The Hopeless State of Education
If you have been reading QE for a while you know that I have a pretty dim view of the education system in this country and increasingly being adopted around the world. The colonization of education by the same neoliberal corporate (modern capitalism) practices that have destroyed an economic system that promoted the idea of a strong middle class as a worthy goal (though why there should be any classes is my question) and hence provided jobs for the majority is destroying the very soul of education. The main themes today are 1) education is just to get people ready for the marketplace; 2) everyone needs a college-level education; and 3) teaching should be accountable. Education has always been about getting young people ready to be effective members of societies but that has meant more than just being ready to follow a particular profession. There is that whole thing that Thomas Jefferson thought was important about being informed (educated) about everything needed to be a thoughtful, knowledgeable citizen. He felt that was a prerequisite for the proper operation of democracy. In his day (and thinking) while all men might be created equal, only some men attained sufficient education to be full participants in the democratic process. Today we assert that all men and women have an equal right to participate. But, of course, the modern political process assures the new elites that that won't be the case.
My first inkling that our education system was not working as advertised came to me early when I compared my own experiences with what was being claimed about education (teaching critical thinking and all of that good-sounding stuff). Being unstoppably curious about how the world worked I launched off on my own quest for knowledge early in my school life and followed my intuitions about what sort of knowledge was really useful. That is how I ended up constructing my own curriculum in systems science since it didn't actually exist officially in schools. Fortunately, having a love of biology served me well there since most of the really interesting systems science (e.g. cybernetics) was being explicated in that realm.
The second hint I got that something was fundamentally wrong with education came when as an engineering manager, and then later as the CEO, I discovered that entry level embedded systems developers were ill-prepared for doing any actual engineering. I won't bore you with details but the problem came down to several employees that had graduated from pretty well thought of programs could not actually solve engineering problems. They had done well in school (grades) and interviewed well regarding some technical issues, but when it came to delivering the goods they simply could not synthesize their disparate pieces of knowledge or even analyze the problem to formulate a solution. I ended up finishing their projects for them and they ultimately ended up on the street. I was curious as to why a couple of young, and seemingly intelligent, engineers, with official degrees were so incapable of basic skills (including communications with other engineers and supervisors). I took a quick survey of the histories of my older engineers who were doing well at those tasks. It turned out that of all four of the other design engineers, only one had an "official" degree in electrical engineering and the other three were, like me, self-taught on embedded systems, control theory, filtering theory, etc. I can't generalize to all engineering schools on the basis of my own sample, of course, but it did make me aware that anomalies were possible.
Once I became part of the professoriate I began to see more clearly where at least one problem lay. As I have railed on about before, I repeatedly witnessed PhDs who were supposed to be among the smartest people on the planet and who, I presume, when working on problems strictly within their silos could exercise critical thinking and investigate the backgrounds of those problems, when faced with other issues, such as university governance, seemed to more often than not fall back on emotion-based opinions. Professors will be the first to tell you that they teach students critical thinking skills. Yet they failed many times to exercises such skills outside of their specialties. This observation is based on having interacted on more than several occasions with committees that were dealing with more global problems in education, such as governance and especially strategic management, areas where I had developed a good deal of background knowledge (e.g. I did my homework to make sure I knew something about the subject), and witnessed first hand people offering opinions and making various claims that I knew to be bogus. I wondered often how they had developed their opinions. And when I asked for evidence I got push back. One of the prime tenants of critical thinking is that it involves the use of unbiased evidence.
Recent studies of critical thinking capacity of college graduates have produced the shocking (to the professoriate) results that graduates show almost no improvement over their capacities when entering school. There was a flurry of discussion on various academia venues when the results were first published, but the cacophony has died down to a barely audible whimper now. The professoriate will go on with their practices and basically ignore those results. Don't look for much in the way of reform anytime soon.
I have also railed on about the problems with professional administration. This has been the single biggest point of contact between neoliberal corporatism and education. Professional administrators have no choice but to act like corporate managers in their methods. To have any “career” potential they have to do what corporate bosses have done throughout history — they have to expand their fiefdoms in order to look important and fluff their resumes in preparation for moving to the next position. Professional academic administrators (those who left teaching to take on “important” jobs as deans (and their many associates) or provosts (and their many associates)) are faced with the same situation. Google “high cost of education” and “administration” and you will turn up numerous studies that have identified the rising costs of education to the expansion of administration (also look for “administration bloat”), the pattern of top administrators' pay, and administrator turnover rates. You can also dig into the other costs that administrators generate through their corporatized notion of competing with other colleges for students by building luxury dorms, etc. Several studies point to the idea that more than 50% of rate of increases in costs (and hence tuitions) can be laid at the feet of administration.
But it is even worse than that. Administrators have bought into the whole idea of teaching accountability and retention. The first I will address below as it impacts what has happened to our K-12 education system. The idea behind retention is what really gets me. The question I have asked repeatedly is why do we believe that college is for everybody? And why do we (the professoriate) have to find ways to keep everybody who gets admitted in their programs? Is it true that everyone has the same basic intellectual capacities? Or should we turn our four-year academic institutions into the new high schools and dumb everything down so that everyone can succeed. We can always change the definition of success in academics to achieve this goal.
Unfortunately it goes way beyond a college-for-everyone mentality based on thinking everyone can and should do advanced academic work. Do administrators really believe that everyone is intellectually above average? No it has to do with dollars, tuition dollars specifically (these days). Administrators need a growing revenue stream just as if they were running a for-profit outfit that needed to maximize shareholder value (a core principle of the neoliberal agenda). They have fallen into the “growth is good” fallacy trap. In pursuing growth for growth sake they have overseen the creation of all sorts of “professional” degree programs for career categories that used to be handled well enough by trade schools so that they could “capitalize” on the larger population of potential students who were not interested in solving differential equations or plumbing the depths of the human mind, but would love to say they have a college degree in restaurant and hotel management. It might very well take four years of more education to in fact qualify for restaurant and hotel management, but does it really need any “intellectual” pursuit. I realize, by the way, that this is definitely not PC in this day and age. But what the hell? This post is about retirement so I don't really give a damn.
As Attacked from Above, So from Below
The whole education system is in a nosedive from the positive feedbacks instilled by neoliberal capitalism in the corporatized model operating on education through professional administration. I've had a career of dodging bullets shot from above. I've a reputation as something of a trouble maker among certain high officials! But I had been reasonably successful working with students who were open to the idea that learning was not a process of stuffing their heads with facts (my job) as much as learning the skills of self-teaching so that they could become truly autonomous agents in their future lives. There were always a small majority of such students in my mostly upper division classes who responded to my methods (and of course a minority who already thought of themselves as “customers” who were buying my services to stuff knowledge into their heads!). I labored for the sake of those who got it, knowing that they would go on to succeed in the real world. Over the years I have had many e-mails from some of those students acknowledging that fact.
I took my lumps from student evaluations from the disgruntled (who seem to be the ones most eager to fill out the forms!) because I knew, even if they didn't, that what I was doing, though it didn't fit the mold of education they had grown used to (and had learned how to game successfully), would eventually surface in their lives and help them become successful in spite of their grumbling about me as a teacher. I've gotten numerous e-mails from former students in this category as well who have recognized that the things I made them do were really the things they needed to learn in order to succeed. I was able to get tenure on the basis of my research and sufficiently good student evaluations. I confess, however, that in the years leading up to getting tenure I did lighten up a bit on my classes. I did this somewhat subconsciously because of the pressure to not get bad reviews if I wanted tenure (another little way administrators have gained power over the professoriate over the years). But I did eventually recognize that I was leaning toward winning popularity contests (I was voted as best computer science professor by the student body twice during that time!) and once I was tenured I consciously made an effort to reestablish my standards. Not surprisingly, student evaluations went back down again (however, I taught a number of specialty courses, such as in our Global Honors program where my evals were way high - but then I was working with extremely bright students who loved being challenged).
In the last few years, however, I have noticed a definite shift in the majority of student attitudes toward education, what it means, how it should work, etc. My first eye opener was teaching a freshman class (what we called our “Core” courses for general studies) in systems science last year (winter quarter). I had taught the very same course the year before with very good results and high student evaluations (as well as good peer reviews). Eighteen year olds are still immature in many ways so you have to work with them differently, but they responded well to my problem/project based approach and I only had two students, out of 24, who did not make it grade-wise. But last year's crop were quite different. Their attendance was horrible (we are disallowed to use attendance in grading!), they constantly talked to one another during my lectures, they openly texted or played games on their computers. Some of them freely admitted they didn't like science period.
My first thought, and something I conferred with the program chair about, was that somehow I had just gotten an unlucky draw. It does happen from time to time that you get a class that has a peculiar personality, i.e. the majority are problematic or extra good. So I chalked this experience up to that fluke. About three quarters into the course I finally gave up trying to stick to the curriculum as planned and turned it into a completely project oriented class so they could talk all they wanted but they had to contribute to their team's work or be penalized. That helped with the attendance a bit. I had a heart-to-heart talk with them with only a week left to go in the quarter. I was frank and so were they. I tried to get at why they were not taking this class seriously and they told me flat out. What they understood as education is I was supposed to tell them what parts of the book would be on the exam and give them practice homework on the same kinds of questions that would be on the exam. I asked them how they came to believe that that was the way education was supposed to work and they told me. That is how it worked in high school (and apparently also in several of their other freshman classes at our campus). I was stunned but still was inclined to chalk it up to bad luck in the draw.
But this last year I experienced something I was completely unprepared for. Many of the seniors in my engineering classes and this last quarter a batch of juniors, had very negative responses to my approach to problem/project-based learning (which involves discovery and experimentation which has been shown to improve context grasp and long-term retention of knowledge). The subjects of these courses are among the most challenging on our campus (maybe quantum physics would be more challenging). So students do need to work much harder to explore the space of solutions. It requires much more autonomous thinking than lower-division courses (especially, for instance, math courses). I also taught two junior-level computer science classes in fall and winter quarter and found some of the same attitudinal problems that I'd seen in the Core course freshman the year before. Needless to say I found this interesting and distressing.
My reviews are in from my engineering courses and I must tell you they were really bad. Most accused me of not teaching at all. And they definitely complained about the amount of work they needed to do to solve the problems. But here is the irony. They all succeeded in doing so, and whether they realize it or not, they learned a huge amount of really useful knowledge in a short period of time and can expect to carry that knowledge far into their futures. They just hated the process and could not grasp what my role in the process was. And here is another ironic fact. This year we had more of these seniors succeed in getting very good jobs with name recognition companies than in prior years. Every one of them reported to me that they did well in their interviews because they actually knew stuff and could think through the solution for tough problems! On top of that I had a recruiter at one of these companies ask me to send more of our seniors her way because the interviewing managers had said our soon-to-be graduates were more prepared than any they had seen from other, supposedly top engineering programs. Go figure. I want students to realize that they have the power to figure things out on their own, and the only way they will understand that is to do it and prove to themselves they have it. But it would also be nice if they recognized that they got that because I set up the situations that allowed them to do so. That, apparently, was not to be.
Whenever the world doesn't work the way I expected it to I start wondering why and start digging into background to educate myself. I read a number of critiques of problem-project based learning (P2-BL) and where it was considered as failing because the students didn't like it. One study found that students who had been immersed in K-12 education in which No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had resulted in a huge increase in teaching to the test pedagogy were the most averse to P2-BL methods. The idea of becoming an autonomous learner did not fit their model of what education was about and they resisted learning a new model. In another similar study they found that not only were students from NCLB affected schools averse, but that miraculously they had actually learned more and retained longer than students who continued on in the NCLB framework. Both of these studies involved looking at high schools that had converted to P2-BL methods (they still had to give standardized tests, which is how they knew that students had actually learned more). One of these schools has since reverted because of problems not only with student attitudes but with teachers having problems with the pedagogy; it is quite hard to come up with meaningful problems and projects in which you can identify the points in which students will have succeeded in learning if they actually do solve the problem (and making the problems solvable but still challenging).
It has been fourteen years since NCLB and the increasing emphasis on standardized, high-stakes testing became the law of the land (2001). The K-12 system has been struggling with the ramifications ever since. But now students who have spent their entire educational lives in that environment are hitting the upper division courses in college. Even those students who are a bit older, who went to community colleges before transferring to our campus, have spent a good portion if not all of their high school lives in it. Based on my experiences this year I would hypothesize that the attitudes we are seeing in the university are much the same as those found in the above mentioned studies.
By happenstance I ran into a couple of high school history teachers in my favorite neighborhood pub. We got to chatting about challenges in teaching and student attitudes toward learning. Suffice it to say they reinforced my presumptions quite strongly. Both were more mature teachers, having been doing it for more than twenty years. And both were livid about the degradation in the whole educational environment as a result of the teaching-to-the-test mentality which now permeates their school (and apparently most of the others as they had talked to colleagues in other high schools in the area). One of them told me he was advising his daughter (who was going to college) to not go into education as it had become a death trap. Both agreed that when they had first started it was a pretty good vocation and the students' attitudes on all counts were generally pretty good. Now both of them had lost the faith and described their attitudes as just putting in the years until they could retire. Very sad.
More recently we've seen a growing backlash among parents (and some ideologues, for the wrong reasons of course) to the Common Core and the “Race to the Top” federal program. With the Common Core standards the emphasis on more standardized testing and the high stakes of missing out on federal grants if the scores are not adequate are combining to raise the stress levels on young students even more. It is so ironic that lawmakers, eager to reform and improve education are passing laws that have the exact opposite effects. But, once again, this is the effect of neoliberal capitalism and corporatism on thinking about education and the idea of “accountability” being the way to cause improvement in the process (particularly teaching). I do not deny that the teaching profession has its problems with bad teachers and phenomena such as I described at the start about critical thinking. So I do understand the desire to find ways to bring these problems to light and take some form of appropriate corrective action to fix things (I, for one, would suggest getting rid of teachers' unions might be a start, or at least revamp the union governance so that it doesn't knee jerk protect clearly substandard teachers). But then letting corporatists in to design the solutions is not the way to do this. For starters the ideas surrounding measures of teaching effectiveness are poorly understood, actually not even really defined. The fall back onto student evaluations by administrators is an intellectually dishonest, and lazy way out for college administration. Unfortunately even much of the professoriate has bought into this mechanism because few of them really have time anymore to do extensive peer reviews (they are pushed more and more into spending time in research instead of finding ways to help their colleagues improve their teaching effectiveness).
Many a psychologists (of learning) have pointed out over and over that the effects of teaching are extremely subtle and cannot be measured in any direct way. We can, of course, determine when teachers are simply not doing their jobs. There are numerous “behaviors” associated with this that can be easily determined. The problem is that we can't really say what effect teaching styles have on learning and retention. Even more importantly we cannot determine the degree of understanding that students obtain from interactions with teachers. The only meaningful definition of teaching (or education) effectiveness is in terms of how successful, in many dimensions, a person is in life several years after graduation. How successful are they at getting meaningful employment, after factoring out effects of the economy on employment opportunities? Specifically, if they went through a program like ours (engineering and computer science) where technical knowhow and know-what is important, are they capable of solving typical problems in their work several years after graduation? And, that means are they on average as a group doing so?
By that measure a number of people are arguing that education is failing. By implication it must be the teaching that is poor. Actually many of my colleagues lament the poor preparation for college level work in our freshmen so they put the blame on high schools (who pass the buck to the K-8 system!) But employers are forever pounding on politicians that our colleges are failing to adequately prepare graduates for the real world. And, based on what I have witnessed I agree with them. Unfortunately their solution is to make schools and teachers accountable through measures of teaching effectiveness that are not known to correlate. It is fast, convenient and, unfortunately, part of a positive feedback loop that is blowing up the very fabric of education. The sad part is that it cannot be fixed. The more failure on the part of education the more pressure will come for accountability which, in turn, simply causes teaching practices to get worse.
Caught in the Middle
The real root cause of the cycle of destruction is the lack of critical thinking by all of the players, administrators, teachers, students (who might be forgiven when they are young), and the rest of society but especially the business people and politicians. Everyone is looking for a miracle cure, an easy way out, something that can be done fast and cheap but produce the right results. Once again I come back to the lack of sapience in the species. That lack prevents people from using holistic systems thinking and long-term strategic thinking to realize they must work hard to develop wise decisions about education. And once again my thesis about how the quality of high sapience is so missing from our species is further demonstrated. Without it, all of the decision agents in this complex system will continue to make mistake after mistake, thinking they are doing the right thing but unable to see the real consequences of their “solutions”. I would never accuse George W. Bush of having good intentions per se, but I'm sure he thought NCLB was a cure for what ailed failing schools (whatever that means). So he and Congress waved a magic wand and created a monster that would show itself more fully fourteen years later. Congratulations Mr. former president. Yet another example of your ideology trumping wisdom.
Fortunately for me I don't have to fight this any more. I and my colleagues all over the country are caught in the middle of the stresses from above (administration) and from below (students' growing insolent attitudes). I've paid my dues. I've accomplished a few academic things of use. I thought I had struck teaching gold with the P2-BL approach. There for a few years it was producing results in student learning. I could directly measure this because I taught a series of courses in a prerequisite chain where I could see the end effects of teaching a cohort with this approach. In the last course those students had, in fact, learned considerably more in the first courses and had retained it better in the last course. Of course many of them grumbled in the first course in the series because this was their first exposure to P2-BL methods and they had to acclimatize. But by the third course the grumbling had stopped and my teaching evals generally reflected their liking the approach and their attaining a sense of learning autonomy. But these last two years everything has turned to mud.
I could, of course, do what I did when I was up for tenure. It really is easy to game this system by doing exactly what the students expect and want. It makes their lives so much easier and that keeps them happy. This is what my superiors are suggesting. But I can't do that in good conscience knowing what I know. I can't seem to explain it to people. After all the students have been conditioned (I do provide reading pointers that should make them aware of what it is about, but they don't follow pointers). So have the professors. The standard pedantic/didactic lecture-textbook-homework-tests pedagogy has been around a very long time. And all of us have been through it. It is the norm. It is what everybody does, so it must be right. Yet we are failing.
And administrators are just looking for an easy way to hold people accountable. In all of my years of teaching never once has an administrator above the level of a department chair come into my classroom or visited me in my office for a chat about teaching and learning. Once they achieve a high-sounding title they are above that. They are important and have important decisions to make so have no time for walking around and finding out what is actually happening on the ground.
All of this adds up to one thing for me. I'm leaving the profession. I had a pretty good run. There for a while it was extremely satisfying. And a few years ago I thought I would stay in the game till I dropped. But what I see happening now (and, by the way, the rate of decay seems to me to be increasing) just doesn't sit right. I will probably do one more year since I have some graduate student obligations and have two conference papers and a journal paper in preparation that I want the university to pay for(!) But then I kiss it goodbye.
In truth, this is the longest time I've been in a single profession! I've had a lot of different careers in my life. Each one has taught me a lot, and I've been able to leverage my grasp of systems to succeed fairly well in all of them (got fired only once from a “transient” job because the boss and I got into a big argument!). My pattern was to switch to something new when I felt I had reached some kind of upper bound in terms of what I could learn and try out. This time it has more to do with the deterioration of the system that makes it hard to learn anything new (like P2-B learning and how to refine it). It has turned into a situation of finding out what the new battle to fight today is, even if the older battles are still being waged. The growth mentality I mentioned above is another factor. The last several years our department has done multiple multiple-person searches for lecturers and tenure-track faculties. We've been in constant search mode (which is extremely taxing) and continuous mentoring of new people mode (which has been marginally successful). And we have not done a particularly good job of either. I had been making idle threats about retiring for a few years in order to spur the department finding several people who could teach the courses I teach, since I knew I would either retire or drop dead one of these days and the department would be hurting when that happened if it didn't bring in some new, younger people to take over. But that search failed because a certain administrator wouldn't listen to the engineering members of the search committee. So now we have to do it all over again.
I'm not so tired that I can't fight a good fight. But I'm not so foolish (shall we say quixotic) to fight a battle that is not winnable no matter what. And this one is just that. Besides I will more likely go off to another career. I have one book published, one ready for review, and a third in process. So I will at least be writing more about systems science and its applications to all of these problems (one of which is education). Who knows? Maybe working from the outside might be more productive.