All motion is not progress. Neither is increased choice. For example, as our independence becomes more boundless, our loneliness grows. Our schools have changed a lot in the last fifty years. They are different, but they are not better. In fact, by many metrics they are far worse. Why?
Is it because they are underfunded? Per capita spending by school districts is not correlated to student outcomes nationally. Sasse discusses the example of Kansas City and how over a twelve year period it became the highest funded school district in the country, spending over $2 billion on 60 new schools with amenities such as Olympic size swimming pools, a robotics lab, a recording and television studio, a planetarium, an arboretum, a zoo, and even a 25 acre wildlife sanctuary. What was the result? There was no real change or improvement. Over the past 30 years there has been a quintupling of federal spending on education that has produced nothing quantifiably better. Inflation-adjusted spending per pupil increased from $440 at the end of the First World War to more than $8,000 at the end of the 20th century, an increase over 1700%. That is an average yearly growth of nearly 6%. Are our schools improving by 6% every year? Our four-year universities, despite having lowered standards for freshman year performance, now place one-third of their incoming students in remedial reading and mathematics courses. In all, about half of incoming college students require some degree of remediation. This is a nice way of saying that half the students that are admitted to college are not qualified to attend.
At the same time our schools began to replace the family and became the center of adolescent life, they also moved away from their traditional role of transmitting and conserving knowledge. John Dewey, our most influential thinker on education, was skeptical of the obsessive need to teach children reading. He called it a “perversion.” Instead, he wanted the school to focus on how it could be an instrument of social progress. As a result of moving away from traditional goals and methods of education our children spend more hours in the classroom than ever before and yet they leave high school for college or the workforce less prepared and less able to cope with the next stage of their lives.
Sasse believes we must have a discussion about the role of the school so that we can tailor our reforms to improve what we can and ought to improve. Schools can’t solve every social problem, so we need to ask: what do we want for our children? Once we answer this question we can decide whether school or another institution is the best way to inculcate a given value or skill. If we want our students to be ready for work, why not internships? If want them to be more civic-minded, why not community service?
It is essential that we think this through because neither our current system nor our attempts to reform our schools are working. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre schools that exist today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. This is true for the rich and poor alike. Our young are indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. Rich and poor alike cannot concentrate on anything for very long and they all have a poor sense of time passed and time to come.
Liberal and Conservative; Republican and Democrat: we all want good schools for our children. But to do this we must first answer the underlying question: what is the purpose of education? Once we answer that we can decide what portion of that purpose can be reasonably accomplished by formalized school. But instead of debating and discussing this issue, we have assumed the school can and should do everything. This approach is empirically not working.
Sasse believes our nation would be served if we had a broad marketplace of schools. We should have family schools, religious schools, entrepreneurial schools, craft schools, and farm schools (Editor’s note: I would Gospel-Centered, University-Model, Classical schools that utilize Charlotte Mason’s thought to promote Joyful Discovery 🙂 These schools, in competition with one another, would raise the level of education and lead to a number of new ideas.
One thing that Ben Sasse strongly opposes is the P-16 initiative. This is the idea that students should routinely go through grade 16; that a college degree should be the new norm. He asks the question: if grade 12 isn’t working why should we pursue grade 13? Instead of admitting that the one-size-fits-all model is extending the period of adolescence rather than producing active learners, we are deciding, without open and honest debate, to invest even more power and authority in the same one-size-fits-all model. Unfortunately, centralized education bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a proof of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. We are still trying to spoon feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, and to work to become the kind of students who ask questions before being handed a three point formulaic answer. Sasse believe we already over-manage the lives of our young adults and the P-16 initiative will only further this trend. In Nebraska, Sasse’s home state, the percentage of graduating seniors enrolling in college has increased by roughly 25% over the last 15 years. This is incredibly encouraging! However, the college graduation rate has remained completely even, as one third of Nebraska’s students drop out without graduating (this is also the national average).
What is more, this increased time in a bureaucratic setting means less family life, less time in the community, and less effort invested in thinking about what coming-of-age work experience could and should look like.
In sum, Sasse worries that it is foolish to invest more time and resources in an education system when we don’t even of a clear idea of what education should produce.