Education and Dreams and Hopes

I am not a cynical person. So please don’t take what follows as such.

When I began teaching, in 1981, I wanted to change the world. There were few restrictions on what I had to teach or how I had to go about it. Test scores weren’t collected and published in the local paper. There were no state mandated ‘assessments’ that all students had to take at certain points along their pathway through K-12. The only common elements seemed to be a state ‘core’ curriculum specifying curricular content in the broad sense and skill sets that students were expected to attain at each grade level, and a process at the school district level to adopt a common textbook for each of the ‘core’ curricular areas such as math, English, history, and reading. I had a lot of freedom as a teacher to engage students in learning as I felt best met their needs, backgrounds, and skills.

The understanding was that you took students as they came to you and moved them ahead, helped them improve, and prepared them for the next grade levels. Of course, we did have achievement tests that students took and we could see the individual breakout of each student’s scores along with grade level distribution of those scores. In my second or third year of teaching, the state implemented statewide core testing as well, annually testing students in the ‘core’ subjects at the end of each year. Those criterion referenced tests were based upon the state’s core curriculum, which was still broadly based around curricular content and skill sets for each grade level.

And you know what I saw? Students were doing quite well. Over 85% of students graduating from state high schools were continuing their education beyond high school. ACT scores were not decreasing; they were holding steady or improving slightly (a conversation for another day if you want to talk about re-norming standardized tests and how that affects scores on those tests). Teachers were adjusting their curriculum and teaching approaches to fit the student(s) as everyone knew that teaching rural Navajo students in SE Utah wasn’t quite the same as teaching urban students in the Salt Lake City school district. It was insane to expect all students to learn the same material in the same ways.

That was in the early 1980’s.

Something happened on the way to 2016.

Standardized testing; standardized assessments; standardized curriculum; homogenized teaching and learning…and a refocusing on the technocracy of teaching and learning burst onto the scene following the Nation at Risk report, political shifts in people and policies, and globalization seen as a threat rather than as an opportunity…all my opinion of course. Student test scores became the fixation. Measure, teach, measure, teach, remediate, measure, teach, etc. etc. etc. Treat all students the same; everywhere. Publish the test scores. Rate schools via a scoring system as well. Rate teachers based upon the test scores of their students.

You know the drill…we have over 20 years of this dominant theme hammering away at our teachers, our students, our schools.

And what has been the result? In my opinion, a killing of the spirit of teaching and learning. Creativity has been set aside and replaced by curricular scripts. Textbook and curricular materials publishers continue to align themselves with the gurus of assessment to control what is taught and how it is measured, thus also indirectly dictating HOW content is taught. Teachers, faculty…those of us who had dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of learning and intellectual development have been pushed to the fringes of acceptability. Education has become all about ‘getting the skills to compete in the global economy…jobs, jobs, jobs.’

At what expense? I believe at the expense of losing what we stand for as a nation and what we worked so hard to build and fight for over the past 200+ years as a country founded on democratic principles. We have slowly and inexorably and unwittingly excised those principles from public education in an attempt to push young people to ‘achieve’ via a focus on scripted curriculum, tightly controlled content, and oppressive assessments that drive what we teach, when we teach it, and HOW we teach it.

So, in my humble opinion, let’s get back to basics.

Public education in the U.S. was build around the idea that everyone needs basic skills to function in society (read that as an educated citizenry; also read Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson). Participatory democracy is built upon that foundation. Yes, early education included religious instruction as well…understood…but the ideal was that every citizen living in a country where participation of the people and for the people is needed if that country is to be a place where people are free to express an opinion, attend the church of their choice, critique their leaders, organize, take action, etc.; that country needed an educated, thinking, thoughtful citizenry. Needed, if we are to be a place where city, county, state, and national leaders have the best interest of the people at the core of what they do, a common good, not a private good.

Public education evolved to include a focus on liberal education as the core (read that as a an educated citizenry who can think critically, analytically, and creatively…and who can appreciate the value of the arts and those things we live for outside of the ‘world of work’). I view that as an enhancement of the early ideals of education being a place for creation of an educated citizenry; engagement in all aspects of society to promote the common good expected…not the creation of an educated elite or a wealthy 1% that rules the city, the county, the state, the nation. Again, a public good, not a private good.

We built this nation on the backs of education as a public good where educators were entrusted to work closely with colleagues, students, and local communities to design education experiences that engaged students in learning and encouraged the development of the creative and rational mind. Remember when celebrating diversity and creative thought and problem solving was important and considered essential to a well-rounded education? I do. Education had heart and soul. Educators felt responsible for development of the ‘whole person.’ Preparation for work was important, but not the dominant mantra that it is today. Continuing your education beyond the K-12 experience was pretty much expected and a given…lifelong learning became a common theme.

That is what I remember from the 80’s and into the 90’s, despite the growing push toward the technocracy of assessment and control over the curriculum, which leads to control over the teaching process as well.

This then begs the question(s)…how were students doing back then? What were the graduation rates? The college going rates? The unemployment rates? What were the indicators of how well students were functioning in the world of work as well as in society as a whole? How was the nation faring?

Is it better today than it was in the 80’s? The 90’s? Go back even further…are things better today than they were in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s? Is there a correlation between what has changed in our educational approaches and practices vs. what we now are experiencing as a nation in our global standing? Our politics? Our societal expectations and way of life in general?

When things get tough, do we then screw down and tighten up the purposes of education, reining in the focus to a narrowly defined focus on jobs, forcing out the other purposes of education, purposes that build this nation as a world leader in so many areas? Is that what is needed?

Or is the opposite actually what is needed?

If we continue down that path of screwing down and tightening up, do we really think the U.S. will continue to be known as the place where freedom rings, where people can build a better life for themselves and their children, where living and working alongside good people dedicated to social justice…fairness, equality, respect for all people…where creativity and the world of ideas resides and leads to innovation and sustainable economic development?

Or should be be opening up, loosening up, encouraging creativity and innovation…encouraging hopes and dreams…un-standardizing what we have spent so much time and energy trying to standardize?

I don’t have those answers, and I don’t know if anyone does.

However, deep inside something is churning, and it has to do with where we are headed in education vs. where we are headed as a nation; now vs. then. Despite my optimism and my knowing that good people will step up and do the right things, their is a churning.