February 19, 2006

Education Industry?

I went to an open house recently for the Art Institute. During the presentation one of the speakers referred to her experience in the "education industry." That was a new one on me. It got me thinking. Maybe we are approaching this public education thing all-wrong. Maybe education should be run like a business. Many in the past have tried to apply the business model to education and failed. However, more and more we are seeing private educational institutions like the Art Institute pop up, recruit students, and achieve success unequaled by traditional Ed. What's that about?

Perhaps it's their approach to education. They specialize. Standard 4-year universities focus more on a well-rounded general education for students. Great if you want to teach at the university. Not so great if you want to actually go out and use your education for a career aspiration. Not these days. I agree that an education in the "classics" is very valuable and applies to many aspects of life. But being trained in the "classics" is not the same as job training. Of course, education should be about more than job training. The "university" experience is full of a broad spectrum of experiences including meeting different and interesting individuals, fending off radical professors, and don't forget the wild parties. But all that can be included in a more rigorous and fine-tuned course of study off campus. Not to mention the timeline. I don't know about you, but it took me 5 years to get my 4 year undergraduate degree, 2 years to get my teaching credential, and close to 10 years after that before I finished my Masters. Perhaps my experience is unique, but I don't think so. The Art Institute offers a 36 month long bachelor’s degree. Three years, that's it.

Of course I am talking about higher education, not K-12, but what would be wrong with specialization in K-12 education? Oh that's right, we used to call that tracking, and tracking was bad because it pigeonholed kids who were never able to break out of the stereotype (or so I heard.) Now we have charter and magnet schools. I visited a school named CART in Clovis a few years ago. Very cool, high-tech, lots of color and airy buildings. The kids loved it. They were engaged and learning. No knuckleheads or slackers allowed. (Maybe they went to their own school for knuckleheads and slackers.) I don't have data on the success rates of the kids who attended the school, but I bet they numbers were high, and I bet they met their API and AYP in all subgroups.

Times have changed, so why shouldn't education? I was challenged in a previous post to come up with some new ideas to restructure or reform education. Mostly I was having fun, but somebody took me seriously. I really don't know where to begin to fix education, and I'm not so sure it needs fixing. I think instead we need a better and more refined focus. Public education tries to do too much. Not that educating kids is too much, but the way the current system (dis)functions, and with NCLB, we are overwhelmed. Especially here in California with the high number of ELL students.

The demographics of my high school have changed dramatically in the last ten years. We are going through the WASC process right now (blog post coming soon) so this data is being scanned and studied in detail. Teachers who have traditionally sent many middle to upper class kids on to college are now teaching a far more diverse group. We are learning new teaching strategies for reaching “all” students and adapting what we know works for our changing population. The good news is that we are still sending many kids to college.

We tell all students that they must go to college to be successful. But that’s not true for all students. Not that a college education will hurt anyone (not permanently anyway) but there are excellent alternatives that do not inevitably lead to a future in ditch digging (no offense meant to ditch diggers, I’ve dug many ditches myself, ditch diggers have my respect). In California, the standards for admission set by the University of California dictate the course load a “college-bound” student takes in their four high school years. Very soon these will be the graduation requirements for my high school as well. And yet, a very small number of students at my high school actually attend the University of California. Why is the UC wagging the tail of public education in California when the UC is not the most popular next step? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Some students do thrive in “alternative” settings. But my experience with current alternative education is that it is not an equal alternative to tradition high school. Kids behind on credits temporarily attend an “alternative,” also called continuation, school site where they get credit for seat time, and released daily before 1pm. The teachers I know that teach alternative education love it. The kids who go to the alternative school look forward to their “second” chance. But few of these kids return to graduate with their class at the regular high school.

Education is not and should not be a business. Grades can never be purchased, and degrees and diplomas cannot by granted for anything less than solid academic work. But if the current system is not being effective for “all” students, then what's wrong with inviting a different model. Progress is clearly being made in the neo "professional/trade" school approach to higher education, and charter and magnet schools are working for their target student groups. Of course there will always be a place for traditional 4-year high school and universities, but perhaps we should make more room for truly alternative education. Instead of preparing every kid to attend a university when every kid does not end up attending a university, perhaps we should be preparing every kid to be contributing members of society in ways more appropriate to their skills, talents, abilities, and desires.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that is a big ol' load to chew on in one post. So, I'll focus on a couple of your points.

    1. Education as vocational training. No. At one point you indicated that public schools are being asked to do too much, and this is, I think, a good place to start cutting this back. This is not to say that we, as educators, should not be concerned with our students' future vocational prospects, but we need not become the training wing of corporate America to do so.

    NCLB demands that every child learn math, but how many of our students will go on to be professional mathematicians? Yes, math is a life skill, but simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are sufficient for anyone to manage household finances and budgets. Why the heck do we need Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and (God forbid) Calculus? Why do we require students to study math after they've mastered long division?

    I'm being facetious here. The point is that a well-rounded education truly is the best education. We study and teach Algebra and higher level math because it pushes our brains into certain thought processes. For the same reason, we teach poetry, art, music, science.

    I make no bnes about the fact that I view teaching as a fundamentally political action. That doesn't mean indoctrinating students to a particular political viewpoint, but it does mean working to produce an informed, well-educated, and critical citizenry.

    2. Specialization? Once again, no. The very problem with academia, in my view, is the narrowness of specialization. In graduate programs at American universities, we are breeding experts, to be sure, but experts who can only speak confidently to a select and narrow range of topics.

    My experience with middle and high school students has shown me two things. A.) Students would love to focus on just one thing that excites them. B.) Students are still capable of being completely surpised by finding excitement in a subject that they had previously found boring. Bottom line? Let's not shut off the potential for discovery prematurely.

    Moreover, the student who is required to study Homer's Odyssey despite his total lack of interest loses far less than the student who unexpectedly gains something from an experience she or he may not have chosen independently.

    The fact is, students need adult guidance. Yes, they have their parents, but sometimes teachers know the students interests better than the parents.

    By evaluating ourselves on the basis of our students' career success, we fall futher into the political trap of allowing politicians to demand more and more of public schools with little reward. We foster the notion that our schools and teachers are to blame for our nation's ills. They're not and we are not.

    Can we do better? Absolutely. Do we have to follow a traditional corporate model? Not necessarily.

    Thanks for reading,

    Marc Callan