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Education Today

In the past 200 years the big trend in education has been expansion in the number of people being educated and in the amount of education. While timing varied somewhat throughout the industrializing world, in the US primary education became universal during the 1800's, public high schools became widespread between 1900 and 1950, and college enrollment greatly increased in the 1960's and 70's. In contrast, the Methods of Education and content of education didn't change all that much, other than increasing adoption of industrial-scale techniques, such as the replacement of single-room schools by large buildings with age-segregated classrooms.

While this expansion was clearly influenced by the needs and opportunities of the industrial revolution, national ideology and international comparisons also played a big role. The universal primary education and the research university model adopted by the US during the 1800's was largely based on German practices. See History of Education in the United States.

It is very important to keep in mind this rapid expansion of the educational system. Two major consequences:

  • The system is nowhere near equilibrium. A series of demographic and economic shocks from the larger economy worked their way through the school system, creating changes, but never really giving any “new normal” time to get established. This change largely makes meaningless any claims that education is worse than it used to be.
  • Because existing educational practices were developed to teach pre-modern cultural elites, it is likely that there has not yet been sufficient time to optimize education for modern needs.

The US Today

Is the system working?

21st century skills

  • Most US students fail to achieve standards for proficiency in English and math, worse with minorities.
  • Not a decline, and school-age US literacy is average for developed countries (math, science below international averages)
  • Heavy emphasis beginning in the 90's on bringing up the performance of the worst. Significant improvements in math, literacy improvements limited to the very worst.
  • Ethnic gaps have decreased, but SES gap has increased. Correlation between student performance, income and parental education and parental skills has increased. (Increasing heritability?)
  • Evidence that literacy has been pushed down to earlier age, without improvement at high school graduation. Possibly because poor students lack general knowledge, or maybe they just hit their limit.

Family income has become more correlated over time with parental education levels, parents’ own cognitive skills, family structure, and neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics.

(read pdf)

The Future of Education

  • At the primary and secondary levels, is plausible that increasing use of educational software and online lessons will reduce the need for teachers to serve as primary information sources (by lecturing) and evaluators (by grading). While the simplest way to exploit this increase in productivity would be to lay off teachers, it could also free teachers up to do more difficult things that are currently considered impractical, such as individualizing curriculum.
  • In higher education, free online courses MOOCs split actual education off from the current sorting and credentialing processes. This could de-legitimize higher education by making clear the degree to which its social foundation rests on something other improving students minds. While in itself this could easily be brushed off by the social consensus of the value of higher education, profoundly cheaper alternatives could lead people to change their minds.
  • Employers increasingly demand specific certifications. A certification without a degree may come to be acceptable.
  • Data analytics shows promise of rationalizing employee selection in some areas, giving better employees for less money. If education has been modestly successful up to now in sorting out good employees, that may have been sufficient reason to perpetuate it, but an even slightly more effective method that is less expensive could displace it.
  • Some primary/secondary reformers argue we should be teaching a different curriculum based on critical thinking, group work, and other “21'st century skills.” Even given that such skills need to be taught in the context of some sort of content (history, science, etc.), this couldn't realistically be done without eliminating parts of the U.S. curriculum, which is already criticized as being “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
  • Though recent U.S. educational trends are in the opposite direction, the child-oriented approach of early modern education reform isn't dead, and might return to prominence.
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analysis/social/education/modern.txt · Last modified: 2013/12/25 16:51 by ram