Defining the failure of mass education

I read recently that mass education is failing. This says that our education systems are no longer working. Obviously, this is making a lot of people very unhappy, parents, taxpayers, teachers, politicians- and the list goes on. There seems to be a real blame game being played out here but I cannot see where anyone is seriously asking why it is not working though. I don’t really have an answer here, but I think I may have a few ideas that suggest possible reasons for the failure of this particular experiment in social engineering.

The first part is easy, and it lies in how the change to mass education came about. Essentially, it was based on some simple premises that infected the West, the first one is that everyone should get the best education we can give them, and they will damned well like it. Another was that kids, all kids, are bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to learn, ready to soak up education like a sponge. This is really wishful thinking triumphing over reality. It is rubbish, of course – but it played well when everyone had money. Now money is becoming increasingly in short supply, people are unhappy about the lack of obvious return. The first manifestation of this failure has been youth employment.

As globalization grew in pace, the decline of youth employment increased at the same pace. To overcome this, governments increased the school leaving age, thereby dropping youth unemployment. This simplistic thinking started the ball rolling−downhill as it is turning out. What no-one has been brave enough to talk about is that kids of earlier generations who left school early, had no interest in staying in school. Now, these same kinds of kids cannot leave school, but they have no interest in staying. That, I suggest, is the fundamental cause of the decline in education. Most kids are not interested in education per sé, so are not making a lot of effort, if any.

The second part is even more obvious.  Drop a stone in a pond and it creates a ripple effect OK, it is a hackneyed cliché, but the analogy is perfect here. When a part of a system changes, it must create ripples elsewhere. In this case, I suggest those ripples have not even been acknowledged so they can just be ignored. How anyone could think that you can increase the number of non-committed students in senior high school years and keep standards up is beyond me. Most teachers are pretty good, but they are not gods, (well, most of them are not, but some,  if you ask, will tell you otherwise). Cliché after cliché can run off my fingertips here, so I will try to avoid them.

The question I ask here is “What were people thinking? – Was anybody thinking?” Obviously not. I suggest though, that these problems are not insurmountable, there are solutions. Unfortunately, these solutions are going to be imaginative, daring, inventive, and completely untested. They will never be applied.

Maths can be broken into two streams in schools from about year 6 onwards. One stream is the maths we teach today, highly abstract and demanding. Fewer students are really able to cope with this level of maths now, but it is gospel that maths be taught specifically. Why set kids up for failure? The other stream is practical maths, the kind of maths needed for day to day living. This maths is taught in a subject context, weights and measures in tech classes, algebra and statistics in science, statistics, date maths, large measurement in History, trigonometry, scales, time in Geography with navigation. Also money maths can be taught across all these subjects, as can arithmetic and other, already mentioned topics. We require our citizens to have a better understanding of maths than has ever been required before, but more and more of our citizens are unable to do simple calculations.

We are failing, simple as that, but we are not doing anything to arrest the failure. Responses so far are either more of the same, the Australian National Curriculum, or something completely useless, the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. The National Curriculum is about as exciting as watching paint dry and the standards are, I offer, no more than self-congratulatory rubbish.

So, as these reasons may prove to be the fundamental causes of the failure of mass education, what can we do about it? We cannot turn the clock back and reintroduce all those entry level jobs that used to occupy our school leavers, and there is not enough jobs in the fast food industries to accommodate too many school leavers. We still need an educated workforce, even more critical now that it used to be, but we are not doing a lot of the right things to create that workforce.

I could say that pumping more money into the system would be perfect, but the reality is that there is, I suspect, sufficient money there now, only it is very poorly targeted. We have far too many high schools in my own state, particularly in the metropolitan area. Recently the SA Government has moved towards creating larger schools in the city, but it is taking too long and is far too late to make a significant difference in the short term, I think. As well, the Government recently announced that incoming teachers, beginning 2018, will need to have a Masters in Education before stepping foot in a classroom. Wow- how -erm-erm- underwhelming. The problems exist now, not in three and a half years time – so how can we improve a current teacher’s skill base? Why bother? No-one is going to put money into that, but we have the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers to fix that problem!

Again, wishful thinking triumphs over reality. The APST does not aim at any specific educational goals in its professional development requirements. It talks about “self improvement”, “reflective practices”, from “leading educative practices” by principals, to “classroom performance and development” by teachers, it uses all the clichés, all the current buzzwords. The reality is that all a teacher needs do is to attend a conference or two, do a bit of “professional reading” and have some generic “training days” through the year and they meet the Development requirements. Add in some lesson plans, a couple of assessment tasks, some good students’ work, which meets Performance outcomes, and the teacher is on a winner. Sorry, but where does that actually help me improve my qualifications to be a teacher? What checks and balances are there in the process to demonstrate specific skill development? That is why the APST is not going to prove effective. All teachers need to do is to tick the boxes, not actually show genuine improvement in their qualifications.

Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud of this sort of bureaucratic fumbling, shows “industry” and “justifiable process” but is really meaningless dribble.

So I offer these as possible causes for problems in mass education. The education processes did not change as the demands on the system changed. The responses to the problems so far have all been compounding this lack of change and are superficial claptrap.


About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
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