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Federal Commentary

The New, Improved Educational Machine

By Peter W. Cookson Jr. — December 12, 2006 7 min read

On the cover of an early-September issue of Newsweek, the editors posed this question in a headline: “The New 1st Grade: Are Kids Getting Pushed Too Fast, Too Soon?” The story documents how kids as young as the age of 6 are tested—“and tested again,” as the writer exclaims—and have more homework and workbooks than ever before. In other words, childhood as we have known it is disappearing as fast as the glaciers.

—Lucinda Levine


No more Huck Finns, no more carefree summers, no more unstructured play. We have signed our children up for the structured, fully regulated lifestyle so admired by the educational standards folks, some political conservatives, and parts of the media that truly believe numbers tell us more about learning than the unmeasurable delight in inquiry and discovery. Will we really be a better, more creative, more just society when the No Child Left Behind generation comes of age?

Criticizing the federal No Child Left Behind Act is a small academic industry, and, to be honest, there is a lot to dislike about a law that substitutes testing for learning and mandates that winner and loser schools are declared on the basis of “outcome” measures. The law’s supporters claim that it holds schools’ collective feet to the fire of public scrutiny, but really what the law measures is society’s failure to support poor children.

What is most alarming about the current educational improvement environment, however, is not the No Child Left Behind law but the new conventional wisdom that equates uniformity with equality and centralized control with accountability.

We live in an era in which democracy is in peril. Many of us don’t vote when we can, too often we draw our opinions from sound bites, and, lately, we seem willing to allow our leaders to govern in secrecy and at times deceptively. Schools mirror society. I fear we are creating undemocratic schools where children, teachers, and parents are disenfranchised, where test scores are substituted for genuine, lifelong learning, and where our educational leaders tell us what is best for us because … well, because—not to put too fine a point on it—they know better.

What is most alarming about the current educational improvement environment is the new conventional wisdom that equates uniformity with equality and centralized control with accountability.

This command-and-control approach to educational improvement draws its claim of legitimacy from the language of business: “Data-based decisionmaking,” “accountability,” “bottom line,” and so on and so on. Sometimes simple solutions feel good when confronted with complex challenges. Like other government policies based on faulty data and misguided assumptions, however, the new and improved educational machine will not result in a better-educated American workforce capable of competing in the 21st century, or a citizenry able to understand the profound political, economic, and ecological challenges before us. Just the opposite. Despite vast claims for the new, improved educational machine, it is a 19th-century technology trying to force the new century into its cookie-cutter mold. We are losing time, squandering our children’s talents, and allowing this creative moment to slip through our fingers.

Uniformity is not equality. I doubt that many of the champions of the No Child Left Behind Act have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, or, if they have, consider Orwell’s observations a basis of their thinking. In Animal Farm, all animals are equal—except for some animals. The commanders of the new, improved educational machine try to convince us that if all children study “scientifically proven” reading texts and are tested regularly, they are, in fact, receiving an equal education. This is nonsense and flies in the face of the 800-pound sociological gorilla in the policy living room. We are a vastly unequal country, and our public and private school system reflects that inequality with eerie accuracy. Testing does not reduce structural inequality. It may in fact exacerbate it by “documenting” the failure of the poor and driving more and more youngsters to drop out of school at shockingly early ages.

Here are a couple of suggestions for returning American education to its original ideals. What we need is less uniformity and more freedom, less testing and more ingenuity, less number-crunching and more intellectual nourishing. To meet the challenges of this new century, we need limber, experimental schools that are relevant to today’s students. Our schools are modern (sort of), and our children are postmodern. This mismatch between the culture of our children and the culture of the new, improved educational machine is dangerous and leads to boredom, resistance, and withdrawal. Children are not widgets.

I will grant you that when I first started teaching, in the 1970s, “child centered” education was all the rage, so consider the source. I also realized that in the new, improved machine, the softer aspects of education—spontaneity, creativity, humor, and risk—are seen as dangerous sentimentalities. But I have yet to meet a child who learned from the top down; children learn from the inside out.

Socrates, the original ideal teacher, asked questions, questioned the answers, and then moved on to deeper questions. If PowerPoint had been available, would Socrates have skipped the questions altogether and moved on to a colorful digital display of the answers? Did his curriculum need to be stamped “scientific” by government bureaucrats? Did Plato, for that matter, need an “exit” exam?

There is nothing more intellectually disconcerting than to ask candidates for the doctoral degree “what is the question your research addresses?” and see that deer-in-the-headlights look that means they have been busily answering questions they forgot long ago.

For our students to succeed in the 21st century, they need to be questioners and skeptics, curious and unwilling to be deceived by surface gloss. They need to truly understand language, their own and others’; they should be able to internalize the principles of mathematics and science; and they must be culturally literate, so they will know that Baghdad does not necessarily want to be Houston, and the world is richer for it.

We are miseducating our children to believe that thinking is what you do when you are filling out a multiple-choice exam, and that creativity is expressed in what you wear. We need our students to think deeply and to relish that, and to develop their own special genius.

Research shows, over and over again, that schools are about relationships—the interactions of adults with children, children with children, and adults with adults. The quality of these relationships defines the culture of the school. In times past, the principal or head teacher was most likely to be a person of character, a bit conventional perhaps, but a solid, caring, organized servant of the community. Many were also genuine educators who helped turn their schools into exciting learning communities. Brilliant or not, however, school leaders were first and foremost moral leaders. Who they were was far more important than what they were or who they knew.

This leadership model has been effectively destroyed by the new, improved educational machine, wherein charisma trumps character, political skills trump intellectual accomplishment, and the habit of command (as the British put it) trumps habits of the heart.

Will we really be a better, more creative, more just society when the No Child Left Behind generation comes of age?

Perhaps, although I doubt it, the commanding presence of a CEO in the corporate world is essential for profitability. In education, though, principals and even superintendents are not really CEOs; they should be CCOs—chief caring officers. Good leaders need technical skills, of course, but if they lack cultural skills and sensibilities they are sure to fail. Is it any wonder that most urban superintendents don’t last more than three years in office? If you think you are in control, you are bound to lose control. A little humility goes a long way when it comes to being the boss.

Generally, our leadership manuals start with all manner of over-the-edge admonitions about “mission,” “leading through data,” and “importance of team” (as long as the leader is in control). I draw more inspiration from the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Rumi, who wrote of leadership as a “lame goat”:

You’ve seen a herd of goats
going down to the water.

The lame and dreamy goat
brings up the rear.

There are worried faces about that one,
but now they’re laughing,

because look, as they return,
that goat is leading!

There are many different kinds of knowing.
The lame goat’s kind is a branch
that traces back to the roots of presence.

Learn from the lame goat,
and lead the herd home.

So here is a simple idea. Let’s put children first in school improvement. Let’s always ask, “What is best for the children?” And let’s stop letting Washington bureaucrats and policy wonks decide what kids should be learning, when they should learn it, and how the learning should be measured. Let’s return the schools to our communities and celebrate teachers’ wisdom of practice. And let’s respect the needs of families to share in their children’s education without being inundated by a barrage of test scores that sound so final, but are often inaccurate, and generally irrelevant to learning anyway.

I hope we come to our educational senses and recognize that learning is messy, is meant to be messy, and that our country’s founders saw education as a means of personal liberation and social cohesion, not a cookie-cutter process to turn out generations of children who are overtested, overcontrolled, and, in the end, overlooked.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as The New, Improved Educational Machine


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