I think the best explanation about the problems with education comes from Amartya Sen in a roundabout way. Sen’s most famous idea is that no independent democracy with a free press has ever had a famine, because the government is accountable to and can’t hide mass starvation from the general population. Schools are governed by teachers, principals, educators, curriculum writers, and parents, none of whom is accountable to the students. On the contrary, they all resist accountability by making infantilizing arguments about everyone younger than 25. This allows various factions to support policies that don’t work, because they’ll never be held accountable to them. The best they can do is raise test scores because everyone likes high test scores, but beyond that, they’re stuck. Consider the following:
- Teachers’ unions have a vested interest in giving teachers more power. They support smaller class size because it increases the demand for teachers, and oppose any attempt to impose a uniform curriculum; this despite the fact that in California reducing class size failed and in New York teacher-proof curricula helped (a bit). They and their allies tend to talk of education in almost magical terms, allowing them to claim success and failure arbitrarily rather than by any objective standards.
- Conservative, moderate, and realist educational reformers have a vested interest in pissing the teachers’ unions off. Hence they support giving principals unlimited power, and often even suggest scrapping the tainted public school system, even though students do no better in private or charter schools than in public schools. To them, education is reducible to a short list of factory-like goals. A few of them, like returning to traditional math, work. The rest stink.
- Liberal, socialist, and minority educational reformers believe the entire system is corrupt with tradition and capitalism and authoritarianism, and promote whichever policies sound the most libertarian and leftist: discovery learning, whole language, quotas for female and minority characters in readings. Of all the groups, they tend to produce the most uniformly awful solutions, some of which are throwbacks to the Johnny Can’t Read era.
- Another contingent of liberals and minorities insists American education has no problems whatsoever, if properly funded. These tend to be in bed with the teachers’ unions, as one of their favorite solutions is to increase teachers’ salaries (which are actually slightly above OECD average in the US). Their problem tends to be obsession with input over output. Jonathan Kozol managed to write a whole book about New York’s underfunded public schools, without ever getting around to mentioning that the city’s magnet schools, which have produced Nobel Prize winners and saturate the Ivy League, have per-student expenditures 15-30% below city average.
- Some educational reformers prescribe not an ideology but a method. The book I’m thinking of at the moment is Robert and Ellen Kaplan’s Out of the Labyrinth, a celebration of the Math Circle, where supposedly average 6-year-old children learn high school mathematics using discovery learning. Those reformers tend to be class-A teachers who generalize their personal mode of teaching to the rest of the world, usually with negative consequences. The Kaplans happen to champion a method that has been tried and failed in a regular classroom setting numerous times, but other reformers are not so easy to refute.
- Philosophers, intellectuals, and people who would like to think of themselves as intellectuals want to impose an idealized academic system on everyone else. To them, the solution to an authoritarian educational system is not necessarily discovery learning or more minority authors at the expense of the traditional canon, but rather vague appeals to “Teaching critical thinking” in schools. Explaining what they get wrong is difficult, as they never provide enough details for others to criticize.
- Scientists push for a back-to-basics approach to science, which emphasizes traditional rote learning. This is mostly an overreaction to creationism and to the left’s fuzzy science; however, modern American conservatism is an overreaction to the 1960s and early 70s, which hasn’t stopped it from being dangerous. At one point, PZ Myers of Pharyngula basically endorsed the idea that history classes should test students on memorizing lists of dates.
- Finally, parents usually want the educational system to work the way it did when they were kids. Although their delusions are technically less problematic than most, in fact they’re the most dangerous, because they’re the most prone to believing they know what’s best for the children, and thus are the likeliest to shun the ideas of outsiders. Even the intellectuals and the scientists, the two most arrogant groups in this typology, occasionally listen to others.
Note that I’m not including religious fundamentalists here. This is because they have no views about education except that they’re against it. To use an SAT-like analogy, Dominionism : education :: the left : foreign policy.