Krugman on Education

Way back on October 8, Paul Krugman wrote about the challenges facing the American educational system.  He said,

If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be “education.” In the 19th century, America led the way in universal basic education. Then, as other nations followed suit, the “high school revolution” of the early 20th century took us to a whole new level. And in the years after World War II, America established a commanding position in higher education.

My school, among others, was founded as part of the great project to educate the young people of America in the early 1900s.  It was founded specifically to compete (successfully) with a local public school that our founder, a Princeton graduate, felt wasn’t quite up to snuff for his own son.  For ninety years now, we’ve been both a challenge and a contrast to the local public schools.  And while I don’t think that anyone here feels we’re in a race with them, we know that they keep an eye on our doings just as we keep an eye on theirs.

But both schools are in a bit of a financial bind these days.  We’re in a hiring freeze.  The rumor mill says they are too.  We’re in a salary freeze. Rumor says they are, too.  All sorts of projects and plans are on hold for everyone at both schools, and the kids are the ones who are hurting.

Beyond that, we need to wake up and realize that one of the keys to our nation’s historic success is now a wasting asset. Education made America great; neglect of education can reverse the process.

I’m not sure that we’re neglecting schools, exactly.  We certainly talk about what’s ailing them and what would heal them a lot.  The diagnosis of the particular problem, though, is elusive and difficult to determine.

The real ailment, though, is that schools are slow. They’re slow and resistant to change.  Once they decide to change, they can drag their feet for years; and one or two feet-dragging administrators can slow any progress down for a long time.  Similarly, innovative teachers find the slow pace of change, and the tremendous difficulty in getting anything done, absolutely maddening.

Saul and I don’t always agree on everything, but his list of ten things that identify an innovator reads like a list of qualities administrators try to avoid when hiring a middle school teacher.  Routines are important for learners, we are told, again and again; Patterns are important, we’re told this too.

Arne Duncan’s solution is that we need to change teachers’ college programs.  But this misses the point completely.  Any student in the program now has the “right” to graduate under the same terms of completion that applied when he or she entered the program.  So even if all US teachers’ colleges instituted ‘change’ today, it wouldn’t take effect until next September.  Then schools have to wait four years for the students to graduate.  Then they have to be placed in teaching jobs. Then they have to advance through the ranks of teachers, battling both layoffs and the challenges of the profession.  Sometime between eight and twenty years from now, enough of these graduates of “changed” teachers’ colleges will be in the administrations of the nation’s public schools.

That’s change so gradual as to term it evolution rather than revolution.

Unfortunately, Krugman is right: we need radical change in American schools both public and private.  We need it more or less now.  And yet neither Krugman’s plan (to throw massive amounts of money at public schools right now) nor the Secretary of Education’s plan (to reform teachers’ colleges) will get us there. The first requires money we don’t have and that China is unlikely to lend us, and the second is too damned slow.

I wish I knew what the solution was.  I’ve been wracking my brains about it for a while.

I think the solution is a fundamental restructuring of how we operate schools.  I think we probably need to bring back elected school boards for each school; I think we need to eliminate the large bureaucracies that run so many town and city schools (into the ground); I think we need to arrange teachers in groups that serve the needs of a hundred students — whether those students have disabilities or not. Maybe it’s a good plan. Maybe it isn’t.

One way or another, I must admit that I’m an ousider to public schools, and maybe I’m talking from someplace other than my mouth. But then, there’s a vast number of politicians, officials, and columnists who seem to be spouting off, and the schools themselves don’t seem to make much progress.

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