THE BLOG
09/07/2010 10:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rather than Race to the Top, We Should Have Started Fixing Education There

The Obama Administration launched a barrage of carrots under Race to the Top, when they should have started with a stick to beat America's Colleges and Universities into reality first.

By their design, the acme of academic achievement in these schools is the production of doctors of arts, letters, and sciences like themselves.

American elementary and secondary education is built with the sole objective of creating an applicant pool for these institutions of "higher" learning that weans out the 3%-7% of the students entering their institutions into the academics that are needed to perpetuate these academic businesses and develop the research power to bring revenue to the school.

Yet the vast majority of students will never find themselves to be one of those rare bright lights of academia. Of those who get into these institutions, most won't even do much with the degree programs that they have taken for four years as an undergraduate.

Many more will get few of the skills that they need to enter the working world at community colleges.

The system is designed to that one purpose of feeding these educational businesses with a handful of intellectual students that perpetuate academia. Along the way through secondary school and the college years, the majority of the students in that pipeline either drop out, or don't learn skills that they can use to employ themselves.

It is hard to earn much as a philosopher these days, and while the knowledge can be applied to law or science or educational careers, it can be better taught to the specifics of those worlds as part of more focused academic tracks than we have now.

Millions of people work in small businesses. There are less than a handful of universities and colleges with small business degrees.

Millions of people work in a skilled trade where the companies have to do most of the specialized training.

The system fails these students, and costs American businesses billions in training that could be done smarter, better, and earlier. It would also help shift the American parenting dynamic from the blind pursuit of a college education as "success" into a search for the proper pathway for their children where "success" is the best life career choice that their kids can achieve, not a BA or BS that's more B.S. than practical life value.

Elementary and secondary education, still operating off of variations of their late 19th century academic origins, discourages the creativity, and the independent thinking skills in the majority of our children to prepare them for a life of working in the pyramidic world of factories and corporations. Sir Ken Robinson has an incredibly funny and eloquent view of this which I share with you here, and strongly suggest you watch.

The problem really starts at the college level though. Historically this kind of primary and secondary academic hoop-jumping has produced generations of clever hoop-jumpers who are adept at playing the game to get the requisite paperwork that opens the door to earning-power in modern world business.

My father was a bright guy, and a neurosurgeon, but he would have been the first to tell you that he actually learned virtually nothing in his elementary, secondary, and college years in spite of all of the As that he received because he simply approached all classes as a certain number of facts which needed to be learned, regurgitated, and forgotten. They were a means to an end.

He is not alone, either. A large number of the students who become top academics are not academic, or intellectual. They learn how to game the system, which is not hard, because our whole elementary and secondary education system outside of the Advanced Placements (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) test proficiency of regurgitation, not the profoundness of our thinking, or really our ability to think and reason well.

Einstein didn't "fail math" as the oft-repeated urban myth says, but he did lock horns with the academics at the Luitpold Gymnasium whose methods did not lead him towards learning anything more than how to be obedient and play the game, which the young Einstein clearly was not of a mind to do.

Max Talmud, a poor Jewish medical student from Poland, probably taught Einstein more at age 10 about learning and intellectual pursuit than he learned in the rest of his secondary education, because he spoke the language of the pure intellectual to a young man who was geared to understanding it and running with the ball.

Few of our schools either teach or reward students who, at an early age, can demonstrate creativity or any shred of synthesis, the ability to put together what is commonly known and rethink it into something new.

We also have no place for all of the students who find themselves on the other side of the Bell curve, those who need to get a good general education but also need direction towards a more useful polytechnic or trade educational track.

This is not to suggest that the "smart" people get into university, and the "stupid" people end up at a trade tech school. MIT is really a polytechnic school.

So why do we have thousands of colleges which cover everything from Arabic studies to Zoology?

Following outdated educational dogma that dates back to the Greeks, and, more importantly, money. The research that those in academia drive forward is bought and paid for with billions of parents' educational dollars from the other 95% of the students who will aspire to much lower degrees of education, and for most of whom they will use little of what they were trained to do in college in the "real world."

Students who fill classrooms and pay usuriously high interest rates for college educational dollars fund the university and college's real end product: Scholarly research and development.

The purpose of the other 95% of students attending most universities and colleges is really to fill college football stadiums, turn them into alumni. It generates a monumental cash flow on the nostalgia of their college days through sports programs like football, and taps alumni for the interest on their student loans, which many schools are now funding these days for a 5-7% return on their admissions, without having to solicit donations.

Before we can fix the secondary and elementary systems, we have to reset the whole post-secondary educational system.

Colleges and universities need to split off their more pure academic enterprises and develop more practical pathways for students to educate themselves for careers.

Real estate, small business, general contracting and construction, culinary, and dozens of other common life disciplines should be available that plug students into the real world with the training and skill sets that give American business an advantage, without months or years of retraining.

College students should be more actively working in the real world every day, as Northeastern University does so well, to ground them in their school work and cause them to do more relevant academic work.

We also need more schools to convert to levels of education that spectrally educate all of our kids in fields that produce real-world humans ready to contribute to society and serve their needs as individuals and members of society better.

After that restructuring, we should go back and fix the mess that elementary and secondary education have become. You can't fix our high schools fully until you have restructured the academia that they feed, because everything from the curriculum to the testing of it have to be changed to point kids better.

There is no reason that most kids cannot be taught much of the broad general humanities, arts and sciences by high school that give them that "well-rounded" education in much the same way that they are taught at the colleges now. The repetition of a lot of education in College is both unnecessary and irrelevant.

Any class for a university-bound 10th grader should be taught in the Advanced Placement format. Politicians want proof of learning? Quit overpaying testing companies to come up with multiple-choice hoops tests and ask kids to actually reason through something.

If you really want to see how badly we're failing, have a kid who got great state test scores but has to take remedial English comp in college show you what their old high school term papers used to look like.

The skills needed for college should be fully in place for everyone entering college, including the critical reasoning skills. The kids who possess the intellect and reason to hit the high academia track can be directed there. For the others who drive towards great paying jobs, they can find vocations, from medicine to law to running a flower shop that fit their interests and passions.

A lot of people work for others, and don't sit in the agora speaking their philosophy of the universe to passers-by for a living. There should also be a polytechnic track, and a technical/vocational track for our young people.

You won't have as many kids dropping out if they have something that they can see is relevant to their lives in hard-cash terms that feed their families and give them the foundations to really start their lives working in their community.

We need to educate our kids as if we actually acted on the reality that we know, that our students possess a wide range of intellectual and social skills, learning styles and aptitudes.

Until we get to a modern educational system, we are continuing to do what we've been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Age: Throwing band-aids on an inefficient, costly, and largely ineffective educational system.

My shiny two.