Sunday, December 12

My Proposal for the Public Schools

In a recent post, I mentioned that I thought the public schools were (uhm) not doing as well as we might like. I thought that in this post, I'd try to pull together my thoughts on public schooling and attempt to make some policy proposals. Note, here I am concentrating on the K-12 levels of education. (This post has turned out to be a longish essay).

First I'll begin by identifying the weaknesses of today's schools. Today's schools are too much driven by curriculum. There is too little diversity in approach and curriculum. Finally, for whatever reason, the schools have too large a logistical tail. Teachers spend too much time is spent pushing paper to satisfy regulations. Staff which are not in front of students for the majority of the day should be minimized. Much of the time, those individuals are higher paid than the teachers, and to what end? The goal is teaching.

Many schools and teachers have lost sight of their purpose. There are just few things our public schools are required to do:
  1. Teach a minimal set of fundamental survival skills.
  2. Help to prepare our students to be good citizens.
  3. Assist the student with his search for a career
  4. Teach the fundamental skills required for success
I will now briefly discuss each of these items in a little more detail.

Minimal skill set

The minimal skill set in our society is not so great. One needs competency at English and arithmetic. Practical knowledge of how to find what you need and start a household arguably must be taught at home, but in school one could also cover the basics. A certain amount of current history would be nice too. :)
Good Citizenship

Mr Pierce (web site here) mentioned in a comment to an earlier essay of mine, a very good idea when he insisted that there should be a canonical reading list. His list might be a little longer than I would require. I agree that a canon of shared literature could go well to heal the great divide in worldview seen in our culture by giving us more shared language and symbols.
The fact that the Greeks all read Homer, the Romans Virgil and Cicero went far to cement their culture. What belongs in our canonical list? This certainly wouldn't be the whole list of what any kid would read, but the list of what every student would read.
Here's a proposed list. I insist it isn't my final word. I just wrote down off the cuff, and certainly included things that could be dropped, and missed more that shouldn't have. But I'll put this out to get the ball rolling.
  • Our Political Canon
    • The Declaration of Independence
    • The Constitution
    • The Federalist Papers
    • The Gettysburg Address
  • Our Cultural Canon
    • M. Twain: Huckleberry Finn
    • E. Hemingway: ??
    • JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings.
  • Our philosophical Canon
    • Genesis
    • Some representative selection of Greek thought (Plato, Aristotle, etc)
Some comments on this list follow. The political canon is probably the easiest. I've never read the anti-Federalist Papers, and don't know if they should be included as well. I'm not sure if any 20th century works need inclusion. I'm in general far more impressed with the work of our founders than what came later.

As for the cultural list, I'm not sure Tolkein belongs there, but what I was looking for was a book (or books) that was both epic and also represents the ideals we would wish to espouse. If this book was good enough, it could replace all the books in the canon. After all, recall the Greeks had two poems and that was all they needed.

Finally, my philosophical list is missing something which the natural philosophers like Locke penned which provided the underpinnings for our nation. And my inclusion of Genesis was deliberate. I'm not advocating state religion. I think it should be taught more along the lines of the book Beginning of Wisdom by Mr Kass, which reads Genesis as one would read Plato, that is to say philosophically and not as religious work.

E-mail me with links to your list (or just send me your list) and I'll collect them for a future post.

Search for a Career

We spend so much time at our career and job, that it is a shame whenever a person is "trapped" in a career they don't like. My aphorism for education that I tell my children is to find out what you really like to do, then get good enough to be paid to do it. We often like to do that thing where our talents lie. That is to say, we enjoy doing that which comes easiest for us. One of the chief jobs of a parent is to help the child find their calling in life. Schools certainly can and should assist in this search.

Fundamental Skills

In a prior essay I identified the 4 fundamental skills which schools should teach (see here for more):
  • reasoning Students need to learn how to think. Following lines of reasoning, formulating an argument, and recognizing fallacious arguments are critical to being able to succeed in any endeavor.
  • diligence Careful work, the ability to check for mistakes, and organizational skills are also important.
  • perseverance I've written about this a lot recently. Edison said success was 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Perseverance gives us the ability to pour on the perspiration required.
  • memorization This isn't popular these days especially with the ease of getting facts at the fingertip with tools like Google on the Internet. But I firmly believe that memorization is a key mental skill for success.

Final Thoughts

I think we should, as best we can, eliminate the paperwork and requirements for our schools. Let their curricula vary as they wish. There are thousands of different pathways that can teach the four skills I identified above. I think any gaps in education can be made up quickly by a student who has mastered the "four skills".

I think Mr Bush's idea of testing to prove that educational standards are met ("No Child Left Behind Act") is a good one. But don't test facts. Test for improvement in the "four skills" and let the rest of the cards fall where they may. I admit that testing which is no longer based on a curriculum that isn't standardized is much harder to administer, but remember we did send men to the moon in less than a decade 35 years ago and we are only testing for basic substinance levels in survival skills and improvement in the "four skills". A different style of testing to test improvement in the "four skills" will be required, but I believe we can design methods to do the tests as required if we put our minds to it.

Finally a diversity in teaching methods and curricula should be encouraged. We need to find ways of allowing parents to move their kids into whichever school whose curricula, methods, and competence matches what they feel is best for their child. If a school cannot meet a growing enrollment, it should be expanded or duplicated. That has to be balanced with making public schooling available to every student desiring it. The division between public and private schools should be removed as much as possible. Public schools should be privatized and public funds should be made available to all schools, "public", private, and home.

Update: English correted for clarity. Thanks to the efforts of Mrs Pseudo-Polymath.