November 29, 2010

Deciding What School Is For

Justin Katz

Debates concerning what to do about the deterioration of public education appear to be honing the matter down to an essential question: What is elementary and secondary education for?

Retired founding editor of Education Week Ron Wolk appears to take what might be seen as the establishment side of that question:

Is a rigorous high-stakes standardized test appropriate to assess all children? How does treating all students alike accommodate the enormous diversity of students in their interests, their socio-economic background, their cultural differences and their learning styles?

The answer to Wolk's first inquiry, I'd suggest, might best be phrased as a return question: "Assess all children" on what? Standardized tests may not "accommodate" the diversity of qualities and interests, but that doesn't justify changing the practical import of a diploma, which does and should have a specific meaning. Graduation from high school is an academic achievement, not a statement that the system was able to find some redeeming quality in the student.

In keeping with the creeping mentality of secular statism, we seem to be elevating school to status of comprehensive development. Writes Wolk:

Yet we treat young people as if the only thing we need to know about them (or care about) is whether they meet rigorous standards in math and English. We seem to care very little about their character, their habits of mind and behavior, how hard they work, what social skills they have, and what they aspire to be.

That may or may not be true, but it's wholly appropriate for those who interact with children in an academic setting to address them mainly in terms of academics. Teachers, administrators, counselors, and coaches should never lose sight of the fact that students are human beings, and therefore more than the sum of their classroom and athletic achievements, but their total development as human beings is not, should not be, and cannot be the responsibility of a universal education system.

This conceptual error may be at the heart of more problems than just our waning academic prowess as a nation.

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Obviously, Justin, you haven't been closely following the progression of change in the education community. It has become the job of the state to raise our children in ways far beyond academics. Our schools have become the students meal provider, health center, psychologist/counselor, and protector from the risk of hurt feelings. If the student is willing, they are asked to also consider the study of academic subjects, but if we attempt to hold them responsible for some modest level of achievement, we (society) is to blame for their failure and are accused f insensitivity to the plight of all children not able to achieve academic success.

That's the way the state takes control; by communicating to parents that they need do nothing save procreate and let the schools raise their children.

If you ask an educator, they will tell you that they are making great imrovements! It's that thing about not seeing the forest for the trees thing.

Posted by: John at November 29, 2010 2:09 PM

As an expert in this area (8.5 years as public school teacher and quasi administrator, 3+ years teaching pre-service teachrs at the college level, currently completing a PhD in education), I will respond to this question.

The purpose of school is essentially to prepare the next generation to run our society. That involves preparation for the workforce (involving a bit of prognostication of the future needs the economy) and preparation to function productively with other human beings. I am not against standardized tests as ONE measure of student learning, but using such tests as the ONLY measure misses the mark. How will we assess skills beyond literacy and mathematics such as the ability to work as part of a team? Unless students plan to work at a position that requires NO contact with other people, being able to function as part of a team is a critical part of learning. Thus there is some validity to teaching young people how to interact positively with people who have different perspectives on life. Other key needs include technological adaptability (rather than just skills, as the need technological skills change every moment) and the ability to analyze and negotiate social situations.

The economy of the 2010s and beyond is not like the econonmy of the "golden age" many seem to evoke in their calls for a return to basics. We are no longer preparing students to work in factories. We are preparing them to work a variety of skilled labor and professional positions. This will come in tandem with a drop in low-skill or unskilled positions. As we transition to self-checkout at the grocery store, we'll need folks who can fix the self-checkout machines when they go haywire, not cashiers. Janitors will need to be able to operate and possible perform simple repairs on a variety of cleaning machines. Preparing students for the future means having a sense for what that future holds and the skills and abilities that will be necessary to function in the society they'll inherit. Popular Science magazine recently published this fun but interesting educated guess at what the future job market may look like:
While we may think that professions such as "space pilot," "organ designer," and "thought hacker" are the stuff of science fiction, I imagine that was also once said about bioengineers, airline pilots, and ultrasound technicians.
Preparing students for the future means creating assessments that give us information about how well students are developing the skills and abilities they'll actually need. That means modes of assessment must adapt to the changes in society or we will be preparing a generation of young people who are obsolete before they even get started.

Posted by: Tabetha at November 29, 2010 3:34 PM

The European experience with standardized tests has led to further government control of the content. So much for the states being the "laboraties of Democracy". Shouldn't a Massachusetts kid spend more time with the Pilgrims, while California kids spend more time with the Mexican/American War? Not when the Government has stadardized the curriculum.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 29, 2010 6:11 PM

A note from the Projo today on the "standardized: MCAS test in Mass, and its effect on curriculum. Basically, less history. So much for an "informed electorate":

"When the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to postpone having U.S. history join English, math and science as a subject in which students must pass an MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) exam to graduate from high school, they didn’t intend to devalue social-studies education. But that has been the result."

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 30, 2010 1:58 AM

Warrington, that doesn't surprise me. History/social studies educators can never seem to agree on what students need to know in this area. History tends to be the most politically charged subject as well. However, it is frustrating that all sides can't seem to at least agree upon a few basic things that students should understand: world and U.S. geography; the Constitution; a basic understanding of how the U.S. came into being and the key figures who were part of the process; major events (wars and other key events) that have had a lasting impact on our way of life; basics of how the economy works; and the role of citizens in the political process (e.g., what it means to be an informed voter). It would also make sense for students to know something about the history of the state they live in and how the geography of that state and the major social events have affected the local life and economy. Social studies/history is a critical content area for developing citizens who are able to knowingly take their places in the political processes of the country and who can help to uphold and ensure the freedoms and rights that make the U.S. what it is. I don't think that's partisan in any way. Unfortunately, I think the people involved in creation of the standards get too bogged down in the minutiae of whether Conservative Figure X or Liberal Figure Y gets more air time than in setting some basic standards for what students of any ideology should know to be informed citizens who know their rights and responsibilities.

Posted by: Tabetha at November 30, 2010 8:53 AM
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