A few days ago, several of us got together for wine and cheese tasting and we decided to hang out afterwards. There was a teacher, a surgeon, a pediatrician, and an MD/PhD in training. Much of the evening was wrapped in very heated debate, from gun control, to "Obamacare," and to education.
At the heart of the debate is a difference in philosophy, not dissimilar to democrats vs republicans. It is no secret that education in the US is in need of an update. The question is, how to best remake the education system in the US?
On one side is the surgeon, utilizing a surgeon's thinking. The argument: We should focus our resources on those who can best utilize them and elevate those students to their maximum potential, and not "waste" resources on the students at the bottom who cannot demonstrate improvement. Society should strive to equip the best and brightest with the means to achieve what they're meant to. This makes sense in a surgeon's mind, as a surgeon must be able to triage which patients are suitable for surgery and which aren't.
On the other side is the teacher and (peripherally) the pediatrician. The argument: We provide all students the necessary resources to succeed - for the bottom of the class to reach the middle, and for the best and brightest to soar. Every child in society deserves a fair shot at an education, with resources devoted to the struggling as well as to the gifted.
The problem with the first argument is that it is in danger of creating a tiered caste society, only widening the achievement gap into a chasm. The problem with the second argument is that there simply aren't enough resources or political will to make it a reality everywhere.
My personal issue with the first argument is that I believe that all children deserve a fair shot, not just some. And yes, some children need more help and resources to achieve, but it is possible. I have seen it. I have worked with a charter school that - rather takes the best of the best students - takes the worst students in public schools and demonstrates that they can at least achieve to the middle. These are students who dropped out of school due to LGBTQ bullying, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, mild mental health issues, etc. Given the right learning environment, they are not hopeless.
On a more personal note, I have a good friend growing up who went to the same schools as me for most of our K-12 lives. I was almost always in the honors/AP courses. He was barely scraping by in the regular courses. His educational experience was vastly different than mine. My teachers expected us to push hard and succeed. His teachers treated him as though he could not achieve and would never amount to anything much more, that learning wasn't as important for him. This negatively impacted him until he had a moment where he was determined to change his fate. He transitioned from a 2-year college to a 4-year state university, and from there got a good stable job helping others in bad social situations. He was able to succeed. Is he the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? No. But neither am I.
The reality of the current status in education is neither - currently the system is more and more being set up to "teach to the test," thereby aiming to bring the bottom up but also inadvertently bringing the top down, both meeting in the middle. Critical courses such as creative expression (art, music, theater, etc) and physical activity (gym, recess) are being cut out in order to cram more math and science to satisfy the tests (and I'd argue that science isn't even being taught properly on the whole). Current education is trending towards mediocrity as more tests are implemented to demonstrate achievement and teachers are being paid for performance (an oversimplification and generalization, but I'm not in education so this is just what I hear).
I don't know the answer to "fixing" the system, just as I don't know the answer to fixing healthcare. Obamacare is one answer, but I'm not convinced it's the best or final answer. The alternatives aren't much better though. What I do know is that the answer depends on the philosophy we choose to take, both on a personal level and as a society. Are only some worthy of the resources? Do everyone get the exact same resources? Or is the answer more nuanced? I don't know but I do know that the answer is a difference in philosophy.