All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


07 March 2014

Predictability and Education

Universal Pre-School.
Elementary school.
Junior High.
High School.
A Job.
Social Security.

There's a mindset that wants the entire course of life to be predictable and stable.  In this aspirational view, pre-school gets you ready for elementary school.  Elementary school gets you ready for Junior High.  Junior High gets you ready for High School.  High School gets you ready for college.  College gets you ready for a Job.  A Job lets you pay into Social Security, and Social Security lets you retire at age 96.  (Or it will by the time I get there.)

The stages flow into one another, and the result is a life that -- if you took the time to look -- you could see laid out before you as early as the age of 8.

It is this perspective that worries about things like whether the SAT is testing kids on the same things that they are studying in school, on whether employers think college grads are being adequately prepared, whether every student is going to college, and whether the Core Curriculum is going to get students ready to go to College.  It's the sort of viewpoint implicitly endorsed by ignorant high school teachers who tell you that you need to learn citation format X by heart, "Because you'll need it for college." 

John Dewey had a name for the view of education that pervades this sort of mindset -- he called it "Education as Preparation."  That's not the name of a fashionable academic theory -- it's just the name of a viewpoint that sees the purpose of Education as Preparation for other things.  There's much to recommend the view of Education as Preparation.  You're only a child for so long, and you'll never have another time when your phases of neural proliferation and pruning allow you to learn things so well, so easily, and so deeply.

But Education-as-Preparation should only be endorsed insofar as it is an end of Education, not the end.  Dewey was right when he said that the life of the child has value in the here and now, and that one's education should be geared to the present as well as the future. 

Additionally, the plain fact of the matter is that technology has allowed us to do some pretty remarkable stuff in a relatively short period of time.  We are remaking our society over and over again, week in and week out.  If you're reading this blog, you likely know the drill: the jobs of today won't be the jobs of tomorrow; we don't even know what the jobs of tomorrow will be; Social Security looks like it's going to be bankrupt well before I ever collect, etc.  The future is unstable.

If the tail end of the sequence is unstable and constantly shifting, it's going to whack the head of the sequence back and forth.  You can't prepare for Jobs in College if you don't know what the jobs are.  You can't prepare for College in High School if College is constantly trying to find its footing.  And so on, all the way back.

We want things to fit neatly together, because we value predictability.  (And by "we" I mean "those people".)  We don't want to have to think about what comes next -- it's the Progressive Dream: a life where everything is mapped out for you and all you have to do is color in the lines and enjoy your vacation time however you want.

But maybe we should recognize that each of these stages actually has a stand-alone, independent job to do.  I suspect -- and it's just a suspicion -- that one of the reasons our high schools aren't what we want them to be is because they (the schools) don't have their eyes on what they are doing.  They're looking forward, worrying about "college preparation" when what they really need to be doing is producing a solid, integrated high school graduate.

If we can de-link the chain of predictability, we can stop worrying about whether high school grads are "college ready" and start worrying about whether they are good high school graduates.  We can start asking ourselves what that really means.

Let the colleges worry about figuring out whether people are college-ready or not.  Let employers worry about finding the right person for the job that they need to fill here and now.  Let future employers worry about those things down the road.

An added bonus: most high school teachers are pretty good at being high school graduates.  Most of them are only fair to middlin' at being college graduates.   A lot of high school teachers (not all, and maybe not even most, but a lot) just don't know what it means to be a good college student: they muddled through and took Micky Mouse courses.  They shouldn't be teaching "college prep" because they don't really know what is expected and requried at college: they had at most four years of second-hand, tangential experience with a limited range of college life, and odds are they didn't knock those four years out of the park. 

But they've got high school nailed.  Let them come back and be instructors for that.

And we can do the same thing at the collegiate level: decouple a degree from the job.  Get the degree as a symbol that you've completed a course of training that prepares you not for the "next step" but rather that prepares you for being a certain type of person.

When we talk about the humanities, and the futility of racking up thousands of dollars of student loans to study Women's Studies or Art History, we're endorsing the view that these things do not have an independent value -- that they are only good to the extent that they advance you to "the next step." 

Well, if you're looking for "the next step", Women's Studies or Art History probably isn't the way to go.  And if you sunk tens of thousands of dollars into it thinking that it was the next step -- well, you're the victim of a tragic mistake.  You're a victim of the Predictable Education mindset, which told you that all you needed to do was go to high school, then go to college, then you'd get a job.

But that's not what college was designed for, and it's not what it's good at.  College is good at producing a certain type of person.  That certain type of person tends to be fairly good at a lot of things, but that's no guarantee that they'll be a good employee for any particular job.

Let the colleges worry about producing good college graduates.  Let the employers worry about finding the right person for the job that they need to fill here and now.

It'd be nice (and by "nice" I mean "nice if you're lazy") if everything was done for us -- if our decisions about what to do next were made for us, if our employees were prepared for us, if our prospective college students were ready-made for the college experience.  It would be nice if we could approach life without having to navigate and make important decisions.

But that's not really the world we live in, and it won't be, no matter how much we pretend and no matter how much we attempt to structure our social institutions to reflect the reality we want instead of the reality we have.  Life isn't predictable.  And an Education that prepares you properly for life can't be, either.


Rachel Levy said...

This is wonderful. Sharing widely including with school board members in my community.

Michael E. Lopez said...

As always, I am both happy to have you reading and pleased to hear that you're enjoying what I have to say.


kyla said...

I liked this piece but your characterization of high school teachers is grossly unfair. They are "fair to middlin' at being college graduates"? What leads you to this conclusion? Teachers ARE college graduates and in some states they are required to have a Master's degree as well. Knowing the content of what you are teaching is only a fraction of what you need to know and do to be a good teacher. Please don't perpetuate the notion that teachers teach because they were not smart enough to do anything else. You'll gain nothing for future students if you fail to respect those responsible for their education.

Michael E. Lopez said...


Well, I enjoyed your comment -- as I enjoy all comments. But I find your characterization of what I actually wrote to be grossly unfair. (So I guess that makes us some sort of even.)

* First, I never said that teachers aren't college graduates. This would be a stupid thing to say given that it's a near-universal requirement. I didn't say that teachers were "fair to middlin'" at *BECOMING* college graduates, but that they were fair to middlin' at *BEING* college graduates. I'm not sure how much clearer I could have been.

* I never said that specific content knowledge was all that was required for teachers. As an educator myself, I'm fully aware of at least a few of the many skills that get employed in a classroom. Indeed, I have absolutely no idea why you would think I even entertained the notion. Perhaps you are having some sort of knee-jerk reaction and lumping me in with a particular brand of teacher-critics that you don't like?

* I never said that teachers teach because they are not smart enough to anything else. In fact, I never said ANYTHING AT ALL about the intelligence of teachers. I made a generalization about the general level of academic engagement, rigor, and excellence that teachers as a class tend to experience in college, and the relationship that those levels have to one's being able to embody the ideal of a college graduate to a greater or lesser degree.

This has nothing to do with intelligence: lots of super-smart students coast through college without ever coming close to "getting" what's going on, without understanding how all the pieces of the curriculum fit together, and without understanding the ideal towards which they are ostensibly striving.

So please -- when you read my material, try to read what I've actually written, and try to avoid just hearing echoes of some other, familiar refrain you think you've heard before.

kyla said...
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kyla said...
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