Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thoughts on education and equality

No, I'm not...exactly...digressing into politics. Or rather, I wish this didn't have to sail close to the politics wind.

A group of education superintendents in Virginia got tired of having to teach every child what, and often only what, is needed to pass the standardized tests. They suggested moving the tests earlier in the year. The children who passed could then move on to some real learning, and the ones who failed would receive remedial training and get a retake.

What did the state do? Refused to even let it get a vote. Why? Because it's 'unfair' on the children who failed that they would have to spend the rest of the year drilling for the test.

Well, so, we stay with everyone spending their entire education drilling for tests. Because we can't treat any of the little darlings differently. It might damage their precious, oh-so-valuable, self esteem.

It's a symptom of just how screwed up our education system is. Meanwhile, good jobs are harder and harder to get, most factory work is being done by robots...but we're teaching kids only to pass exams. Give me one thing other than maybe a particularly tough job interview, in the real world, that at all resembles passing an exam. I challenge you.

Part of the problem is that we're trying to educate children in a post-industrial world using a system designed to produce factory workers. Instead of moving more towards teaching young people what they really need to know, we've moved away. And one of the things nobody is willing to admit or acknowledge is that people are different. Children are different. The concept of leaving no child behind might seem very well, but it assumes not just equal opportunity but equal ability.

I know somebody who can barely read. His command of the English language is poor...and it's his first language. But give him a broken down car and he'll give you back a working one almost every time. He is brilliant. He is an absolute genius with mechanical equipment. Tell me the same teacher, in the same class, could educate him and say, a good writer with no practical skill, and get the same results in terms of achievement. It's utterly ridiculous.

The answer is that horrible word: Streaming. Grouping children according to ability. But the modern west isn't willing to do it, because, again, it might damage the 'self esteem' of children branded as stupid.

First of all, properly done streaming does not brand any child as stupid. A child can be in the A stream in history and the C stream in maths...is that child stupid? No, they're just really good at history and either bad at maths or hate it. (Yes, I was that child...I have pretty nasty math phobia caused by, yes, an incompetent teacher).

On top of 'no streaming' is the idea that 'everyone should go to college'. This is, in a word, wrong. All expanding access to college degrees has achieved is to make them necessary to flip burgers: In other words, worthless.

And here comes the political argument. Both major parties support No Child Left Behind. Both support the idea of completely equal opportunity and ability for all children, regardless of how ridiculous it seems.

Guess what? I grew up in England. Streaming was abolished by the Labour Party...because it wasn't socialist. All of this stuff is socialist by its very nature.

I'm all in favor of equal opportunity, but we do not have equal ability. I can't draw to save my life. I freely admit it. My math skills are not what they should be. I am very good at some things, very bad at others. So are all children. Why can't we have an education system that assesses true ability, aptitude and interests and encourages young people in the right direction for their skills and desires. Oh yeah. Self esteem.

Well, here's my argument about self esteem. Isn't it far better for somebody's self esteem for them to be able to fix somebody's car, fix somebody's hair so they look fantastic, build their own computer...than to struggle to keep up with people who are more academic. Not more intelligent. Just more academic.

I don't know, but I do know what we have is rather broken and needs to be worked on. And it's part of the job of science fiction writers to present possibilities for fixing what's broken in our society. Or at least to highlight what might be going wrong.