Sunday, September 28, 2008

Education: a Crisis in the Making

Today, Sept 28th, is the Teacher’s Day in Taiwan, a National Holiday when people express their gratitude and show appreciations to all teachers. It is the 2,559th birthday of Confucius, the most revered and the greatest educator in Chinese history. His words of wisdom compiled in the Analects (論語) include the principle of “One must offer education to anyone regardless” (有教無類), Part 15 verse 39 that can be considered equal opportunity in education in modern context.

Confucius’ teachings and influence on Chinese civilization is so far reaching that Confucianism has often been considered synonymous with Chinese culture and a key component of East Asian countries as well. Indeed Confucian culture has been so deep rooted that it was a central target during the destructive 1966-1976 Culture Revolution in communist China launched by then its supreme leader Mao Zedong. It is also not an accident that with the morals, rites, ethics and philosophy Confucius developed, championed and later adopted by most rulers in China, religion has played much less a role in Chinese society compared to that in Western and other civilizations.

Of course, it did not happen by accident; there were significant economic and political incentives for being an educated man in Imperial China, in addition to its social statue. The implementation of open and fiercely competitive National Civil Service Examinations throughout the history of Imperial China offered rare opportunities to non-privileged people regardless who they are and where they are from to change their socio-economic status and rise to prominence in government. Although the system wasn’t a truly open and leveled playing field (e.g., wealthy families could hire high-priced tutors), the ideals of fairness and promotion of competency has been largely recognized by the public and has been operated for over 1,000 years.

In contrast, Western education system (see e.g., The History of Education by Ellwood Cubberley) can be traced back to Ancient Greeks with great teachers and philosophers like Socrates (who is 82 years younger than Confucius). It had gone through several transformations and hit the low point in early Middle Ages when the sole purpose of education was to serve the Church. Over the subsequent centuries however, starting with the stimulation through Spain of the great intellectual development of Mohammedans in Baghdad based on Hellenic learning, study centers of various subjects became popular across Europe as the authority of the Church weakened on secular matters and modern nations were formed. With the diversity in Western Europe geopolitical map and further thrust for exploration and dominance, science and technology had become a forefront of the learning and invention. It wasn’t until 18th century however, public education system and literacy began to become a reality as democratic movements gained momentum in Europe. Meanwhile, Chinese Imperial court of Qing dynasty and many continued to bury their heads in the sand, ignoring the importance of modern education and eventually found themselves woke up too late at the end of 19th century. The rest is history.

Today, United States, as a young, rich, vibrant nation with continuous influx of skilled immigrants has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and power. While it has drawn admirations for its post-secondary schools and advanced researches, there have been increasing concerns and debates by some for its K-12 education with its decentralized public and private education system. Before we discuss it further, it is interesting to note a social attitude gap. In Part 16, Verse 9 of the Analects, Confucius was quoted to have said “… As to those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn; they are the lowest of the people." Such a statement in U.S. today would certainly be criticized as politically incorrect and elitism.

According to various statistics, U.S. does spend significant amount of resources in education. Department of Education statistics shows that U.S. tax payers spend about 1 trillion dollars, or about 9% of its GNP, in education of all levels: 500+ billion dollars on K-12 and almost 400 billions on higher education, Yet at the same time, there are indications that US is slipping in its performance especially in K-12. For example, not long ago, OECE (Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development) published its latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey results and analysis of science, mathematics and reading knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds students. The assessment was carried out in 2006 with an extensive two-hour test comprising both open-ended and multiple-choice questions. More than 400,000 15-year-old students participated from 57 countries, including the 30 OECD member countries. Together these countries make up close to 90% of the world economy. One of the results showed the relative standing of the US student average performance in mathematics has dropped from 18th (out of 27) in year 2000, to 24th (out of 29) in year 2003, and then 25th (out of 30 OECD member countries) in year 2006. Similar deteriorating trends are also noted in Science and Reading.

One must wonder why more money did not get better results? Or one may ask a more basic question: why should one care when we are the most dominant nation with the strongest economy? The answer lies with the longer term implication on economic development of the country. While there are debates about the quantification of how education/academic achievement impacts the GDP (Gross Domestic Products), it is intuitive and researchers do agree that it definitely plays a significant role. (For more detailed discussions, see e.g. Debbie Viadero’s article on Education Week, 4/22/2008). As the foreword of the PISA report said well “…The prosperity of countries now derives to a large extent from their human capital, and to succeed in a rapidly changing world, individuals need to advance their knowledge and skills throughout their lives. Education systems need to lay strong foundations for this, by fostering learning and strengthening the capacity and motivation of young adults to continue learning beyond school.” Further, the reality is if others nations continue to improve, they will become more competitive and overtake yours. Thus one cannot be complacent and remains at the same performance level even.

Obviously, there is no magic formula or model of an ideal education system and the root causes of serious deficiencies are complex and widely varying. There are some who suggest that it is due to lack of “respect” for teaching profession (and lack of self-respect in some?). Although there is the myth and joke “He who can, does. He who can not, teaches.” (in George Bernard Shaw’s Maxims for Revolutionists , an appendix of his play Man and Superman: a comedy and a philosophy, 1903), I am not aware of any material differences, based on first- and second-hand experiences between say Taiwan (that scored highly on PISA assessments) and here. There are also those who suggest it is due to teachers’ (low) compensation. I am sure more pay would help, however I am not aware of any study that shows those countries whose students perform better paid their teachers any better. Further, wouldn’t the market forces of supply and demand correct it? Note the Department of Education 2008-9 Report shows that there are currently about 4 millions K-12 teachers for 50+ millions of students in the country. The median (9 months) salary of K-12 teachers was about $43+K in May 2006 and a 12% growth in demand is being expected that does not look totally out-of-wack. There are also those who criticize teachers’ unions had become a problem when they often emphasize seniority and job security over performance and development. How much of this is true is debatable but the fact of matter is that “pay by performance” concept, while intuitive, is by no means easy to implement given the lack of consensus of how to evaluate the performance of teachers.

When one looks beyond those details and local issues, I do believe there are a few fundamental and structural problems and solutions that are clear: For one, U.S. is one of the very few nations (or the only?) that do not have a coherent national education funding system and standard setting. The PISA study mentioned above has shown (see PISA presentation for U.S.) clearly a significant correlation of better student scores in Science and the adoption of coherent standard-based external exams. Of course, there is a simple historical reason for it - the Constitution had said nothing about education and thus left it to the states and locals. Indeed state level accounts for approx 46% and local 37% of the total funding of school systems. As a result, while there are benefits such as significant community participations in K-12 education, it does not always produce positive results and education often became victim of the local political, socio-economical and religious issues.

In his NPR interview and article “First, Kill All the School Boards” on the Atlantic Journal, Matt Miller of the Center for America Progress argued forcefully a radical proposal to nationalize the public school systems and establish equitable funding and coherent standards across the country. Indeed bold actions like it is needed to bring attention to the national level (haven’t we noticed the lack of it in the presidential and congressional elections?) and to focus people on the central challenge of education – intellectual and skill development of human capitals. I have no doubt that a practical and balanced approach can be developed with Federal standards and funding while supporting effective local autonomy.

Meanwhile, instead of waiting and doing nothing, there are a few things each of us can do to help. As a starter, if you are an administrator, on school board, or a concerned citizen, you should take a look of the recent report of the experimentation undertaken by the Oakland Unified school system. With its new equitable funding policy, the average student performance there has seen dramatic improvement. If you are a parent, pay attention and show by actions that you care very much about your children’s education and progress that will definitely help them for a better life in the future; you must not shy away from your responsibility and hide behind the excuse such as “kids should decide and figure out for themselves”. If you are a student, respect your teachers who try to help you, and study hard for your own better future.

And if you a teacher? Care for your students. Motivate them by raising expectations and show your confidence on them. Happy Teacher’s Day and talk to you soon!

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