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Columnists

The Great American Education Scam: We’ve Flunked

If a subpar service is provided for free, maybe I’ll take a look, out of curiosity. If it costs anything, the odds drop considerably, and if it’s ridiculously overpriced, my response will be: “are you out of your mind?”

That is how I often feel about education nowadays, and I’ve seen it from the inside for most of my life. From age five (a long, long time ago) there have been only three years during which I was neither a student nor an instructor at some educational institution.

I’m what’s known as a lifelong learner: during the pandemic lockdowns, I used my extra time to earn a higher education teaching certificate from Harvard, just for the fun of it. And I’ve been an educator and/or administrator in grade levels from Kindergarten to graduate school since the late 1980s.

You get the picture: I love teaching and learning and I’ve done a tremendous amount of both. Which is why it especially pains me to describe our current American education system as a scam. Well, not entirely, of course. There’s still much to be gained, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we shutter our schools and become a nation of dropouts. But there are a lot of very, very wrong things with our current system that need fixing. I include the more pertinent ones here.

First, there is an utter lack of student-centeredness. Maybe not by dedicated teachers in the classroom, but by clueless administrators fixated on complying with their accreditors’ demands and ignoring the students altogether. Course syllabi should be written communications that effectively convey to students information vital to succeed. Instead, they’re jargon-laden finished products of brainstorming sessions designed to check all the boxes necessary to satisfy the accreditors’ whimsy. It’s as if the institution and the accreditors are writing in Japanese to one another even though the students only understand English.

Next, there is the fallacy of linking advancement to time. Just because a kid is nine years old doesn’t mean s/he’s ready to enter the fourth grade if s/he didn’t do well enough to pass the third. But few teachers have the courage or the authority to hold students back; they’ll rationalize that at some point in life those students will learn what they need to. Maybe in the fourth grade, maybe the fifth, or maybe when they’re 30.

That results in hordes of uneducated adolescents physically old enough to enter high school, but academically unprepared for it. Things don’t get better there, either, as teachers rarely resist sweeping failing performances under next year’s teacher’s rug.

Many Americans of varying political stripes now say in increasing numbers that maybe college isn’t for everyone. I’ve always been of the opposite view, believing that college isn’t just for the attorneys and accountants who occupy office buildings, but also for those who fix the air conditioning, shampoo the carpets, and drive up in food trucks at lunchtime. However, when considering the absurdly astronomical tuition rates, I’m beginning to question that belief.

Some say people who aren’t naturally cut out for reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic are better off enrolling in trade school after high school. Sure, I’d be willing to drop my wish that every short order cook and landscaper in America be sufficiently familiar with Plutarch’s Lives and the Federalist Papers, if only a high school diploma still meant what it once did.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if there aren’t great teachers and great students out there. There’s a lot of knowledge for the taking, educators capable of delivering it, and students willing to receive it. The problem is that students who have little interest in learning, or have been exposed to instructors neither knowledgeable nor talented enough to teach, walk across that same graduation stage in a cap and gown to receive that same piece of paper as their philomath counterparts.

Next, the unrealistic and often arbitrary expectations of academic bureaucrats at times markedly contrast what students actually do – and all of the players, faculty included, look the other way.

For example, the archaic expectation that for every hour of class students spend three hours studying means that students should arise in the middle of the night and study until it’s time to leave for school, and spend every waking moment when not eating or sleeping doing the same. That may be how John Quincy Adams (our sixth president) did it as a boy, but try that in a limitless universe of technology, advertising, and entertainment, each harassing us for our attention.

Very few pretend anymore that students are really going to adhere to the 1:3 ratio. But online academic institutions still delude themselves that, given the obscene amount of written work students must produce every week and the monstrous size of online classes, instructors are going to devote the time to give each paper more than a cursory glance. Students, of course, already know that, and savvy ones circumvent technological safeguards designed to track plagiarism by doing just enough to alter that canned essay they purchased online.

All that said, I haven’t even gotten to the part of malpracticing instructors regularly committing ideological harassment by sharing their own social/political opinion in the classroom.

If all of this sounds dire, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel: the magic of supply and demand. You see, college enrollment is dwindling, as is in-person enrollment for primary and secondary education. When people don’t show up, folks running the place scramble to become better, in order to win them back.

My kids won’t be ready for college for a few years yet; I sure hope things are better by then.

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