EDITORIAL: The Quest for Adequate Public Education, Part Four

Read Part One

“Needs are not hierarchical. Life is messier than that. Needs are, like most other things in nature, an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections…”

— From ‘Social Networks: What Maslow Misses’ by Pamela Rutledge, in Psychology Today, November 2011.

Back in the late 1940s, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow came up with a fascinatingly simple idea — the idea that a person will seek to meet his or her needs in a ‘hierarchical’ fashion. Dr. Maslow theorized that humans must first fulfill basic physiological needs like food, shelter, water, warmth, sleep, and sex… and only when those needs are met will the person then seek to fulfill more complex needs… like security, order, predictability… eventually moving up a hierarchical ladder to family, relationships, community, reputation, and — at the top of the hierarchy — self-actualization and personal fulfillment.

The model, known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, has since become a well-loved concept within many fields of social planning and management, including business and education. The hierarchy is often illustrated in popular literature as a “pyramid,” but I understand Dr. Maslow himself didn’t use that style of illustration in his own writings.

This simplistic illustration seems to fit everything in human existence neatly into the shape of an ancient Egyptian structure — the same sturdy shape that appears, for example, on the back of a U.S. dollar bill, to remind us that the United States government intends to outlast the Great Pyramid of Giza.

We all need and seek order and security, says Maslow — in Level Two of his hierarchy — and I suppose it’s hard to find a symbol that embodies order and security better than an Egyptian pyramid. But I tend to agree with psychologist Pamela Rutledge, who proposed — in a 2011 Psychology Today article — that human life, and human needs, are not necessarily hierarchical.

When she writes, “Life is messier than that,” she hits the nail on the head. We don’t meet our needs in a linear, logical fashion. Quite to the contrary. Humans are all over the board, when it comes to defining our priorities.

Granted, Ms. Rutledge is writing about Facebook, and social media in general, and making the case that humans will put aside truly important tasks to fulfill their need for “community” and socializing, which she sees as essential to human existence.

Is it possible? That what we need, most of all, is one another?

A while back, in Part One, I wrote briefly about a Powerpoint slide show, hosted by Pagosa Springs Middle School Principal Chris Hinger and shared with our Archuleta School District Board of Education on December 12, that included the following graphic information:

We will note that this chart does not say anything specific about Pagosa Springs schools. In fact, what it seems to say is that, no matter how much a state government decides to spend on public education — ranging from $6,500 per pupil in Utah to $21,000 per pupil in New York — 8th grade student everywhere in the U.S. learn to read at about the same rate as students elsewhere… and also, at about the same rate as they did 20 or 30 years ago. The difference in the average state reading scores on a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests varies only about 8 percent between New Hampshire (with average scores of 275) and Mississippi (with average scores of 252.) But the amount of money spent per public school student, in different U.S. states, varies by more than 300 percent.

We certainly want our children to learn how to read. In traditional public education, literacy still plays an central role in how information is acquired — even though in modern American society, information is acquired in a much more diverse manner, including (but not limited to) via radio, TV, graphic design, YouTube, and word of mouth.

As mentioned, the literacy rates (on average, according to the NAEP tests) do not vary greatly from one end of the country to the other. But are those literacy rates are “adequate?” That’s not explained by the chart, nor did I hear Principal Hinger address that question during his presentation. The above chart shows only what the NAEP determined to be “average scores” in various U.S. states.

Mr. Hinger also shared the NAEP mathematics scores in his presentation — again, the state “averages” for 8th graders. Here we saw a much more significant variation from one U.S. state to another than we saw in the “Reading” scores. 8th grade students in Alabama averaged a score of 17, while students in Massachusetts attained, on average, scores 300 percent higher: 51.

The average Colorado 8th grader scored 37 on the NAEP math test given in 2015. That put him/her higher than the average student in 34 other U.S. states, in a ranked list.

But of course, this chart tells us nothing at all, specifically, about our public schools here in Pagosa Springs. And we are told nothing about the “adequacy” of the math skills represented by “a score of 37.” We do not know, for example, if an average Colorado 8th grader could look at the above mentioned NAEP Reading scores… and calculate that an average student in New Hampshire scored an 8-percent-higher score than an average Mississippi student.

I apologize for the number of times I’ve been using the word “average” in this article series. I feel compelled to do so, because so much of the national discussion about U.S. educational goals and achievements has so much to do with “averages” and so little to do with actual flesh-and-blood children.

So little to do, it seems, with meeting the “messy” social and psychological needs of real individuals.

Read Part Five…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.