US education model creates assembly-line workers
“I can’t predict the future,” said the Nashville rocker Webb Wilder, “but I can take a hint.” There are lots of hints that education is about to change.
Our current models are as dusty and broken. They’re too expensive, they’re too rigid, they don’t meet the needs of the students and they waste massive amounts of time.We created an assembly-line system meant to churn out assembly-line workers, writes law professor Glenn Reynolds in his book “The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself” (Encounter Books). The bell rings, you move to where the schedule puts you, the bell rings again, you do as you’re told. Everyone gets processed in the same way, and at the end of the line you emerge with a certificate of quality.
“How many 19th century business models do you see flourishing, here in the 21st?” asks Reynolds.
Education must now do more than create factory workers, yet it remains one of the few areas of life almost untouched by technology (apart from dopey ideas to give iPads to kids). Why can’t school be as individually tailored to your needs as your computer’s desktop? And why, in an age in which more and more luxuries become affordable, does schooling keep getting more expensive (outpacing even the growth of health-care spending) even as test scores remain roughly flat?
New solutions are already here. Reynolds points out that his teen daughter calculated that, of every eight hours spent in school, only about 2¹/₂ was actually spent learning, with the rest being wasted on DARE lectures and other nonacademic activities. She enrolled in an online high school, graduated at 16 and was accepted at a selective university. Meanwhile, the flexibility of her schedule allowed her to hold down a good job — researching and writing for programs shown on the Biography Channel and A&E.
Spending less time with fellow teens and more with adults is likely to be an instructive process. We think of teenagers as products of biology — they act that way because of their raging hormones — but really they’re a social construct. Teens spend bored years sheltered from reality (in California, you can’t even get a paper route until you’re 18) and herded together with others the same age. Popularity with peers may depend on engaging in risky behaviors like drug-taking and early sex.
A hundred years ago, we didn’t have “teenagers” — we had young adults and apprentices who were expected to produce, not just consume, and contributed a third of family income. Young people mostly were surrounded by adults and learned adult values and habits like punctuality and responsibility.
Would self-paced online learning work for everyone? No, but for students who are bored by lectures Reynolds suggests a “flipped classroom.” Students at the online-based Khan Academy do their “homework” in class, under close supervision of a teacher, and listen to lectures at home online. The idea, says Reynolds, is “to take advantage of mass delivery where it works best and to allow individualized attention where it helps most.”
Other online schools, such as Kaplan and Strayer universities, are using student feedback to compile data on how changing content and presentation can improve student retention.
The President Obamas of the world tell us that college is the key to success, but that’s nonsense. Half of college graduates are working at jobs that don’t require a degree. They’re worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college: They lost four years of wages, experience and promotions and probably racked up a lot of student debt.
College can be counterproductive. A multi-year study of female college students found that bright women from lower economic classes tended to be made downwardly mobile by the college experience, emerging with low GPAs, heavy debt and little chance of landing a white-collar job after getting lost on what sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton dubbed “the party pathway.” A study in the book “Academically Adrift” found that 36% of college students learned essentially nothing in four years on campus.
You could steer students off the party pathway and save them money, too. That might create more and better graduates who don’t get caught up in the social swirl and hold down real jobs while learning at their own pace.
Georgia Tech now offers an accredited online master’s degree for $7,000, one-sixth what tuition alone would cost at the physical campus. A study at San Jose State found that students who worked online passed at a higher rate (91%) compared to classroom-only students (60%).
There are huge, powerful and complacent forces resisting change in education at all levels, which is why the process is slow. But it is beginning and there are too many agitators to be ignored. We won’t take orders to sit down, shut up and turn to page 37 much longer.