Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is education really getting worse?

I always hear people lamenting the state of current primary/secondary education: it is not what it used to be. I do not proclaim to know very much about this, but it is really the case that education is getting worse*? There are various alternate explanations to why it may seem as such:
  1. Other countries are catching up. One measure of the US "falling behind" in education is that other countries are performing much better on all sorts of exams. While the US is not putting a lot of investment in math and science education, countries like China, Russia, and the Czech republic are churning out math Olympians.
  2. Because more people are educated, the standards have become higher. Now that more people are getting educated, people are no longer impressed when someone else knows the entire Western canon**. But in seriousness, people were considered well-educated before when they knew the basics in a lot of things and then did some medium-depth study of classics or something like that. It takes a lot more to be impressively well-educated today. My evidence for this point is that education at the top (at places like Harvard, at least) certainly does not seem to be getting worse. When I talk to my professors who are over 60 and went to Harvard as undergraduates, they seemed to have a lot less pressure and more free time. (But does pressure = better education?)
  3. When we think of education "back then," we were taking a median or mean over education of only a portion of the population. Since then, education has spread to all, causing the overall quality education to become worse. (This is similar to saying that the quality of asymmetrical dresses was much higher "back then," two months ago when they were only on the runways. Of course they would be; there is a reason why certain designers design for Chanel and others design for Target.)
There has been some evidence that education is getting absolutely worse. Someone told me that at Andover they have to write their own geometry textbooks because the textbooks on the market no longer contain anything rigorous (proofs, mathematically derived explanations, etc.). There are also structural (to society) reasons: people who would have become teachers in the past have many more higher-paying, more prestigious career opportunities available. (The increased opportunity may have caused a decline in teacher quality which caused a decline in the valuation of education which cause a decline in teacher quality which caused a--okay, you get it--cycle.) A more specific example of this is that women now have career options other than teaching, which means that a lot of women who would have made good teachers are now being professors, CEO's, and the like. Finally, if the third reason is true then it could very likely be causing the absolute quality of education to be getting worse, especially with things like No Child Left Behind which insist on pulling down the overall quality of education until everyone is at the worst level.

*I mean absolutely worse, which is the common usage of the term. I mean, when your favorite Olympic runner's world record gets broken by someone else, you don't go around bemoaning the fact that s/he is getting worse by the day.
** This is a facetious point. People are no longer impressed because there is no longer a fixed Western canon and also people have come to devalue education to the degree that familiarity with literature is no longer impressive to most.


Anonymous said...

I think it's maybe a combination of all these things, but I would like to hear what our teacher-roommates think!

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