Guest Column: Rescuing American education

The recent movement in education initiated by politicians across the United States relies heavily on the bulwark of standardization, testing, and prescriptive learning. Who is leading this charge? Teachers? Students? Parents? No, politicians. The legislators in this country have two factors that make it impossible for them to solve the education crisis that faces us today. First, there is the common notion that because they’ve been educated, they know how best to educate; consequently, they ignore the experts in the field. Second, they are driven, so it seems, by the short-term notion of “I need to appear to be doing something, anything, to fix the education system, regardless of whether it will.” The easy and obvious solution has been to implement standardized testing; standardized testing has penetrated the world of education in the hope that this will rescue our failing school system. But testing is not a panacea, and it cannot fix the enormous institutional problems of this system now, or ever; it merely reinforces the failings of the current system.

We have a situation where America’s education system is underfunded and under-supported by the government and the taxpayers and lacks the investment necessary to reinvent itself to meet the demands of the 21st century. Bill Gates has argued recently that our schools “were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Today, even when they work exactly as designed, our high schools cannot teach our kids what they need to know” (Bill Gates, “What’s Wrong With America’s High Schools?” LA Times March 1, 2005). What standardized testing offers is more of the same, except now we’re tracking it, we’re doing something, anything to appear that we’re dealing with the system’s flaws.

The cosmetic nature of this political movement serves only to accelerate the dumbing-down of America. The standards-based testing does nothing to encourage critical thinking, creative problem solving, or any higher order cognitive skills. Instead, it insidiously promotes rote-memorization and the trivial pursuits of knowledge. Unless politicians, and the citizens at large who should be taking them to task, begin looking at the real problems facing education and the foundational failings of this institutional relic, American students will continue their down hill slide in a competitive global environment.

Perhaps it sounds alarmist to say that the current political solution to education is destroying America, but we need to recognize that the foundation of this country’s economic, cultural, and political clout in the 20th century was built upon a revolutionary system of education established to meet the needs of its time with profound success. Yet now, we drag around the corpse of a deadened fossil, like a bad scene out of Weekend At Bernie’s, hoping nobody will notice. What is worse is that everyone has noticed, but few have the courage to try to do anything about it. Thus, the pleas and effort of dedicated people like Bill Gates, Linda Darling Hammond, George Lucas, and others who are diligently working to remake education go on mostly unnoticed by those who are trying to save their hides by doing something, doing anything, even if it is destructive and misguided. This is reprehensible. It is not until politicians begin to listen to the experts in the field and those for whom our students will be working in the future that real change in education will begin to manifest itself.

A nationwide educational revolution (NER) is currently on standby. There is an enormous body of research and practice that propounds the myriad ways that education can be improved in this country. The national, state, and local governments, in partnership with a very concerned business community and general public, must focus a massive reinvestment in education at all levels that ensures fully-funded, radically diverse, and interest-specific, life long educational opportunities for all individuals. The NER requires a complete reorganization of the structure of schooling based upon performance (not test scores), interests, and development of students in smaller learning environments. Our current drive to force students to meet arbitrary and trivial standards and assessments without the resources to do so is abominably absurd; it is an insult to anyone who is serious about improving education in any meaningful way in this country.

Ultimately, we have lost touch as a nation as to what our goal for educating students is. We have talked at great length about what trivial facts should be crammed into their heads for the testing period, but none of this fosters our students ability to meet the budding requirements of the 21st century either in the workplace, in the arts, or in higher learning. Politicians, school districts, and unions alike have moved the debate so far away from the issues that matter for the futures of our students’ that they are lost in the fray. If they are lost, America is lost, and I, like Bill Gates, am terrified for a future where we are too blind to see what work must be done to rescue America’s flagging pre-eminence in the world. Because if we don’t begin to make deliberate steps to rescue American education soon, it may be too late.

Cory D. Maley teaches history at a public high school in Redwood City, Calif. He is the author of The Dream Unfurled: A Manifesto for Millennial America. More information about his book and free sample passages can be found at his Web site

From the June 1-7, 2005, issue

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