Sunday, January 03, 2010

Using Elastic Yardsticks, Part 3

(Note: This is the third and final of my series of posts on academic testing, and specifically the high stakes standardized testing that is increasingly coming to dominate the educational experience of the kids and teachers in our public schools. Part one is here, and part two is here.)

Thomas Jefferson was the first American leader to propose public education in the U.S., right around the time the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was getting underway. His concept, an idea that was shared by most of the founding fathers, was that democracy required a well-educated citizenry in order to thrive.

This was the beginning of the historical era we now call the Age of Enlightenment, a time when reason came to be understood as the only legitimate source of authority rather than traditional and more arbitrary things like birth, religion, or military might. The American Revolution was a direct result of the Enlightenment as was the Industrial Revolution. These two progressive and revolutionary tracks evolved in tandem, ushering in an explosive era of intellectual and economic growth not seen in Western society since the Renaissance.

As mass production grew as a share of the economy, more and more trained workers were needed on the factory floors and industrialists came to look at public schools as a convenient institution for quickly and effectively converting the largely agricultural population into the type of labor needed to work on their assembly lines.

This tension between the competing needs of democracy (which requires well-educated citizens) and industry (which needs well-trained workers) continues to be an underlying dynamic in public education in the US and, indeed, much of the rest of the world.

In case there is any question, I believe that the economy is here to serve “we the people,” not the other way around, yet increasingly we see our public educational system, which is vital to the continued survival of our democracy, being shaped to serve the needs of business, a process that has accelerated over the past three decades.

I’ve already written (here, here, and here) about how our schools increasingly emphasize math and science at the behest of economic interests, leaving humanities education (the basis for educating properly functioning citizens) to founder.

And in my recent writing about multi-age classrooms I pointed out that the single-age model of education is based upon assembly line manufacturing techniques imported to the US by way of Prussia.

The very structure of public education, with its hierarchical, top-down organization, concentrating power in the hands of politicians, superintendents and school boards, is a direct reflection of how business organizes itself.

And standardized testing, with its false promise of producing relevant data, is exactly the kind of solution one would expect from number crunchers.

Schools are not businesses. Education cannot be measured in terms of balance sheets. The purpose of business is to earn a profit. The purpose of public schools is to produce well-educated citizens. The business model cannot succeed in education any more than my preschool’s model can produce an economic profit.

Yesterday I wrote about the Perry School study which is finding that the most important thing for schools to teach in order to produce successful citizens are skills like motivation, sociability, and an ability to work with others. These are not things that can be measured by standardized tests, nor are they skills that can be produced on assembly lines like widgets. To an economist, anything in a business that does not contribute to earning a profit can be considered waste. To an educator, anything that does not contribute to developing these skills (like high-stakes testing) can be considered a waste.

One of the most distressing side-effects of this “businessification” of schools is that instead of students, teachers, parents and administrators coming together as a community of learners, we find the kinds of competitive adversarial relationships characteristic of the business world. I’m going to stick to my area of knowledge here, leaving the goodness of competition to the business-types, and the application of these principles beyond elementary school to those who work with older kids. But every model of early childhood education I’ve ever studied holds at its core the idea that children learn best in nurturing environments where teachers, parents and facilities (a category under which I include management) function as a kind of three-legged stool. It’s a cooperative endeavor, not a competitive one.

Advocates of standardized testing are generally standing on the ground of “accountability.” They have the idea that these "slothful," unionized teachers are somehow trying to get away with something and they must be compelled to do their jobs. Administrators, even in the best of times, are in a financial pinch and are forced to choose between math/science and the humanities, saddle their teachers with ever larger classes, and resort to imposing assembly line educational methods. Parents are stuck in the middle, not really knowing what’s going on their child’s classroom, seeing the flaws in our system, yet feel helpless to do anything about it.

So what can we do?

But it seems clear that there are four fundamental things we must strive for if we are going return public education to its proper function of educating citizens:

1) Put real educators in charge of curriculum, measurement, and accountability, while reducing the influence of business interests.

2) Provide administrators adequate funding to have smaller classes and offer a complete education that includes humanities, arts, and physical education.

3) Give parents a more influential voice in how our public school systems operate by bringing them into the center of their children’s educational lives, and

4) Empower our teachers to teach.

How we get there is up to all of us and nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent! Thank you for saying what I do not have the eloquence or courage to say.

Anonymous said...

Great posts 1,2 and 3. I completely agree with your conclusion points.

Before kids, I taught 2nd grade in a public school here in San Francisco. In the urban school most parents LOVED the idea of standardized testing. They wanted the focus on math, science and English. The arts and humanities were usually not valued as much. The parents wanted more homework and more tests. Many came to the US to make sure their kids become successful. They see this type of education model as part of their students future success.

It's a tough balance and a super tough issue. I wish I had an answer.

Deborah Stewart said...

Wow Tom - you are way ahead of me on understanding the larger needs of education. Thanks for sharing your insight!

Launa Hall said...

Tom, I appreciate this 3-part series so much. I've been pondering the "testification" of education, and what I can do about it, and I feel a growing panic. I've gone back to school so that I can teach Kindergarten in public school. But it was in preschool that I was able to teach authentically. In public school, I will be administering tests instead of setting up art centers, delivering curriculum instead of fostering creative play and community. I feel that I belong with public school children, but will I be able to do my best for them with the contraints you so eloquently described? Ack. I must keep learning and asking questions to make my way through this problem.

LeeanneA said...

Great read! I so wish I could express my thoughts as you do! Thanks for this 3 part post - bravo!