In the last week, several great discussions on education found their way to me without my looking for them. The first one was a Bloomburg roundtable on education called “Making Teaching a Profession.” Its well worth a listen if you have the opportunity, particularly the first half or so, but what struck me about it is that it illustrates a real flaw in the way we handle problems politically. When we began to realize how far our educational system was falling behind, we responded, essentially, by punishing teachers. We do this because we believe the problem is our schools allowing bad teachers to stay in their jobs. The No Child Left Behind is pretty indicative of how we’ve handled matters; we create a set of standards and a strict curriculum, meant to catch and eliminate the bad teachers and force the mediocre ones to conform to a script we’ve written for them. In other words, we handled the problem by forming a policy based on the fact that we were angry at what we saw as the teacher’s failure. I hope it doesn’t surprise us particularly that this policy has been a resounding failure. Let’s suppose for a moment that it did exactly what it was meant to do. Let’s say that it removed the worst 10 percent of teachers entirely. Perhaps not a terrible goal, but what then? I firmly believe, and so will anyone who has had decent teachers, that no universal curriculum could be a fraction as good or educational as the chosen teaching methods of the great ones. If we really think that forcing all teachers to follow an exact program is the way to handle our children, then we should simply have all lessons recorded, and play it over loudspeakers. Nonsense! All these programs do is shackle the rest of the teachers that remain, and insult and therefore drive off the very best teachers. And worse, we make it a less and less desirable profession to enter. We tell teachers, you will be a slave to a program, work long hours, be poorly paid, and be vilified for the failure of a system you did not create. Quite a recruiting poster.
Other nations have managed matters with far greater wisdom, and not surprisingly have been more successful for it. We may talk about their methods at a later date, and other possible solutions to our problems there, but the real issue here is the pattern revealed. We looked at our schools, found them wanting, and said, by imposing more rules, by punishing the weak performers, we will fix what we have. Those other nations said, what we want, what we need is an education system of such and such a kind. What course can we take to reach that goal? And because they did that, they got what they worked for. And its a pattern across fields. We look at the shameful state of health care in this country and we focus on standards in hospitals and reforming insurance, but pay no more than lip service to affecting diet and life style, which are without a doubt what make us so unhealthy. We can devise perfect hospitals and a flawless insurance program, and we will still burn away our wealth and our children’s lives if we fail to fix the underlying problems. The CDC says this generation is set to be the first in American history to die younger than their parents. Who thought that we would solve that by changing premiums and enlarging emergency rooms? We are 5 percent of the world population, and a quarter of all prisoners are American citizens in American prisons (which means we jail our citizens at 5 times the global average rate.) We build more prisons, make stricter laws. What have we done to fix the underlying problems there, which make us both more prone to crime and more likely to put everyone, but especially the poor and minorities, in jail? We cannot afford terrible schools, terrible health, and millions of our citizens in prison and millions more out of the work force because no one hires a felon. We can’t afford to not rebuild our infrastructure, or not build better energy systems. What we seem to have forgotten is, when you want something you don’t have, build it, don’t break the thing you have trying to turn it into what you want. There are things that can be solved that way, of course, but all the great accomplishments of history come from constructive, not destructive, problem solving. This isn’t a problem of partisanship, or a problem of bad technique. Its very simply a failure of imagination. By thinking small here, we’re not saving money or being frugal. We’re just failing to solve the problems. We can’t just keep on putting new layers of paint on the rotten wood. We’ve got to think bigger, figure out what we want, and design that, instead of trying to miraculously make the old things better by doing things that will inevitably make them worse. We can, and I believe we will, but its going to require a degree of vision we don’t see in politics. We’ve got to demand more than petty squabbling, because our problems aren’t petty anymore. Our job here is simple, and honestly, fairly easy. When someone spouts the party line, says the thing you’re used to hearing, and voting for, for that matter, if there’s not a new plan, not an original solution, don’t vote for them. Period. We don’t have to chose between people who share our values and people who can solve our problems, we can have both, but we can only have it if we refuse to put up with anything less.