What Are We Educating For?

Lost in all our public education-related skirmishes is a thoughtful consideration of what we think education is actually for. The answer we hear most often in America is "achievement," which takes for granted that what we want to achieve are high scores on standardized tests -- a shallow and dispiriting objective, in my view. It is also assumed that to attain this educational success we need our children to be rescued by Superman. And Superwoman, of course -- this signals gender equity, if not complexity of thought. In other words, one will not come away knowing a lot about our challenges simply by listening with one ear to the loudest voices. (Michelle Rhee, anyone?)

Good, thoughtful material does exist, material that can help us clarify our thinking, which means no easy answers. Here are two terrific pieces on education that I encountered over the last couple of weeks. These pieces will really help you understand what's at stake, and what the questions are that need answering. I urge you to read them, if you are so inclined.

The first is an in-depth article by Kate Taylor in the New York Times considering the pros and cons of the Success Academy charter schools in New York City. My personal bias is not toward the highly-regimented test-focused pedagogy of these schools, but I acknowledge that they are very popular and that they do in fact provide exactly what many parents want for their children. The comments section attests to this. But let me raise some skepticism around a couple points. First, these are privatized schools founded by super-wealthy hedge-fund people. It doesn't impugn their motives to suggest that their conception of good education is skewed by their own circumstances. Second, at these schools teachers tend to be very young, with many leaving after a couple years. When I did my teacher training, my mentor teacher told me that he didn't become a truly good teacher until after five years or so. This suggests that good teaching involves many things, such as wisdom, that go way past high test scores, since the young Success Academy teachers do achieve such scores. I would use this article as a case study in education schools. Read the article here.

The next is from Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. This substantial essay, which appears at the Democracy Journal website, is called "Are We Still Making Citizens?" I share Botstein's view that it is a vital task for schools to help young people develop the kind of thinking capacities, judgment, and confidence to be able to contribute as citizens; to be thoughtfully anti-authoritarian while still being committed to the polis and our common good. But Botstein does not overlook the trade-offs involved, especially academically. I believe this is one of the most valuable essays on education I've ever read -- and I've read a lot of them. Read the essay here.

In this paragraph Botstein lays out his vision of the challenge of citizenship education:
What that experience has taught me is that the purpose, challenge, and substance of education in a democracy are defined by two questions: How ought we to live, side by side, not as lone individuals but as citizens? And how can we, through education, help individuals answer that question? Answering these questions is hard, particularly in the United States, where many seem to view citizenship as a burden and even an unfortunate necessity. The rampant distrust of government and the public sector has become overwhelming. We sidestep the question and defend education in purely economic terms, linking education to work and productivity. Nonetheless, citizenship is more than economic; it is a defining political fact of life, one that even in its neglect can’t be dismissed. And active citizenship, embraced with some measure of critical enthusiasm, may be an indispensable foundation of justice, freedom, and civility.
In conclusion, I'll just say that America has done, and is doing, a better job with education than is acknowledged, that the American educational project is the most ambitious ever attempted, and that teachers are not the enemy, nor the entire answer, either.

View my post from last year called A Field Guide to Ed Reform.


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