Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


Public Education, Reprise

At this morning's weekly breakfast meeting of the East Tennessee Economic Council in Oak Ridge, hosted at the Y-12 National Security Complex by BWXT/Y-12 President and CEO George Dials, George told the collected community and business leaders that fully half of his skilled labor force (e.g., machinists) is eligible to retire. While there are more than enough physicists and engineers to go around, there is a dearth of master machinists, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled craftsmen to meet the growing demand -- both at Y-12 and in the burgeoning nuclear power industry. George has often said, "You don't want a physicist to fix your plumbing!" (Dr. Thom Mason, Director of the neighboring Oak Ridge National Lab, is a physicist. :-)

So, how many high schools have abandoned teaching "shop" in favor of computer science? Probably too many... (Even vaunted Oak Ridge High School has canceled Auto Shop; that teacher is now teaching Engineering.) My previous post on "Great Public Schools" has elicited a great dialog between some 'blogfriends. In response to an offline question, Überblogger ZenPundit (who has also commented on the previous post) offered the following assessment of education in America. It is reprinted here with his permission:

Speaking analytically and from close to 20 years of firsthand professional experience, the public school system's fundamental problems are an anachronistic orientation (Agrarian calendar, industrial mass production, and Taylorist model, hierarchical control), a breakdown of the home to school social contract and iniquitous, unreliable & irrational funding mechanisms disconnected from the system's legally required objectives. There are other problems, naturally, but those are the major systemic stumbling blocks to wholesale improvement.

That being said, it is not obvious to me that the primary alternatives to public education are any better when measured with identical yardsticks (surprisingly, often they are worse). Those that are (usually idiosyncratic programs of high quality) suffer from a lack of scalability. You just can't set up a top-notch Montessori program for 75 million kids - in fact, it's tough to do so for 75. Anything that is scalable - like curricular reforms and high standards featured by many charter schools - can be done more efficiently in public education for reasons of economies of scale. The only reason it isn't done is lack of political will and budget.

Homeschooling works best when the parents are exceedingly motivated and well educated, and their children are young and intellectually curious. Many home schoolers abandon the effort when their kids hit junior high and high school and the subject matter becomes more specialized - these kids either come to me performing well-above grade level (about 25-30%) or below grade level due to significant gaps in content knowledge because Mom really didn't understand fractions or the Civil War or whatever and skipped teaching it.

Catholic schools vary in quality these days just like public schools because the number of members of religious orders teaching in them (highly educated folks working cheap) has declined severely. In Illinois for example, St. Ignatius College Prep is a top high school but the average Catholic high School here is staffed by secular teachers who weren't good enough to find jobs in the public school system. What Catholic schools offer as a system that public schools do not is a culture, discipline and a sense of identity that some people find valuable (and a leg up in applying to Notre Dame, DePaul, Gonzaga etc.).

Other private schools, military academies etc. tend to be highly specialized in terms of mission.

Essentially, instead of judging which system is best, I'd look at what specific schools are available in your area and select the one that is relatively better than the others. If they are about even, save yourself a bundle of cash and use the public school system - unless safety/discipline is a concern.

Has the pendulum swung too far toward the "knowledge worker", and away from the skill crafts that build the infrastructure of our society? And what can we do to reclaim the "social contract" between parents and educators? I fear that my grandchildren will be left with a non-competitive economy competing against a hungry, agile, cheap global workforce.

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