Assessment Opinion

Why School? Rethinking Essentials

By Deborah Meier — September 24, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

We can go on forever about why “testing as we know it” cannot lead to becoming a well-educated people. We agree, we need to invent a road test—which might in some cases look like AP exams. Or, it might look like the examination system used at Central Park East Secondary School or Mission Hill (my old schools) or other formats now used by Consortium schools in New York. On the federal level, what we need are deeper and better NAEPs—where sampling continues to be wise. (They can thus be cheaper and more authentic at the same time.) Since sampled tests do not all have to be identical to be comparable, we can afford to explore “what kids must all know” both deeply and broadly enough to take them seriously.

More important than why we test is “Why School?”. It’s the title of Mike Rose’s latest wonderful book (The New Press). What I want to argue out with you, and our readers, is the nature of the kind of curriculum or subject matter for which schools in a democratic society, funded by public monies, should be held accountable. What can we demonstrate is essential for 100 percent of all voters—18-year-olds—to understand?

1. Reading the newspapers or non-fiction magazines—or their equivalent. Being able to report to others on stories, engage in a discussion about them, and write a letter to the editor and op-ed column on a few with which they disagree. Maybe on two levels—one at around ages 11-12 and the other at 16-18.

2. Sufficient mathematics to make sense of what they find in the media—statistics, probabilities, forms of graphing, percentages, et al to a high degree of sophistication by the time they are 16. Basic arithmetic computation by 13.

3. Then comes the subject matter, the stuff that is worth reading and writing about and for! Science, history, literature, all the arts, law, governance, philosophy/ethics, politics, and economics. The criteria? Whatever is needed to be a knowledgeable and powerful member of a democracy!

Literature. A learned academic book reviewer in The New York Times recently claimed that “no one disagrees that everyone should...” have read Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer. What’s the “evidence” for such a claim—much less that “everyone” would agree? (Maybe one definition of well-educated people is that they know better than to make claims about “no one” or “everyone.”) While great fiction can lay claim to take us into worlds we never could otherwise experience, including the personal worlds of people unlike ourselves, thus making one a better democrat—more empathetic, for example—I’ve found insufficient evidence that this is what requiring the reading of Milton does.

History. Everyone tells kids that those who don’t know their (or our?) history are doomed to repeat it. In fact, there are no empirical studies to demonstrate this. Some nations certainly know their own history better than most Americans—even though theirs is often far longer. Still we were more, not less, innovative. In fact, knowing history can lead some to constantly repeat and relive old enmities. One might argue that America’s success correlates with its disdain for history. (Students usually rate history as their most boring subject—it was my favorite.)

Science. While certainly U.S. citizens have traditionally been exposed to much more science education than their counterparts in other democratic western nations, superstition is far higher in the U.S. and suspicion (and misunderstanding) of science greater.

The arts. Most adults are sure they can’t “do” or “appreciate” any art—and few and far between are those who visit art museums, concerts (except for teens, and it isn’t quite the music they study in school), or live theater, or who write creative stories or poetry.

All this may sadden me, but it doesn’t surprise me. And I haven’t found studies that suggest that schools that accept “ordinary” kids have managed to get other results by age 16 or 18—or in most colleges. Alas, not even my schools.

I believe strongly that we shouldn’t give up; but, meanwhile, we should rethink what is “essential.” Because, more serious than students not having read Dante, is when they haven’t been exposed to any tough examination about the wherefores of the world they live in, nor any understanding of a strong reason to care about the survival of the democratic process. They haven’t experienced or practiced democracy—through literature or life. They haven’t learned to argue in ways essential to a democracy—which requires empathy, respect, reasoning power, AND a half-way open mind to other possibilities—on matters hard to dismiss with, “Well, I have my opinion, you have yours.” Politics remains a dirty word.

We don’t need schooling to have opinions. Even strong ones. But we do need schools to begin to imagine arguments in favor of democracy that might keep citizens from letting it go whenever a crisis appears. (See rethinklearningnow.org for an interesting Web site on this topic.)

Julian Bell, in an article in this week’s New York Review of Books entitled “Why Art?”, quotes an art historian who suggests that the origins of art might simply be—to escape boredom! (I suspect that more students’ art takes place while listening to a boring classroom lesson than happens in school art classes.)


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