My Experience With Hundreds of Area High School Students Over Two Years
We spend many billions of dollars a year on our education system. How should we assess what that money buys us? What is the proper framing for the education policy debate?
In your view, what is the point of the modern education system? What is the actual, objective, measurable outcome that the system as a system commits itself to achieving? To put it very reductively, one might say that a job is that which one will be fired for not doing. What is the system's job? Does the system do a good job of performing that job?
Well this is a tough one, and to be frank you are one of my more intimidating interlocutors. I'll do what I can.
what is the point of the modern education system?
To educate (for multiple definitions of educate) children in such a way that, when they are adults, they are able to apply that education to achieve good outcomes in life (for multiple definitions of good), and educate themselves further of their own volition.
Does the system do a good job of performing that job?
Better than most people here probably think. The failure modes are flashy and toxoplasmic, and get all the press, like in most fields. My experience with hundreds of area high school students over two years does not paint a picture of a generation failed by institutional incompetence. They are by and large well-educated, emotionally stable, personally affable, and ambitious. They are not by and large uneducated, whiny, woke-washed, entitled, or neurotic that I can tell. No, I do not need a reminder that my experiences are not typical, I have received plenty every time I post here on education.
Do you think most people's understanding of what schooling is matches the reality of what schooling actually is?
I'd say the biggest difference is the point of the content. It's quite reasonable to say that a world history lesson about Napoleon will be irrelevant to all non-future-European-historians. But the point is not to learn about Napoleon per se, the point is to, e.g. learn things like (as said above) fact-collation and organization, making connections, drawing inferences, etc.
Anti-education people say "I never used this crap, it was a waste of my time". Pro-education people say "School introduced me to new ideas that formed the basis of my career". I think they're both missing the point a little. From an outside perspective it's "about" the content, from an inside perspective the content is just a platform for (all together now) teaching students how to think.
What does the system do well that we would struggle to do better some other, cheaper way?
The biggest one is to provide opportunities for people who would not otherwise have them. Schooling, especially public schooling is no doubt a leveler. This means slowing down kids who could possibly excel in a more competitive environment, but it also means lifting up kids who would otherwise be trapped. One student a few years ago went from an 11 to a 17 on the ACT, which functionally is the difference between a lifelong minimum-wage earner and a small-town restaurant manager or something.
Now, most people here are in the 'smart kids who get pushed down' group. That's all they ever saw, and that's all they think of when they think of school. This is a major problem, I will readily admit. Just how major depends on the rest of one's politics, how much you think the key to a healthy society is empowering the elite vs. keeping the proletariat's heads above water. But just bear in mind that there are many, many people not like you/us, and society has to work for them too, because if it doesn't, they let us know at the barrel of a gun.
If we went to the situation many people here relish, where compulsory schooling either ends entirely or ends at a much younger age, the kids I'm talking about would struggle. Many of them would fall behind, get trapped in bad neighborhoods with no way out, some of them would term to crime, etc. In my opinion, keeping some form of compulsory schooling in place is no Chesterton's Fence, but the Great Wall of Chesterton.
Others include variety of experience (Homeschooling has advantages of its own, but being able to interact with different people who are into different things, especially when you're 12 and don't even know what interests you yet, is not one of them), the ability to leaven really bad home situations, and the ability for students to gain social/emotional intelligence by interacting with peers. I think these are all important things that would all suffer in a "you're on your own" model.
Is it genuinely a local optimum, in your view?
When it works, yes. When it doesn't, I will freely admit that it can get really, really terrible. If I seem cagey about acknowledging that, it's because I feel like every discussion of education in this sub acknowledges it, again and again, and other perspectives are not just missing but shouted down. But yes, bad schools can get really bad.
If we wanted to improve the education system, what might be some of the low-hanging fruit?
The biggest difficulty to improving education is the meta-difficulty. As with any institute of such size, it is a massive entangled web of protocol, inertia, and selfishness with minimal top-down coordination.
That said, if I was Education Policy God-King the first thing I would do would be to examine tracking and admissions policies. My job has really impressed upon me the value of personalized education. As stated elsewhere in this thread, I don't think the private tutor model would scale. But there are ways you can imitate it even in overcrowded schools. One would be to search for a minimum optimal level of 'troublemakers' to be removed for the sake of the non-troublemakers. IIRC during some other education thread here, someone mentioned a study where, if you remove some single-digit percentage of the worst behavioral offenders from a classroom, the experience improves exponentially, and this matches my own experience. If one or two kids act up, the rest will follow, especially with younger kids. If it really is just 5% of a given school that, when removed, the other 95% show a marked increase in happiness and performance, it's hard not to take that deal, even for most egalitarians. Parental pressure, if they knew it was on the table, would take care of institutional inertia.
Where would these kids go, then? I'm also a big proponent of tracking, and furthermore, hiring teachers based on both their domain knowledge and their 'rowdiness-tolerance'. It's been discussed extensively why this would help the students, but also teacher who doesn't have to plan a lesson for the honors kids and another one for the general kids and another one for the remedial kids is a teacher who can put far more effort into whatever lesson they are planning. Would this tracking be better for the difficult kids? Would it get them into shape and help them prepare for adult life? Well, as Scott might say, that's a problem we'd still have if we did nothing, so not really an argument against trying something.
But who would willingly put up with the 'rowdy' kids? Well, I've only encountered a few, mild versions of this character, but I hear there are many teachers who are strict authoritarians, basically prison guards in disguise. Perhaps they could play to their strengths? Perhaps the teachers who gush over the prodigies in their room could focus more attention there? All that said, I'd be hesitant about separating the tracks too much. As I've said, I think being part of a community full of people with different life experiences is valuable on its own, valuable enough that in terms of pure utils, a smart kid never interacting with a dumb one again would be a net loss. You'd also want to keep an eye on the tough guys so that they don't get too brutal, or the honors specialists such that they don't get too head-in-the-clouds.
All this advice goes against the egalitarian instinct of most people in education, but this is a case of caring about the job too much, not too little, thinking you can save everyone and inside every delinquent is an honors student waiting to get discovered. I think a little more honesty about the facts of education, admitting what we already secretly think, could lead to big improvements while not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Second step would be an increased emphasis on practical skills, for all levels. It's absurd that school doesn't teach you how to do taxes or how to conduct an online job search. No arguments there with the haters.
Third, as a proponent of shrinking the archetypal workday from 5 days to 3 or 4 when feasible, I’d be remiss not to suggest the same for schools. Given that the student:teacher ratio is larger than the typical worker:boss ratio, I imagine it could be done on a rolling basis with minimal disruption and would reduce stress and burnout for all involved. You could even potentially combine this with tracking such that certain days are reserved for certain educational demographics.
Last step would be an updating of the curriculum, and this would probably be the shakiest. I'll use history here as an example; a common complaint about high school US history, dating back decades, is that there is an inordinate emphasis on the colonial and civil war era(s) ("Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin" is the US history version of "The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell"), and everything post-WWII is covered in like a week. Out of date books, yes. Poor planning, absolutely. But also a sense that the more contemporary you get, the less things are "settled" in a way that behooves the analytic style of teaching I discussed earlier (and, of course, more open to the biases of the teacher). My advice here is "Do what the SAT does and figure out how to scale it". Those tests routinely feature contemporary social/political essays and speeches without falling to pieces about it.
You asked about 'low-hanging fruit' and I think all of this qualifies. I think implementing these changes successfully would be a big improvement without having to tear the whole thing down or having to start a war with the wokes.
Regarding wokeness and ideological bias specifically, what's the proper to assess this sort of problem?
I think it is regional, and input based, neither institutional nor irreversible. I live in an area that’s 50-50 politically, more or less, and the worst of wokeness has not manifested here. Neither my students, nor their parents, nor my coworkers, nor our managers/employers seem to have any interest in it. The horror stories all seem to come from a few deep-blue cities (SF, Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York, DC all seem to be the worst offenders).
The bottom of it is, most people in SF who become teachers will be like most people in SF who do anything from driving Ubers to founding startups; extremely progressive. Similarly, teachers and students who are not disposed to that kind of thing will politely nod and ignore it, even when it comes from whatever top-down agency. The best I can think of is a program where woke blue-city teachers are subsidized to teach in red/rural areas, where they will at least not have institutional support and may even learn a thing or two about The Enemy, but this is probably too naïve.
what would you expect that to look like? What effects should we expect to see?
I think one expected consequence is that students of woke-disfavored demographics would be self-effacing and full of self-loathing, while those of other demographics would be strident and entitled; if all the adults in your life are telling you you’re either a monstrous oppressor or a blameless victim, that has a big psychological effect on a child. Personally, I have not seen much of this.
What I have seen, where I think the critics are right, is an inability to think of things outside the left-liberal paradigm. Wokeness is not present here, but neither is any real in-depth analysis of claims like ‘Lincoln freed the slaves’ (although in my US history class in ’06, I did have several prominent confederacy/states-rights defenders, including the teacher) or ‘FDR solved the Great Depression’. Ideally those are the ‘basic’ claims that would be picked apart further in college, which certainly happens for students going into such and such field, but if a student does not actively seek out non-consensus material, they will probably never see it.
how can one not be deeply concerned about indoctrination in what amounts to a publicly-funded culture factory?
(I’m running out of steam here a bit; this is probably your most important paragraph and deserves more attention than I’m able to give it)
Indoctrination is a boo-word in my opinion and doesn’t mean much. Anyone who tries to pass on their beliefs or values to their charges (parent, teacher, etc.) is accused of indoctrination by those who think those beliefs are wrong, but those people never trouble the ‘indoctrinators’ on their own side.
It is odd, in my opinion, that people who think that intelligence and even personality are mostly genetic are so worried about indoctrination from outside forces. For progressives, who endlessly plumb even the simplest statements for traces of white supremacy or stereotype threat, at least fear of indoctrination makes sense.
To a certain extent, indoctrination in the modern American hegemony is a good thing; even if one hates that hegemony with every fiber of their being, one still must learn how to navigate it. And there are certain conservative concepts I more or less agree with, and one of them is that cultural homogeneity can actively improve things like trust and useful common knowledge.
The ideal situation (and I’m getting real utopian here) is one in which students don’t need to be ‘indoctrinated’ for or against any particular belief because they already have the analytical tools that they need to confidently assess said belief on their own and decide what to do with it. Outside of a few small-but-noticeable school districts that are completely captured by ideologues, I think most teachers/tutors that I’ve known agree with this philosophy. The occasional tweet you see where someone is saying “The goal of education is to promote social justice”—that’s fringe in my experience, coming from the sort of person who would be on Twitter, saying such things, in the first place.