, and most still are to some extent, but the changing circumstances of our lives have made some considerably less virtuous, and others now appear to be vices. Not holding students more accountable for their own achievement, for example.
Instead of acknowledging the new situation, admitting the changed circumstances, instead of acting on what they surely must know, on the fact that things are no longer the same, our leaders continue to support an open, forgiving, and an academic or college preparatory education for all, when it’s clear that some 30% of our public school students (some 50% in the inner cities) are not going along and are dropping out of school, creating thereby enormous problems for themselves and for this country’s social safety net.
Instead of setting impossible goals, as in the proficiency requirements of No Child Left Behind, we should stop pretending that we can ever recover our educational leadership position of the past century. We can’t. There are no reforms that will enable us to do so. And as proof of this we have one very long history of failed reforms.
We need instead to question our original assumptions, in particular, that equality of outcomes was ever even possible. When it comes to education it’s not, unless of course the bar is set low enough for everyone to make it over. Or unless we make “infinite forgiveness” the general policy of all our schools. Or we define equality is just having everyone together in class, that which at one time may have been enough.
The knowledge that we have and that our educational leaders, including the teachers’ unions, the administrators, and even the kids, teachers, and parents themselves, ought now to acknowledge and admit, is that no education worthy of the name is appropriate for everyone.
What kids learn is different from day one, and first parents and then schools need to realize this. If they do they will quickly see that accepting inequality of methods and outcomes is liberating, and that imposing equal methods and outcomes is stifling, let alone impossible.
When almost no one went to school it was apparently enough just to get everyone into a school and classroom. That we did well and in that respect, for fifty years, we led the world. Now however this is no longer enough, as anyone who has visited a public school classroom, and not only in the inner city, can clearly see.
For getting everyone into the school and classroom was only a first step. It may even have been a misstep. In any case we’re still struggling with second and third steps, let alone what comes afterwards, such as college, career, work experience, etc.
The result of all this is, of course, schooling. And we have a lot of that, more and more as our population grows. But in our public schools, if we look closely, there is very little education, or at least what was meant by education (math, history, foreign language etc.) taking place.
To use the language of Claudia Goldin we need a new list of virtues, many of which are already in sight and struggling to become established, such as accountability, no excuses schools, longer school days and longer school years, substantial place for vocational and technical education. And also there are any number of past reform efforts that were never given enough support, such as no school at all, home schooling, apprenticeships etc.
In short, we need to think more about learning, and less about schooling. When we successfully do that we may even once again take the lead.