Our Idiocratic Education System
Recently, I read this article in Time Magazine which discusses one my biggest gripes with our education system:
To some extent, complacency is built into the system. American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn’t even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs. But it can’t make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.We take for granted that those with IQs at least three standard deviations below the mean (those who score 55 or lower on IQ tests) require “special” education. But students with IQs that are at least three standard deviations above the mean (145 or higher) often have just as much trouble interacting with average kids and learning at an average pace. Shouldn’t we do something special for them as well? True, these are IQs at the extremes. Of the 62 million school-age kids in the U.S., only about 62,000 have IQs above 145. (A similar number have IQs below 55.) That’s a small number, but they appear in every demographic, in every community. What to do with them? Squandered potential is always unfortunate, but presumably it is these powerful young minds that, if nourished, could one day cure leukemia or stop global warming or become the next James Joyce–or at least J.K. Rowling.
In a no-child-left-behind conception of public education, lifting everyone up to a minimum level is more important than allowing students to excel to their limit. It has become more important for schools to identify deficiencies than to cultivate gifts. Odd though it seems for a law written and enacted during a Republican Administration, the social impulse behind No Child Left Behind is radically egalitarian. It has forced schools to deeply subsidize the education of the least gifted, and gifted programs have suffered. The year after the President signed the law in 2002, Illinois cut $16 million from gifted education; Michigan cut funding from $5 million to $500,000. Federal spending declined from $11.3 million in 2002 to $7.6 million this year.
It’s astounding to me that we spend $8 Billion dollars educating the mentally retarded. It’s not really surprising to hear that the number is that high, given that the “special education” classes I’ve seen usually enjoy highly trained teachers, small class sizes, and a large degree of individualized attention – so at least it seems to be money well spent. What makes it astounding is that it stands as a very stark contrast to the educational resources everyone else gets.
Typical students are usually thrust into classes whose size often approaches thirty that are hosted by teachers who far too often came to the profession because they couldn’t get any other job. And there’s an even starker contrast to what we provide our very best and brightest students – we usually just throw them in these same classes with the other students, and are forced to learn at a pace consistent with the lowest common denominator. (Here I have to note that classes aren’t even taught to the middle. Rather, they’re taught to the bottom. It’s only when everyone or minimally the vast majority have achieved proficiency that the class ever moves on.)
This state of affairs, what the article refers to as the no-child-left-behind conception of education, is simply ass backwards wrong.
Are the mentally retarded really worth $8 Billion? Well, yes, especially if we can help these people to achieve independence in life. And nothing in this post should be construed as an indictment against them or that spending. Rather, what I find remarkable is that society gives such resources to them but not to others, given the prospective return on investment. Realistically, even in the best case scenario, their contribution to society will be minimal – they’ll never rise above the level of a Wal-Mart greeter or some equivalent position. It sucks, but that’s reality.
Now on the other hand, look at the Very Smart. Unquestionably, society needs Very Smart people. These are the people who advance our understanding of the universe, fuel the economy, solve our problems, produce art, innovate, create new technologies, and handle complex jobs. And as the full article notes, Very Smart people need special education themselves – minimally the freedom to skip grades (as the article seems to advocate), if not their own “special education” programs (which I’d strongly favor).
Yet not only do we fail to provide these things, we hardly do anything extra for them. We expect them to sit quietly while waiting for the rest of the class to “get” trigonometry, despite the fact that the other students will likely never need any form of math more advanced than basic algebra. As a result, we hold them back to the point of boredom (the worst thing you can do to a smart person). Even worse, current popular educational paradigms dictate grouping smart and dumb kids together for “group work” rather than segregating them or letting them work independently in a classroom. The theory is that the smart kids will teach the dumb kids they’re grouped with. The flaws with this idea are so many and so obvious that I won’t dignify it by going into it further.
To me, it seems only natural that any decent educational system would give priority to our best, brightest and most capable, and carve out programs designed to suit their needs first. Imagine if every kid genius could enjoy the same kind of environment as the mentally retarded – classes of no more than a dozen, teachers trained to deal with their specific learning style and educational needs, and the individual attention that’s inherent to that. But I’ve never heard of such a program in any public school.
At a minimum, the curricula and pace should be designed for the smartest kids, not the dumbest. Sorry little Johnny, but if you haven’t gotten long division yet, too bad. Try again next year – we need to move on for the benefit other kids. Realistically, you don’t need it anyway – learn to use a calculator and you’ll be fine. But the smart kids, who will go on to solve the world’s problems and create the next generation of innovative technologies, they need to know things beyond long division in order to compete in a globalized marketplace of talent. We need to stop worrying about passing everyone and instead worry about whether everyone has reached the highest level they can. And unfortunately that probably means leaving some kids behind.
For the record, I’m a strong proponent of equal access to education. I believe that everyone deserves one, and society should make educating everyone a top priority, and have everyone go as far as their abilities will take them. But given that we don’t have infinite resources to devote to it, then we do need to allocate them more intelligently than we’re doing now – which begs the question of why we’re not.
At the root of the problem is the deep anti-intellectualism strain that runs through our culture. Despite our collective dependence on Very Smart people, they’re largely despised by society. Youth culture celebrates jocks and is unforgiving of nerds. We scorn the know-it-all. Politicians freely use the word “elite” and “academic” as an insult. And because of our culture’s ostensible egalitarianism we have a bias towards treating all opinions as equally valid, even though they rarely are (see: creationism vs evolution for the most extreme example). The “average joe” scorns anyone that tells him that his prejudices are wrong and the the things he does have ill effects that aren’t immediately obvious. And most of all, we refuse to believe the notion that someone might, in fact, know better than us or be smarter than us.
Of course, no discussion of education can possibly be complete without pointing the finger at the biggest culprit for pretty much all the problems it faces – parents. Primarily because they largely abstain from their own responsibility and role in the educational process of their children. They’re also quick to blame anyone but themselves or their child for poor performance, and insist that the teacher or the school are at fault for every poor grade. This attitude is at the core of the NCLB act – the onus is on the school that every child should earn a passing grade (by any means necessary).
The result is that it’s the smart kids – by all logic and reason the people we should be devoting the most resources to – who get an unfair shake. Schools and teachers are forced into a position of devoting disproportionate resources to the students at the bottom and neglecting those at the top. Those kids, who could pass the NCLB tests in their sleep, aren’t a threat to the school’s funding, so the school has no incentive to pay them any attention. It’s quite literally the rule of the stupid. Idiocracy indeed.
 And no, the hideous travesty of education that is the AP Curriculum doesn’t count. It’s an unholy lovechild of the testing and college industry, and it shows. It manages to offer an even less flexible one-size-fits-all curriculum than what schools normally offer, with instruction that’s dictated by a bureaucratic group rather than student’s own interests, learning styles, and pace. See The Sin of High School English Class for one example, where among other things I discuss how the curriculum manages to kill a love of reading and interest in literature. On the bright side, this seems to have turned around somewhat, ever since nerds became the people that fixed the non-nerds computer.