We seem to exist these days within a poverty of solutions, but we surely don’t have a poverty of ideas. Ideas seem plentiful. Unfortunately, however, many of them are reiterations of old ideas we already know don’t work. Solutions, however, those are hard to come by. They’re hard to come by for many reasons. A generally understated one is that our society is complex, the opposite of a homogeneous one. Perhaps in and of itself that says it best.
Still, even within our complex society, one would think we could find solutions to the problems which haunt us. Poverty, inequality, a failing educational system, a dysfunctional government, terrorism, huge national debt, unemployment: oh my. Why that’s like lions and tigers and bears. If only we could click our heels and return to Kansas.
I wonder how many people will not get that reference, and while I hope it’s not a lot, my gut tells me it is a whole generation of people, and maybe more than one generation. Surely the cell phone-video generation is a likely candidate.
In my last year of teaching high school, a fourteen year old freshman student stopped me in the midst of teaching a lesson and told me he didn’t need to learn what I was teaching. He went on to tell me what he wanted to learn. When an administrator not even half my age with not even a tenth of my teaching experience concurred with the youth, I knew it was time to retire, but more important, I knew I’d been clearly presented with a concrete illustration of why we live in the poverty of solutions.
Round about 2003, Mayor Bloomberg set about “reforming” the New York City school system. The idea was based upon sound pedagogical theory, that a smaller class size is preferable since the teacher-to-student ratio is higher. Of course nothing is that simple, but surely the research bears this out for at-risk students. For high achieving students, teacher-student ratio is much less important. A bit more than a decade later, the reform is a failure. They will tell you that the graduation rate is higher and will show you one of their tremendously successful schools every now and then. But they will neglect to remind you that the graduation requirements are much easier or that earning credits is vastly simplified. Moreover, they will rarely show you the many, many failing schools and the ones that have already fallen by the wayside. They won’t tell you that per-student spending is at record levels but we keep falling further and further behind in world standing in education.
The equation kind of goes like this. A bit ago, the powers that be, using another one of those entries from the treasure chest of ideas, decided that the scores on the SATs were too low and would be higher if they changed the scoring system. A really brilliant idea, to be sure. The end result is that now the national average score is 1500 out of 2400. Saying your score is 1500 sure sounds better than saying it’s 900. But what’s the meaning? I was a relatively average student. I got an 1150 out of 1600 on my first try and I never took them again because I knew that was enough for CUNY, which is where I knew I was going to college. Do the math. 1150 out of 1600 is 72% rounded up. 1500 out of 2400 is 63% rounded up. I’d rather have the higher percentage, no matter what the score sounds like.
The two examples above illustrate why we are living within the realm of the poverty of solutions. Appearance weighs more heavily than substance. Changing a school without doing anything with the clientele makes no sense. But it does look better. A 1500 looks better than a 900 or my 1150, but it’s meaningless if it does not represent real gain in overall percentage score. Spending more money per student than any other country sure looks great. So why do we keep slipping in world standings?
Our leaders are scamming us. They are more concerned with making us believe they are solving our problems than they are in actually solving them. This has led us into the era of the poverty of solutions.
Happy New Year everyone. May it be a good one for you all. It certainly looks like it will be an interesting one.