Monday, October 12, 2020

"Democracy Must Be Born Anew . . . And Education is Its Midwife"


Prior to the pandemic, the parent of a former student brought my attention to a letter sent to her by the Seattle Public Schools. The opening paragraph read:

This spring, your child will take the online Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts. Students in grade 5 will also take the online Washington Comprehensive Assessment of Science (WCAS). This is the fifth year our state will administer the Smarter Balanced tests and the second year for the WCAS. The results from these tests will give a more accurate picture of whether students are on track to be ready for college or career.

These are elementary school children. The proper career aspiration for a young child is princess or cowboy.

I know I've always taught in a bubble, one where we based our practices on evidence. And the evidence is overwhelmingly clear: children learn best through self-directed learning, or what we in the business of actual education call play. We know that these kinds of high stakes standardized tests, being linked as they are to funding, pay, and promotions, have forced schools to dramatically narrow their educational offerings in pursuit of high test scores. We know that the primary thing to be learned from them is the socio-economic status to the children being tested. We know that this kind of testing is making schools into grim, stress-filled places that contribute significantly to the decline in the mental well-being of many children, and teaching all of them the lesson that learning is a difficult, joyless pursuit, one to be avoided whenever possible. And we know that giant corporations are raking in billions in profits in their test score coal mines. This is what the evidence tells us and what is continuing to happen even as schooling in America has been dramatically disrupted this year and perhaps beyond.

Yes, there are individual teachers who work wonders "within the cracks," but anyone who has read here (or indeed, just paid attention) knows that public education, as an institution, has lost its way and it's not just our children who are paying the price.

The drive to standardize education has accelerated over the past generation, lead largely by billionaires who made their billions not by inventing something new, but rather by standardizing the process of manufacturing, sales, and distribution in the name of efficiency. It works well when it comes to software or electronics or toilet paper, but human beings cannot be standardized, unless, of course, your only goal is to manufacture college and career ready machine parts. Bill Gates (Microsoft) once, nauseatingly, compared our children to electrical plugs, saying that once we can plug them all into the same outlets we will "unleash powerful market forces" on them.

As the late Sir Ken Robinson wrote: "Standardization broke education."

If the focus of public schools is simply to get them college and career ready then I'd say it's time to scrape the whole idea of publicly-funded education altogether and let the corporations train their own damn workers. No, contrary to the assertion by Seattle Public Schools (and every other public school system with which I'm familiar), the purpose of education is to assure that the next generation is up to the challenge of self-governance, which must stand at the heart of any democratic society, and the skills required to be a contributing citizen are in many ways the exact opposite of those required to be college or career ready: critical thinking; questioning authority; standing up for values, beliefs, and ideas; contributing in ways far beyond mere service to the economy. None of these skills go over particularly well in the workforce, but they are essential if we are going to ever have a functioning democracy. We do not need standardized people. We need citizens who are free to achieve their own highest potential, or what is more patriotically referred to as "the pursuit of happiness."

Seattle Public Schools forbids its teachers from telling parents this, but we have the right to have our children opt out of these tests and I urge every parent, everywhere to do so, especially if your child is one who tends to score well on them. This is the first step in wresting control of public education from the hands of the billionaires who will standardize our children in the quest of profit and efficiency. It's time to reclaim our schools in the name of democracy and self-governance. As the great John Dewey wrote: "Democracy must be born anew with each generation, and education is its midwife." Opt out: it's the patriotic thing to do.

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I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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