Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Threat to America

Jerry Pournelle was at a conference on threats to the United States ...

I won't go into the main body of what I talked about, but my conclusions were simple: I believe that the worst threat to the United States is our failure adequately to educate the smartest 25% of our students; that there are no hopeful counter trends; and the result will be disaster. Add to that our failure to train or teach skills to the lower half of the population, and the disaster is made worse. These trends have related causes.

The underlying cause is our attempt to provide every public school child with a university prep education. Bill Gates becomes involved because his foundations promote the idea that "every American child deserves a world class university prep education"; and the attempt to do that insures that very few American children will receive a world class university prep education, and most of the smarter children will receive an education that is indifferent at best. The failure of our schools to educate the smart kids will put the United States into a terrible competitive position that will only get worse. We will continue to live off our capital, both intellectual and financial.

The problem here is that I don't have any startling information: everyone knows the facts here. One fact is that this is not Lake Wobegone. Half of the American children are below average. That means that the only way to make sure that no child is left behind is to see that no child gets ahead.

It does not matter how much we want it to be so, roughly half the children will not learn Algebra in high school, or indeed at any other time of their lives. They will not be well served by an attempt to give them a world class university prep education -- and the attempt to provide it for everyone will insure that the students who could profit from a university prep education won't get a good one. There are few teachers who can give adequate attention to the brightest 25% of the class while trying to give everyone in the class a world class university prep education.

This situation has developed over the years; but we were put into an unrecoverable attitude by No Child Left Behind, which told teachers that their goal was to see that every child in the class made some minimum score on a national test. The result was predictable and predicted, but that didn't stop it. Since the brightest half of the class would get the wanted score, the way to improve the class average is to concentrate on those just below average and get them to achieve passing marks. This happens all over the country.

Repealing No Child Left Behind won't fix our education system. The only thing that will fix it is to understand that half of the American Children are below average. Below average children have no need for a world class university prep education. They can't profit from it, and they learn very little that is useful to their future lives from a world class university prep education. That is not to say that there is nothing they could be learning in school that would not be useful in their future lives. There are many skills that can be taught in school that will be relevant to the future lives of the half the children who are below average. It's just that those skills are not part of a world class university prep education.

Note I said skills. Learning skills is important: but skills are learned by practice; most are not relevant to what we call a university education. (The skills that are relevant should generally be learned much earlier than in high school: a good example are the addition and multiplication tables, which are learned by rote. Everyone can and should learn the addition and multiplication tables to 20. Some pupils will take a long time to learn this, while others will learn them in no time.) This is obvious, and quite relevant to the central axiom that half the children are below average. A good part of early grade school should be skill training: learn to read, learn to do arithmetic, learn the mechanics of writing. All those are necessary for a university education; but there will come a point at which half the children simply will not be able to learn what they must learn in order to acquire a world class university education -- and while there may be doubt about some of the pupils, it will for the most part be obvious who belongs to which group.

Go further. Among the half of the children who are above average, only about half of those will profit from a world class university prep education, and only about half of those ought to go to universities at all. The rest should go to what we used to call colleges, a role that the community colleges are taking over. Sorting out who ought to be prepared for the university and who for colleges is another topic for another time, and it's a large subject. It's important but if we can accept the notion that half the children are below average, we can begin to understand than not all those above average are a good fit for university education. First steps first.
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