August 24, 2009
There are a host of potential changes regarding education on both the state and national levels. In a presentation to the school committee this past year, I shared the following comment from the International Center for Leadership in Education—“The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of school.” This simple statement has historically been interpreted in different ways and I’m sure will be reinterpreted by many in the future. If we look back to the founding fathers we find that Thomas Jefferson thought that public education was to provide an informed citizenry for governance--“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” As the country grew we moved to both limit the exploitation of children at work and provide a free and public education for all. As part of this change we moved from long individual apprenticeships to vocational schools as well as mandated attendance and other rules of operating all public schools—the beginning of wrestling control from the local citizens. We quickly moved through periods of challenges and related federal programs—Sputnik and the race to increase science education, various mandated programs to improve schools, the integration of society and by extension its schools, programs to provide help in school for the poor, to today’s concerns about STEM issues (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and our educational standing in the world. It could be said that we’ve gone from an education for and about society to one that’s concerned with standardized test scores and competition with other students throughout the world. Under this scenario we’ve created false proxies for learning where finishing a course equates to achievement, listening to lectures equals understanding and getting a high score on a standardized test means proficiency rather than being concerned with meaning, not memorization; engagement rather than transmission; inquiry rather than compliance; creating knowledge and links rather than just acquiring information; personalizing education rather than simply following the pack; and learning to collaborate rather than simply compete.
Essentially we’re still using a mass production means of educating our children to meet the needs of a world that is evolving well beyond the point of success being measured by routine manual or cognitive skills. With more and more people arguing that training for the present is akin to training for the past, and the outlook that many of the jobs lost in this recession are gone for good—not because of the economy but because the needs of the world have changed; is it wise to put all of our apples in one basket? I look at a continuing loss of local control over all aspects of our lives—zoning, taxes, health care, education being just a few examples—and wonder where we’ll end up. The initiatives from the federal government essentially forcing states to adopt policies for more Charter Schools, more standardized testing and more regulations preempting local decisions, coupled with potential state legislation that would take local decision making away from cities and towns and place it squarely in the offices of appointed public officials at the state level, remind me evermore of George Orwell’s belief that “Big Brother is watching you”. Our overall unwillingness to participate in the running of society (look at voter turnout, participation in town meetings, volunteering for town offices, our understanding of the issues outside of the 30 second sound bite) makes it that much easier for a self selected few to control the media, discussion and eventual decisions that everyone else must live with—a far cry from Jefferson’s concern about placing the ultimate powers of society in its people. Educationally we’ve evolved through MCAS and other standardized tests to the point where we will (if perfect mastery is achieved by 2014 as is the state’s plan) have achieved the ability of students to do well in school. My question is whether we will have succeeded in making our students successful in life and contributing members of society by making them good test takers.