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Monday, April 9, 2012

Should Education Reform be Led by Ph.D.'s?

Unschooling Rules 55: The only sustainable answer to the global education challenge is a diversity of approaches.

There is an article in InsideHigherEd today called To Limit Debt, Promote Savings.  The article suggests that, to reduce the crippling impact of debt on graduates, families should save even more money to pay for ever-more expensive college programs.   This kind of thinking and advocacy, I thought, had to be the result of Ph.D.'s.  Sure enough, both authors were part of that club.

Throughout history, there have been very powerful guilds.  Masons and Swiss Watch Makers are two examples.  They tightly perpetuate, refine, and market a narrow skill set that meets a need, balancing internal quality controls and consistency of members while dealing swiftly with competitive organizations and alternative approaches.

One of the largest and most powerful guilds today is the Academic Ph.D.'s.  People who get their Ph.D.'s, rather than proving and honing a creative intellectualism, instead practice a highly specific skill set, including what input they value, what methodology they use, and what output they produce.

The influence of The Guild is immense:
  • Unbelievably, many foundations that address education reform/evolution have efforts spearheaded by Ph.D.'s.  This partially explains their advice. (See A Story of Research)
  • Committees that accredit colleges and universities are made up of almost all Ph.D.'s, and require many roles in the applicant institution to be filed by Ph.D.'s.
  • When grant-giving organizations, such as The National Science Foundation disperse millions in grants, the committees are almost exclusively made up of Ph.D.'s.
  • The amount of government money, including from the military, contributing towards Ph.D.'s is very, very high, not even including student loans.
Of course, the cost of creating a Ph.D. is both incredibly expensive and also very indirectly funded. The average time to a PhD. degree in the humanities nine years.

However, crack are forming.

Government discretionary spending is going way down.  This includes tuition subsidies on one hand and grants and other projects on the other.
This is more problematic than it seems.  Many Ph.D's exist solely to create more Ph.D.'s.  When demand flattens out (similar to a Ponzi scheme), not only do new Ph.D.'s find themselves without jobs, but so do many Ph.D.'s currently working.

I have my personal anecdotes as well.   I have sat on many workgroups with varying percentages of Ph.D's.  From my own experience, once a group is more than 50% non-hard science academic Ph.D's, the productivity of the group declines precipitously.

For-profit corporations are asking, can they afford the Ph.D. biases?  Can they afford the extra expense bundled into every Ph.D and every project spearheaded by Ph.D's? Is the skill set rigorously developed by the Ph.D. process the right one?
Non-profits and finally government organizations will follow.  The Guild is powerful.  They don't have leaders that have secret handshakes nor hold meetings to coordinate efforts.  But they do gain power, control resources, and strive to grow their numbers.  Their bias and belief in self-worth is (mostly) unquestioned.  They will fight against the perception of their own obsolescence.  And they use a lot of public money to do it.  (See Six Wrong Arguments for Growing School Budgets) And, for comparison, despite their power, Swiss Watch Makers eventually could not compete with the rise of the providers of the more accurate and cheaper quartz technology.

Ultimately, the goal of Unschooling Rules is to ask questions and challenge assumptions to help interject more creativity into a system that has proven difficult to change (and that behaves as if it is on a false peak).  In this case, should education reform, including the decision of which data to collect from, and subsequent analysis of, our current system and creating prescriptions for evolving it, really be led by Ph.D.'s?

See also: If you send your children to school, you are inhibiting schools reform

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