Friday, May 03, 2013

"The Playground's Only Good When We're All Out There"

"We must prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow."

"We need to out-educate the rest of the world."

These are the kinds of statements we most frequently hear from our elected representatives when they talk about education, framing their comments always in the context of economic competition. Competition is at the heart of the corporate education reform idea, the one adopted by both the Bush and the Obama administrations: pitting student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, state against state.

I wrote yesterday about one of the reasons I believe that corporate-types and other power freaks are so gung-ho on turning our schools into education factories. It's not because they have any actual data or research to support their plans (that is all on the side of those of us who advocate for progressive education reform) but rather because the factory is simply a model they understand from their day jobs of producing widgets, most of them having never spent a day in a classroom. Another bedrock of this businessman's ideology is this notion of competition: a faith that competition always leads to the best and the cheapest, and the more unbridled the competition, the better. This is also not supported by anything that has ever happened in the real world, but rather by theories that live beautifully on the pages of text books, but that when implemented in the real world always lead to the inevitable result of the rich getting richer and the ranks of the "lazy" poor expanding.

No, perhaps competition would be the best way to organize education if the goal was purely to prepare children to take their place in the economy, if we accept the idea that we are here to serve the economy rather than the other way around. But I even doubt that. The most successful companies rely at least as much on teamwork and collaboration to succeed as they do competition. At most, competition is a part of the puzzle of business success.

But that's all almost beside the point. The purpose of public education is so much broader than preparing the workers of tomorrow. That's certainly not what I want for my child's education. I want her, first and foremost, to acquire the skills of good citizenship. Good citizens, the kind with the critical thinking and interpersonal skills required to truly assume the rights and responsibilities of self-governance, must be prepared to contribute to society in ways far beyond the mere economic. We must be able to count on our fellow citizens to contribute socially, artistically, politically, culturally, spiritually, and in all the other ways that make life worth living. A well-rounded citizen is more than just a worker: our schools exist to prepare the well-rounded citizens required for democracy to flourish, people capable of doing more than just hold a job.

Education simply doesn't work as a competition. At it's best education it's a collaborative process with students and teachers and administrators and schools and districts and states working together, sharing, building upon the work and ideas of one another. This is how democracy is supposed to work as well: not as some competition between polarized political ideologies, but rather as the self-governed standing on the shoulders of one-another to build a better, more fair, more responsive, more beautiful, more enlightened, and yes, even a more prosperous society. Competition is all about "me." Democracy is about "we."

And likewise, education is about "we." Or as my friend Jaan, then a 4-year-old, said as his classmates were pushing and shoving to get through a narrow doorway, "Hey, it's not a race. The playground's only good when we're all out there."

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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if you follow Alfie Kohn's blog, but he posted just yesterday an interesting take on this idea that everyone says that US schools are lagging behind ... here's the link... I thought some of his "responses" were a bit weak, but some really warrant further thought!

Tammy said...

The UK government are also worried about China's school children outperforming British children. They now want to lengthen the school day, make school holidays shorter and a return to learning facts by rote rather than A skills based curriculum. I don't think the current government trusts us parents very much and wants our children in their factories from as young as possible for as long as possible!