Friday, June 5, 2009

Education: good experiments, and bad ones

In some US states, upwards of 50% of the education budget goes towards administrative costs. It's analogous to the US military where most of the budget gets spent on management, staff, and technology that goes nowhere near the frontline of any conflict.

Most would agree that in education, it is ultimately teachers who win the battles.

That's why I thought a story in today's NY Times so interesting. A new charter school will open in DC. It is to be publicity funded, but will allocate budgetary funds that usually go toward technology, administration, and support staff, toward paying teachers much higher salaries.

I have one criticism of the plan for the charter school: instead of making the teachers of the new school work extra hours -- doing the work of displaced support staff -- I think they ought to try getting the students actively involved with the operation of the school.

In many Japanese schools, for example, students are expected to take time out to help with the cleaning of classrooms and grounds keeping. Not that many aspects of the Japanese system ought to be imitated by other countries (the examination system being one of the worst aspects of it).

The Japanese education reforms of the Nineteenth Century were a big experiment that went terribly wrong. One thing I like about the US charter school model is makes it possible to attempt significant innovations on a small scale. If the changes are shown to work, they can then be duplicated state-wide or nationally.

The above photo is entitled, "The school life of young Japan." One reason I like it -- I recently bought the photo at a flee market -- is that the students are wearing kimonos, suggesting that the photo would likely have been taken prior to the establishment of the modern Japanese education ministry (monbusho) -- one of many major reforms that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

After this time, Japanese education was modeled after Prussian military training. In fact, even to this day in Japan, schoolboys wear uniforms similar to those worn by Prussian soldiers back in the 1800s.

So the photo probably heralds back to a time before independently operated Japanese schools had been displaced by the contemporary, factory model of education; before Japan embarked on a large-scale educational experiment that facilitated the country's disastrous militarization, and continues to stifle the creativity of its people.

When it comes to education, there are good experiments, and bad ones.

1 comment:

  1. I agree.

    Long ago as an enlisted man in Korea I spent many off-duty hours coaching (we called it "teaching" but the faculty already did that) English conversation. In 1966 the country was too poor to provide education for all, so by the time they got to high school students had already passed two entrance exams.

    My kids were very smart, very motivated and could be role models for good students anywhere. I remember them doing exactly as you described, taking personal care of their school. My classes were on the weekends when school was officially not in session, but on occasion I went there during the week.

    One visit sticks in my memory because all the students were attired in aprons and head scarfs (this was a girl's high school... no high schools were coed as far as I know) with their simple uniforms. They reminded me of a colony of ants swarming all over the place, dusting, washing, cleaning windows, everything. Brooms, mops and cleaning rags were everywhere. And they laughed and smiled as they worked, clearly taking great pride in their school and what they were doing.

    That was over forty years ago and we see now how ROK became one of the Asian Tigers. I'm certain the education system was foundational to that spectacular success.


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