Education reform is the process of improving public education. Small improvements in education have large social returns, in health, wealth and well-being.
For example, in Kerala India, womens' health was substantially improved when female literacy rates improved in the 1950s. Literacy makes large amounts of health information available. In Iran, primary education in the countryside increased farming efficiencies and income. Farmers gained reliable access to national crop prices and scientific farming information.
At the current time, in the U.S., public attention focuses on the high expense and poor outcomes of U.S. primary and secondary schools, relative to their counterparts in other countries. The U.S. however, has the best tertiary (university-level) education system in the world. Important contributing factors to this excellence seem to be that it admits on tested merit, is supported by a large base of paying students (and thus can afford the best teachers and researchers), and has nearly perfect student choice (so that poor institutions lose funding).
In Japan and Europe, primary education is excellent. This is thought to occur by continuous improvement of the programs of rigidly-controlled centralized state-run schools. However much dissatisfaction focuses on the lack of tertiary education for moderately gifted persons and "late bloomers." In these societies, higher education is state-paid, and only available to the small fraction of students that, in the U.S., would qualify for full scholarships. Also, tertiary education in these nations, while good, is often less good than U.S. standards.
In the U.S., the political conflict over primary and secondary education has two positions. One position wishes to remake U.S. education in the image of the European and Japanese, with central standards and control. The other position wishes to emulate the success of the U.S.'s tertiary education by extending vouchers (already tested in the form of the G.I. bill) to primary and secondary education.
Vouchers seems more consistent with U.S. culture, but distrust of the free market remains strong in the U.S. educational elite, who consistently oppose vouchers, or parental choice in education. The opposition has been led and funded by teacher's unions, whose membership might decline if teachers could open schools and cash vouchers.
A discussion of current reforms in other countries would be valuable.
Education reform has a long history. Let's start with a description of Classical Education, the system originally targeted by most reforms. Classical education is now rare in many countries. It itself might contribute improvements to modern education.
Classically, primary education teaches students how to learn. Secondary education then teaches a conceptual framework that can hold all human knowledge (history), and then fills in basic facts and practices of the major skills (perhaps in a simplified form) of every major human activity. Tertiary education then prepares a person to pursue an educated profession, such as law, theology, medicine or science.
Primary education was classically called the "trivium", and teaches grammar, logic and rhetoric.
Classically, grammar consists of language skills such as reading. An important goal of grammar is to acquire and many words and concepts as possible. Very young students can learn these by rote.
Young adults can learn logic, the art of correct reasoning. Modern logical systems are remarkably easier to learn than classical logic.
Classically, rhetoric and composition (which is just written Rhetoric) are taught to somewhat older students, who then have the concepts and logic to criticize their own work, and persuade others. The only known way of teaching Logic and Rhetoric is the Socratic method, in which the teacher raise questions, and the class discusses them.
Secondary education, classically the "quadrivium" or "four ways," taught "astronomy, arithmetic, music and architecture." In modern terms, these fields might be called natural science, accounting and business, fine arts (at least two, one to amuse companions, and another to decorate one's domicile), and military strategy and tactics, engineering, agronomy, and architecture.
In a perfect classical education, the historical study of each field is repeated three times: first to learn the grammar (the concepts and design techniques in the order developed), next time the logic (how these elements could be assembled), and finally the rhetoric, how to produce good objects based on the grammar and logic of the field.
By the time a student has completed a project in each major field of human effort, they often have an excellent idea of what type of profession they would like to pursue.
In a classical education, history is the unifying conceptual framework, because history is the study of everything that has occurred before the present. A skillful classical teacher also uses the historical context to show how each stage of development naturally poses questions and then how advances answer them, helping to understand human motives and activity in each field. The question-answer approach is called the "dialectic method," and permits history to be taught Socratically as well.
The socratic method is the only known technique to teach people to think correctly and critically for themselves. In-class discussion and critiques are essential in order for students to recognize and internalize critical thinking techniques.
A classically educated person is intensely skilled, highly disciplined, broadly educated, and if taught Socratically, an amazingly supple and accurate logician and Rhetorician.
Accurate information about classical education is difficult to find. People took it for granted for generations, and then within one generation, it was replaced by Progressivism. The best available information is "The well-trained mind, classical education at home," by Jessie Wise and Susan Bauer.
Reforms of classical education
Classical education has weaknesses that inspired reformers.
Classical education is most concerned with answering the "who, what, when, where" and "how" questions that concern a majority of students. Unless carefully taught, group instruction naturally neglects the theoretical "why" and "which" questions that strongly concern a minority of students.
Young children with short attention spans often enjoy repetition, but only if the subject is changed every few minutes. Skilled, compassionate primary classical teachers (always a rare breed, now nearly nonexistent) have always changed subjects continually and rapidly. Unskilled, or unkind classical teachers have drilled the joy of learning right out of young heads. For more information, read "Marva Collins' Way" by Marva Collins, a gifted teacher.
Some people can regurgitate words and yet never understand what they mean in the real world. This was terribly common among classically educated scholars.
Classical education can also be expensive, difficult and boring.
Reforms have taken three tracks.
One is to reduce the expense of a classical education. Ideally, classical education is undertaken with a highly-educated full-time (extremely expensive) personal tutor.
Another track of reform attempts to develop the same results as a classical education with less effort, by concentrating on neglected "why" and "which" questions, which theoretically can compress large amounts of facts into relatively few principles.
Another track focuses on bringing educational topics into a concrete focus. In these reforms, book-learning is deemphasized in favor of real-world experience. A rather insulting sub-text of many such reformers is to imply that average persons cannot profit from theory, or information irrelevant to their every-day tasks.
The low cost reforms were pioneered by Protestant church schools in Europe and the New world. These compassionately tried to develop the most valuable education for the least cost. When these suceeded, governments and the Roman Catholic church rapidly developed similar programs and implemented them on a huge scale, world-wide.
The basic program was to develop "grammar" schools. These teach only the grammar phase of the trivium, and bookkeeping. This permits people to start businesses to make money, and gives them the skills to continue their education inexpensively from books.
If a society plans to educate its populace to the highest standards using grammar schools, it needs a system of free lending libraries. Libraries allow adults to complete their educations. Free lending libraries are conspicuously absent in most countries other than the U.S. Ideally such a system would be supplemented with debate societies, so people can learn critical thinking and logic.
The ultimate development of the grammar school was by John Lancaster, who started as an impoverished Quaker in early 19th century London. Lancaster used slightly more-advanced students to teach less-advanced students, achieving student-teacher ratios as small as 2, while educating more than a thousand students per adult. Lancaster promoted his system in a series of pamphlets that spread widely throughout the English-speaking world.
Discipline and labor in a Lancaster school were provided by an economic system. Scrip, a form of money meaningless outside the school, was created at a fixed exchange rate from a student's tuition. Every job of the school was bid-for by students in scrip. The highest bid won. The jobs permitted students to collect scrip from other students for services rendered. However, -any- student tutor could auction positions in his or her classes. Besides tutoring, students could use script to buy food, school supplies, books, and childish luxuries in a school store. The adult supervisors were paid from the bids on jobs.
With fully developed internal economies, Lancaster schools provided a frighteningly (this used advisedly) good grammar-school education for a cost per student near $40 per year in 1999 U.S. dollars. The students were very clever at reducing their costs, and once invented, improvements were widely adopted in a school. For example, Lancaster students, motivated to save scrip, ultimately rented individual pages of textbooks from the school library, and read them in groups around music stands to reduce textbook costs. Exchanges of tutoring, and using receipts from "down tutoring" to pay for "up tutoring" were commonplace.
Established educational elites found Lancaster schools so threatening that most English-speaking countries developed mandatory publicly paid education explicitly to keep public education in "responsible" hands.
Lancaster schools have obvious application to impoverished societies. Lancaster, though motivated by charity, claimed in his pamphlets to be surprised to find that he lived well on the income of his school, even while the low costs made it available to the poorest street-children.
Teaching principles rather than facts.
Another reform track tried to develop educational systems based on teaching principles, rather than rote learning. The earliest advocates were Rousseau, and the early encyclopedists. The program failed because principles need to be illustrated. However, encyclopedias remain valuable, and explanations concerning "why" and "which" became common in educational curricula.
Teaching by experience 'Progressivism
To provide examples of the principles, the next swig of reform attempted to teach things of fundamental physical importance first. Usually, this meant farming, literally from the ground up, combined with ethical education from first principles. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's book on this is "Emile." H. D. Thoreau's "Walden" and reform essays in the mid-19th century were influential also (see the anthology "Uncommon Learning: Henry David Thoreau on Education," Boston, 1999). For a look at Transcendentalist life, read Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." Her father, Bronson Alcott, a close friend of Thoreau's, pioneered progressive education for young people as early as the 1830s. (See Laurie James, "Outrageous Questions: Legacy of Bronson Alcott and America's One-Room Schools," New York, 1994.)
The transcendental education movement failed, because only the most gifted students ever equaled the skills of their classically-educated teachers. These students would, of course, succeed in any educational regime. Accounts seem to indicate that the students were happy, but often pursued classical education later in life. That is, transcendental education failed but students weren't harmed.
Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor educated in Rome, best realized the ideals of the transcendental movement. She tried to provide for the needs of children at each stage of their development, by carefully observing and meeting the needs of the actual children. In another view, she provided rewarding activities to lure children to practice skills on their own, as soon as they were able. Her books include "The Montessori Method" (1912) and "The Advanced Montessori Method" (1917). Unlike many successful educators, M. Montessori successfully taught others to emulate her methods, which are now widely available.
John Dewey, a philosopher and educator, influenced most modern education. An important member of the American "pragmatist" movement, he believed that a person's intellect would grow by acquiring experience. People would thereby analyze new situations and synthesize more inclusive and accurate understandings of the real world. These would let a person reconstruct a complete story about a situation from fragmentary information. In this way, educated people would respond more accurately to real-world situations and better achieve their goals.
Dewey criticized the rigidity and volume of classical education, and the emotional idealizations of transcendental education. He presented his educational theories as the science-based synthesis of the two views. His slogan was that schools should encourage children to "Learn by doing." He wanted people to realize that children are naturally active and curious. Dewey's understanding of logic is best presented in his "Logic, the Theory of Inquiry" (1938). His educational theories were presented in "My Pedagogic Creed," "The School and Society," "The Child and Curriculum," and (if you read just one, read this one) "Democracy and Education" (1916). It might be instructive to note that Dewey left the University of Chicago in 1904 over issues relating to the Dewey School. After this, he taught at Columbia's Teacher's College.
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who studied people's developmental stages. He showed by replicated experiments that most young children do not analyze or synthesize as Dewey expected. This means that Dewey's reforms are inapplicable to the primary education of young children.
Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers developed a psychological test that reliably identifies sixteen distinct human temperaments, building on work by Jung. A wide class of temperaments (half by category, 60% of the general population) prefer sensory modalities to intuitive modalities.
In terms of education, this means that most people prefer to learn answers to concrete "Who, what, when, where," and "how" questions, rather than theoretical "which" and "why" questions.
Preference in this case means that most people do not use non-concrete information. This means that 60% of the target population only use, and therefore want to learn, facts, not principles.
This information was confirmed (on another research track) by Jean Piaget, who discovered that nearly 60% of adults never habitually use what he called "formal operational reasoning," a term for the development and use of theories and explicit logic.
That is, Dewey schools, or -any- schools that teach -principles- will fail to educate 60% of the general population.
Dewyism has failed in primary education in the U.S.
The above research and history may indicate how innovators might correct programs.
First, anything that more precisely meets the needs of the child will work better. This is the great lesson from M. Montessori.
The teaching method must be teachable! This is a lesson from both Montessori and Dewey. The transcendentalists failed here.
It might be wise to base programs on classical education, which reliably teaches valuable skills to the majority of Myers-Briggs temperaments, by teaching facts.
Programs that test individual learning, and teach to mastery of a subject have been proven by the state of Kentucky to be far more effective than group instruction with compromise schedules.
Schools with limited resources can use a grammar-school-only approach, using students as teachers. If the culture supports it, perhaps the economic discipline of the Lancaster school can reduce costs even further. However, much of the success of Lancaster's "school economy" was that the children were natives of an intensely mercantile culture.
In order to be effective, classroom instruction needs to change subjects at times near a typical student's attention span, which can be as frequently as every two minutes for young children. This is one of the tricks that seems to help Marva Collins teach. The other is a genuine love of students-- which must be selected-for, not trained.
The Myers-Briggs temperaments fall into four broad categories, each sufficiently different to justify completely different educational theories. It might be socially profitable to test and target these temperaments with special curricula.
Some of the Myers-Briggs temperaments are known to despise educational material that lacks theory. Therefore, effective curricula needs to raise and answer "which" and "why" questions, to teach students with "intuitive" (Myers-Briggs) modalities.
Philosophers identify independent, logical reasoning as a precondition to most western science, engineering, economic and political theory. Therefore, every educational program that desires to improve students' outcomes in political, health and economic behavior should include a Socratically-taught set of classes to teach logic and critical thinking.
Another valuable reform is to permit students to test out of classes. This saves resources, increases motivation, directs individual study, and reduces boredom and disciplinary problems.
To support inexpensive continuing adult education a community needs a free public library. It can start modestly as shelves in an attended shop or government building, with donated books. Attendents are essential to protect the books from vandalism. Adult education repays itself many times over by providing direct opportunity to adults. Free libraries are also powerful resources for schools and businesses.
See also educational philosophies.