When we help a child reach proficiency at any grade level, we have changed the quality of that child’s life and that community forever…but aiming for proficiency means we aim to create generations of children who are average.
Mieliwocki told CBS This Morning that she believes her “number one job … is to educate [her students] and to give them the skills they need to be successful” in any career. And she tries to do that by being “creative [and] lively.
Rebecca Mieliwocki, 2012 National Teacher of the Year (U.S.A.)
There are so many aspects of these quotes I would like to get into, but the one I will focus on here is “the skills they need to be successful.” We have reached a new cycle in the history of education. Whereas education was once private, “medieval training”…sciences, mathematics, logic, philosophy, and theology…with the goal of training of the mind through the pursuit of speculative truth. By the Renaissance it had moved to “humanistic training”…Greek and Latin poetry, drama, oratory, and history…with the goal of character formation, making students better human beings and civic leaders. The Jesuits combined these two paradigms, along with the spiritual qualities that St. Ignatius molded into the Jesuit order. This style of education has been in existence for the more than 400 years.
Then the US began it’s Progressive Education period. Free elementary schools became common in all US states. High schools began construction in metropolitan areas. The primary characteristic of these early schools, that still exists in the majority of US schools today, was Age-Grading. This is the practice of putting all students born within a given period (usually one year) into the same Grade and they would received the same curriculum as they are expected to be at the same developmental/cognitive level. This concept was brought in and popularized by Horace Mann, founding Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, US Congressman, and founding President of Antioch College. The concept was brought in from the Prussian (yes, the US modeled their education after Germany).
Originally high-schools were either college-prep academies or vocational schools. As the needs of the Industrial Revolution created a vibrant white-collar industry, high school gained in popularity and attendance. Colleges were not as plentiful, or as affordable (no public loans system) so much of the high school curriculum became pragmatic (what skills were needed in the job market where the school exists). Emphasis on the classics (Latin/Greek), civics, oratory and history dropped from the curriculum of many public high schools. Emphasis on what would get you hired and what was needed for the expanding economy (math, fluency in English, sciences) were promoted. With the pragmatic approach, high school education exploded in the US above and beyond what was happening in the rest of the developed world. In 1910, for example, 9% of Americans had a high school diploma; in 1935, the rate was 40%. By 1940, the number had increased to 50%.
At the same time, colleges and universities rapidly grew in number and enrollment. The United States chose a type of post-elementary schooling consistent with its particular features — stressing flexible, general and widely applicable skills that were not tied to particular occupations and geographic places had great value in giving students options in their lives. Skills had to survive transport across firms, industries, occupations, and geography in the dynamic American economy. This model trickled down into the secondary and primary school curricula as well. By the time Lyndon Johnson introduced his Great Society in the 1960s, the US education system was poised to put more people into higher education than the world had ever seen.
So what does that mean now? The crux of it is that we have built our education system to push kids toward the ultimate goal of higher education (college). What is gained by this is a very high proportion of college students/graduates. What is lost by this is a startlingly high proportion of high school graduates and school dropouts who have not gained “the skills they need to be successful”, as Ms. Mieliwocki mentioned.
In our past, in the Industrial Age, it was far more credible to receive a general, liberal arts education and be prepared for any number of careers. Industry, as it was defined in those days, was meant to be something that “any educated person” could do. As we have progressed from the Digital Age into the Information Age, Industry is an increasingly more complex animal. Particular skills sets are needed in the world and proficiency in the basics is no longer enough. A graduate of a college-focused high school has very little in the way of practical job skills. Just look at the unemployment rates of college graduates (4.1%), high school graduates (8.4%) and non-high school graduates (%12.6). What this comes down to is we have stopped preparing students with a pragmatic education. We have said to our children “you will get it all in college now study for your entrance exams (math, reading/writing, science).” Our fascination with standardized testing now tracks your performance against grade-appropriate expected knowledge for college entrance exams. No one is comparing whether we can do more push-ups compared to Germany, or name more World Capitals compared to China.
We built a beast of a system for the Industrial Age, which is why we kicked ass through that time. What we need now is a system that is pragmatic for our current way of life, not our past. We need to create a something better than “a generation of average”. As China and India step up their education systems, we can’t expect to compete if we’re just producing what they’re producing. Lastly, which is the only area where Ms. Mieliwocki and I disagree, we must change “the quality of that child’s life and that community” by giving them the skills they need to be successful, not by “reaching grade proficiency.”
- Bring on the Learning Revolution (carpebootium.com)
- Crew Member – Salman Khan: Providing a World-Class education for anyone, anywhere (carpebootium.com)
- How to Re-Engage Boys in Learning (carpebootium.com)
- The Best Lesson You Don’t Want To Hear (carpebootium.com)
- Growing Pains (carpebootium.com)
- Using data to build better education systems: Andreas Schleicher at TEDGlobal 2012 (ted.com)
- Advice from the National Teacher of the Year Rebecca Mieliwocki (cityyeardc.wordpress.com)
- What is a Good Teacher Worth? (dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com)
- President Obama Welcomes the Teacher of the Year (whitehouse.gov)