I worry that the dominant vocabulary about schooling limits our shared respect for the extraordinary nature of thinking and learning, and lessens our sense of social obligation.
When was the last time you were moved by a high-level speech about education? I don’t mean by the personal testimonials we hear at graduations or award ceremonies, but by a policy or political speech. My guess is that it’s been quite a while. We seem trapped in a language of schooling that stresses economics, accountability, and compliance. These are important issues, to be sure, but they are not the stuff of personal dreams and common vision, not a language that inspires.
For a long time now, our public talk about education has been shaped by a concern about economic readiness and competitiveness. There is some mention of the traditional purposes of education—intellectual, civic, and moral development—but not much. The economic motive looms large. Policy discussion is also driven, and increasingly so, by various systems of standards and assessments that have consequences for how schools are rated, run, and even financed.
The economic motive has always been a significant factor in the spread of mass education in the United States, and as someone from the working class who has achieved financial mobility from schooling, the importance of the link between education and economic well-being is not lost on me. Furthermore, there is an argument to be made for combining this economic theme with measurement technique, especially when considering a system of mass education as vast and complex as ours. Just to take one point, it is crucial to have some means of quality control, and to be able to bring to light the significant numbers of young people who don’t do well in school, who are glossed over, who get lost. This is one stated—and important—intention of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
But what I want to consider is how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our vision of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development, for both individuals and a democratic society. This narrowing of discourse, this pinching of what we talk about when we talk about school, is evident in the public sphere, the national and regional discussions of education, its goals and purpose, the vision that motivates action. As the educational researcher Michael Gunzenhauser succinctly puts it: “Conversations about the meaning and value of education cannot take place today without performance on standardized tests taking center stage.”
One way this narrowing plays out is in journalistic coverage of education, what gets defined and disseminated as news about schooling. “It’s unlike anything in my experience,” a veteran education journalist told me. “Something is always emerging” about tests and testing.
Think of what we don’t read and hear.
There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, uncertainty, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. And how about accounts of reform that present change as alternately difficult, exhilarating, ambiguous, and promising—and that find reform not in a device, technique, or structure, but in the way we think about teaching and learning? Consider how little we hear about respect, decency, aesthetics, joy, courage, intellect, civility, heart and mind, skill and understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society.
Now, there is an economic discussion of schooling that we ought to hear, but rarely do. This would be a discussion that places individual and school failure in the context of joblessness, health-care and housing security, a diminished tax base, economic policy, and the social safety net. This discussion would include acknowledgment of the continuing erosion of what social protections we have had in the United States. It would also include the fact that education budgets are threatened in many states, programs are being cut, and there are huge and growing differences in school expenditures. The wealthiest public schools spend two to three times more on their students than the poorest. The rich, the very rich especially, are getting much richer. The middle stagnate, and the poor fall off the charts.
Poverty robs a person of so many of the resources that contribute to academic achievement, as the economics and education writer Richard Rothstein argues forcefully in his book Class and Schools. But there’s a feeling to poverty, too, and it also affects schooling. Calculating, writing, solving a problem, or recalling information takes place someplace with its economics and politics—which can have a profound effect on what goes on in a classroom. Poverty does not necessarily diminish the power of one’s mind, but it certainly draws attention to the competing demands of safety and survival and can shrivel one’s sense of hope and the future.
We need public talk that links education to a more decent, thoughtful, open society. Talk that raises in us as a people the appreciation for deliberation and reflection, or for taking intellectual risks and thinking widely—for the sheer power and pleasure of using our minds, alone or in concert with others. We need a discourse that inspires young people to think gracefully and moves young adults to become teachers and foster such development.
I’m not simply longing for rhetorical flourish here, although a little scholastic uplift would be a welcome thing. Public discourse, heard frequently enough and over time, affects the way we think, vote, and lead our lives. I worry that the dominant vocabulary about schooling limits our shared respect for the extraordinary nature of thinking and learning, and lessens our sense of social obligation. So it becomes possible for us to affirm that the most meaningful evidence of learning is a score on a standardized test, or to reframe the public good in favor of fierce and unequal competition for a particular kind of academic honor. Education is reduced to a cognitive horse race.
In the long run, in the big, common picture, this state of affairs is just not good for us. Not only does our definition of “public” get distorted, but our definition of learning also suffers. One result is that our national discussions of education, our cultural commonplaces about schooling, are pretty much devoid of two themes I think are central to an egalitarian philosophy of education: a robust and nuanced model of intelligence and achievement that affirms the varied richness of human ability, and a foundational commitment to equal opportunity to develop that ability.
These themes, taken together, fuse the cognitive and the civic, ground the civic in specific obligations to the conditions of learning, and connect events in the classroom to a vision of both a knowledgeable and a good society.