Real Education Reform

by Krishna on March 4, 2009

school bus

Every year during election season, we hear politicians bemoan the state of the American education system. We are presented with statistics that show European countries way ahead of America on math and science scores. Also, there is no dearth of horror scenarios where China and India graduate millions of engineers every year with Americans finding no way to compete against them.

In one aspect, as a society, it is good to worry about education because that is one of the cornerstones of progress. But it is unfortunate how the proposed solutions are entirely political in nature. One side rants against teacher unions and asks for more accountability. The other side asks for more money for schools. Every discussion seems to revolve around whether you need better teachers or more funding.

To understand how silly this is, assume that you are a business owner and you want to improve the productivity of your team. Would it help if you hire better managers? Would it help if you start paying more to employees? The answer to both is “yes”, but the more important questions are: Do you have the right employees on board? And are they internally motivated to do their work?

Public school systems don’t have the ability to answer “No” to the first question. They have to accept all students, brilliant or below-average. Private schools, through rationing by high school fees, eliminate poor students thus improving their student pool. Well-off students are more likely to have better scores because of greater opportunities and other factors.

But if schools cannot select their students, they have to work on motivating the students. I don’t deny that at the poorest schools, more money can provide motivation in the form of better conditions (safety, food, etc.) that students cannot receive at home or in their neighborhood. But in most parts of America, that is not the case.

Different students have different levels of motivation for learning different subjects. This is not a stunning insight. Everybody knows this, but which conveniently forget when it comes to education reform. The old saw about taking a horse to the water is applicable here. If someone is not motivated, they will not bother to learn what is taught.

There are many possible reasons for this lack of motivation. Students have a life outside school and studies and are influenced by what their friends do and what they see on television or while on the Internet. Their role models may be in sports, entertainment or public service. Also, many students, even the top-ranked ones, do not see any value in learning some subjects which they think will be of no use to them in the future. For example, someone who has plans to become a doctor may not be very interested in calculus. Or someone interested in computers may not want anything to do with literature.

And that is the fundamental problem with schools: They teach a lot of subjects and provide knowledge on the off-chance that someday we may need them. The fact is that most people will never need much of the knowledge that is imparted. Those who may need it would have already forgotten what they learnt in school and they now have to look it up again in textbooks or Wikipedia.

This could be justified if there was nothing else to teach. But consider what students graduating from high school are unaware of:

  1. Basic financial management, such as understanding taxes, retirement, fundamental economics. In fact, if some students only knew how much money they needed for simple expenses, perhaps they would be more motivated to study.
  2. Business laws and ethics: Local/state/federal rules and regulation, conflicts of interest, intellectual property, contracts.
  3. Personal branding and marketing: Online presence, privacy, personal goals, liability.
  4. People management: Working in teams, leadership, negotiation.

Schools do not prioritize teaching the right kind of information that would help students lead a more productive life. Students are never educated on why they are learning a particular piece of information. I suspect that schools and teachers do not know, either, except to say, “It is good for you.” There will always be students who will learn everything and score well. Some students are genuinely interested in learning everything, and others know that they have to accept the existing system to achieve a greater goal. But these students are a minority.

So, I think true reform has to start from the syllabus. What should we teach students that will help them in the real world? That they will actually use when they start working in an organization or start their own business. A syllabus that makes sense to students today in terms of benefits and not some vague justification of future advantages.

This may mean that schools may have to fundamentally change how they operate. They have to provide a justification for every topic that they teach from 1st grade to high school. They will have a major track for all students (for subjects and topics that everyone needs) and then different tracks for students after some years in school (based on the student’s long-term plans and capabilities). Like college, but much before. Parents will have to get more involved in understanding subjects and making decisions for students.

By different tracks, however, I do not mean something that will lock students out of some professions. These could be additional sessions in various subjects that students could participate in, but which they could also pick up with additional training during adult years if they decide to skip subjects (say jump from advanced biology to advanced chemistry). The idea is that students don’t have to waste time learning something that they could easily relearn at an introductory course in college if they ever went deeper into that subject.

Although this may seem like “dumbing down” the syllabus, it doesn’t have to be. I already gave some examples of complex subjects like tax rules and business regulations. You can spend a year teaching a class what they can expect to earn in different professions, how much they can keep after paying income and payroll taxes, how they can reduce those taxes, how they can save for retirement and how they can invest the money wisely.

Of course, some subjects like math are tricky. Do you stop math after they master arithmetic and algebra? Geometry and trigonometry, while interesting, may not be necessary. Discrete math instead, maybe. More applied math in areas like accounting? I will leave the specifics to implementers.

[Photo licensed from kmountman]

{ 1 comment }

Anonymous March 8, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Very fresh and inovative thinking. Not only would you not waste time teaching things never to be used again, but kids would be more motivated to learn the things they will.

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