What is our Purpose?

Posted on November 22, 2010. Filed under: thinking aloud |

We have not agreed.  We not only disagree about the who, how, and what of education, we also disagree about the why.  We argue a great deal from different mountaintops.

Right now the national focus is on education equity, a cause I can truly get behind as a person that believes in opportunity for all.  But the question becomes equity of what?  If we all take the same tests and study exactly the same material, what kind of equity do we get? Does every person want and need to get the same amount of math, science, geography and home economics? As I have explained to my parents at back to school night each year, equity is not about getting the same or even the same amount.  Boys, for instance, would not generally find it fair for me as the teacher to order pink pencils and pink notebooks for every student.  Most students that have learned their times tables would not find it fair to have to repeat them indefinitely just because others have not yet learned them. A student with incredible music or arts abilities does not find it fair that the daily focus should be on math or reading. Equity recognizes differences in wants, needs, and aspirations. Equity is about fair opportunity and fair funding; it is about social justice; it is not about everything being the same.

Is our purpose in US educational reform “equity-of-coverage?” And does equity-of-coverage thereby eliminate the guilt of the wealthy and middle class toward those of  the disadvantaged class? “Hey, we gave them all the information we have…now they need to go do something with it.” If information produces equity, I would suggest we all just go out read wikipedia and be done with schooling altogether.

Equity-of-coverage certainly does not provide for equitable futures.  Learning scads of material does not prepare anyone for a promising future in a world where top careers are in constant flux and employees to fill those careers will need flexibility, creativity, connections, and problem solving skills.  Future employees do not need the skills to find a single right answer from a set of choices, the top skill our equity-of-coverage schooling provides. Perhaps we do not want to mislead children into believing they have a chance at a thinking, creating sort of career?  Perhaps we want our children to grow into compliant factory workers, in which case perhaps equity-of-coverage is  a very effective schooling choice. But I wonder, will we really have the factories available to employ all these folks in a future certain to be fully automated?

Is it equity of democratic ideals that we pursue?  We want all children to have the chance to become literate, thinking members of society and active participants in democracy?  If that is the case, a very different educational system would be our focus than the track we are presently upon. This standards/testing track is not about equitable access to thinking, understanding, learning from the great thinkers, and independent reasoning. Very little of that can take place in a system articulated by a ladder thick with standards, each rung tested by a thin, bubble-in-format and accessible only at the age predetermined by the ladder makers. Furthermore, this ladder is easiest to climb if using a subscribed set of dull books that attempt to cover rather than illuminate, challenge, and inspire. How does such a system support democratic thinking and understanding?

Is our purpose perhaps about equity of funding? If so, we should look very closely at the costs of this test and textbook driven direction.  What if that same money were spent to attract top-thinkers into teaching (rather than into testing and textbook companies)? What if that money were spent decreasing class size so that every child could be listened to? Creating open, flexible learning spaces that encourage students in writing, arguing, thinking, creating, and developing reason? What if we could once again afford arts education, a conduit to some of the best in critical and creative thinking? Or technological connections allowing children to speak and discuss important issues with each other across towns, cities, and countries? Would that not be a better way to spend money? Does the huge cost of testing and textbooks help us to arrive more quickly at our preferred destination? To the place where we want to be? Or are there better options?  Could we decrease our testing costs, test a little less, decrease our textbooks costs, make them look more like reading/learning material and less like glossy advertising brochures? What would that mean for funding for other elements of education?

Perhaps we are not working toward equity at all.  Maybe our present schooling system is working toward global competitiveness on international tests?  The argument of being competitive with the world falls flat on this point.  The top countries that we are supposedly racing-to-the-top against do not adhere to the testing/textbook frenzy of the USA.  Finland? Japan?  Hong Kong?  They think our endless testing is out of control and bizarre.  They believe in quality teaching with ongoing formative (not bubble-in) assessment, esteem and admiration of the teaching profession, thoughtful slow changes to curriculum, reflective and ongoing professional development from teacher-to-teacher, and a focused thin curriculum. Go figure.  How utterly foreign. Depth not breadth…so difficult in a country that moves fast and buys everything.

As you can see, I am not inclined to think our educational system is going to lead to the our desired outcomes, unless…

Perhaps our purpose is really to hold children until they are adults.  If our goal is to produce equal holding tanks (so that parents may go to work unencumbered) with the illusion we are providing opportunity for their children.  Then I think perhaps we are achieving our purpose quite nicely. We require attendance.  We have hoops children must jump through each year, giving the illusion of growth toward a goal, and we have a full plate of required things to learn, keeping everyone busy each year. Teachers are trained in controlling a room, rather than inspiring a thought.  We schedule vacations at convenient times for parent work calendars. And we convince parents through archaic report cards that we are doing our jobs nicely–so they needn’t worry while at work.  Furthermore, no one needs to hear the opinions of teachers as they are merely the holders of the keys to the holding tanks. Why do we need their opinions to build better holding tanks? Better that we listen to people good at building tanks, like politicians and CEOs.  It makes sense that the purpose of schooling is best aligned at present to schools-as-holding-tanks for children.

If we can agree this is the purpose, it will be much easier to select effective reforms. Now, let’s get started!


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[…] be divided up in the new blended world. Much has been written about the role of schools as “holding tanks.” Even if consensus could be gained that babysitting should not be schools’ role, few […]

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