The Education Disconnect

Dec 9, 2011

Michigan Radio has been sponsoring a set of public forums designed to bring experts on various issues together with the public in an informal, non-threatening way, a series called “Issues and Ale.“ I moderated one earlier this week that focused on education, held at the Wolverine Brewing Company in Ann Arbor. I was doubtful how many people would actually show up. This was on Tuesday night in what is really early winter, with the holidays approaching. To my surprise, however, before the evening was over it was standing room only, with people packing the hall.

Education is a big issue these days, as well it should be. There is more need for education than ever before, if this state is to rebuild a prosperous future. Everyone agrees on that. At the same time, there seems to be less willingness to pay for it, at least on the part of our elected leaders.

There are also a bewildering variety of choices, including a proliferation of charter schools. I’ve often wondered how the average parent can be sure they are making the right choice. So I asked our panel of experts that. To my surprise, they really didn’t seem to get my question. I asked it again, in a slightly different way. Finally, one said, in a tone I thought was almost patronizing, words to the effect that any parent would automatically make finding the best school for their child top priority. Later, however, I heard from members of the audience who, to my surprise, sympathized with me, and were angry with the experts.

Ruth Zweifler of Ann Arbor wrote: “I thought it was most interesting that your panelists didn't or couldn't answer your question about how overworked parents were to research and choose a school.” The policy makers, she added, “didn’t seem to have a hint that everyone wasn’t white, educated and comfortable with the system.”

There were other interesting comments. Allan Whittemore, a retired engineer from Farmington Hills, tutors math at this local high school. He has been thinking a lot about education, and notes that we are spending a lot of resources trying to get students to obtain a passing grade in Algebra 2. He thinks that’s ridiculous. Few jobs require any knowledge of Algebra 2. He thinks it might make more sense to have students take a required course in personal finance, so later “they would be less likely to buy a house that they could not afford.” That makes a great deal of sense to me. But Whittemore said when he has brought this up to the education establishment, including to a member of the state board of education, it is like talking to a stone wall. They have preconceived notions, and that is that.

Another woman present told me that her problem was that there are two groups with two agendas at education discussions like this one. First, there are those concerned with the bureaucracy -- teacher salaries and benefits and so on. Then, there are those who are actually concerned about learning. Too often, she told me, this group’s concerns are drowned out or run over by the bureaucrats. I think all these points are valid, and disturbing. And I think these are all issues we need to talk about much, much more.