Where did education go wrong?


A recent article brings up a few interesting things about our unemployment problem:

1. If you are a highly skilled or low skilled worker, your job prospects since 2000 have actually improved. It is the “middle skilled” that have been finding nothing. From what I can gather, this applies to a lot of people in the business world.

2. There seems to be some blame laid at the feet of extending unemployment benefits … some (not all for goodness sakes) people get less motivated to job hunt when they are getting paid not to.

3. I wonder (out loud) how willing people are to eventually realize that there are times when you chuck it in and start a new career. Sure, you may have been a business major, but now you have to try something else.

There is a particular quote that kind of caught my eye:

Manufacturers of high-precision products such as automobile and aircraft parts are in a particularly tough spot. Global competition keeps them from raising wages much. But they need workers with the combination of math skills, intuition and stamina required to operate the computer-controlled metalworking machines that now dominate the factory floor.

At Mechanical Devices, which supplies parts for earthmovers and other heavy equipment to manufacturers such as Caterpillar Inc., part owner Mark Sperry says he has been looking for $13-an-hour machinists since early this year. The lack of workers is “the key limitation to the growth of our business and to meeting our customers’ expectations,” says Mr. Sperry. He estimates the company could immediately boost sales by as much as 20% if it could find the 40 workers it needs.

Where does the fault lie …. why are there not enough of these people around to fill these jobs? The article lies some blame here:

Longer-term trends are at play. For one, the U.S. education system hasn’t been producing enough people with the highly specialized skills that many companies, particularly in manufacturing, require to keep driving productivity gains. “There are a lot of people who are unemployed, but those aren’t necessarily the people employers are looking for,” says David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I can’t disagree with that. But I can’t disagree more with the attempts to solve it. Let’s jump in the wayback machine ….. (come Sherman) ….

Back when I was growing up, there were plenty of classes that taught kids (who wanted to learn such skills) how to weld, run lathes, drill presses, all kinds of machinery. They were called shop classes, and for the most part, kids who took them could get some training, maybe take similar classes at the community college or technical training center, and go on to relatively high paying jobs, such as those being described.

Fewer and fewer schools today offer any such classes (they aren’t non-existent), but hardly anywhere near as prevalent as they used to be. Heck, I can remember the College of Education building at the University I attended, down in the basement, had lab space set aside for so-called industrial arts teacher training. As I recall (I could be wrong), the university I attended will not even grant certification for such teachers anymore.

There was a reason why education standards needed to be raised, but instead of raising the bar, checking to make sure everyone was doing their job, and going about business as usual, things changed drastically ….

… all of a sudden, kids that were not going to be bound for college were taking 3 history courses and 3 math courses and 4 in English and a required art course and 3 science classes and 2 in foreign language … pretty soon there was no money for such classes, but that was OK …. no one had any time to take too many of them. They vanished.

… Now, we have kids who should be getting a strong command of algebra and some basic geometry … instead they are rushed through both, never quite understanding what they are doing so they can take a trig class that they might pass but will never understand. On paper, it looks great … they took more math! In reality, it is worse than ever before … by cramming a little down their throats, they got less out of the experience.

… So of course, the kids don’t even want to try anything that is too difficult … it is rushed, you don’t get it, you walk out and feel lost.

And we wonder where things go wrong?

1. Dump the damn NCLB … if you are going the wrong way trying harder and moving faster just gets you lost more. You want a system for teacher accountability …. I’m all for it! How about sending observers into classrooms and actually watch what happens. Standardized tests scores sometimes tell you a lot, and sometimes tell you nothing. Is 14 on the ACT bad …. yeah ….. is 32 good …. yeah ….. is a school with an ACT average of 22 really horrible …. I don’t know?

2. Set reasonable graduation requirements. Give kids chance to explore these other areas which might help with their job prospects.

3. Any high school graduate should be able to do algebra and basic geometry strapped into an air tight garbage can, with no flashlight and a broken pencil. There is >>zero<< reason to set college algebra and trig as the expectation for all high school students. Likewise for reading and writing.

4. Obviously, for those who want something a little bit more challenging, by all means let them run with it. Don't hold them back.

What concerns me more and more is that the public is getting outraged over what schools have become, not realizing that quite a few teachers are with them, not against them. Teaching and learning are artforms, and trying too hard to analyze them scientifically is like walking into an art gallery with a scorecard and analyzing the art collection statistically.

And here, IMO, is some evidence that we need to change direction.


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