Friday, November 23, 2012

Purpose and Priorities in Education

I just read this teen's open letter about standardized testing. He's making a documentary about education and how standardized testing has affected the education of many young people. 

I think this is important. 

Students absolutely should be engaging in the global and national conversations about education. Of course, this would have been a lot easier had education been returned to local control (under a President Mitt Romney). Unforunately, that's not in the cards. Our current POTUS, President Barack Obama, is only a reformer insofar as it means making America like all the other nations of the world and increasing globalization. He doesn't care about the quality of education; he's more interested in its quantity -- that is, making sure all students fit under the umbrella of government schooling

While I agree all children should have access to learning tools, I disagree that all students deserve and need the same education. The difference? 

Learning tools tend to be universal: letters, numbers, blocks, books, videos, internet access. They are tools which can be used to present information in a beautiful variety of ways. 

It's not the same thing as providing "education" which to the government generally means a standard curriculum which all children are taught and must be proved to have accepted by means of standardized testing. 

But how is this resolved? How do we ensure we are providing top-notch tools and making sure those tools are used wisely for continued learning? How do we ensure students are prepared to become productive citizens who are also independent thinkers?

It's so tricky, really. I mean, there's a reason we haven't gotten it all sorted. 

The way I see it, there are two legitimate purposes for education, and a third more cynical purpose: 

1) To expand the mind and allow continued learning, 
2) To provide preparation, life skills, and job training, 
3) To manipulate the culture to fit a government ideal.

For that first purpose, you really don't need any kind of testing at all. Teachers can tell if a child is learning or not, and with such a broad goal as "continued learning" there's ample room for creative encouragement. In the past, before this round of standardized testing, American schools embraced the fuzzy math, creative spelling, e-for-effort ideal. The result of ignoring life preparedness and job training has been pretty glaring: America has fallen behind.

For that second purpose alone, you get China. No wiggle room for different types of learners. The sole purpose of education is to produce educated, useful citizens. You test into your caste system, as it were. Even before NCLB, we had this obsession with standardized testing. The results are no more desirable than previously. You get squashed spirits, kids who do fall behind a standardized norm, and tremendous burnout so that by the time kids get to college, they just want a break.

The third purpose needs no help. Those wheels have been in motion a long time, stretching into higher education and ensuring all teachers value the same government-sanctioned cultural ideals.

Going forward, we really need to figure out what our priorities are as a society. Personally, I value both 1 and 2, and am wary of 3. I'd rather see parents take care of cultural training. Nobody is an island, and we couldn't keep our kids from popular culture if we tried, but that doesn't mean we have to give up our traditions to favor a whitewashed, government model of culture. I know many immigrants have lamented that their children are abandoning their language and heritage because of this cultural immersion in government schools.

But where is the balance between 1 and 2? Is education for learning or job training? 

And who gets to decide?

My own view is that the decision should be left to individuals. Some schools (college prep, etc.) could specialize in life preparation and job training while others (charter schools with a fine arts focus) could specialize in the virtue of learning, separate from its job applications. 

The only way this works, though, is for school choice to become the norm. And that rubs the wrong way anybody who believes all kids should be learning exactly the same things (standardized education proponents). 

So the battle continues.

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