First off: Total agreement - stimulating article - Thanx :)
however I'm missing the 'resolution': is knowledge or is it not 'useful' ... guess everybody defines that for him/herself ;)
Some topics that stood out to me I'd like to contrast with how my kids were taught at a private school. I've no idea if the three schools my kids were taught at are in any way comparable to American private schools, so let me delineate the basics shortly.
There are no 'classes' of one year only 'projects' for about 3-4 months (at most 6 months for complex topics). Each student is not assigned to a project by age or previous successfully completed projects, but only by a short test done by the teachers teaching that project (about 2-3 per project part-time). Project groups are dynamic between 3-9 students (rule was 'no two-digit project-size') and can change based on the phase they are in (some students only want to learn particular subjects of such a project).
Example: we want to build a bridge across the brook behind the school-building to reach the orchard on the other side (the school-gardener was not very pleased, but we'll get to that later ;).
Topics to teach: physics (stream flow, structural engineering), finance (allowances are not for free), 'wielding the hammer' (yep - they actually built it :) - and some 'politics' as it turned out when the gardener heard about the project :D
So first step was to calculate the physics of that bridge: can it actually be done by a group of kids without large construction machines, what's the flowrate during spring-thaw, is bank-soil stable enough for support, what size of timber and depth of foundation is required, etc..
Next step was calculate the finances of that bridge, check prices on materials (tools were available), calculate return of invest (student allowances never 'automatically' covered project costs, but only based on it's merits - there were projects that were scrapped at this stage), builders fees of the students and teachers who built it were calculated against the total cost and added to the allowances as earnings, calculate fees per crossing or 'flatrates' over 10 year period of use, etc.. Turned out the teachers used the bridge most for 'contemplative breaks' and not so much the students who already new where to cross the brook on foot - maybe the teacher's were just not that fond of taking off their shoes and getting their feet wet ;)
Of course they also built it - that bridge was in effect for 3 years until it was dismantled. The original project-group who built it left school and decided to scrap it as no one wanted to take over maintenance and toll collection. So the bridge was a financial loss resulting in a (temporary) drop in allowances, but nobody really minded that - they still had fun breaking it down :D (especially the gardener who volunteered his services for free ;)
Plus, as already hinted several times, the unplanned bonus: they had to deal with the school-gardener who was not very pleased that more kids got into his orchards :[ After 'negotiations' with the dean (even simple complaints and quarrels were dealt with in an official capacity - including parent involvement on site - darn how I hated that sometimes :D), some of the fees were diverted to the gardening funds as compensation for 'stolen and broken goods'.
So here's what stood out to me what is 'wrong' with todays teaching and (hopefully) could be remedied by a 'free school market', if it would develop anywhere close to those few private schools who dare the government to be different (it's a yearly struggle here in Germany to remain open):
Knowledge and intelligence are neither measured by age, nor past achievements, but by topic, interest and personal performance at a given time. Institutionalized teaching that plans only in one-year curricula and takes years to change such a curriculum are not equipped to handle such a variety. Current schools and teachers would be hopelessly disqualified to meet such demands.
Which brings me to the topic already argued above by Robert and Steve: a teacher who is capable of constantly adapting to such widespread requirements has to be much better educated and of course draws a much larger salary. I paid between 2.000,- and 5.000,- Euro (depending on projects) per month (about 8-10 months per year) per kid (only 4 wanted higher education) but it was worth every penny. No teacher can keep up with such demands and draw that kind of salary without being highly qualified. All 4 of my kids got their 'Abitur' (college degree) two years ahead of normal classes (which meant cramming a lot of useless information in the 3 month prior to tests, but once you know how it's easy to do) and they retained a lot more information, knowledge, way-of-learning, than I ever did in my 13 years of school and 6 years of university.
So once we leave school what happens next? We still keep learning, learning new ways or putting in effect old ways we already internalized, we reach the ripe old age of 'generational learning'. Apart from the obvious flaws that not every old woman becomes a wise crone, I'd like to contrast it to a very new way our current generation has found to learn: 'learning of the masses'.
Information and knowledge is at everybody's fingertips these days. You can look up Wikipedia as Steve did, you can post a question on the web, you can instantly chat up your community of dozens of 'friends' to get a quick response. We are developing towards a large network of learning-exchange that could actually lead to some global intelligence some day (I'll skip the problems of the 'uneducated masses' or I'll wax polemic again ;). So the wise crone is not necessarily wiser about todays world than the 'global-brain' could someday be (what does that say about our politicians?).
And let's no stop there: what about cross-generational learning? That's how learning started in the first place: some ways of using tools, acquiring knowledge, survival strategies, are passed on through the generations (genetic?). The best teachers in the world could not have taught a Neanderthal how to work with a computer or handle global finance.
Which brings me to my third and last observation: with all that variety (directly available and not) should it not also be 'normal', self-understood and acceptable, that some children should not have to go to school at all? As this is a fishy legal topic I'll continue 'hypothetically' with an abstraction of an actual case. @Steve: no I'm not resuming our offline discussion about learning (or not learning) how to sail ;)
If a child's inclination lean e.g. towards the natural, tending plants and animals, caring for forrests, living off the land as they call it. Wouldn't it be the best use of that child's time and intellect to only teach it what is required for that life? And I'm not talking about a degree in forrestry or veterinarian - I mean teaching simple daily tasks and knowledge about a specific plant or animal that it wants to care for and live with/by/from. Any formal schooling for such a child would not only be a waste of time and money, but would also result in resentment and scarring (emotional and intellectual). Point in (extreme) case: all these 'awful' school-shootings we hear so much about from across the pond. Not to mention one of my favourite movies: Carrie :D
I realize that it's a very tough decision to make at such a young age when a child changes it's mind later on. There's still the opt-out 'she can learn later' - with the disadvantage that later learning would be much harder. Still - who's entitled to make that decision? The 'uneducated' teachers (no trashing intended here - simply not educated to make such decisions), the 'educated' psychiatrist (which psychiatrists actually learns how to decide if a child should not be taught when it's a legal requirement?), the 'stupid' beaurocrat (again no trashing intended - he just has to follow the regulations without having his brain or his personal opinions interfere)?
Try to persuade your local government (that only has your best interest at heart and works only for your benefit) that your kid does not belong in school ;)
PS: topic for another post ... all that emotional and social miasma that goes with raising kids - which also happens to happen in school ;) finding the right surroundings (school), with the right teachers (not just intellectual teachers), the right 'classes' (where you can pick if you want to learn how to deal with a bully or simply move on to another 'class').
All that goes with disseminating knowledge, building intelligence, and is dealt with in very conflicting ways ... never was my cup of tea, so I'm just glad I got out of it with the kids mostly intact ... maybe someone more qualified would care to elaborate on that?