December 7, 2011

Arrogant Ignorance: Are Those Fighting Words?

The president of Arizona State University, Michael Crow, recently gave a fiery speech to a group of area leaders. As head of the nation's largest public research university he is well aware of the problems facing our society and particularly the educational system. In his speech he did not mince his words. Based on how directly he spoke I think we can assume he isn't running for a political office.

Intrigued by some of what he said, I thought several of his comments were worth repeating, with a thought or two of mine added. My thanks to an article by Sonu Munshi in the Arizona Republic for alerting me to his message.

Mr. Crow said, "A collective arrogant ignorance" holds the nation back. He cited the educational system that's not innovative enough, a lack of awareness or even acknowledgment, of global competition, and a lack of long-term vision. He said we, as a country, are resting on our laurels.  "We don't understand ...the development of the rest of the world as competitors. He went on to say " we are the means by which solutions will be derived."

Turning to the educational system, he noted we should be comparing our educational system not with the schools across town, but "with schools internationally." He accused his fellow university presidents of being too focused on the elite students and not thinking of what's best for educating the entire country.

Wow. I wonder what the reaction was in the meeting hall to those thoughts. He pulled no punches in laying blame where he saw it: the lack of appreciation for how the global economy has changed and a certain smugness on our part, the inability of the educational system to stay competitive, and the focus on just the cream of the crop, not everyone who is required to help us compete.

Personally, I believe he has made some extremely important points that more than just 200 people in a conference in suburban Phoenix need to hear and think about. What is your reaction? Is he addressing critical issues that need to be discussed, or is he making things out to be much worse than they actually are? Are we living with our collective heads in the sand about the world changes, or are we positioned to continue to lead the world in innovation and technology?

This post is shorter than normal, but his message speaks volumes. I'd really like your feedback. Let's avoid political shots or name-calling, but otherwise, this is an important issue that can generate both heat and light. The answers we as a society come up with will affect not just those of us striving for a satisfying retirement, but every one of us, regardless of age or status. On this anniversary date of Pearl Harbor it seems appropriate to look at our nation's mindset then, and where we are today. Let's talk about the changes.

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  1. If this were true, then why do our universities have an outpouring of applicants from foreign countries pounding our doors in hope of attending?

    The only problem with American schools are the public schools (such as 1st to 12th grade). Want your children to compete internationally, graduate and earn six figure salaries? Then, send them to private school, preferably Catholic schools (regardless of your creed) and they will get a great education.

    Or better yet, send your kids to any school that is union-free. It's the unions that are killing our education system. Once you get rid of the unions and their liberal agenda, our children will surge internationally.

  2. Morrison,

    Thanks for your comment. I have no information on the union influence on schools or their agenda so I will let others better versed on that subject add their thoughts.

    I certainly agree that, in general, public schools are not training our kids well enough for the world they will be facing. Our country ranks very poorly in math and science scores.

  3. I can't speak in regard to Universities, but I have some thoughts on the public elementary level. I retired in June after 22 years as Library clerk - not a teacher - in an elementary school. I can tell you that when I began, Kindergarteners would come to school wide-eyed and thrilled to be there. Now, 22 years later Kinders come in having already spent years in daycare and PreSchools...many or them are rowdy, demanding, and frankly bored already. They do not have the respect for adults that we used to see. So, I believe our problems start very early. I could make a long list of other problems that I have observed. Some of them are:
    1. Parents need to take more responsibility for their childrens education and behaviors. If kids do not learn self control and discipline at home, how can teachers be expected to? Some parents will eat them alive if they try to impose consequences on their child. Don't let schools be the only place that education happens.
    2. Unions have a stranglehood on our schools. It is impossible to get longer school days and years while they call the shots.
    3. Too much testing, testing, testing....not to make kids smarter but to generate "statistics" to increase funding and get "awards" for their schools.
    4. School funding is an incomprehensible mishmash and should be completely least in Minnesota.
    5. Rewards. No one hands out "rewards" like an elementary school. The last few years at my school the concept of everyone being a winner was overwhelming. Even the kids knew it was overdone. Rewards and positive reinforcement are fine when used sparingly...when overused they lose all meaning.
    6. Over the years it has been noticed by myself and veteran teachers that the caliber of new teachers coming out of college is not what it used to be. The thought being that the colleges have dumbed down the teaching degree. Not sure if that's true..

    So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I agree with Mr. Crow and with Morrison. There is much to be done (and it starts at preschool) if we hope to compete and survive in this world.

  4. JaneO,

    Excellent list of problems and causes. I have three grandkids about to enter the school system and I'm not happy to read what you wrote but it is important to be aware.

    They will be going to Charter schools that are supposed to be much better on the issues you mentioned, but at some point they will probably enter the public system.

  5. This is absolutely true. I would suggest that americans are not "with it" when it comes to the global economy. too many think that we still have the best of everything including technology. There is also the thinking that world wide competition is not necessary. The auto industry is an example, but not the only example. Cell phone technology in europe is far above ours. As far as cars, the year I bought mine, not a single american car was in the top twenty ratings of safety or efficiency or reliability. While I try to avoid chinese goods, I look for the best quality item. That is not necessarily American. My sewing machine and television are german, for example. Not only that, our exports are often if lesser quaity than those of other countries. Western Europe for example, does not import our beef, because they refuse to import meat with hormones. .......and if we start talking about the quality of medical care (not socialized medicine, well, I just should not go there.

    My kids went to public schools and public colleges and both got great educations by the way. I have a niece who is a wondeful teacher. I would sugget the problem there is that when politicians need to cut money, children are the first area they sacrifice.

  6. Barb,

    Arizona is either last, or close to last in funding for education. Every time the wackos in the state legislature want to trim something it is one of two things (or both): education funding and health care for the poor.
    My mom was a teacher for over 35 years and by the end of her life was appalled at the lack of quality in the public schools here.

  7. Bob,

    I recently retired from 35 years as a faculty member in higher education and I have witnessed a disturbing trend.

    When I look at the USA college students of today (and the general public) I observe that we are the most "entertained" and least "informed" people in the developed world. This is a dramatic and alarming change from the level of preparation and competence of the students I encountered early in my career.

    In the words of Neil Postman, the media ecologist, we are busy "amusing ourselves to death."

    The world is busy educating their children with significant breadth and depth. I see the results in the foreign students that come to us for graduate education. Our students avoid challenging math and science courses like a mine field. Many of our entering freshmen need remedial math and writing instruction.

    It is discouraging, but I still remain active in trying to influence public schools to strengthen their curricula.

    I hope we can turn the tide.


  8. RE: Your mother's studied insight about the lack of quality in the public schools ...

    A local high school teacher was famous, in our daughter's mind, for this easy to remember quote, "There are three reasons why I'm a teacher. They are the months of June, July, and August."

    Our daughter is now a teacher


  9. Bob,

    Many points have been made well by previous posters. A few additional thoughts:

    1. Foreign students are immersed are immersed in education each and every day. Our educational system has been taken over by many special interest groups, to the detriment of the students. When my daughter attended public schools the entire school body would have to take time away from classes to hear lectures on alternative lifestyles, sexuality, and other similar topics. I doubt very seriously that foreign students are having time taken away from math and science to listen to such topics.

    2. The NEA and unions in general have absolutely ruined the schools in this country. When we lived in Central NY we were continually given school budgets that had 90+% of every yearly increase targeted for salaries and benefits, while the infrastructure and actual curriculum suffered. I trust there is a special place in hell as depicted in Dante's Inferno for every teacher who said we needed these increases for the "good of the children".

    Good topic, Bob, although I fear we will not see real changes until after our kids have fallen to a much lower level than they are at now.

  10. Rick,

    The quote that we are "amusing ourselves to death" is tremendous, and dead on target. Watch a group of students today as they enter or leave school and virtually 100% are bent over their smart phones, texting away. That is probably the most engaged they will be all day long.

    As a culture we care more about the Kardashians than the euro crisis. We fret more over our 4G phones than global climate change. All blame does not lie at the feet of the educational system, but we have made school too much an extension of society's interests.

  11. QwkDrw,

    I wish your daughter luck, a boatload of patience, and encouragement to try to stem the tide of mediocrity in the classroom.

    My mom continued to enjoy most of the students, but couldn't tolerate the politics and the attitude of the parents.

  12. Chuck Y,

    Frankly, I am very surprised at the comments so far. I expected most folks to object to Mr. Crow's characterization of our problems. Instead, we are lining up to agree with him.

    I have no valid opinion on the effect of unions but will assume that the consistency of responses that point to them as a big part of the problem are correct.

    As I noted in an earlier comment governments look at education as simply a place to cut expenses when budgets get out of whack. That is so short-sighted to boggle the mind.

  13. Bob, I hope your grandchildren have a great experience at the charter school they attend. I don't know a lot about the charter concept but the hope is that they are more able to be innovative and flexible than our public schools. In our district the staff of each school would get a memo every year that gave the statistics on school enrollment. It would tell us how many students we had gained, lost to other districts through open enrollment, lost to private schools.....and how many we lost to charter schools.
    I can tell you that the charter schools in the area were taking larger chunks of our students every year. That tells you that people are looking for alternatives to the status quo. The district advised us that we need to "market" our schools better. Much effort and $$ are spent to spiff up the physical look of the buildings....and millions spent on constantly updating the computers and other electronic teaching tools. This all makes for good photos and public relations for the marketing. I like technology as much as the next person, but some of those millions would have been better spent on more teachers and smaller class sizes. Computers and other techie stuff are necessary and useful tools...but that's all they They are often used as Anonymous said to "entertain" and relieve the teacher of teaching time. I hate to sound so negative...and to be fair there are lots of teachers who would like to do things differently and their hands are tied by unions and administrators. Public education is a noble and worthwhile entity...let's hope we can turn it around and get back on course.

  14. JaneO,

    Charter schools receive money for each child which certainly takes money from the public schools. But, my understanding is a charter school has smaller class sizes, more instruction on the key educational areas and less on what we used to call electives.

    Of course, just like public schools, there are good and bad charter operations so the parents must investigate the schools they are interested in.

    Again, you add another note that unions are a part of the problem. I am learning a lot.

  15. Bob,

    Since I retired from higher ed, I spend a fair amount of time volunteering in the public schools. While I am sure there are some incompetent teachers (we have a few at the college level as well) I find most to be dedicated, well trained and.... exhausted.

    The number of problems they have to deal with that have nothing to do with the education of the child is astounding to me. Abused, neglected, malnourished, ADHD--the list goes on and on. The lack of parental involvement is disappointing also. I had a teacher tell me about a first grade student that came to class with his homework signed by his ten year old brother. The homework assignment was to have your parents "sit with you and read a book together." She asked the student why her brother signed his homework record. "He read the book with me--my parents were busy watching TV." Heartbreaking. Other parents never attend teacher-parent conferences, but will telephone the teachers to angrily protest their child's course grade.

    Unions may be part of the problem--I just hope people will not paint teachers with a broad brush. Their jobs are hard enough without being portrayed as a bunch of greedy, lazy losers. It is not true. Go to the schools as a volunteer and see for yourself.


  16. Rick,

    Excellent points and well stated. I place a good share of the blame at the feet of the uninvolved, uncaring parents. True, some are working so many hours to support the family that they are exhausted when they finally arrive home. But, I wonder how many could cut back on their hours if they cut back on their consumption of wants instead of needs.

    Children should always be more important than things. It seems odd to have to say that but too many parents don't get it. They pass off the responsibility to the overworked teachers and then complain when the child gets into trouble.

    At the same time, the rigidity of the school administrators, the reliance on standardized tests, and the ridiculous extent to which zero tolerance extends result in kids distrusting the system and the system looking at kids as problems to manage, not human beings to mold.

    Shame on them.

  17. I think you hit a nerve here! I see a trend away from personal accountability and towards entitlement, not just in education, but permeating our society. As a member of the legal profession, I think our legal system deserves its share of blame, too. There is plenty of blame to go around. But then blaming, rather than taking responsibility, is what got us here, so blame doesn't seem very productive. I don't think it's a trend that will reverse any time soon. So all we can do is "be the change" we want to see by taking responsbility for our own lives and teaching our children to do likewise. I think you have modeled this admirably in your retirement lifestyle and you have offered much sage advice on this topic in your blog posts.

  18. Galen,

    Thanks so much for the compliment but I will give credit to my relatives. Several members of my family were educators including grandparents, uncle, and mother who were good at teaching material and personal responsibility.

    The blame game is played by everyone and solves nothing.

  19. After 25 years I never had the pleasure of teaching in those lovely northeastern schools that unions control. You know the ones. Teachers are assaulted by those well behaved students while teaching a curriculum that their community mandates. Why does DC advertise every year for those high paying jobs in the Midwest? I never could figure it out.

    Most states pay their average teacher a bit over 40,000 a year.

    My last year teaching I had 105 middle school students during 45 minute periods. I had to start with the basics of History since even the brightest was not educated about the world because their teachers were so fixated on getting the MR student to pass the state test. I carried 32 special Ed students on my case load. I had five in foster care for abuse significant enough to be removed- or both parents were in jail. I had seven English language learners . I also had nine to Eleven with a parent in Iraq.

    As I suggest on my blog, if you really want to see your public schools, go and substitute teach!

  20. Janette,

    Heavens, what a difficult job you had. I know my mom's classes got bigger every year, to the detriment of everyone, but not quite as bad as your load.

    I completely agree that volunteering would be tremendously enlightening experience for everyone to really see what our schools our like.

  21. As for Mr ASU...

    Quit making your school so large that the regular student has no chance to even meet a professor their first two years.

    Quit graduating the least educated teachers in the Arizona university system.

    Quit accepting so many fellows from other countries, when Arizona tax dollars educate them.

    Send your top students into the community to teach students instead of pushing them into other disciplines.

    Stop spending a significant part of the University budget on changing logos an sports teams.

    Reform begins with....YOU

  22. Janette,

    Ok...the gauntlet has been thrown down, though I doubt Mr. Crow has ever seen this blog. Thanks for feeling strongly enough to say what you feel.

  23. Janette,

    As a retired professor, let me respond to at least a few of you concerns from my perspective:

    "Quit making your school so large that the regular student has no chance to even meet a professor their first two years."

    Go to the professors office hours. If they do not offer them, or they are not posted--go to the department head and complain. We were always required to maintain regular office hours.

    "Quit graduating the least educated teachers in the Arizona university system."

    Can't comment on this as I am not familiar with the system.

    "Quit accepting so many fellows from other countries, when Arizona tax dollars educate them."

    Actually, foreign students pay huge tuition bills and often subsidize the education of the in-state students. As levels of state funding drop, schools turn to out-of-state revenue to maintain budgets.

    "Send your top students into the community to teach students instead of pushing them into other disciplines."

    Speaking for my university and the faculty, we don't "send" our students into any discipline. They choose their career path (or their parents do so). The brightest, most motivated students gravitate toward the higher paying professions (business, health care). As a student of mine told me last year: "who wants to be a teacher? Everyone hates you..." Extreme, but a common perception.

    Stop spending a significant part of the University budget on changing logos an sports teams.

    At my university the donors and ticket revenues pay for such things. No tax payer dollars are involved. But I do share your concern about sports teams...and as I said earlier--"amusing ourselves to death."

    There was a recent experience in one of our local communities that I think illustrates where we are as a society. A local school board eliminated 30 teaching and teaching aid positions, trying to close a budget deficit. When the school board met to vote on the cuts, 20 or so people showed up to speak out against the cuts... mostly principals, teachers and a handful of parents and students. Later, still needing more cuts, the school board considered a proposal to eliminate sports in the high schools to balance the budget. When they met to consider the proposal, 650 people showed up to protest. I think that speaks volumes about our priorities as a society.

    "Reform begins with....YOU"

    Yes, it most certainly does!


  24. I certainly agree secondary schools need a lot of reform. As far as universities go, I think they do a pretty good job. Except:

    1) They're too expensive, offering too many luxury facilities
    2) They're too politically correct
    3) More kids need to major in math, science and computer tech.; fewer in English, history and sociology.
    4) If kids are not interested in academics, maybe they shouldn't go to college, but go to a trade school instead and learn a useful marketable skill.

    But I think a lot of this is already changing, as parents and kids see the world changing around us.

  25. Sightings,

    I want to pick up on one part of your comment. For many young adults a community college or technical school are better (and often cheaper) choices. Most parents assume a four year college is what should be aspired to. But, that may not be best.

  26. Rick,
    Since I am very familiar with ASU in particular, I gave very specific suggestions. I have four nephews at the university currently. My family is in Arizona and my father graduated from ASU in the late 40's.

    I cannot make the same suggestions to KSU or Most any other University that I know of. I did not mean it as an affront to other systems that may be better run.

  27. A collective arrogant ignorance. I love this! This has been how I feel ever since I started understanding this country/people better: there is an underlying anti-intellectualism that is running through the core and affecting many many things in this society. No other countries behave this way. A peculiar contradiction. I am still intrigued. Puzzled. And of course frustrated.


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