Category: Education

Education is not a jobs program…

Part 3

When my daddy worked at Dupont in the 60s, he’d often complain about the “college boys” who “didn’t know anything about working in a chemical plant.”  Even then, I’d nod sagely and agree without understanding what the hell he was talking about.  Didn’t guys who went to college know everything?

Turns out, no, they didn’t.  But that was the point.

Leo Weeks

Before the 1930s, college was mostly reserved for white males, and while schools focused on the sciences, economics, and psychology, most students graduated woefully ignorant of literature and general Western culture, but these students specialized early.  World War II exposed this deficiency, as the level of education among college graduates varied widely, making it more difficult to train soldiers for battle and command.  Both during and after the war, University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins (1899–1977) pushed for a national core curriculum that leaned heavily on liberal arts.  The GI bill, while leading to a boom in higher education, also helped cement the concept of a core liberal arts education within major institutions of learning.

As universities and colleges filled to bursting with former soldiers, they squeezed out less qualified students from rural communities, and the backlash led to an improvement in primary and secondary education.  Called “Jugheads” by their fellow GIs, over 300,000 soldiers could not read when the war began, but the services worked diligently to improve that, and many of these found themselves with the means and ability to pursue higher education.

Here is what the military understood then that we seem to have forgotten: before you can train someone for a job, their education must be complete and well-rounded.  Prior to the 60s (and far beyond for a few schools) universities kept the curriculum and majors limited to give students the time for a grounding in the liberal arts.  Students graduated with having read Kant, Nietzsche, Locke and Spinoza, or the stories of Milton, Homer, Voltaire, Dumas and Chaucer.  These men and women, having a grounding in a wide range of disciplines, were the easiest to train.  And not just train, but train right.

So, my daddy’s lament about “college boys” was misguided.  He’d also readily admit without hesitation that those new hires were also the easiest to train, and often advanced rapidly because of their ability to understand even the finest details of the process.  But he never made the connection, not having made use of his GI bill for more than a semester or two.

By 1994, however, the concept of a liberal education had fallen out of favor, as industry moguls and business leaders all clamored for more specific training in not only higher education, but secondary public education as well.  This culminated in President Clinton’s signing of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which called for creating a national system of school-to-work transition programs. While this had the laudable effect of offering both technical and vocational training for those students not predisposed to higher education, it severely undercut and undermined education in the liberal arts—the very thing that made training workers easier and less expensive.  And this was unfortunate, because what research showed—and my daddy knew instinctively—is even workers with specialized education still need training.

This is because training and education are not the same.  Or, as I once read, “in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they are not.”

The lamentable and totally foreseeable upshot of all this is the current move to strip or downgrade humanities at the secondary and higher education levels in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called STEM subjects.  Some have attempted to ameliorate this by changing the acronym to STEAM by adding the arts, but I’ve seen no evidence it’s taking hold.

The simple fact is that big business doesn’t want workers who think too deeply; they need workers who will just do their jobs quickly and efficiently, and for the lowest possible cost.  Educated workers are anathema to blind obedience and low wages.  They also lean toward liberal politicians and policy, and we can’t have that.  An uneducated and poor populace is much easier to control.  This, as I’ve said before, is a feature, not a bug.

In Part 4, I’ll discuss what we can do to repair the damage and move forward.  Until then, think good thoughts…

Education is not a jobs program…

Part 2

In Part 1 of this series of articles, I ended with the observation that band directors in Texas use their record of contest achievements to get the “best” jobs—those that pay well, are in “good” communities, or offer the opportunity to work with the “best” in the field.  In short, they use the students and their hard work for their own advancement, or simply their own prestige.  This isn’t a bug—it’s a feature of the system we’ve created.  There was a time when you taught the kids to the best of their ability, took the comments from the contest judges, then went back home to work on everything they’d written on the sheets.  Other directors heard your band at contest or on the football field and made judgments of their own about your ability to teach.  Or they listened to your kids at Region Band tryouts and got to know you in the contest office.  These were the ways directors found other jobs or advanced.  They didn’t use their kids, instead teaching them as well as they could and letting the chips fall where they may.  A director’s best résumé came from concert recordings, Sight Reading ratings, and the Old Boy network.

Courtesy of kjarrett

Today, directors push their kids to ever-increasing levels for that “best” trophy, whatever the flavor of the year is, and use those trophies to show the world their value; not what the kids accomplished, but what they did to get the band there.  Never mind what the kids sacrificed to get there, and never mind how hard they worked to do it.  Contest achievement has become little more than a jobs program, offering proof for higher pay, more directors, and more consultants to do the jobs directors used to do. Today, a “top” marching program requires at least three directors, a percussion instructor, a color guard instructor, a choreographer, a drill designer, prop designer, an arranger, any number of marching techs, and an army of parents to build sets and do all those little things directors “don’t have time for”.

How does this apply to education in general?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, education was once about creating knowledgeable adults—students who had a deep understanding of the subjects taught.  Everyone once knew this as the dreaded “liberal arts education.”  There are still liberal arts colleges and programs, but they are few, and the concept is all but nonexistent now at the secondary level.  Most liberal arts colleges are private schools, and a whopping 15% are considered “good for low and middle income students”(source: Niche: College Search, Reviews, and Rankings).

Since those halcyon days of deep understanding of a wide breadth of subjects, colleges have offered increasingly specialized majors.  There are several reasons for this, but the primary driver is the school-to-work pipeline (to be discussed in Part 3) and the push to hire teachers specifically to teach these narrowly targeted subjects.  You can’t simply teach physics anymore.  No, you must offer specialized degrees in quantum physics, nuclear physics, astrophysics, or the new darling—health physics.  And to teach these focused students, you must hire faculty who also are experts in these specific fields of study.

So, this narrowing of the curriculum to smaller and smaller niche majors has become little more than a jobs program for niche faculty, and this has had the effect of pushing out more generalized faculty, leading to a university’s unrelenting need for greater numbers of adjuncts.  If you’re a dean, and you need the top health physicist in the country to attract students to fill that program, well, you’ll just have to cut the number of general physics professors in lieu of lesser-qualified—and much cheaper—adjuncts.  Unless and until adjuncts across the country unionize, their pay and working conditions will never improve, and departments will continue to rely upon their cheap labor to supplement the pay of specialized faculty.

Next up:  I discuss the school-to-work phenomenon, and how it’s destroying education in the U.S. at every level.  Until then, think good thoughts…

Education is not a jobs program…

Part 1

Last night, I had a vivid dream about my time as a band director.  While this event never happened, I’ve had similar conversations with myself over the years about this topic.  In the dream, I was teaching a concert band at the middle school level and noticed one kid had been missing my class for a few days.  I asked another student if they knew where she was, and he told me she was attending every class but mine.  During band class, she usually spent that time in a second go of English.  Obviously, I was distressed, and confronted the child later.  What she told me in my dream blew my mind then, and still does while I’m wide awake.  She told me “I don’t enjoy band anymore because it’s all about competition and winning, and not about music.”  She said the staff was more concerned with how they looked to the community than with making music.

I’ve toyed with a similar theme for a while, but this sort of crystalized it for me.  And it’s not limited to teaching, or even just the arts.  This is endemic in education, and it has become so widespread and commonplace, we don’t even notice the effects anymore.  I’m gonna stick with band for most of this because that’s what I know best.  I’ll get to general effects later.

The school band movement in the U.S. began in earnest when musician-soldiers returned from WWII and found their experiences and training as service band members might be valuable to their hometowns.  These men pushed for comprehensive music education, beginning in elementary and culminating in high-quality band programs at the senior high level.  That push was especially effective here in Texas.  So much so, that we enjoy some of the highest levels of musicianship as anywhere in the world.  Our Texas Music Educators Association convention is the largest music convention in the world, eclipsing even the Mid-West International convention in Chicago.

When these soldiers began their crusade, their only goal was to improve music education in this country.  Everything in Texas we now call “competition” began as simple evaluations to note progress.  Every so-called competition was never as one band pitted against another, but as each band against a standard of excellence  The rubric for the highest rating in Texas still reads:

  • Students consistently perform with mature, characteristic sounds.
  • Pitches are consistently centered and focused.
  • Students consistently perform balance/blend with only minor lapses that are quickly corrected.
  • The ensemble consistently demonstrates an awareness of tuning within and between sections. (“near perfect”) (emphasis mine)
  • Dynamic contrast is consistently obvious and effective.
  • Students consistently perform with proper support and little or no distortion.

Notice nowhere does it say “beat the other guys”.

Somewhere along the way, music educators—and band directors specifically—lost sight of the original purpose of music education: to bring students to a level of musicianship where they can appreciate the works they perform and how well they perform them.  The competition has become the thing for its own sake, and that is driving away kids who could benefit most from a good music education.

Klein Cain HS Band, 2021 State Marching Contest – © Clancy Weeks

Just to be a part of a high school band in Texas now requires parents to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars a year.  This isn’t private school, but public school.  When I was a band director, I told the parents “if the school doesn’t provide it, we don’t need it”, and I stand by that today.  Of course, I fought to the death to get the school to provide those things I believed we needed.  I won most of those battles, but lost a few.  But I never asked parents to make up the difference.  I considered that wrong then, and I think it’s wrong now.  It creates a multi-tiered system of education, where only those with money get the best.  This is anathema to the whole concept of public education.  And why do they do this?  Because it’s the competition that matters now, not the learning.  It’s the trophies, not the achievements.  It’s the rating, not the standard of excellence.  It’s the teacher, not the student.

The last is the most important.  We’ve mired ourselves in a vicious circle that requires trophies for a teacher to advance or even keep their job.  It requires trophies to get the “best” jobs.  It requires trophies to impress the community enough to squeeze those extra dollars from the parents so we can earn even bigger and better trophies.

This is the Song that Never Ends.

In the next part, I tie this to education as a profession, and to society as a whole.  And I’’m just warming up…

A discussion about homework…

I had a discussion yesterday with my wife—currently an elementary music teacher—about the state of education in general, and education in Texas, specifically.  We also have a son who is a freshman in high school.  But first, let’s take a ride in the Wayback Machine™.

When I was in school, back when dinosaurs were still in the planning stage, our teachers gave us homework almost daily, and we’d drop the completed assignments in a box on their desk at the beginning of each class.  This was especially helpful in skill classes like math, or where memorization was an important component.

Over the intervening decades, we’ve learned a lot about learning: how it works, what affects retention, faster methods, better pathways toward synthesis, and the like.  Educators have also learned more about motivation, but that’s a subject for another day.

The problem in this country—and primarily in Texas—is we haven’t done a good job adjusting for these new realities and their relation to homework.  A lot of valid research suggests homework is not a valuable component of learning.  It does, in fact, as I can attest, add to the stress levels of students, reducing their ability to learn and retain material.  But—and this is an important “but”—teachers are almost required to teach to THE TEST.  That thing that determines if a student advances, or graduates, if the school gets adequate funding, and if the teacher keeps their job.  This leads to stress increasing at every level.  I’m going to ignore how Covid-19 affects all this for now, but rest assured, it doesn’t help.

What happens now is teachers try to teach based on best practices regarding homework, yet the dual realities of standardized testing and time constraints practically requires homework.  The number of minutes in a class has not increased since I was in high school—the opposite, in fact, has happened—yet, without assigning homework, teachers must present the material, determine if the students understand, then give them time in class to practice and demonstrate what they’ve learned.  If there are hiccups, teachers must repeat the entire process.  There just isn’t enough time to do all this, so they encourage students to finish the assignment at home.  But students are no longer used to regular homework assignments, so they fail to complete, fall behind, then are swamped as the unfinished work piles up.  This has led to unprecedented levels of stress in students, parents and teachers.

Teachers cannot escape this trap, because THE TEST and BEST PRACTICES won’t let them; teachers are literally caught between a rock and a hard place.  Their only hope is to ignore the fucking test!

You didn’t read that wrong.  I taught for many years, and once, when I was interviewing for a promotion within the district, I stated flatly to a question about THE TEST, “teach the material, teach the fundamentals, and the test will take care of itself”.  Most of the committee hated that answer, but one principal—the one with the highest campus scores—muttered “hell yeah”.

I remember they fired that guy a year later.

The upshot of my diatribe is that it is long past time for teachers, students, and parents to ignore the goddamn TEST and focus on fundamentals, and this begins with assigning regular homework where students can practice what they’ve learned in small chunks.  Either that, or administrators must lengthen class periods to accommodate the new reality.

The second won’t happen, but teachers can implement the former on their own.  Their students will thank them for it.

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