Monthly Archives: August 2013

Education and Values

The degree to which we value education determines teacher quality and the emphasis students place on academic achievement. We talk of the importance of education, but we shortchange it in numerous ways. Our teachers are often overworked, underpaid, and poorly equipped. We reduce school budgets and demand they teach classes and subjects for which they have no training. Teaching is not recognized as the profession it is, either in respect or compensation. Reports of a teacher quality problem are a reflection of how we value teachers and how we value education. We blame teachers for poor student performance even as we distract students from their studies and give them incentives to focus on other activities.

Parents and schools encourage students to participate in competitive sports with demanding schedules that leave little time for homework. Support and accolades for sports far exceed those for academic achievement. For communities, sports events are social events that often produce revenue; for working parents they replace day care. Communities may finance elaborate sports facilities, yet balk at increasing teacher salary and training. Local newspapers print lengthy articles and pictures of sports events in each edition, whereas academic accomplishment warrants only an occasional brief note.

Parents condone the use of the latest electronic devices, which may serve as learning tools, but too often are used for video games and social activities. The devices are not merely distracting. According to Lathrop and Foss in A Wake-Up Call, uncontrolled use of devices facilitates plagiarism and cheating, and too much time connected has been associated with OCD, ADHD, and symptoms similar to those of drug and alcohol addiction.

These distractions easily become a priority for students if parents and communities do not impose constraints and do not challenge poor student performance. Immigrants, who cherish education as an opportunity not available in their country, often outperform native students. Children in charter and private schools often perform better than those in public school, in part because their parents place higher value on education. Parents and communities establish the priorities, whether knowingly or by default. Compromising education compromises everyone’s future. If education is important, shouldn’t we rethink our values?

Education and Democracy

Everyone in this country is entitled to an education through high school, but that is not true in many parts of the world. We like to think there is opportunity for all, but today our public education system fails many students, handicapping their future. Academic achievement is well below that of many developed and developing countries according to the Program for International Student Assessment. Government programs to incentivize better performance include No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which use student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and school systems. These programs typically result in “teaching to the test,” which ultimately reduces the quality of education by limiting the scope of teaching.

Our government was established as a representative democracy, which can serve all its members only if all participate. To sustain a truly democratic society, quality and equality of education are important. To our capitalist society, job training may seem most important, but maintaining a democracy requires a comprehensive education for all. A representative democracy requires informed citizens who must evaluate social, political, and economic issues, proposed solutions, and their potential impact. They need to convey their concerns to their elected representatives and monitor their responsiveness. To perform these functions effectively, so that both society and individuals benefit, citizens require a basic education in the humanities.

Lack of proper education allows a well-educated elite to influence social, political, and economic institutions to favor their interests over those of the less educated. In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson discuss how a government controlled by an elite segment of the population can produce extractive, repressive institutions that ultimately lead to failed nations. They conclude that successful democracies require inclusive, progressive institutions that benefit all members of society.

We are at risk of allowing a well-educated elite to gain control. Intensive lobbying and campaign funding by large corporations and well-funded individuals have caused government to become more partisan and radicalized in recent years. As a result our economic recovery is favoring the wealthy, increasing income disparity, and dismantling the social safety net. If we do not provide a comprehensive education for all, do we risk becoming a failed democracy?