Although I've briefly touched on the topic of education before (here and here), I haven't really shared my current thoughts on the overall structure and purpose of education in the United States.
My intent is not to bury you with stats (although that is certainly easy enough to do), educational jargon, or stories of woe and sadness in the educational system. That can all be accessed in many other places.
Instead, I'd like to take a quick look at the concept of education as if we were able to start completely anew.
First, the background.
Although I'm generalizing here, based on my experiences, hopefully you can relate.
I've been in education since I was five years old.
I've been a student (K-12, undergraduate, master's, and doctoral), a teacher, a professional development specialist, an administrator, and a professor. I've seen this process from a number of different angles, and it seems to me that we are holding onto a model that is no longer as applicable as it once was.
Think about the process of moving students through a typical K-12 school, and consider whether this educational process truly prepares individuals for "real life" (whatever THAT may be).
In general, a very specific amount of time is dedicated each day to a specific area of content (I'll grant you that there is some interdisciplinary work happening, but in today's high stakes testing climate, are you willing to give up your math class to partner with a science teacher? didn't think so). We assign students homework problems and check them to make sure they are understanding, but how does this ensure long term transfer?
We have an assembly-line model, in an information-age society.
A question: what should education be like? What should be the purpose of attending school?
Is it to memorize dates of obscure battles? Learn how to solve systems of linear equations using matrices? (Although, I have to admit, that is a fun one!)
Before I start to freak out my brethren in social studies and mathematics, let me say unequivocally that I believe that we have many of the content areas right. Math, Social Studies, Language Arts/Reading, Science, Visual Art, Physical Education/Health, Music (as well as any other content areas that students are fortunate to have access to) are all important for us to explore.
However, it may be that our emphasis is misplaced a bit. In an effort to quantify everything (I'm looking at you No Child Left Behind), we lose sight of the larger goals of education. Think about this: when was the last time that you needed to know the major dates and theatres of war for the French and Indian War for your employment (History teachers and professors excluded, obviously)?
Instead, is it not more instructive to learn the lessons of what happens to colonists and indigenous peoples when two imperial nations (thanks France and England!) are locked in conflict halfway around the globe?
So, what should we teach in our schools?
Here is an outline, taken directly from the 'off the top of my head' region of my brain:
- Early Childhood Education: begins at birth, runs until age 8 or so. This is a partnership between schools and parents, where students begin to learn language skills (reading and writing), core math skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division), exploration in the arts. There is exposure to civics and science as well.
- Middle Childhood Education: age 9 to 13/14. Aptitude is assessed frequently, and students are given ample time to explore various fields (presentations from experts? videos?) in connection with aptitude testing. More advanced skills in mathematics are introduced and mastered (everyone masters Algebra I, essentially) and core language arts skills are mastered. More time is given to Social Studies and Science, in order to spark interest in those who are interested in these fields, as well as to ensure that everyone has mastered civics as well as foundational scientific principles.
- Secondary Education: 14 to 18ish. Again, time is devoted to exploring aptitude, with more emphasis on field experiences (would I like to operate on people? I should probably watch a few surgeries, or speak to surgeons about their day-to-day). BIG emphasis on life skills training: preparing healthy foods, personal finance, and living a healthy life, come to mind immediately.
- Service Learning/Required Draft: 18 to 20. No exceptions. Everyone is drafted into either the military service, Americorps, the Peace Corps, or another service entity, yet to be designed. If the military is not your thing, you could work a rotation in the Hotel/Restaurant industry (i.e., cleaning rooms, working as a waiter, etc.) The lessons one could learn in serving others would last a lifetime; would you trash a hotel room, if you knew what all was involved in making it look spotless?
- Postsecondary Education/Advanced Training: 20-24ish. Depending on your interests, and how you believe that you can contribute to society, upon completion of your service tour of duty, you could enroll in additional training/apprenticeship in order to master your craft. Sure, traditional undergraduate colleges/universities would still fill a role here, however, it would be important to provide many other training opportunities for this population. Apprenticeships, internships, technical training opportunities can all fill the knowledge gap for those individuals who want to improve their understanding of the world, but may not be a perfect fit for the demands of the typical university.
Really, this helps me get back to the root of the question: what IS the purpose of education? Is it to make everyone equal in their knowledge (our current standard, btw), or is it to craft productive members of a society, regardless of the path chosen later in life?
Again, this is an outline, a starting point. What did I miss? What would you suggest?