The State of Education – 2012

Two notes came across my “virtual desk” last week that really struck a chord with me. And when you put in the fact that last Friday, January 6th, is the traditional day that the Magi came to see the Christ Child, it struck me that I should put something down. That, plus the fact that I am focusing more on education in my writing this year prompts this post.

The first note came from The New York Times“Students of Online Schools are Lagging”; the second from Inside Higher Ed“Academically Adrift”.

In the Times article it was noted that number of students in schools run by educational management organizations rose last year. It is stated later in the article that the schools in question are high schools. Now, the basis for any statistical comparison between two different groups is that there are no differences between the two groups (the null hypothesis). So, we should expect that there is little or no difference between the academic achievement of students who attend a traditional school or go to school online. Yet the result of the study reported in the Times is that students attending online schools have lower scores than their counterparts in traditional schools.

It was not reported how the students who take their course work online did the coursework but based on my experiences with online process, it was essentially drill-and-practice and recitation of memorized information. It was also designed to meet the requirements of the now ten year old No Child Left Behind legislation. One might conclude or hope that online education would produce better results, if for no other reason than we want technology to triumph. But the Times article points out that students in online schools lag behind their counterparts and that does not bode well for those who see such technology advancements as the means for improving education in this country.

That does not mean that the present process is doing an excellent job; in fact, the evidence from the second article would suggest that traditional processes are doing, at best, a mediocre job. If we are to assume that the basic benefit of the No Child Left Behind legislation are students who are better equipped to attend college, then we must either re-examine our assumptions or reconsider what we are doing because of this law.

For the results of this second study tell us that college students are not learning anything in college. All they know how to do is memorize facts for the sole purpose of using such information on a test. There is no emphasis on critical thinking or analysis of information and without those skills it is very difficult to develop new knowledge.

The sad part in these two articles is that they don’t say anything that I haven’t already said before. For entirely different reasons I went back and looked at two articles that I wore in 2009. In “The Future of Education” I suggested that relying on the internet as the means for education was a little over-rated and not well thought out. In “The Grinch in the Classroom” I looked at the impact of testing imposed by the No Chlid Left Behind legislation and its failure to properly teach students.

What can I conclude about the state of education as we begin 2012? If we do not immediately begin to change what we are doing; if we do not focus more on the learning process and less on the testing process, then we will not have an educational system to speak of in 2013.

The Magi who visited the Christ Child were scientists, individuals who saw things that caused them to question and seek answers. Nowadays we are apt to call these individuals astrologers and magicians but make no mistake about it; they were scientists. They saw the world around them and it caused them to ask questions and seek answers. They were not the only ones who saw the signs in the sky that announced the birth of a new king; those individuals who were in King Herod’s court saw the same signs.

Perhaps that latter group understood what the signs meant about the future; but they also knew that future would put them out of a job so they ignored the signs and maintained the status quo.

Education is not designed to maintain the status quo; it is designed to push the boundaries and allow individuals to go beyond the limits in place. Education should be liberating; all we have to do is look at what happen in the Middle East. The dictatorships in place at the beginning of the Arab Spring and Summer tried to maintain control by shutting off communication and the free flow of information. But they could not do it and the dictators that ruled Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya all fell from power.

I sometimes think that we see education more as a teaching process rather than a learning process. Teaching is a one-way process, from instructor to pupil. Learning is an interaction between pupil and instructor. The present use of the Internet can best be described as a one-way process; all the Internet is doing is replacing the traditional lecture with an electronic lecture. We must work to bring back true learning, the interaction of individuals in a community. It happens that we call the community the classroom, though we have removed the interaction.

The state of education in this country at the beginning of 2012 is not very good. But, if we are willing to put some effort into it and bring back what we know works, then the state of education in 2013 will be better.