Our Old Educational Models Are Obsolete

Bratwurst, Leica cameras, BMW automobiles, Beck’s beer, and so on—great German imports to the U.S. Few people realize that our educational system was also imported from Germany. Unlike those fine products, however, the 19th century educational concepts we imported from Germany are not working well any more.

That is the big argument that University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds makes in his just-published book The New School. He notes that both our K-12 system and the research university model were brought here by American intellectuals who admired Germany’s regimented approaches to education. The German K-12 system was thought essential to mass education for our rapidly industrializing nation and the German university was felt to be necessary to fostering academic research.

While those models may have had their virtues in the past, they work poorly today. The regimented classrooms for younger students that used to produce students who’d be “useful as future tools” is outmoded and often counter-productive; the traditional college degree bundle is high in cost but low in educational value for many students.

And to make matters worse, both systems have mostly been captured by the people who run them. The interests of the educators and administrators usually trump the interests of students, families, and taxpayers.

Reynolds concentrates the first part of the book on higher education, which he argues is a bubble that’s ready to pop. For the last several decades, the federal government has been pumping up college enrollments with easy grants and loans. That big infusion of money led to steadily rising costs as colleges and universities figured out that the greater the federal support, the greater their budgets.

Hordes of students flooded into colleges, paying ever-higher tuition and fees, with the expectation that the degree they’d eventually earn would pay off in good, lucrative jobs. Until several years ago, most Americans believed that, but now it’s apt to be scoffed at. “Bubbles burst when people catch on,” Reynolds observes and many Americans are catching on to the fact that college degrees can be investments with negative returns.

That is absolutely the case with regard to Reynolds’ own academic post as a law school professor. Up until a few years ago, getting a law degree was generally regarded as a smart move, but the bloom is off that rose. With law schools belching forth graduates (a phrase I first heard from a law professor of mine—back in 1974!) at a rate far in excess of the creation of jobs that call for legal training, enrollments are way down at many schools. Some lower-tier schools may soon enter a “death spiral.” That’s what happens, again, when people catch on.

For the last 30 years or so, lots of young Americans went to college (usually with a parental push) out of fear that not getting a degree would consign them to lives of drudgery. Now, however, that fear is being outweighed by another fear—fear of being trapped in an avalanche of college loan debt and having no job that pays enough to cover the cost.

For that reason, Americans are beginning to look for solid value in exchange for their tuition dollars. And that, in turn, is why Reynolds foresees gale force winds of change blowing through our higher education system. More on that below.

If the cost to benefit ratio in higher education is bad, it’s even worse in our primary and secondary systems. For example, Reynolds notes that in Wisconsin, despite a big increase in government spending from 1998 to 2009, there was no improvement in reading scores and only a third of 8th graders reached the “proficient” level in reading.

There’s a connection between poor results in K-12 and higher education, namely that the teachers who don’t go well at teaching youngsters to read were trained in our low-standards, fad-prone schools of education. The book would have been stronger if Reynolds had made that connection.

Our public schools are prone to wasting students’ time. Reynolds writes about his daughter’s experience: “At the end of eight hours in school, she concluded, she had spent about 2 ½ hours on actual learning. The rest was absorbed by things like DARE lectures, pep rallies, and other nonacademic activities.” Instead of continuing to waste her time in public school, she enrolled in a Kaplan online college-prep program.

Among other differences in quality was this: in public school, science classes devoted much time to the personal problems the scientists faced, while the Kaplan courses focused on their great experiments. That’s indicative of the way “warm and fuzzy” education-lite teaching favored by most of the education establishment crowds out rigorous, intellectually demanding work. (Another book confirming that disturbing trend is Sol Stern’s Breaking Free.)

Particularly arresting is Reynolds’ discussion about the way our K-12 system keeps young people from growing up. In the 19th century, young people did go to school, but they also did a lot of work. “They got status and recognition,” he writes, “from doing things well, and they got shame and disapproval for doing them badly.”

Then along came our Prussian-style school system and “once they were segregated by age in public schools, teens looked to their peers for status and recognition instead of to society at large.” So we can trace not only the low academic ability we find in many young Americans to our schooling system, but also a lot of the social trouble that is caused by feral teenagers.  Reynolds approvingly quotes psychologist Robert Epstein, who has written, “It’s likely that the turmoil we see among teens is an unintended result of the artificial extension of childhood.”

Right, and going on to college often extends it by four years more.

What is apt to happen? Reynolds foresees an implosion in traditional K-12 as parents increasingly opt out of the “free” system with its low standards and into a host of alternatives that do a much better job. We probably won’t replace our monolithic public education system with another monolith, but instead “with a whole lot of different things, a variety of approaches tailored to children’s (and parents’) needs, wants, and pocketbooks.”

Homeschooling, Khan Academy, Montessori schools, and so on—let a thousand flowers bloom.

With regard to higher education, Reynolds thinks we will see shrinkage (not enough students enrolling to keep some from folding), reconfiguration (students shifting toward low-cost institutions such as community colleges), substitution (young people for whom college was more of an experience than an education will find less costly ways to get the peer-bonding they want), exit (as having a college degree fades in importance, more people will forego the quest for one), and new models (we’re in the age of information and it’s very likely that innovators will come up with new educational modes).

And when you think about education, why should there be bright lines between primary and secondary and higher? Reynolds believes that those lines (again, artifacts of our 19th century infatuation with German order and efficiency) will blur or vanish. Rather than being given the decreed education at specific times, like a car moving along an assembly line, in the future people will mostly be in charge of customizing their own education.

Reynolds’ ideas dovetail with those of other educational visionaries. The one who comes most to mind is Dale Stephens, who suggests that Americans should forget about formal schooling and instead “hack” their educations: piece it together yourself from all of the vast resources now available at little or no cost.

Thus, the “new school” is not going to be particular places with curricula and professors and so forth, but instead the entire wide-open world of knowledge.