Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What Constitutes a Good Education?

I'm growing increasing fond of the idea of the US's educational problems as the problems of a low-productivity industry. In any other industry, we'd applaud increases in class size as an indicator that teacher productivity is rising. In the US, large class size is an excellent indicator of a bad school system. The problem, of course, is that productivity isn't rising if the quality of the finished good is falling commensurately.

So before we can start looking at education from a productivity standpoint, we have to address what the output is, and how we judge its quality. Here's a list of attributes we expect students to acquire. Note that I make no assumptions about where these attributes are acquired. Presumably, some combination of teachers, parents, and life experience can impart these:
  • Skills.
  • Knowledge.
  • Learning to learn.
  • Confidence.
  • Socialization.
  • Ethics and morals.
  • Citizenship.
  • Physical ability.

Many of these attributes have good metrics associated with them. We can test how skilled a person is in reading, writing, arithmetic and algebraic computation, or even in how well they can repair an air conditioner or play a sonata. Knowledge tests are easy, as are tests of physical strength and coordination. We can even test a student's ability to participate in the political process (which is, after all, just a combination of a particular set of skills and knowledge).

But other attributes are harder to pin down. How do we judge whether a student has the confidence to tackle a new task and succeed? How do we determine whether a student will understand the consequences of his actions and strive to perform actions he believes to be good? How can we measure whether children are excessively shy, or excessively aggressive, or even excesively gregarious? Finally--and most important--how can we determine whether a student has been prepared to encounter a lifetime of uncertainty, where new skills and knowledge will continually need to be learned?

There are, of course, whole batteries of psychological tests that attempt to answer these questions. Their utility is hotly debated. In many cases, the debates center around the value judgements surrounding what they're measuring. If you were to insert these sorts of measurements into, say, an NCLB-like law, the outcy would be awe-inspiring.

Part of the controversy with these sorts of measurements is that, today, they're futile. When we measure a deficit in one of these areas, there's no teaching technology to remedy the deficit. Certainly there's not a teaching technology that can consistently improve such performance in a mass educational setting.

This strikes me as an area that needs some thought put into it. After more than a generation of attmepting to teach "critical thinking skills," we have succeeded only in reducing the average skill and knowledge level of our high school graduates while enhancing their critical thinking nary a jot or a twiddle.

I believe that the technology to enhance students' skills and knowledge is almost at hand. But we have made no progress--or perhaps even negative progress--in developing the technology to instill confidence, good judgement, and a love of learning in our children. Perhaps the only technology available for this task is a stable, loving family with well-educated parents. If so, we've got a real problem, because it's gonna take three generations to bootstrap our country back to anything approaching that condition, under the most optimistic conditions. We need to think about this side of the pedagogical equation a bit more.

No comments: