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March 27, 2003

Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology Redux


In my earlier post on Consumer Reports, TQM and Educational Theology I made some rather scattershot observations regarding educational paradigms. Scattershot or not, they stirred up some comments, and looking at the comments I realized that each addressed an issue that would help to clarify what I was originally driving at. So here’s my clarification:

My original piece was aimed at what I consider a lack of seriousness on the part of the education establishment. Education plays a very significant role in either allowing or disallowing people in our society access to a variety of opportunities. Employers and all sorts of other authority figures look at how much and what type of education a person has received as a proxy for what kind of training, skills and basic aptitude a person possesses. As a result of the education establishment’s sloppy approach to teaching and evaluation, however, the amount and type of a person’s education is a poor predictive indicator.

Why? Because when you “measure” something for purposes of comparison, you need certain prerequisites. If you want to compare “lengths” of two objects that aren’t side by side, you need (1) an agreement on what is to be measured (longest dimension? shortest dimension? circumference?) and (2) rulers marked off in identical units. However, a standard educational course, whether in junior high school or in graduate school, lacks both of these pre-requisites. There is no standard definition of what is being measured, and it’s not clear what units are being used to do the measuring. That is to say, each teacher or professor gets to define what gets taught and what constitutes the measure of success. As a practical result, getting a “C” in one course in differential equations may indicate vastly more or vastly less mastery of differential equations than getting a “C” in another.

The downsides of our current system are quite visible. People graduate from high school without being able to read and write. Before the advent of spell- and grammar-checkers, I used to routinely get resumes from college graduates full of misspelled words and ungrammatical language. Some of my employees have been intelligent, hardworking and organized but absolutely unable to write even a simple business letter.

Ultimately, the educational establishment is not solely to blame for this state of affairs. The larger fault lies with society (or, to be more precise, government) for not clarifying the purposes of education far more precisely, and then taking responsibility for making sure that these purposes are met. If we decide that all citizens need to be able to read, write, spell and understand a specific vocabulary of, say, 1000 words, do basic arithmetic and read street signs, then we need to put people through a training program to provide training in these skills and keep them at it until they really possess this combination of skills and knowledge. Some people may master these skills and obtain this knowledge in a few years; others may take decades. Some advanced skills, such as brain surgery, calculating orbits for satellites, cooking gourmet food may not be required of the entire population, but if an educational organization certifies that someone has mastered such a skill or subject it should be on the basis of an agreed definition of what “mastery” means in this area and a standard measuring protocol. In short, all grades should be either pass or fail.

I believe a large part of the problem with schooling lies in the idea that it is something everyone just needs to spend at least 13 years doing. Since intelligence, work ethic and preparation vary, the outcomes will also vary. (In short, at the end of 13 years of effort, some people will be illiterate and innumerate, and others will be brilliant essayists and mathematicians.) This idea of education results in teachers adopting an “expose, evaluate and flush” approach to their students: expose them to the material, give them a grade, and send them on their way. This constitutes a failure of society to take education seriously, and leads to teachers adopting a “blame the student” mentality: I taught him the material, he’s just too stupid/lazy/unprepared to get it. Well, if it’s important that the student “gets it” then we need to do better than that.



posted by Friedrich at March 27, 2003


It seems to me that getting the necessary basics across shouldn't really be all that hard. What do most kids really, really need? Adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing. A couple of hundred basic history facts. The ability to write three well-organized paragraphs. A quick and easy run through the history of science and the history of art. All that seems basic and necessary. I'd add a semester of how-the-world-works practicalities -- visits to banks, explanations of basic economics, some geography, how to maintain a checking account.

That's about it. Anything over and above this program is great, but this program strikes me as absolutely necessary. And why should it be so hard to deliver? I'd imagine that it's beyond the reach of only a few kids to learn. So the source of the problem is with the educators.

What does the teacher you interviewed sometime back have to say about why schools have such a hard time getting across the basics?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 28, 2003 1:03 AM

Sure, public education is often a failure, and often very difficult to assess because of huge differences from state to state, even district to district--but blaming the teacher is not the way to improve it. The design of a national curriculm, as advocated by E.D. Hirsch and implemented by Hirsch's cohorts in the Core Knowledge schools, may offer a solution. Neil Postman in his "End of Education" and other books on the purpose and role of public schools also has good ideas about what could be done. Postman's suggestions are more idealistic than practical, but it's dreamers that we need.

Posted by: josh on March 28, 2003 6:45 PM

"I believe a large part of the problem with schooling lies in the idea that it is something everyone just needs to spend at least 13 years doing."

That about sums it up.

Some of your employees have been intelligent, hardworking and organized but absolutely unable to write even a simple business letter? Many of my employers have been hardworking (at least in terms of office politics) and organized (when it came to understanding the published and effective org charts) but absolutely unable to write even a simple business letter.

Posted by: j.c. on April 2, 2003 12:49 AM

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