Monday, September 10, 2007

If It Ain't Broke...Break It!

Got into a long & winding discussion last night with the lovely & thought-provoking Miss Tessmacher. We were on our way home from her season-opening TSO gig, the Spawn safely snuggled (and asleep!) in the back, and we started in on education. Because - and I've posted about this stuff before - I really think education in this country is in the shitter...but, for all the wrong reasons.

Often our complaints about education stem from the fact that many of our students just...don't seem to think very well. They're not DUMB, understand, but they don't show a lot of either aptitude or desire in their logical thought processes. I blame this on standardized testing and a hugely illogical monster commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind. First things first...

I'm a child of the 70s, so I grew up with a fairly standard public school education: we memorized multiplication tables, diagrammed sentences, and researched our papers via the card catalogue in our libraries. It was a solid education, and you pretty much got the same thing wherever you were. Now: I understand that inner-city schools or extremely rural schools - like, in the Mississippi Delta, for instance - were not on the same level as posh suburban Chicago schools, flush with money and caring two-parent families. I do get that. What I'm proposing here is that MOST people got a quality education, and the problems that existed within the system were isolated pockets that, yes, needed solutions, absolutely, and citizens everywhere should have banded together to make sure that ALL children had the same opportunities at school.

Instead of that kind of localized solution, there began to be a national murmur, that quickly grew into a deafening shout, to the effect that education in this country was "broken." That it "needed fixing," and that right quick. I actually believe that this was a strategy of Regan conservatives to usurp control of what had previously been seen as a "liberal" value. It's a quick way to score easy political points: you figure out what your enemy's position or value is, label it as "troublesome" or "broken," and then offer a way to "fix" it. Education - and the powerful teacher's union - was safely seen as being a liberal platform. To shake things up, the electorate needed to be convinced that education wasn't working, and that there were people who could fix it.

Enter standarized testing. If some sort of test could be constructed that would ascertain whether certain basic knowledge was being learned by all students at a particular grade level, well, that would be great. Then we could show DEFINITIVELY that a school was "passing" or "failing," and of course we could invent various reforms (i.e., "punishments") for those schools that conisistenly failed. The only problem is...this educational platform encourages the teaching of facts and names and dates; it leaves very little (if any) wiggle room to engage in thoughtful consideration of various points of view. The Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941: fact. Approximately 25oo servicemen & women died during this attack: fact. Learn these facts, and be tested on them, and that'll show whether or not you know your history. But...nowhere in there is a discussion of WHY Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Did the U.S. know an attack was imminent and deliberately fail to act? Discuss! Were the seeds of the Japanese attack planted by U.S. action in the years leading up to the act? Discuss! And on & on...all the really GOOD stuff, the stuff that actually makes students rub their little brain cells together, that stuff all gets dropped in favor of 1) know this, 2) repeat it, 3) forget it and move on to the next thing. It's a piss-poor educational philosophy, and I really think it's having the exact opposite of its intended effect: namely, we're getting DUMBER, not smarter, because we don't think as well.

Not to be outdone by standardized testing, the current administration looked at the situation and decided to cash in some political soundbytes be intoning forcefully that No Child shall be Left Behind!! That's right: not only will we have standard tests, but NOW we'll declare that every child will PASS those tests! Every one! All of 'em! Well, bust my buttons, but I think anyone who has, oh, WORKED in education will tell you that while such a policy might sound like a worthy and lofty goal to work towards, in practice it just ain't possible. See, it turns out that folks have what we call "different skill levels," and the kid who might be a genius on the violin doesn't have a turd's talent for trigonometry. But...they don't TEST violin competence, and more's the pity. Shit, I sucked at math! I mean, I could recite those multiplication tables all the live-long-day, but once I got beyond basic algebra I was a hopeless mess. "Do you see a parabola in my nose right now? Sweet and meaty!" So, my skill level at certain parts of these tests would be pretty bad...bad enough that, if you really DO intend to have EVERYONE pass, you have to lower the expectations of the test to the point at which I CAN pass it. Which, of course, simply dumbs the class down for those people who DO excel at math! Gah. To Leave No Child Behind ultimately means we'll end up teaching to the lowest common denominator, and in the meantime we'll lose the interest of anyone who might have been the next Einstein, or whoever.

Instead of trying to "fix" an educational system that wasn't truly broken, politicians would have better spent their time - and taxpayer money! - trying to figure out why schools in, I don't know, Detroit let's say, were failing while others were succeeding. It's not tough: take a couple million people - property owners who paid for schools in the first place - and move 'em increasingly further out into the suburbs, and eventually all you have left are folks who live in apartments...or, worse, on the streets, and ain't NONE of 'em paying for schools. But, that's a tougher political fix, in'n it? That means you gotta tackle social classism and greed and all sortsa other stuff you'd frankly rather leave buried under rocks. Nope, much easier to claim that ALL education is broken, and then offer to fix it with your much-hyped plan, news at 11:00. Fuck.

Okay: end of rant. I'm so passionate about education, but I feel like Quixote tilting at a huge, animated, viscious windmill that doesn't just sit there impassively, it up & chomps my head off for saying "the wrong thing," according to whatever way the political wind is blowing. But I do know this: education wasn't NEARLY so broken before a bunch of slick-ass shitheaded politicians decided they'd stake their careers on selling water to fish. All we're doing now is dumbing down our whole society by eliminating insightful consideration and spontaneous thinking in favor of a zombie-like regurgitation of quasi-facts. Jubal Harshaw would weep.


Blogger Gknee said...

I was really thinking that it can't be all that bad until in my classes at the community college kids ( I can call them that...I am the age of their parents) think that Baltimore is a burrow of Philadelphia and that Seattle is located in California. Sad isn't it. That people who graduated and were accepted into a place of higher education actually have no clue. I have to be careful not to gasp out loud sometimes.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Jenn-Jenn, the Mother Hen said...

The idiocy of the majority of college students these days is why I take my classes online. If someone starts to "say" something absolutely asinine, all I have to do is stop reading. I can tune them out just by shifting my eyes. If I were in a class room with them, not only would I have to see and hear them making stupid comments, I'd actually have to share the same air with them. I just don't want to take the chance that stupidity is contagious. LOL!

11:32 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

And really, then we get despairing media stories about how American don't read. Is it any wonder?? How can such relentlessly test-oriented teaching be expected to produce the sort of minds that gravitate towards the complexity of actual literature?

I love how Laura Bush has become our national spokesperson for "reading." And "libraries." To just smack us in the face with irony, in case the "No Child Left Behind" moniker hasn't given us enough. I'm probably too much of a conspiracy theorist, but when I see her on library posters and whatnot I can't help thinking that since libraries represent everything that is dangerous to her husband's governmental and religious ideology (whatever, they're the same), the best thing possible is to assign his passionless, opinionless, automaton wife to front the whole "reading" thing. She can do for reading what tin cans did for spinach.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

While I think your arguement is a noble one, I also agree that the situation has turned into a Mountain of Woe that can't be leveled back to Earth. Does anyone really think that, if left to their own corrupt political devices, Detroit would solve it's own education crises "locally"? Standardized testing is a One Size Fits All solution. But sadly, a solution is needed to combat or protect education needs from political ones. As a result, we've politicized the standardized testing. Great circle jerk!

9:54 AM  
Blogger L*I*S*A said...

No Child Left Behind.

Too late.

They're gone.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Suze said...

they can test all they want (and i don't think ALL standardized testing should go away) but if they don't back it up with serious funding, it's all for naught anyway. the real problem is that they keep trying to fix education on the cheap and that just doesn't work.

heh. maybe you guys should just homeschool.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Tooz said...

No Child Left Behind only works for children without handicaps, but the powers that be expected us poor teachers to make it work for the kids with IQs of anywhere from 60 down to 40 (let alone all the kids who were disabled by other factors, including abuse, neglect, unrecognized genius). No, it wasn't going to work. That's why I'm not a teacher anymore.

4:35 PM  
Blogger kat said...

Animal for president.

9:08 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home