Tue Feb 4th, 2014 at 10:06:37 PM EST
I was originally going to post this as a comment over on ARGeezer's "Does the US even have a viable Plan A for HS education?", but it got really long, so I figured I'd better do a diary.
No, the US does not have a Plan A. My parents are retired teachers, and I've taught at all levels, so I have some idea.
Once upon a time, the US education system had two, distinct parts: college prep and work prep. College prep was for the upper class, to train the next generation of executives and professionals. Work prep was to ensure that everyone else had a basic literacy, but was designed to keep the masses in their blue collar stations. In spite of all the noise one now hears about 1905 8th grade completion exams, mass education was largely memorization with such computational skills as were thought needed for blue collar jobs, and class work was strictly focused to these ends.
Then came the post-WWII world. The US decided to open up the white collar world and use the schools to do it. Along with this came a breakdown of the consensus on what the curriculum should be. The days of memorizing a few tame poems and the history class catechism were over. The simple education had also been simplistic, and its death should have been a good thing.
But two things went seriously wrong. First, what had originally been a plan to give blue collar families the means to become white collar turned into destroy the blue collar economy. Suddenly, we wanted everyone to be white collar. First, we destroyed the farms, then we destroyed skilled labor, and then we destroyed unskilled (Yes, we went after skilled before unskilled, because we simply stopped training anyone. We were critically short of machinists a generation ago, and it's far worse now. Even if we wanted to rebuild manufacturing, we don't have the skilled trades to do it.).
Second, we did not replace the old curriculum. There was simply no agreement on what should be taught, so no new, coherent core developed. Everything proceeded ad hoc, with predictable results.
Then about 50 years ago came the coup de grace. The math people had a pretty good grasp of what to teach; the issue was how. Then, from the bowels of the schools of education, came New Math. These geniuses had decided that students should learn method before mechanics, "how" before "what." I remember my mom bringing home the new text book and asking me what I thought of it. I was able to sort it out, but I saw blood and disaster coming, and I was right. My class was the first to get hit at the beginning, and there were only about five of us who could figure it out. We were typical. A 90% failure rate should have been a neon red flag, but these clowns just kept sending us into the Valley of Death. Consequently, we have now raised two generations of math illiterates and are warming up a third.
As math goes, so goes the sciences. In spite of a mountain of scientific achievement, including high profile areas such as space and medicine, too few people had the skills to understand what was going on. Interest in science was superficial at best, and policies followed suit. Indifferent policies are ultimately destructive, and that was first seen in the schools, where there was no funding for labs and supplies, and so students weren't taught how to do science. Couple that with the inevitable product of the US's strong anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, and we were off to Hell in a fast car.
We've been building this disaster for decades. Not only are we not turning it around, but listening to the sanctimonious blather of the likes of Gates of Borg will only maintain the present course and put us on the rocks once and for all.