Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Education credentials are our country's caste system"

Before I really get into this blog post, I think I need to state a couple of things.  I went to university in the UK at a time when only 2% of 18 year olds went to university.  I was the first person ever in my family to attend a university, and yet with free tuition and student grants it was probably the easiest time to attend.  Since the figures for actually getting a Bachelor's degree were so tiny, the proportion of those getting a Master's degree or PhD were much smaller still.  Only one of my friends from this time stayed on at university and got a PhD.  None of the people I started teaching with have ever felt the need to get a Master's degree.

It's different for my American colleagues, however, many of whom are in a situation where they need to continue to earn "credits" in order to keep their teaching licences.  It was quite a shock to me that after collecting a number of college credits for attending various PD opportunities, that these people were then eligible for Master's degrees.   Many American schools pay higher for people with qualifications, even though there is no correlation at all between quality of teaching and qualifications of the teacher - this is another incentive to enrol in more courses for more credits.  But maybe things are changing.  In the book Most Likely to Succeed, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith write that companies are wanting to hire creative problem solvers, able to invent ways to add value to their organizations, but that these skills are found in very few graduates.  In fact, they write, there is a huge contradiction between what students need to do to earn a college degree and what makes them most likely to succeed in the world of work.

When I arrived at my current school I was offered the opportunity to get an M.Ed in Educational Leadership.  While I chose not to do this, I think it would have been impossible in any case.  When I graduated from university I had a degree.  There were no such things as transcripts or GPAs in the UK in the 1970s or 80s.  I'd never even been asked for them until 4 years ago!  I did contact my university, and was told that they couldn't provide such things: there was a single track to an academic degree, not a sort of pick-and-mix system, and all they could provide me with would be a copy of my degree certificate.

Part 1 of Most Likely to Succeed addresses the way we "worship at the alter of academic credentials", where people are obsessed with degrees.  They point out that despite our enormous investment in education, the majority of students leaving university lack the skills necessary to get a good job - the figure quoted from a Gallup poll is that only 11% of business leaders believe that college prepares students for success at work.  Possibly this is also shown in the fact that over half of those leaving colleges end up doing jobs that anyone leaving high school could do.  Yet, despite this, 94% of US adults believe a college degree is critically important to career prospects.

Wagner and Dintersmith argue that the US education system is chasing the wrong goal - trying to perform the same way as students in Singapore on standardized tests.  They argue a better goal is to educate youth for a world of innovation and opportunity.  We don't need to memorize and regurgitate facts any more.  We need to do something with what we know.  We need to move away from the "caste" system of hands-on education that leads to the trades and the lower classes, and academic education around abstract ideas that is for the gifted and upper classes.  Such thinking has led to almost all hands-on activities being removed from the K-12 curriculum.

Later in the book they look at school mission statements - most have goals such as helping students to discover their passions, to develop character and be responsible citizens and so on.  And yet when they have observed how students at these schools are taught and evaluated, it's clear that the real "mission" of the schools is simply to cover content that can be tested:  the focus is on memorization and recall, "a hollow process of temporarily retaining the information required to get acceptable grades on tests".  They write that for students discovering their passions and purpose is essential - young people who pursue a career for which they have no passion will likely be unhappy, unsuccessful or both.

There is one paragraph that really rings true for me:
We prioritize measuring irrelevant things and drill the innovation and creativity out of our youth.  A small number of our most talented will escape the damage of school and go on to create successful new companies and unimaginable wealth.  Our wealthiest parents will continue to get their kids into top colleges, arrange the "right" internships and - despite education's failings - help their advantaged kids pull ahead ... As the ranks of chronically unemployed youth swell, the rift between the unrelenting rich and the disenfranchised rest will rip our society apart.  We will fail as a country, not because other nations defeated us, but because we defeated ourselves.
Photo Credit: Theen ... via Compfight cc

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