Education Reform

JP, you asked me to read Paul Krugman’s NYT commentary on education, and another one on Common Dreams by Diane Ravich. Krugman reminded us that Rick Santorum thinks its snobbish to invite everyone to go to college, and how he has twisted Obama’s comments about education. Krugman quips that Santorum wants schools to include far more religion. And Romney told some prospective student, "Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And, hopefully, you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

All of this is to say that conservatives want the government out of education. The more centralized the control and funding, the worse. The religious want to believe any crazy things they want to, they want the privileged to maintain their privileges.

Ravich was all upset about the federal department of education’s intrusive efforts to hold schools – that is, students through testing – accountable. Arnie Duncan’s efforts to revise No Child Left Behind with programs like Race to the Top. She believes the constitution precludes federal government actions like standards.

Now, what is my opinion on all this, my reaction to these two columns?

I see education as a right, even a benefit that a successful society gives itself to maintain itself, even better its citizens. Education is a way, perhaps even the best way, for all people, regardless of their stature in the world, to find opportunity, and realize their potential.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the federal government found ways to unify the country. The interstate system, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the war on poverty, the G.I. bill, universal education, even high school, are all examples. Let us remember that we have a representative government, and these projects were accomplished by the consent of the governed. They are largely accepted as successes.

Now, liberals tend to accept these successes as givens, and look forward to more great accomplishments in the same vein. The Tea Party feels some sort of remorse about projects like the aforementioned, and – being crazy like they are – are all ready to throw those babies out with the bathwater. And they have the same attitude about education.

There are a couple of questions to answer at this point. First, are national projects like these legitimate? Before attempting an answer, they are a very real part of our world, and most of us are very attached to them. It is rational to say, if one of these projects goes, so could any of them. I would agree that there is a constitutional question about their legitimacy, but the Supreme Court has ruled in their favor. Its reasoning includes the reality that the needs of our society change over time. There is a constitutional mandate to “form a more perfect union,” and to, “promote the general welfare.” Are our freedoms being eroded by such projects? The evidence is to the contrary. I am not convinced that the founding fathers were trying to establish a country that preserves the wealth of the upper crust, nor do we by-and-large want that now. So, I say, that’s the way we roll; we need to get used to it.

Does the federal government make it difficult to practice religion in school? Our country was established under the premise that religion has its place, and government will remain secular. The mandate that there will be no state religion remains.

What do I recommend for education, then? Let’s start with the goal, develop the potential of every child to becoming a productive citizen. The goal is not to have an army of equally skilled people, especially given that the system is stocked with such a variety of students to begin with. Still, we can make a list of certain skills and achievements that would count as “ready.” When No Child Left Behind told each state to make their list, of course states compared notes. We have a concept of what a productive citizen looks like, though I (and most teachers and experts too) would argue that no perfect list yet has been developed.

The trouble comes when we stick kids in classrooms together, and each year have them each take the same test, and then hang all kinds of jobs and money on the results. Those are the parts of the plan that are seriously flawed. Countless hours are wasted in classrooms, trying to keep each student working at the same pace. Even more time is wasted in depending on the teacher (or computer screens, books, or cute activities) to stimulate a group of students to learn. Certainly there are times when group work succeeds, and a group of students can learn the same thing, watch the same show, and so forth. However, humans are not built to function strictly as herd animals all the time. We are first individuals.

Consider how scout badges work. There are group activities, but getting a badge is up to the motivation of each young person.

I say, keep the education list, and keep trying to improve the list. The list includes content mastery of reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, and social studies. It also includes physical abilities and character traits. The teacher’s job is to maintain a checklist for each student. Every student’s progress is different, of course, and the system allows for that. One student might check off all kinds of things in a few areas, and less in other areas. Some students are absolutely bored and dragged down in certain classes and topics. And other students struggle to keep pace. Such a system would allow each student to progress as fast as they may. Students could shine in ways they are motivated to, and be encouraged to fill in gaps or weaknesses. Teachers can find indicators of readiness for college, or technical school, or whatever career plans are appropriate.

Trends in student progress can easily be tracked, yielding fantastic information about how to improve teaching in general, and what teacher efforts would help individual students. It would reveal much more about individual differences too. We get the same information as standardized testing is supposed to give, in fact more comprehensive and accurate, because it records routine progress of individuals, as monitored by teachers in one-on-one situations.

The teachers and schools, a.k.a. the government can help each person be all they can be. Seems constitutional to me.


About Jim

I've been leading outdoor environmental education in the YMCA since the 1970s. I love teaching nature, history, current events, being a dad, fixing stuff, groups, and general thinking.
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One Response to Education Reform

  1. JP says:

    Jim, good to a long, thoghtful post. I don’t have time to read it closely now, and will get to it this weekend. All I’ll say for now is it may be true Ravitch thinks it is unconstitutional to have education standards, though if she said that outright in this piece I missed. She clearly does think there is a role for the federal government and the education secretary. One of her complaints about Duncan is that he has been silent in the face of the constant attack on education by the likes of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. She thought he should have been there speaking up for teachers, and on that point at least, I agree with her.

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