Monday, January 6, 2014

The Need to Get Creative Before the Education Bubble Bursts - The Call To Parents From Glenn Harlan Reynolds

This post, in a sense, is a review of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save Education From Itself written by Glenn Harlan Reynolds (a 2014 gift sent to me by Alice Stevenson, history teacher in Kentucky and one of the smartest individuals I've ever met. When she invests in a book for me, it's time to stop everything in its place to read it).

In summary, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save Education From Itself makes the claim that the education bubble (including higher education and K-12 schooling) will inevitably burst because the model and mechanisms in place were born out of 19th century ideologies and are unlikely to sustain themselves. They have not adapted to 21st century realities or adopted to meet the needs of a changed society, including the economic pressures resulting from job markets, changing demographics, and new technologies. Reynolds argues that although teacher unions are powerful, the economy will have the final say. He also contends that it is unlikely that academics and teachers will be heard as the bubble begins to burst (which I see evidence of everyday) because their salaries and pensions are cushioned within the bubble and they are seen/we are seen as pampered workers (which, in some ways, we are). Instead, Reynolds feels that educational reform will only come when parents get involved and make decisions with their pockets and actions. Parents should learn to ask questions of educational facilities, to be sharp about how schools (and universities are run) and, in the case of college and higher education, be willing to pay only for an education that is valuable and worthwhile.

Because I work with adolescents, I found his chapter(s) dedicated to their worlds very interesting. Before the industrial revolution, there was not an adolescent period. A child was an apprentice coached into adulthood with mentors; they took on new responsibilities that contributed to the family and greater community.
"The modern creature, the teenager, did not exist..." (2) 
With schools, however, the period of adolescence became a period of passive learning  - one controlled by others and, eventually, by states and federal governments with demands for what it meant to be educated in American society. Further, the jobs once available to youth in their teenage years recently have moved to adults in need of jobs and, therefore, young people no longer are apprenticed into becoming contributors to society like they should be. In fact, many don't have their first job until their mid-twenties. More disturbingly, they ar conditioned to be consumers with wants, needs, expectations, and desires, without any understanding that it takes labor to get the material goods they crave. He feels, and I agree, they deserve to be treated with more maturity, but this will require more responsibility placed on them by our schools.

As I read the chapter(s) on adolescence in The New School: How the Information Age Will Save Education From Itself I couldn't help recollect another book a mother once bought me called The Myth of Maturity: What Teenagers Need From Parents to Become Adults by Terri Apter. Interestingly, the book was bought when a student was in danger of not completing graduation requirements and when her mother was looking for help in raising her child (and an excuse to why her daughter stopped doing her work in high school). The mother's claim was my expectations were too high and I needed to realize that kids are not able to handle the adult behaviors I expected. It was in this book, too, I learned of research revealing that the average American child doesn't leave their parents' home until their mid to late twenties (pathetic). In other words, society has created a period of time where young people are protected with false safety nets and shelter, and where they are not given opportunities to grow as adults and contributors to society. This does not occur until they move towards their 30s. They expect much, but produce little. Schools are to blame, K-16!

Actually, I'd argue with Reynolds that it is not just school, but the vast growth of state and federal government control in schools that make this absurdity possible. Rather than teaching children to take part in society via curriculum and work experience, the bureaucracy has established a world where children become conditioned to take tests (that measure something, but what I know not). In K-12 schools, testing trumps teaching. Anyone who thinks it is the fault of teachers should take a week off from their life and shadow any teacher in an American school. It will most likely given them a taste of teaching reality caused by the top-down management currently being implemented - the truth is, teachers are kept from teaching by the policing forces of bureaucracies measuring whether or not their teaching is effective. There's little time to teach, because schools have become a legion of paperwork documenting the teaching that will occur if, and only if, time is allowed for actual teaching!

Reynold's primary argument is the bubble burst will come, but no one is talking about it. Further, it is likely that schools will follow the same path as journalists who are finding their careers at risk, too. The tools have changed, but the institutions have been slow to adapt. He reminds us that schools first began for wealthy classes to polish the aesthetic dispositions of their children. Before this, education was in the hands of parents, families, religious facilities, and local communities. After the Civil War and the Morrill Act, however, and followed by Horace Mann's push for public schooling (although he home-schooled his own children), government became more involved in institutionalizing education and schooling was made possible for the majority.
Education is a knowledge industry, after all, and why should we expect a knowledge industry in the 21st century to succeed by following a model pioneered in the 19th? (p. 67)
Early on, industries needed workers with basic literacy who could be obedient, reliable, and willing to accomplish robotic tasks. Yet, the Horace Mann idea was based on a factory-mindset.  In higher education, funding from federal support created research institutions where the expectation arrived for more funding of graduate school projects rather than investments in undergraduate teaching (part of the federal largesse, p. 21). Since the 19th century, educators have grown comfortable with the facilities that employ them, but also cogs and bearings in the machine of State capitols and Washington.

The trouble is that it is no longer economically sustainable.
Higher education in the late 20th century gradually became something of a bubble, in which prices - tuition - rose faster than their likely return in the form of graduates' wages, something that has really come to a head since the onset of harder academic times. (p. 12)
Tuition costs have grown to a point that a future income will be unlikely to pay off the debt accrued to received a degree in higher education - this, too, assumes there will be jobs for graduates. The college degree today, however, is equivalent to what a high school diploma used to be; one needs four years of higher education before they can gain "a bare ticket to potential entry-level employmet, even in fields that used to not require a college degree at all" (p. 37).

Part of the inevitability of the popped bubble is that more money goes into administration positions in public schools and institutions of higher education to oversee labor than is invested in building better teaching facilities in support of what students need to be economically competitive in the modern world. Reynolds, had he had more experience as a teacher in K-12 schools, would also likely see that federal and state government has taken control of standards, removed the professionalism of certified teachers, and failed to understand the diverse needs of American students. He wrote,
Educators would be well advised to move with the tide, rather than trying to stand against it. (p. 87)
I'd argue that this is too short-sided. Educators are employed by the system and, in most cases given the Common Core State Standards and teacher-performance accountability, are mandated to follow orders from above, even when they're not good for students and inappropriate for the diversity of students in America's classrooms (and the multiple intelligences these students have). Unfortunately, curriculum has grown out of the hands of teachers and parents and into the hands of corporations with an interest in measuring results to make superficial claims - in fact, TFA and Charter Schools have been created from this paranoia of the 'failing' American School) (see Diane Ravitch's work).

Reynolds does offer suggestions that I'm likely to repeat to my friends with college-aged students:
  • Don't go into debt
  • Don't attend colleges that require you to borrow lots of money.
The claim is made that students graduating high school today are better off going into a trade where they do not create the debt caused by loans to afford higher education and where, as I saw on CNN last night, a trucker who is transporting oil can make $90,000 a year in the energy boom. Without debt hovering throughout a lifetime, an individual is more likely to live with options, ease of mind, and comfort.

Reynolds also notes that it is unlikely for families to think differently about the purpose of higher education because of fear. For a long time, college was a place that provided upward mobility and an education did pay. This is not necessarily the case in 2014, because one who graduates from an institution of higher education is more than likely to leave with a mortgage-like investment that needs to be paid back - a cost that sets a graduate behind before they even find work. Yet, class dynamics and paranoia of parents (within an education caste system) are likely to desire their child to get ahead in any way possible and will likely wear blinders to the fact that education costs are out of control.

So, what's to be done?
Given that there are so many different kinds of kids and, today, so many different kinds of career paths, it makes sense to allow different approaches [in education]..why pursue a one-size-fits-all approach to education? (p. 83)
Future generations need to learn to be self-directed and to become active inquirers of knowledge. What they currently know from schools, however, is they are testing factories that are supposed to measure what students know, yet where teachers have less and less time to actually teach. I have always been a public school advocate, but have grown concerned by the mandates mate on public school educators in recent years. There are too many cooks in the kitchen and those with the ingredients - professional teachers with certifications and experience - are virtually ignored. For these reasons I agree with Reynolds that our schooling institutions need,
  • cheaper models
  • better education for the buck (with more value)
  • more flexibility
  • more diversity in how students are taught
  • and more parent-friendliness
These will require parents to advocate for local schools to return to their community's needs and out of the hands of big government, corporate interests, and testing empires. Reynolds is smart to point out that change is inevitable. In fact, a quote Alice, my history-teaching friend, is fond of repeating comes from Aristotle, "Every civilization bears the seed of its own destruction." For these reasons, the bubble that is about to pop needs attention from everyone. The destruction of public schools is underway and something needs to be done. As pointed out in The New School: How the Information Age Will Save Education From Itself, young people today sit 17+ years on the sideline without ever being invited to play the game (p. 98). 

Sadly, teachers have been excluded from the game, too. They are blamed for a failing system when, in truth, the system itself is antiquated and irrelevant. Yet, the myth that 'education pays' continues and we grow no closer to helping young people become lifelong learners with opportunities to utilized new technologies, experience new labor markets, or think about obstacles they will need to be resolve. Teachers, instead, are forced towards common standards created by corporate interests at a time when more variety, creativity, and ingenuity are necessary in American schools.

(insert popping noise here - POP!)

Wish us all luck!

Reynolds, G. H. (2014). The New School: How the Information Age Will Save Education From Itself. New York: Encounter Books.


  1. Nice review, but as a small business (but a Corporation to use your terminology) you blame others too much for teacher's problems. I need to hire young workers who have the technical skills (in my case engineers) but also can write, reason and deal with people. The traditional package. My experience with teachers for my daughter in K-12 was that they were all too willing to go along with trendy curriculums. The math was horrible and only tutoring by good old dad could repair the damage (she's now in graduate school in the sciences). The only thing I can say about many teachers and administrators is that for people that work with adolescents they seem to know nothing about them. My parents got a better high school education in the 1940's because they were expected to start behaving like adults. Today's college students do not compare to the post WWII GI bill guys for the same reasons. This is in the teachers power to control (certainly at Post Secondary).

    1. " My parents got a better high school education in the 1940's because they were expected to start behaving like adults. Today's college students do not compare to the post WWII GI bill guys for the same reasons. This is in the teachers power to control (certainly at Post Secondary). "

      What is not, currently, under the power of teachers in college is how their institutions get money. That remains what it has been for 50 years. The undergrad classes of 1-300 students, most using Student Loans, fund a large portion of everything else that happens in colleges. Demanding adult market-oriented behaviors of people who have been given definitions of adult that are totally non-functional in the marketplace, in classes of that size, is a non-starter.

      Yet, it is just those classes without which the financial structure of Universities will drain away, leaving tenured faculty high and dry. Tenured faculty know this, and Faculty Senates consistently oppose undoing their financial enablers, the large classes, funded through the Student Loan industry, which is controlled by Congress. Remember also that the employers with the largest share of primary campaign contributions are the University of California, followed by Harvard, etc.

      It is this, far more than any profit-making corporation, that keeps college reforms from happening. Instead, it is outside the bricks and mortar schools that reforms are taking place. That is only now being followed by some of the leading piles of bricks and mortar.

  2. There's another trend which no one talks about: enforced idleness.

    In a subsistence level society, everyone has to work or everyone starves.
    As a society becomes richer, it cannot afford to allow everyone to work. Overproduction results.
    So, child labor laws are passed, "retirement" becomes an expectation.

    But when you live in a super-rich society, even that is not enough. Education forcefully idles an enormous percentage of the workforce. Again, this reduces overproduction.

    With the robotic revolution, there are strong economic motivators to continue the current trend of deliberately idling a large percentage of otherwise healthy young adults, lower the number of hours in the work week and lower the retirement age. That's the purpose of college, grad degrees, etc.

    There aren't enough jobs to employ everyone. Thus, it's not clear that the education merry-go-round can afford to end.

  3. > They are blamed for a failing system when, in truth, the system itself is antiquated and irrelevant.

    The above ignores the role that teachers have in perpetuating and influencing said system, especially through teacher's unions.

    CTA-endorsed legislators have been in a strong majority in the CA legislature for years and few states are significantly different. The locals control most school boards and have a huge influence on the remainder and the same is true for the US House and Senate. The NEA didn't endorse Bush, but they endorsed Obama and Clinton.