In politics, a gaffe is defined as accidentally telling the truth. Obama made what I consider to be a jaw-dropping gaffe last night in his acceptance speech in Charlotte last night. He said, "Education... is the gateway to a middle-class life."
This is a true statement. The goal of education, as currently structured, is to be a gateway to a middle-class life. However, there are at least three problems that we as citizens should be rightfully concerned.
1. What if you are already middle-class? Education becomes a static holding pattern. What if you are upper-middle class? Education, then, will bring you down to average by design.
2. The success rate, even at this goal of transferring lower-class to middle-class, is pretty bad. Individual tales of success sound great, but the average is terrible. In part, this is because very few high schoolers aspire to middle class.
3. The middle-class is currently not doing that well. Specifically, many traditional middle-class jobs and career paths - the kind prepared for by most school programs - are going away. Which mean, for many people, education is the real bridge to nowhere. Middle class isn't even the path to middle class anymore.
I appreciate, if you are a national leader, there are two facts that are driving your investments.
First, poor kids who go to college are more likely to become productive members of society than poor kids who do not.
Second, the country needs more technological know-how. Obama said, and I agree, "No company should have to look for workers in China because they couldn't find any with the right skills here at home." We badly need (a relatively few) more engineers and scientists.
However, most families are neither extremely wealthy nor extremely poor, and most children won't be great scientists, nor are they in the top 5% of their class. It is to these great swaths of people - students and their families - that school feels like a disconnected activity, designed for someone else, and an experiment on auto-pilot. That is why there are over 2 million homeschoolers today, and that number is growing.
The biggest issue is that no politician that I have heard has a vision for education that is inclusive of more than 30% of our population. On both sides of the aisle, useless metrics such as "percentage of students who go to college" are used as if they matter. (See In Education, Right and Wrong Questions).
In the absence of leadership on both sides, I would like to suggest three planks to my vision for education.
I. The goal of education is to help students find their gifts (where they are better than most), find their passions and mission (the challenges they most want to solve), and opportunities and ultimately careers to align the two. Education that is not individualistic is useless.
II. Education requires world-class media. This includes textbooks and tests, but also simulations, social media, and search engines. The quality of most education is hobbled by the quality of the media used. Electronic Arts and Columbia Pictures and Google can spend millions on high quality media. Why can't education?
III. There must never be "the one right way" of education. Monocultures, especially those shaped by the needs of less than 20%, expensively fail. Education must be a rich ecosystem, not a tightrope.
Obama spoke the truth last night. "Education... is the gateway to a middle-class life." But if that continues to be the primary goal, we will continue with our treadmill system that will let down more and more.