I’m a leading edge baby boomer, old enough to be able to reflect upon a few things. Right now, I’m reflecting on the state of American education. Spoiler alert: it’s depressing.
Our parents’ generation invented the modern computer and sent us to the moon. My generation created the personal computer and invented the internet, as well as a whole lot of technology that goes with it. Somehow, the two generations achieved great technical advances, despite coming up through an educational system that stressed the 3 R’s and eschewed gimmicks.
Now, it’s 2014 and, as a conservative estimate, about a third of entering college freshmen need remedial work in math and reading, which means that our public schools are turning out thousands of young adults who lack specific subject and critical thinking skills. Ever watch Jay Leno’s Jaywalking bits with their pathetically ignorant young people who know nothing of history, geography, and current events? Yes, those were real, not scripted, interactions.
What’s truly amazing about all this is that very little useful is being done to solve the myriad problems we’re facing in public education. To wit:
- The bungled attempt to provide 600,000 software-rich iPads, one for every student, teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School district: It now appears that the contracting process was tainted, only a fraction of the units were acquired, and in those the software was defective or inadequate. Further, no one really had any clear idea of what to do with the devices, which students quickly learned to re-program in order to surf the internet and access social media.
- Art and music programs have been phased out everywhere: This has led to the loss of important elements of what should be the cultural education of our youth. The reason: the American public doesn’t value cultural awareness and the arts as an integral part of individual development.
- Physical education programs have largely vanished: Students are becoming couch potatoes, the only well developed muscles being those used for texting, in bad English of course.
- Courses emphasizing the development of non-academic but important life and vocational skills have been phased out: Where are the shop classes that used to be available in junior high and high school? Print shop, metal shop, handicrafts, electric shop, auto mechanics? These were classes that prepared some for further vocational training and allowed the rest of us to acquire skills and understanding of the stuff that daily surrounds us.
- Overemphasis on “teaching to the test” and a lack of emphasis on writing: Along with the decline in reading skills has come a decline in writing skills. Multiple choice tests are not tests of critical thinking. Essay based examinations requiring analysis of what has been read are. This is one area in which improvement may be coming with the Common Core requirements, but only time will tell.
- Recent decisions in some schools not to teach handwriting: Really???
Okay, I’m going to generalize here, and I know well that this doesn’t apply literally across the board to all young people, but the result of the failure of our educational system is that many in the current cohort of graduating high school seniors have become users with little knowledge or understanding of the underpinnings of society and technology. These people will be the leaders of tomorrow, and their ignorance of history, culture, geography, politics, and culture is frightening.
So, what’s the answer? I’m convinced that it doesn’t lie in the present direction being followed by our schools. I’m no Luddite, but I truly believe that there’s no guarantee that giving every student an iPad, even with functional software, is going to produce an educated generation. Why not take the billions being earmarked for all this technology and faddish teaching methods and invest in adequate textbooks, reopen closed school libraries, restore art and music programs, restore physical education programs, and reopen vocationally-oriented shop courses? If all those things along with solid emphasis on readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic got us to the moon, it sure ought to help us to restore the world competitiveness we once had but have lost as other countries, especially China, have captured from us in recent years.