Education needs some re-education

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By John Pawlak

Noted historian and philosopher Will Durant said, “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” I tend to agree. Our educated nation has progressively become more and more ignorant.
That being said, I would like to talk about measuring the quality of peanuts in America. Well, education actually.
If students were peanuts, quality of education would be a lot easier to measure.  The 1938 Food Drug and Cosmetic Act established Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), standardized testing procedures to assess the quality of manufactured products.
Bizarre as it might seem, a peanut has far more well-defined quality metrics than a student.
Of course, it’s easier to measure quality of a peanut because one can clearly define what one expects from a peanut.
Students are a bit more dimensional, although I have in fact met a few who are chunky and some others who are rather smooth.
Let’s shelve peanuts for a moment and look at what constitutes a “high quality” of education.
To start, how does one define quality of education? What educational attributes induce students to learn? How should one evaluate the effectiveness a curriculum? Should teachers be appraised by the successes or failures of their students?
And what exactly is it that we expect from education?
When we speak of an educated person, there’s an implied value judgment applauding the person’s “worth” to society. Consequently, the quality of education is often construed to equate to the quality of, well, one’s quality.
So which promotes a higher sense of learning, intersubjective metacognition or multi-sensory reflective inferences?
Frankly, I’m not sure I would be able to recognize either if I bumped into them in a well-lit, educated alley.
Quality of education? One third of high school students do not graduate. Of those graduating, over 20 percent entering four-year colleges and 50 percent entering two-year colleges require remedial coursework.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report ranks the United States 14th out of 34 developed countries for reading skills, 17th for science, and 25th for mathematics.
So you tell me, does this sound like quality education?
Consider the peanut.  If a manufacturer produces bad peanut butter, is the factory at fault or was he given bad peanuts?
It’s easy to assign blame.
Clearly, high schools are not doing well because middle schools produce poor quality students. And this is of course due to elementary schools not doing a good job.
Let’s face it. The entire problem is due to ineffective nursery schools!
As for the cost of education, well we’re not talking peanuts here.
On average, our government spends about $10,600 per student per year.
Tea drinkers balk and claim that the figure is much higher, and pompous halfwits from Canada insist that teachers are grossly overpaid and that we should be spending less on education and more on particle physics research.
Whatever your take on education, money is neither the problem nor the solution.
Knowledge doesn’t trickle down from more educated people any faster than jobs trickle down from tax-free billionaires.
No pun intended, but the problem requires a far more educated solution.
Even with strict quality controls, bad peanuts do end up on supermarket shelves. Last month, an outbreak of salmonella from a New Mexico food company forced the recall of peanut products.
But two-legged peanuts…um, I mean students…cannot be recalled when found to be damaged products of the educational system.  Once “released onto the market,” you get what you get.
Nelson Mandela remarked, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Sadly, our nation seems more interested in funding weapons that explode rather than weapons that can think.
Truth be told, I’m not smart enough to know what the answer is. I’m not even sure I can sufficiently articulate the problem. But I do know that it’s a war, a war we have to win, and that teachers are fighting on the front lines.
Studying nucleon spin structure is all very fine in an educated world. But perhaps we should consider educating our world first?  
Maybe, just maybe, quality education should in fact be a real priority, not a political football?

John Pawlak
Los Alamos