I only worked in the education "industry" for a few years, but maybe that's still why I tend to bristle when I see people being dismissively critical of "the state of education in this country" in that very casual armchair-quarterbacking way. People are so quick to be so down on education, and when they remember to back off of the insulting tone to say something nice about the people involved, it feels too little too late, like a half-insincere "present company excluded" or "no offense" thrown onto something hurtful or prejudiced.
That said, even I have to admit that in the years since I worked in education, Dubya's ludicrously-misnamed "No Child Left Behind" initiative has certainly done some damage to the education system. Those teachers I've spoken to are pretty much uniformly in agreement about how terrible that is. So there's a new window of opportunity to be blanket-critical of education without being insulting to the people doing it. Still, the usual cavalier dismissal you hear is more condemnatory of the entire world of education, and everyone and everything in it, so that's no escape clause.
Generally, the criticisms of education fall into two main categories. There's the "what was good enough for my grandfather" camp, and the "today's kids can't spell" camp.
Not only do people romanticize their own youths, and steep the times before them in a heady brew of nostalgia, they also tend to vastly underestimate the amount of change that has happened. With one hand, someone can complain about how our education system lacks the funding to teach kids today's skills -- there's not enough computers, they're not prepared enough for today's economy, etc. -- and with the other hand they are always ready to compare today's teaching with that of their youth as if the challenges of today are precisely the same as twenty years ago.
But more has changed than simply that we use computers now. In my grandfather's time, most people would have one job for life. In my father's time, a person would have one career, and that's how they taught me, but by time I hit the job market it was already true that you couldn't hope to take what you learned in college and make a career out of it; you needed to be ready to constantly retrain yourself, and many of my generation would go through several careers in different industries. Today's kids know they will go through many jobs and many careers; the fundamental mission of education is changed at its most basic level because the goal is not to prepare them for a job and a life, but to instill in them the ability to prepare themselves, because the job that today's graduating senior will have in 20 years doesn't even exist yet, hasn't even been imagined yet.
That's just one example of how the way I was taught was already inadequate by time I graduated, and has had to change several more times since. There are many others. We have to prepare kids for a much more interrelated world than we were prepared for. They need to learn more disciplines, more subjects, and more techniques on how to learn, how to research, how to adapt. They need more survival skills to negotiate our economy, to avoid scams, to compete in a harder job market, to work on the world stage, to thrive without inheritances in a time when mortgages are harder to find. In addition to the knowledge we needed, they need to learn how to be socially conscious, environmentally aware, respectful of diversity, and proponents of justice in a politically complex world. There's more for them to learn about health and wellness, about technology, about culture, and about everyday life, but there's no less for them to learn in the old subjects we had to study in our youth.
Teachers think about this stuff a lot. They're working on figuring out what about education needs to change and how to accomplish it all the time. For every stick-in-the-mud teacher who won't change, there's a hundred others who are eager to figure out how to do right by their students to meet needs no one's imagined yet. But they're always having to struggle against parents and critics who want a modern education for their kids but constantly undermine specific programs and initiatives by making disparaging comparisons to what was good enough for us. They don't usually say it that way; instead, they bemoan how today's kids don't know or can't do this or that thing that we learned, and therefore, our education system has failed. Even when that thing is something nowhere near as important today as it was thought to be in our time.
Which brings us to the other main thing, the complaints about illiteracy. I recently wrote about this a bit in my post about orthographic reform, but there are several facets to this issue.
First, I strongly suspect that today's students are no more or less literate than they were in my time. There's plenty of kids who can't spell, but there always were. What's changed is that today, those kids are writing badly where we can see them -- in their Facebook status updates and tweets and emails and all the other avenues by which the Information Age means more people can get their words in front of your face. (In the past, the cost of getting words in front of your face meant we reserved it generally for those who were good at it. Once everyone in your town has his own printing press, obviously the average quality of printed materials will plummet!)
Second, do today's kids care less about proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar? I suspect it's not nearly as much as we imagine because of the facet I just mentioned, but that might not explain it all away. I grew up when the only grammar checker was my eyes and a bottle of Wite-Out, but if I'd grown up when even a web browser had a built-in spell checker, maybe I'd be less inclined to care so much, just as I care less about being able to sum numbers than the people who came before me without calculators. Is that a bad thing? Right now it is only because computer-based grammar checkers are still not as good as a person; but in fifty years, that'll seem as quaint as when we look back on the history of aviation and laugh at those first primitive aircraft and their failures and weaknesses. We don't imagine people should stick to trains because the first airplanes were crap, and someday soon we'll find it quaint to imagine the only valid way to grammar-check was by hand, uphill both ways in the snow. (Note that I realize very well that there's a big difference between writing grammatically, and writing well, but that's not what this paragraph is about.)
I'm certainly as quick as any, and quicker than most, to bemoan seeing egregious grammar, diction, spelling, and punctuation errors in professional publications, even in the headlines of newspapers; but I think that speaks more to the changes in the world of business (with increasing emphasis on "fast" at the expense of "right") than to anything about our educational system.
Ultimately, I think that our education system is hobbled by chronic, inexcusable underfunding. This is the best reason to offer real criticism, and yet, it's often supported by and inspired by that very same off-hand, unthinking criticism. If we accept the meme that public education is poor in our country, it makes it much easier to cut its funding, which is the only thing (apart from Dubya's absurd policies) that's actually making it fall behind. It's insanely stupid and self-destructive, cutting off our nose to spite our face in the truest sense.
There are other big factors that make the job of our educators much harder. Parents spend less and less time with their children (not always their fault, of course, but it still makes a difference), and are less involved both in motivating them, and in providing them with a good example. There's more marketing of products at school-age kids than ever, providing more distractions to compete with schools. And the United States is mired in a meme of anti-intellectualism, in the idea that being an expert is a strike against you, in an embrace and almost worship of dumbness (which is classified as "normality"), that undermines the very objectives of education. The abilities of learning, reasoning, and self-expression are chronically devalued, and that attitude undercuts the motivation of students every day.
I'm not saying there's no room for criticism, or that the only subjects for criticism should be our underfunding of education and Dubya's mismanagement. But if one feels outraged (and one should!) by these things, and feels a need to criticize the education system, that criticism falls squarely on the shoulders of those who decide how much money to give it, not the people actually doing the work. When it comes down to it, every teacher I have ever known, with virtually no exceptions, was a true hero. They work for peanuts, bringing a level of patience to their job that I could never muster, and every last one of them does it out of a deep conviction of the importance of their work. They care. They have to -- no one would do that hard a job for so little reward and no recognition unless they did it because they believed in it. They should be celebrated, not unconsciously, constantly undercut by well-meaning, unthinking, unfounded criticism. Not just for the fact that they still do the job with so little reward, but also for their many successes. Despite all that's holding them back, they are doing remarkable work.