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April 13, 2006

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David Douglass

So true. The educational system strives to perfect mediocrity. But doing poorly in school isn't an option (unless you truly are a genius). If you want your kids to succeed, you have to give them creative opportunities outside the educational system, and let the creativity emerge from within them.

Colin Kingsbury

I don't dislike him but Friedman's writing sometimes manages to parody itself. Re the immigration bill a week or two ago, he wrote, 'What we need is a very high fence, with a very wide gate.' It sounds profound until you actually consider its meaning literally. It's the sort of pompous tripe you expect to hear from someone who's been getting his a-- kissed by too many for too long.

As for our education system, I'd just like to take a moment to speak in praise of conformity and rote learning. Saying that there's no reason to learn arithmetic because one can use a calculator is like saying there's no reason to go for a jog because a car can get you places much faster. One of my junior-high history teachers once said, "names and places and dates are the raw materials of new ideas." There is a difference between the person who actually *knows* a particular set of facts, and the person who can google "Treaty of Westphalia."

What I am worried about are kids whose education has not taught them any sense of discipline or accountability. I had a math teacher who, maddeningly, refused to give partial credit for arithmetic errors, because "the whole point of math is to get the answer correct." Painful? Yes. But the point isn't to make kids feel good about themselves, but to teach them to concentrate and pay attention to detail. You don't get partial credit in baseball for almost hitting the pitch, either, and almost getting the chord right doesn't make you a great guitar-player, either. Creativity isn't ultimately about breaking rules but about changing them, and to do so effectively it pays to first know them.

Lance Knobel

Tom Friedman jumped the shark a long time ago. He has found a lucrative niche dispensing conventional wisdom to aspirant Davos men and women, at excessive length, as you point out.

I agree with your criticisms and the point about the need for creativity and collaboration. There's another point to make on Friedman's book: the world isn't flat, and it is unlikely ever to be flat. UCLA economist Ed Leamer has made this point brilliantly here: http://uclaforecast.com/reviews/Leamer_FlatWorld_060221.pdf.

It isn't a short or easy read, but you'll learn more real economics than a half dozen books by Tom "Airmiles" Friedman.

martin snyder

Jeff I see public schools from a whole other angle- my dear (and brave) mom has taught middle school in an urban district for over 20 years, and the odds are you have no idea of what goes on there every day. If you have ever seen 'OZ' on HBO, that gives some idea of the tone of the place, if not the specific pathologies seething from every direction.

Homework? That's a laugh...kids literally strangle other kids and are sent back to class. Everyone knows someone who has been shot, stabbed, lived outdoors, etc. Teachers are called every name in the book, and anything not locked is stolen the minute it's put down. If it is locked, it's gone in a few days. There are a few computers per classroom but they are always broken/virused etc. Textbooks are coverless, old, and few. Many students are literally suffering from forms of PTSD.

Per-student spending might be high in dollars, but lord knows where it goes- all of the teachers spend thousands and thousands a year from their own pockets on the basics- paper, pencils, calories.

And yet...the lesson of it all? Smart parents have smart kids. In spite of the near total lack of education occurring within the school, some of the kids manage to develop intellectually. In fact, it would take major effort to hold them down and keep them from learning and growth. But for the kids who don't have smart or caring parents, it's a total clusterf***.

There are millions upon millions of these kids in America- and they are the real issue in my mind, not the kids whose parents value learning, have printed material in the home, and even slightly model winning attitudes and culture. Those kids, by and large, are going to be fine, for the same reason that those few stars in the worst schools shine- you can't keep em down.

If you want a radical solution to this intractable problem, here ya go: pay the kids for success. Not lunch money, but thousands of dollars for good grades per grading period. We spend it now anyway, so just redirect it. When major scratch is on the line, kids and parents won't tolerate disruptions and distractions. Moralists will whine that it would be sending the wrong message about learning; that it would amount to bribery. I say, go for it- that’s how our economy is set up anyway- pay for performance is the way we play it, and why shouldn’t these kids, of all people, not be immersed in that reality when it can help? Who are we kidding?

What's really needed in these areas is some walking around money- and two or three thousand dollars for a slate of superior academic performance would make a big difference in these people's lives. Not college money or tomorrow money, but spending stuff. You would see studying like you have never seen before, and major focus by parents and others to make sure everything needed to make that dough was there. Of course there would be some problems- some crime, some fraud, etc., but this notion of paying real money for performance could change the utter rolling catastrophe of our urban educational systems. We should try it somewhere to see if it might work.

Next week; why college football players should be paid $60K a year rather than some paltry tuition and books for risking body and soul to entertain the masses

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