Educational Conundrum

(Originally published on November 12, 2012)

Why “STEM” schools?

For a long time, Minnesota was considered home for one of the best schooling, both primary and secondary. In 1970s and early 1980s the state consistently was ranking among the nation’s best. Our family settled in Minnesota just for this reason. What happened afterwards, is anybody’s guess.
My children attended the high school that won the presidential award for excellence, and still I think their liberal education severely lacked in many respects.
Then, just recently, the idea of creating the STEM school was unearthed by Mich Perlstein in his article in a local newspaper, “Star Tribune”, entitled ‘There should be a school for that’ (September 22, 2012). Interested reader will find the entire article on www.startribune.com.
Permit me to quote a few lines from it:
“Our strongest students don’t measure up in science, technology, engineering and math. Let’s create a fertile environment. …Just one example: Six percent of U.S. students perform at what’s called “advanced proficiency” in math. This is a smaller proportion than in 30 other nations. “
Sadly, it is all true. The public education system is not performing very well, neither is private. He goes further writing:
“If our interest is in more fully serving all students, the iconic “Nation at Risk” report, released in 1983, correctly framed the destination and tension this way: “The twin goals of equity and high-quality schooling have profound and practical meaning for our economy and society, and we cannot permit one to yield to the other either in principle or practice.”
At this point it all becomes confusing, for the idea of creating elitist schools predominates in this article. This is not the solution for elevating standard of education in this country and creating a word class society.  My reservations are summarized in the following.

Educational Conundrum.

Just the other day I asked my son what is his point of view on the level of education in our country. He is an accomplished young man, freshly out of a four year college and who aspires to continue his education. With no doubt he is determined to acquire more knowledge than most graduates may be satisfied with. This drive is not surprising, considering that both of us, parents, have advanced degrees and he was raised in the environment nurturing merits of education. Another value in his case is in that all his ambitions and commitments are not at all inspired by any material consideration. It is just what I would call the “lust for knowledge”.  Once developed, it is intoxicating and becomes an addiction, a good one for an individual, and the society.
To instill this craving for knowledge should be the first and foremost aim of   educational establishment of our public school system. Without it, the mission of national education system is in part a failure. True, it will “manufacture” certain amount of work force that is degradingly called human resource. But this will not put the nation on par with others in the world, the issue that is gaining wider recognition, as we strive to retain our leadership among the nations.
The times when our country was an envy of the world in terms of general literacy, the times of Alexis de Tocqueville, when every citizen had access to printed matter and was involved in public discourse, the very formation of our democracy, is long gone. The question arises, can the history repeat itself? Another pervasive issue that is so common and insidious in our society is the issue of appearances. It is enough to appear right, to be well received. It is enough to appear knowledgeable to be listened to. It is enough to look professional to secure respect and recognition. Whatever happened with the old adage “do not judge the book by its cover”?
And so it brings me back to an article by Mitch Pearlstein treating about “STEM” schools for Minnesota. Aside from ideas of alleged lack of egalitarianism, costs of running such schools, or outright absurd notions of private-public partnerships involved in creation and cost sharing, the very existence of such establishments is questionable. What about the criteria of admission, or socio-economic condition of the applicants? Are they going to be a matter of corruption, like many things are? How to avoid such problems and scores of others to  preserve their institutional integrity. I have been personally the subject to many such discriminations.
Creation of knowledge incubators is an idea well known. Here, however, we have different issue at hand.
It is the general level of education of the whole population, every single citizen. We do not want to create knowledge wizards just to show other nations that we can produce individuals able to compete on the same level with others. We need to increase general level of education of the whole country, and in the presence of it, our best will come out naturally, without artificial stimuli which the “STEM” schools in fact are.
From the very beginning of the ground school, and through the whole process of individual’s education, the “lust for knowledge” should be developed from the early years of the learner and carefully catered to. Teaching should not be a simple discharge of duties by teachers, not a career.
Maybe the schools ought to just begin teaching and stop experimenting. Stop burdening students with the time consuming “projects” that involve parents more that their children. It may be time to start teaching some reading, dip into a treasury of the literature of Western Civilization instead of forcing the children to read “Holes” or such similar nonsense.
At this I realized, looking back at my several score years, how much more my parents and their contemporaries knew in comparison to me, and how much more I know as compared to my son. This is not precisely the knowledge of genetics or chemistry which made a tremendous progress since I was his age. This is the knowledge of life, civic responsibilities, critical approach to solving problems, understanding of the position of individual in the society and mutual dependence of both. Maybe the absence of digital technology created the atmosphere more conducive to different type of learning, but there is a considerable body of evidence that there it is not so, prime example of my son testifies to this.
In the effort to stand on par with others and produce the world class society, we should not relay on the local knowledge resources only. In fact, in our country the education is highly fragmented and subject to considerable experimentation. Every school district, almost every building that carries the task of education, has a different agenda and a different profile of learning. Diversity may be good, and differences between individual teachers may create desirable variations, in general, however, this, as we see on the international arena, leads only to grater disparity, with our country falling behind.
The remuneration of school administrators and teachers is certainly generous. A school board of one of the districts was asked by me at one time, why the district is to pay so much to the newly hired superintendent ( more than the State’s Governor). The answer received was that this it is in the interest of the system to find and hire a world class individual. To my next question which was: does the district provide the world class education, there was no answer. Do we indeed pay too much, or not enough to attract good personnel. The old system of “throwing money at the problem” doesn’t seem to work. We are still falling behind.
How about the technology? By this I mean the digital signal transfer, computers, tablets, etc… Does the presence of such gadgetry improve teaching, or learning? Expensive as it is, the advocacy of it elevates the standing of the person proposing it (sic!), but is it bettering the quality of education? Slowly, gathered evidence points to the contrary.
Minnesota has always been a state well known for its good education system. The citizens here are always willing to support schools and do not spare expenses to deliver on their commitments. However in recent years this trend seemed to have withered. Could it be because the disappointment with the results?
The final question is, do we want to appear to be a well educated country, or we want to be one?
The answer is probably very simple. We need to have “STEM” type schools and nothing but. How to make it a reality is much more complicated. The current education system participants are well organized and well entrenched.  We must remember, however, that the public school system was established not to benefit individuals involved in the process of delivery, but the nation as a whole, to prosper and flourish.
Hugh Harding, Lakeville     for www.phd-central.org