Saturday, 3 September 2011

Why our educational system is in decline, and how to fix it.

(written for Britain, but applicable to many other places too, I don't doubt)

There are schools, exam boards, and a government.

The schools make money by parents sending their children there, so they want their exams to be easy so the kids score more highly so parents will send their kids there.

The exam boards make money by the schools subscribing to their exams rather than those of a rival exam board. So the exam boards want their exams to be easy so that schools will choose their exams so that parents will choose their school on account of the high grades.

The government makes money by being in a position of power to levy taxes and pay themselves handsomely, so they want the exams to be easy so that kids score highly so they (just like the schools and exam boards) can happily proclaim, each year, that the exam results are the best ever, in the hopes that they are seen to be improving education, or at least, keeping up with what the previous party did.

Consequently, the government strives to allow the exam boards to make the exams as easy as possible. The exam boards strive to make their exams the easiest, while still fulfilling the national curriculum requirements set out by the government. The schools strive to choose the easiest exam board, and focus on teaching only what will be asked in the exam.

Consequently, each year, the exams get easier (and, to compound it, the grade boundaries lower), so kids finish school with less knowledge and more "A" grades than their forebears of the previous year.

Now, not only do they have ignorance, but also the illusion of knowledge. Not even just the illusion of knowledge, but the illusion of superiority, since after all, they got "the best grades ever". Their parents were proud to scrape a handful of Cs, and there they are with an armful of A* grades!

What makes this worse? Same is true of very many university courses; that, and also how universities market themselves around being fun and cool, since it is the kids making the decisions and not the parents.

I strongly suspected this while going through school / university, but had it completely confirmed while later doing some work for an exam board.

Moral of the story? Education was better when it was either State-led or privately sourced. One cannot usefully nationalise the curriculum without nationalising the provision of education in all its components, or at least taking business competition out of the equation.

Potentially useful options, as I see them:

1) Make the whole thing State-led (if I say "nationalise" you'll call me a Fascist, and if I say "socialise" you'll call me a Communist, so I'll just say "state-led", and you'll at least have to be more creative in your labelling).
2) Make the whole thing private (you could call me a Capitalist for this, I think, though I'm really not)
3) Have the State set the curriculum and standards, let the education be provided privately, but have only one exam board, run by the government, so we cannot have the downwards-cascading "bid to be the easiest".

Of these, I'd most suggest 3), and also suggest to have these qualifications be optional, but encouraged.

Source for image:

1 comment:

  1. You state as a given that the government wants exams to get easier but this isn't the case, there is a relentless pressure from central government and politicians on the system to ensure it's not being seen to be getting easier (although you're right that is the perception of a lot of people, let by the media). You forget that government doesn't just answer to voters, it also answers to the other groups within the education sector and business that don't WANT the education they are delivering to be easier, they want it to be better. Businesses particularly are extremely keen to have highly skilled, highly knowledgeable individuals to pick from, rather than having to simply up the level of qualifications they must demand to know that they are getting a certain degree of intelligence and knowledge.

    As someone who has worked on curriculum policy I can tell you that the agenda from government is absolutely not that exams should be easier to get more higher grades, but that said there has been a large move within the education system since the creation of the national curriculum to the practice of teaching to the test. Teachers I have spoken to are quite keen to tell you how the curriculum can be very limiting in what it sets out must be learnt. I'm not entirely clear the national curriculum has been a good thing in that respect; sure it means that children are better at sucking up and vomiting out what is required of them for an exam, but it works to preclude lateral thinking and holistic learning, which ultimately is what application of knowledge to real life situations is about.

    Of course another element is that the education system is driven by Ministers who frequently have no real experience of education but their own personal one, and for some this forms the basis of what they think should be changed in the system (basically to match what worked for them).

    For example, one of the statements that came out of the oh-so-wise Michael Gove was that history should be taught linearly and sequentiality. This is not a policy matter, this is pedagogy, and Gove is no pedagogue, but because he is in charge of the policy no doubt this kind of thing will appear in the next iteration of the curriculum when it's released.

    Also, you've neglected the fact that the setting of curriculum and exam standards was sufficiently important that an non-departmental public body, the QCDA, was set up to oversee them independent government. If the government (and by that I mean the politicians who are currently in office, civil servants just want to do what works) were that keen for standards to be artificially inflated so as to make themselves look good they wouldn't have done this.

    Finally, there is the matter of what, quite, are education standards? You're right that every year the number of passes/As go up, and the debate around this is always "just how much dumbed down are the tests now?". This falls into the area of what is known as the perception gap - the gap between what happens and what the public think is happening (another good example of this is rates of crime dropping yet fear of crime rising). One of the previous Ministers in the Department for Education when asked "what do rising standards look like" didn't know the answer to the question, his immediate reaction was to say better exam results. But if those go up and yet it is perceived standards of education are going down, what other measure would you use? It's a tricky question.