How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Education: Our Most Overrated Product

We educate nonsensically ... and what to do instead.

It’s almost embarrassing to make these recommendations. Although I have a Ph.D. specializing in evaluation of education from Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school, the changes to education I’ll suggest are just common sense.

Replace mixed-ability classes with ability-grouped classes

In most elementary and even in some high schools, we now place kids in classes at random. That makes it much more difficult for teachers to meet students’ needs than if the classes were grouped by ability and/or achievement.

If you wanted to start learning Mandarin, you’d learn a lot less if the class consisted mainly of non-beginners, but for political reasons, elementary school students are typically assigned to a classroom a random even though it means that students learn less.

To ensure that low-ability classes don’t trap students in an inappropriately low-level class, placement must be dynamic and flexible, that is, each child reviewed regularly to ensure s/he is in the best-suited group or class.

The New York Times reports a resurgence in use of flexible ability grouping. This trend deserves to be, pardon the pun, fast-tracked.

Replace one-size-fits-all high school curriculum with multiple pathways..

We insist on a one-size-fits-all curriculum: everyone to college, even though many students would benefit from another path, for example, a career-centric curriculum, including an apprenticeship. If after eight years of school, you are still reading at the 5th grade level, it’s foolish, even sadistic, to eliminate all options for you other than four years of deciphering Shakespeare, analyzing trigonometric functions, etc.

Wouldn’t it be wiser to capitalize on your relative strengths — perhaps helping people, working with your hands, or the creative arts?  Most other developed countries realize that one-size-fits-all education doesn’t fit all. For example, in Germany, over half of high school students opt for a career-preparatory rather than college-preparatory high school path. Youth unemployment in Germany is half the U.S.'s.

With over half of U.S. college graduates under 25 unemployed or doing work they could have done with just a high school diploma, college is not as clearly a wise choice as it once was.

Don’t mandate arcana until life’s basics are learned.

We insist that every high school graduate able to solve quadratic equations and understand stochastic processes, esoterica that 99.9% of us never use, yet we allow them to graduate with poor or untested skills in conflict resolution, managing money, and parenting. Don’t we all know people who, despite an advanced degree, lack such critical skills?

From kindergarten through graduate school, we should first ensure that students graduate with important basics before we get to esoterica. That means stopping the arcana-enamored professoriate from dictating our K-16 curriculum.

Replace foreign language and P.E. with subjects likely to yield greater benefit.

We mandate physical education K-12 when in fact, students learn little there and there’s little  evidence it enduringly increases physical fitness. Indeed, a study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that required PE makes girls less likely to do exercise!

We make students take years of foreign language when it’s well known that it’s extremely difficult for most students to learn a language past the age of five unless living in a country that speaks only that language.

STEM is oversold.

We’re doing an full-court press to get more students to major in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), claiming that’s where the jobs will be. We’d need to be awfully sure of that because most people find those majors extremely difficult and not particularly interesting. And by the time most of those students have finished their STEM degrees, even more STEM jobs will be offshored or automated.

Already, we have many more STEM graduates than there are jobs, even at the Ph.D. level. I gave a workshop on finding work for young neuroscience Ph.D.s. It drew 450 attendees. Afterwards, over 100 of them waited in line to talk with me – nearly all unemployed.

Stop tenure.

Because time takes its toll on people, we don’t give lifetime job security, for example, to social workers, lawyers, or doctors. You can be good in the beginning but burned out later. Yet after just two or three years, we give teachers lifetime tenure despite being aware of teachers who continue to bore and/or be punitive to class after class of students until they finally retire when they’ve maximized their pension. What could be more foolish and destructive to children and their learning?

Replace live teachers or at least homework with dream-team-taught online lessons. We’ve let the teacher’s unions strangle education in an even more important way. The unions insist that a course be taught by a live teacher rather than an online course taught by a dream team of the world’s most transformational instructors using simulations, video, interactivity, and ongoing assessment and individualized branching. A live teacher or paraprofessional would supplement to provide the human touch.

Dream-team-taught courses or homework would enable every child, rich and poor, from Maine to California, to have world-class instruction, even in subjects with a shortage of transformational teachers, for example, math, physics, and computer science. But that would doubtless eliminate teaching positions and the unions would rather save those even if children are more poorly educated.

Replace professors with transformative instructors.

Most college instructors are Ph.D.s, people who deliberately opted out of the real world to get an research degree, whose interests and abilities are usually greater in their arcane research than in teaching undergraduates. There just is too great a gap in intellectual ability, interests, and learning style between most Ph.D.s and their typical undergraduate students.

The best undergraduate instructors may hold only a bachelor's degree but have the ability to explain, motivate, and generate important learning. Professors are never held accountable for how much their students learn. And indeed studies of freshman-to-senior growth show that almost half of students grow little or not at all in writing, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning, perhaps the most important things one should derive from a college education.

Ensure ideological diversity. Much wisdom resides left of center, but not all. Schools and colleges should be a marketplace of ideas, representing the full range of benevolently derived, intelligent thought from far left to far right. Unfortunately, acceleratingly, teachers and especially university faculty present and advocate mainly left-of-center ideas. The hiring, training, and promoting of instructors should reflect teachers' near-sacred obligation to fairly and competently present a range of perspectives.

Replace country-club campuses with cost-effective ones.

Sticker price for an undergraduate degree at a brand-name private college is a quarter of a million dollars, assuming you graduate in four years. And nationwide, 41 percent don’t graduate even if given six years!

Financial aid? For most, the bulk is loan, which must be paid back with interest. And the higher education lobby is so powerful that it convinced Congress to make students loans virtually the only loan that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. So even though 53 percent of college graduates under 25 are unemployed or doing work they could have done with just a high school diploma, those students are stuck, absolutely stuck, with that massive debt.

In addition to porcine administrations, a major reason for higher education's obscene cost is the country-club-like campus, replete with fabulous libraries, when most people do their reading and research on the Net and e-reader. Campuses should be much smaller and more spartan and thus more cost-effective.

America’s most overrated product.

Education is viewed as a magic pill, our nation’s most valuable product. In my view, it is America’s most overrated. For education to have a chance to fulfill its promise, we need to strengthen our resolve to force education to change:

  • Stop letting the teachers unions strangle educational quality.
  • Stop letting the outré-obsessed professoriate dictate curriculum in graduate school, college, let alone K-12 curriculum.
  • We require tires to provide more visible consumer information than we require of colleges. We should require colleges to, on their home page, post their amount of student growth in learning and employability instead of photos of enraptured students and happy (if unemployed) graduates in cap and gown.

Only then can education possibly hope to close the achievement gap as well as enable our bright students to live up to their potential and enjoy school. Yes, enjoy. It’s a word too excised from the education experience.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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