Instpundit gleefully links to an article entitled (my reaction to this sentence was to see if SQotD was already taken – it was):
Why? Well, partly of course it’s all the usual public sector stuff, about a big old nationalised industry getting worse and worse, no matter how much other people’s money they throw at it. Unions won’t allow bad teachers to be fired. Politicians won’t allow bad kids to be disciplined. And so on. Public sector education in the USA is a like a great big Detroit, spreading out across the entire country. All true.
But I think there’s another big force at work here. Another key sentence in this piece, aside from its title, is a quote from Walter Russell Mead:
Many parents these days have just as much education as teachers if not more.
A few years back, I did a spell of education blogging, and one of the big conclusions I reached was that countries where teaching was a much coveted career were at a fundamentally different stage in their development to ones where teaching was what you did when you couldn’t get a better job. Basically, in develop-ing countries, teaching was and is a great job. Everyone knows education will separate you from the pack of the dirt poor, but the jobs you’ll then get offered will still be pretty terrible, so a very appealing job is to be a teacher. But in a develop-ed country, where the economy has worked out how to make seriously good use of educated people, teaching is strictly a second best, if that. The result is this odd flip-flop. The more developed the country, the crappier its schools tended to be, at least compared to what you might have expected. Lavishly funded, crammed with textbooks and computers, but still a horrible disappointment.
To put all this another way, what I am saying is that the familiar slogan saying that Those Who Can Do and Those Who Can’t Teach applies with unequal force, depending on what else there is to do.
I recall reading, long ago, in a book by the late Peter Drucker (he was one of the first people I ever read who told it like it was about the public sector), about how computers had, for the first time in human history, created an abundance of well paid jobs for mathematicians. Given that the world now cries out for maths geeks, to do things like programme computers, analyse share prices, stop bridges collapsing, streamline cars, predict market share, sort out logistics in warehouses, and so on and so on and so on, it’s no wonder that maths teachers are on the whole not what they used to be. The same principle applies to education generally.
A hundred years ago, the typical American kid’s best chance of learning good stuff about the world was to go to a school and pay attention to the teachers there, who tended to be far better educated than his own parents. Now, increasingly, the same kid would do better to skip school and spend time with his now far better educated parents. (The big question now being: can those parents spare the time? Suggestion: a developed economy that is in an economic slump is especially good at encouraging home education.)
As commenters will surely explain, there are plenty of other influences that explain the current inexorable rise of home education, the fact that computers are now to be found in every home – now, in just about every hand – being another obvious fact about this story. But I do believe that the tendency, now as opposed to a century ago, of well educated people in rich countries only to want to be teachers if they are too mediocre to do any better is a big part of this story.