Thursday, July 15, 2010

American Attitudes and the Need for Reform

By John Glaser

I'm inclined to disagree with Garrison Walter's piece for Inside Higher Ed. He recognizes the need for structural changes in our educational system, but emphasizes America's cultural attitude towards an academic education as the central obstacle to improved outcomes:
America’s education problem has been apparent for 30 years or so, and there have been a lot of suggestions for making us competitive again. Ideas on the K-12 side include: better trained and motivated teachers, more and better early childhood programs, better prepared school leaders, improved curriculums, higher standards, financial incentives, better data systems, and more rigorous and frequent assessments. On the higher education side, proposals include: motivating professors and administrators with formulas that reward success rather than enrollment, more use of technology, more data, improved administration, and (at least for general education) more testing. And, of course, better funding is relentlessly advocated for the entire educational spectrum.

All of these approaches have at least some potential to foster improvement.

My fundamental belief, though, is that even if one takes a very optimistic view of the achievable potential of each of these strategies and adds them together, the net result will be significant but insufficient improvement to allow us to catch up in educational levels. If our scope of action is limited to the ideas advanced so far, we will actually continue to fall behind.

What makes it so difficult for us to catch up in education? Our lack of a pervasive education culture.
He goes on to explain that Americans tend to downplay the importance of educational attainment as integral to living a good life and building a successful economic future. His analysis is overly speculative, pondering the extent to which other countries' youth would respond in the affirmative to questions about the importance of education, compared with the extent to which American youth would respond in the negative.

I don't doubt that cultural attitudes toward education may be a large part of the problem. Such broad-based perspectives can always improve. But despite America's troubling drop out rates and arguably stratified college attendance, much of the problem in recent years has been an over-emphasis of a college education as the answer for everyone. This over-emphasis on the college degree as the only worthwhile goal leads to credential inflation and an extended willingness to become severely indebted, simply to attend an institution of higher learning. The truth is, it may actually be the case that there are other, equally admirable strategies to live a good life and succeed financially (as I tried to point out in this post).

Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between real education and simply university attendance for its own sake. However, the structural problems Walters initially concedes are important, are in fact paramount. Those are the types of issues and reforms Americans ought to place emphasis on to improve upon the status quo. More enlightened cultural attitudes are likely to follow proper reforms.

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