A Paradigm Shift: The Public Education System as a Microcosm

Our current American education system was developed during the American industrial revolution.  These were years marked with advances in technology, production, and  communication that did great good suturing the gap between the rich and the poor.   Nobel laureate Robert E. Lucas, Jr., expressed the incredible social and economic progress of this time in his book Lectures on Economic Growth; “For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth … Nothing remotely like this economic behavior is mentioned by the classical economists, even as a theoretical possibility.”  The invention of the assembly line, as well as  innovations in textile, steam power and iron making  led to a boom in published pint , improvements in labor conditions and standards of living and a new intellectual framework that applied this progressive and systematic thinking to… education.

While indeed, the idea of public, free and compulsory education was “revolutionary” in the nineteenth century, our current globalized, technology-driven and vastly diversified population has brought changes to our social and economic atmosphere that are now forcing us to examine the possibility that the “factory method of education” is antiquated and desperately in need of reform.  English author and international educational adviser Sir Kenneth Robinson has researched, written, and spoken about “The factory method of education” for years and was knighted for his contributions to Education in 2003.

Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday and the end of breaks…  We have a system of education that is modeled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it. School are still pretty much organized on factory lines — ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. Why do we do that?

Is it because we believe that we are “producing” productive, innovative, and free-thinking citizens?  Maybe.  But if this is the case, we’ve thought wrong.  It is time to demystify the idea of the “factory method” and introduce a truer concept: public education as a microcosm of society at large.  In 2008, a study conducted by the Delta Coast Project found that, “Nearly four out of five remedial [college] students had a high school grade point average of 3.0 or higher… More than half described themselves as good students who worked hard and nearly always completed high school assignments.”

Administrators are faced with a proliferating pressure to raise standards.   Simultaneously, they must fight to keep the funding they receive based on deeply flawed systems of evaluation and students’ tests results aggregated from standardized tests of perpetually rising rigor.   It isn’t difficult to imagine why grade inflation has become a rampant and unfortunate setback for schools and students.  Students, who have fallen victim to watered-down curriculum and a system that does not hold them accountable for the merit of their work,  are accepted into institutions of higher learning believing they are “college ready”, onerously deficient in the basic tenets of language and mathematics.

Dr. Murray Bowen, who researched and taught psychiatry and pioneered the areas of family and systemic therapy, applied interactions and patterns within family units to culture and society.  Specifically, he examined the “symptoms” of progressive and regressive periods in society reflective of the family structure(s) of the time.

 A loosening of standards in society makes it more difficult for less differentiated parents to hold a line with their children. The grade inflation in many school systems makes it easier for students to pass grades with less work. In the [regressive] litigious climate, if schools try to hold the line on what they can realistically do for their students, they often face lawsuits from irate parents. The prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse gives parents more things to worry about with their adolescents.

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The implementation of progressive standards during a regressive period without funding, tangible training, or support, creates a sort of anxious and angry dissonance that feeds the very anti-school climate that administrators, faculty and staff members arduously combat in attempt to prepare students for the quality of education they deserve.  The result?  A devastating and consistent decline in American education.  As the previous charts (courtesy of this fantastic article from the New Yorker) suggest, if our public education system is truly a microcosm our nation’s culture and prosperity, the success of our future generations is truly in jeopardy and in need of support from concerned, informed, and dedicated educators and citizens.


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