What Do We Want from Education?

The choices have been clear for a long time. One side, though, seemed to have won within the last decade. As Elaine Weiss, writing for the Huffington Post, says, there has been “a philosophical shift from education as a critical tool to advance democracy to a consumer-oriented system of individual choice, achievement, and even profit.”

Though the impact has been strongest on American k-12 schools (No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top), the impact is felt in colleges and universities, too. “Learning outcomes” are one of the results, attempts to quantify just about everything and to justify specific learning activities rather than seeing a student as a whole being and an education as something that prepares students for their own explorations, for development of their own ‘learning outcomes.’ This is the factory model of education and, frankly, it has no place in a democracy, where education is supposed to produce participants in the public square who can examine evidence and make decisions on their own. That this ability also makes for better workers is critical to the success of both education and the United States, but the primary focus is on creating good citizens.

We college professors, with problems enough of our own–with changes in governance heading toward a corporate model of top-down decision making, with academic freedom becoming a narrower and narrower aspect of our lives, with more and more of us living and working as contingent and part-time hires, keeping us barely on the fringes of the middle class (if there at all)–haven’t been paying enough attention, as a group, to what has been happening to the schools that feed students to us. Yes, many of us have noticed that our students (especially at non-elite public institutions) are coming to us less and less prepared for college work each ensuing year, but we haven’t put in the time to really explore why. It is hard enough trying to make up for the lacks our students are coming in with. How, furthermore, can we have the time to advocate for changes in k-12 curricula when our own are under fire?

Good question.

I can’t answer it, other than to say that we need to make that time, one way or another.

Things are starting to change, in the k-12 debate, but the “reformers” who want to remake our schools into factories still dominate the discussion. Things they put forward, the the Common Core Curriculum, are accepted as “good” on their faces, without real national discussion and without even testing through pilot programs. Concepts they advocate, like merit pay, vouchers, and even charter schools, have never been shown to improve education–neither has their new idea of rating both schools and teachers, closing and firing those who don’t measure up.

We, the professors who see first the results of all of the “reforms” to public education, need to start speaking up.

We also need to learn a little more about what is going on.

By now, most of us have heard of Diane Ravitch’s new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Private Schools. It is becoming the Bible of the resistance to the “reform” movement, resistance that, for the first time in over a decade, shows signs of having real impact. There’s a reason for that: It is clear, accurate, and puts into one place all of the things that many of us have been feeling these past years. Even we college professors should read it. Though it does not speak directly to our situations, it pertains to the positions of our students and their preparation before coming into our classrooms.

We should be loud voices against this “reform” movement, pulling up the memory of John Dewey and reminding people of the real role of education. We should be supporting the k-12 teachers and parents who are fighting to over-use of standardized testing. We should be loud voices in the debate over k-12.

As of yet, aside from a few (such as Mark Naison), we have not been.

Let’s change that.

After all, we want a lot from education. Not just students who come to us ready and able to do the work we expect of them, but citizens who will continue to learn throughout their lives. Both are disappearing, and will continue to disappear. Our involvement can help stop that.

2 thoughts on “What Do We Want from Education?

  1. I like this piece and it reminds me that in the interests of a future authentic democracy, one of the roles of Institutions of Higher Learning like college and universities is surely to be good stewards of various key discourses – one of which is education itself. Of course, public education should be everyone’s concern but I can see that IHLs have a leadership role if for no other reason than the quality and future of their own work is at stake. As far as thinking about educate is concerned the dominant discourses have for too long focused on what is to be known (cf. the standards movement); how quickly and effectively it can be known (“best practices”); how it can be shown, by measurement, that knowledge is being mastered (cf. high stakes standardized testing) but all at the expense of the existential – what it means to be educated, what it means to be a teacher, and what it means for being to teach us. I agree Tim – IHLs have to more intensely steward the discourse and do it in publicly accessible ways. HELP!

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