The surest thing with regard to the ongoing debate over the role (and, particularly, funding) of education—whether for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or for broader fields—is that government control won’t be questioned. Many of the same people who complain about the total surveillance state unquestioningly hand over their children to state-run institutions. One might countenance a prima facie dismissal of such objections to the current educational system were its methods, and particularly its outcomes, more successful. But those in charge of learning constantly display abject irrationality. So what’s to be done to truly encourage STEM education in the U.S.?
Role of Technology
The extent to which a young person should be familiar with technology if he or she is to be competitive in the job market is debatable. Some might argue that a focus on underlying concepts should precede heavy use of technology (e.g., learning to add and subtract by hand before learning to use a calculator), whereas others might argue that technology makes the need to learn certain concepts or skills obsolete. Perhaps different students simply require different approaches. But does anyone honestly believe that handing out high-tech devices is the cure to education ills?
The Los Angeles Unified School District does, apparently expecting that it will prepare students by “[getting] them ready for the workforce with new technology skills they are not getting at home.” Galen Gruman astutely notes at InfoWorld, “We’ll know we’re smart about this when we stop seeing mainstream stories about how many technology widgets a school deployed and start seeing stories about how the world envies the quality of American-educated kids.” In other words, despite all the past initiatives handing out or otherwise requiring technology as educational tools, the signs indicate that education in the U.S. still stinks—particularly K through 12, although increasingly so at higher levels.
Yes, learning about technology is critical to many jobs, but throwing technology at the problem of education is tantamount to throwing money at it.
Role of Money
Speaking of money, the population of the U.S. currently stands somewhere around 300 million. Roughly, public spending on education at all levels of government is approaching $1 trillion per annum. Assuming about 100 million students at all educational levels, that averages to about $10,000 per year per student. Let’s assume some egregious errors in this data and cut that number in half: $5,000. Assuming many of these students are probably part-timers at best, the actual amount of tax money spent per student per year is borderline grotesque.
The irony is that advocates of STEM education—particularly those who cite the benefits of technology—should recognize the amazing availability of free or nearly free educational information on the Internet. Even paid services are relatively inexpensive compared with the bloated government-controlled education system.
Case in point: I studied physics in college (BS) and electrical engineering in graduate school (MS and PhD), so I know a little about a couple STEM fields (no pun intended). While browsing some related materials on YouTube, I found a series of university-level lectures on electricity and magnetism by an MIT professor. I also found supplementary materials for the entire course available for free through MIT’s OpenCourseWare site. Having received extensive training in the subject, I found this particular course to be stellar in its presentation and focus on fundamental concepts.
Thus, apart from the cost of a book or two (maybe), nothing stands in the way of a student experiencing a high-quality course in one of the difficult subjects at the heart of STEM. Essentially, it’s free. Other topics are likewise covered in a similar manner by other professors from other universities. Imagine, in light of such amazing resources, how far that $5,000 in government spending could go, particularly when that sum isn’t whittled away by bureaucratic expenses.
School as Microcosm of Surveillance State
The broad government surveillance of electronic communications is naturally mimicked in the government education system, from metal detectors to iris scanners to GPS/RFID tracking and more. But it’s worse: the pettiness (“zero-tolerance” policies) and obsession with one-size-fits-all standards also show a complete lack of common sense and even basic critical thinking skills—something that is therefore, and not surprisingly, absent from many students.
The model of extreme top-down control is simply not conducive to the kind of exploration and innovation that is the hallmark of STEM fields. Just as ubiquitous government spying can stifle free speech and even business, it is stifling to students who are constantly under the eye of teachers or bureaucrats rather than free to pursue their interests—and maybe even do something a little mistaken or dangerous, like most of us did once or twice as kids (and learned from).
Unfortunately, K–12 education is unlikely to see reforms anytime soon. It is simply far too convenient a “free” daycare system for parents. Those who are truly interested in education should cease trying to reform a hopelessly flawed system and pursue some of the myriad alternatives. But rather than doing so, far too many simply leave their children in government schools while demanding reforms, which never arrive in any capacity that generates measurable results. And because K–12 education has declined, university-level (and graduate-level) education has declined as well.
So where does STEM fit in? First, advocates of better STEM education should cease calling for more money and new programs in government-controlled schools. What money isn’t devoured by the massive bureaucracy will be either wasted on hollow gestures—like handing out free iPads—or ineffective owing to the inflexibility of the one-hour-per-subject (whether you need it or not) mentality of traditional schools. The alternatives to grossly expensive (and ineffective) government schooling are numerous and should be promoted.
Second, alternative methods of evaluation should be pursued. This may be the area in which the greatest objection could be raised: yes, all this information is out there, but how is a student’s progress and expertise to be measured? As almost anyone who attends university knows, many assignments and exams are reviewed by other students, not the professor. So, even a course with thousands of remote students could still be taught by a single professor, with discussion forums also providing support. Similarly, professional certifications could serve as another means of evaluation.
One thing is certain, however: in the pursuit of educational excellence, we should be loath to leave this important task to the same people who have brought us such paragons of excellence (and integrity) as the Post Office, the DMV and the NSA.
Image courtesy of Charalambos Bratsas