Accountability Opinion

Leaving Little Space for Serious Questions

By Deborah Meier — March 18, 2010 5 min read

Dear Diane,

Newsweek alas is not the only source of misinformation, although its article was especially outrageous. The New York Times in contrast used less inflammatory language in support of NCLB/RTTT under President Bush and now President Obama. In a mere 500 or so words, the Times managed to use both tortured reasoning and inaccurate facts.

(1) The opening sentence of the Times editorial is at best half true. (That sentence reads: “The countries that have left the United States behind in math and science education have one thing in common: They offer the same high education standards—often the same curriculum—from one end of the nation to the other.”) The countries that outscore us include nations with some form of national standards, as do many nations we outscore. Note also, most of these nations are about the size of our larger states, and far more homogeneous in terms of income and ethnicity—and access to health supports. Furthermore, many of those (like Finland) have standards, but not grade-by-grade goals. There is no singular Finnish curriculum.

(2) When and where was there “intensive research on what students need to know to succeed and to find good jobs in the 2lst century”? (Note: Issues of freedom and democracy aren’t mentioned at all.) What every child should know from kindergarten to 12th grade, and, in what order, is, they argue, not a curriculum. What is? E.g., it includes such Big Ideas as: “All kindergarteners will learn to write and recognize all lower and upper grade letters.” In a bow to criticism I’m told they may dumb down these lofty goals to say “some” or “most.” How that will help “develop strong reasoning skills earlier than is now customary” is lost on me. Why earlier?

(3) By 5th grade, students should write essays that introduce, support, and defend their opinions—bravo says the NYT. By 12th, they should be able to solve problems or answer questions associated with the first year of college. “Intensive research” suggests neither colleges nor high schools have figured out how to score these “rigorously,” cheaply, and speedily.

(4) Annual tests are an answer to “mediocrity,” we’re told. So more must be better? Nor do I know how governors “saw that poor schooling had crippled...the work force.” What did they see? Did they see GM and Ford collapse because of the education of their workers or of their mostly well-schooled top executives?

My ally and mentor, the late Ted Sizer, noted that the “best” schools, with the highest SAT scores, didn’t do right by the nation either. Their graduates neither served the public well, nor their own corporate interests—although many have stashed away enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their and their children’s lives.

As Yong Zhao noted in Catching Up or Leading the Way, an exam-focused society “fixes” its curriculum at the price of rethinking the world in which its citizens live.

There are other ways to develop standards, and to demand that kids demonstrate them before they get a diploma. From K-12, we can build, over time, a thoughtful path to reach more authentic “high stakes” assessments. It’s been done. But it rests on the imperfect judgment of both ordinary and extraordinary people trying to approximate what we mean by “using one’s mind well.” We have barely begun a discussion about what that might mean as directed to the public good (versus my child getting more certificates than yours). Or what a good job in the 2lst Century will mean? Do gardeners, medical aides, lab technicians, grocery clerks, and stone masons need to “use their minds well”? Yes. But you wouldn’t guess it to read the standards proposed.

Nor do we know whether “college-ready” means ready for college x or for y, much less what it is “we"—the citizenry—want from colleges. The reason for doing well in school is to do well in school, so you will do well in school. And then? We keep putting off the Big Question: Why schooling?

How do we reconcile the larger public aspirations that public schooling must serve, alongside the private aspirations parents and grandparents may have for their particular child? All 18-year-olds should know how to “count” equally in the democracy we claim to cherish—at the voting booth, in the jury box, et al. But while that’s the essential core, what other passions, interests, and talents should be served if schools are to contribute to the larger public welfare? Do we “need” artists, cooks, musicians, architects, scientists, mathematicians, nurses, and on and on? Imagine trying to think these big issues through faced with boxes full of data based on multiple-choice (or dumbed-down, open-ended questions) responses and scores!

Thomas W. Martin, an honors faculty fellow at Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University in Tempe, wrote a prize-winning science essay on the question: What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 2lst Century? “Science works,” he suggests, because “its core dynamics...are rooted...in a process that compels smart people to incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people.” Hardly what you might take away from most science curricula. Ditto for the public’s ignorance of probability, and the difference between correlation and causation. Or knowing whether spending millions vs. billions is more or less the same thing! And, on and on in every academic and nonacademic discipline!

These things matter, but the abysmal ignorance of even those at the most prestigious newspaper in the country gives one pause to wonder where they got their education.

We’ve also left precious little space in school for our youngsters to ask serious questions that have no “right” or “wrong” answers, such as the one Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, asked: “Living in these United States, there comes a point at which you throw your hands up in exasperation and despair and ask a fundamental question or two: how much excess profit does corporate America really need? How much bigger do executive salaries and bonuses have to be? How many houses or jets or artworks can be crammed into a life?” Learning how to respond to such questions in a disciplined manner may be more important, (and there are such questions even for 5-year-olds) than learning calculus earlier.


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