American Educational Failure

By: 
Al Jacobs

For those of you who regularly scan the Internet in search of fascinating subjects, there are remarkable articles to be found. I happened upon just such a one late last night. Its author: Matthew Lynch, an educationalist whose articles regularly appear in the Huffington Post and numerous other publications.

Dr. Lynch earned a bachelor’s in psychology from University of Southern Mississippi, and his master’s and PhD in education from Jackson State University. He is the dean of the School of Education, Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Union University.

What drew my attention was his treatise wherein he listed the 18 things wrong with modern education. He prefaced his work in the following way: “Once upon a time, enthusiasts designed a formal education system to meet the economic demands of the industrial revolution.

“Fast forward to today and, with the current global economic climate, it seems apparent the now established education system is unable to meet the needs of our hyper-connected society – a society in a constant state of evolution. Let’s examine 18 problems that prevent the U.S. education system from regaining its former preeminence.”

As I began to read each of his specific criticisms, I became lost in an educational system I failed to recognize. One of his problems: “School spending is stagnant, even in our improving economy … how can we expect things like the achievement gap to close or high school graduation rates to rise?”

However the numbers I’ve seen over the past couple of decades – which include the massive sums injected by federal programs such as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Rush to the Top – do not indicate a reduction in educational spending. What is equally upsetting is the reality that an increase in the amount of money fed into an educational system does little to improve its quality of education.

A second of Dr. Lynch’s claims is “There is a lack of diversity in gifted education.” He goes on to state: “The ‘talented and gifted’ label is one bestowed upon the brightest and most advanced students. District schools need to find ways – better ways – to recognize different types of learning talent and look beyond the typical ‘gifted’ student model.

The national push to make talented and gifted programs mirror the contemporary and ever-evolving student body is a step in the right direction.”

As I understand, student performance need no longer be measured by the learning attained, but rather by some sort of arbitrary social criteria the educators choose to enforce.

My concern is that if education ceases to be related to learning, it becomes nothing more than a device to promote a social agenda established by those entities wielding political and economic power.

Yet another problem for Dr. Lynch is that “we have not achieved educational equity.” Although he doesn’t describe in detail exactly what this is, it’s an established principle, which is explained quite fully elsewhere.

The Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit organization founded in 1949, dedicated to solving the world’s problems, says “Educational equity means all students should have access to the right resources they need at the right moment in their education, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, language, religion, family background or family income.”

Action For Equity, an organization based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which advocates for a educational infrastructure embracing rapid change to address the causes and conditions of racial inequality in our schools, is a little more specific. They declare educational equity to be “a road map to insuring students of color and low-income students have access to and success in the most academically intense high school programs.”

If educational equity is, as the Aspen Institute describes it, a requirement that all students possess access to the resources necessary to succeed in learning, I support it fully. If, however, it becomes a device where all students will “have access to – and success in – the most academically intense programs,” then you may count me out. Let me explain my reasoning.

Although I cannot match Dr. Lynch’s doctorate degree nor his title as a Dean of Education, I am nonetheless not devoid of an academic background. I hold four university degrees and spent 10 years as a college chemistry instructor.

It did not take an anvil falling on my head to discover that in every class there will be students capable of mastering the course material and others who are incapable of doing so. And as for those in the latter group, no amount of extra instruction or special assistance will be sufficient to make the difference.

At this point, I’ll offer my personal theory as to why some students are successful while others are not. With deference to the Aspin Institute, it cannot be attributed to race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, language, religion, family background or family income. It is due to a subject banned by the academic community.

To even mention the word might result in dismissal and permanent exclusion from academia. What is the forbidden term? Intellect.

I’ll define intellect, which is often referred to as intelligence. It is the brain’s ability to cognitively manipulate information – fundamentally genetic in nature. If you aspire to become a university professor of mathematics, physics or chemistry, you must possess an ample share of intellect, or you’ll never make it past your sophomore year.

And the simple fact is, many students possess no more than minimal intellect. This is the way their brains function and this is the way they will live their lives.

You must be aware, however, low intellect does not prevent a person from being smart, for they are not synonymous. The latter brings into play an entirely different set of talents. These demand the ability to size up circumstances and then figure out how to make the most of things as they actually exist.

Above all they require an astute meshing of perception, experience and attitude to devise a plan of action … and when necessary, an alternative plan of action if the initial one doesn’t work quite as intended.

And yet many highly intelligent individuals are incapable of thinking in this manner. I’ve known true geniuses for whom differential calculus, as well as the intricacies of base-catalyzed cleavage of epoxides, proved to be a breeze.

Nonetheless, many of these same persons have no idea whatever how a neighbor might react when informed your massive oak tree just fell on the roof of their house.

And now, before I run out of space, I want to add my comments as to what I find objectionable about American schooling. A fundamental concern is that education is regarded as something imposed, involuntarily or otherwise, on the recipient, rather than something self-imposed by the student.

It is from this misconceived approach that never-ending unworkable proposals and ineffective programs are instituted. My belief is learning is something done by the student, not to the student.

A second element of the problem is the willingness of the political hierarchy to respond to perceived societal injustices and crises by imposing rules and procedures that seriously impede a school’s performance. The closing of schools nationwide for the better part of a year, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will go down in history as the greatest fiasco the schools ever encountered.

A third concern is the obsession with professionalism which enveloped schooling. The implication is it will produce an academically superior teacher which will, ipso facto, result in a superior student.

Though clothed in euphemisms, the true emphasis focuses on three elements: tightly restricted teacher credentialing, an exclusive self-policing governing body and the assurance of increased salaries at all levels.

My aversion to an emphasis on a teacher’s academic excellence is basic: I simply don’t believe the hard-earned teaching credential assuring superior accomplishment motivates children, either at the primary or secondary level.

I mean this not as an endorsement of uninspired instruction, but rather a realization that the relationship between instructor and pupil depends little upon the academic achievement of the instructor.

And as a last word, I doubt a student in the first eight grades benefits from a teacher with more than a two-year Associate Arts degree. At the secondary level, through grade 12, an instructor with a simple bachelor’s degree is more than adequate.

At these levels, education is – or should be – a systematic and disciplined approach to conventional learning. I’m absolutely convinced instructor brilliance serves no function whatever. Scholastic excellence is best reserved for the college level.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al may be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.

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