February 23, 2010
The New York Times reports today:
“Because economic progress and educational achievement go hand in hand, educating every American student to graduate prepared for college and success in a new work force is a national imperative,” the White House said in a statement. “Meeting this challenge requires that state standards reflect a level of teaching and learning needed for students to graduate ready for success in college and careers.”
While superficially uncontroversial, the above statement has so many things wrong with it that I almost didn’t know where to start. So why not at the beginning?
“Because economic progress and educational achievement go hand in hand…” Okay, sure, average yearly and lifetime income increases with increasing level of degree attained. People with doctorates make more (on average) than people with masters’ degrees, who make more than people with bachelors’, who make more than people with high school diplomas, who make more than people who didn’t finish high school. On average.
On an individual level, though, isn’t this just a restatement of the false assurance that doing your homework and doing well in school leads to economic security? Nevermind the possibility that you could graduate from college and be able to find no job at all, or be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student debts and no foreseeable hope of paying them off? And that some of our most successful artists, scientists, and innovators of all sorts were screw-ups and drop-outs? (Bill Gates and Jamie Oliver come immediately to mind.) Is it college that gives you the skills to earn more money, or are employers demanding college degrees for positions with skill sets that really shouldn’t require them?
Also, implicit in the statement is the assumption that school achievement and educational attainment are the same thing. Or that the latter follows naturally from the former. Not remotely true.
“…educating every American student to graduate prepared for college and success in a new work force is a national imperative.” To mandate that every student must meet any given level or standard is to guarantee that some children will fall short and be labeled failures. Because, simply, people are all different. People all have different aptitudes, different talents, different learning styles. Not inferior, but different. I would hazard to say that most children don’t learn material well the way that school teaches it. Otherwise, why would our educational world be in the mess that it’s in? Kids aren’t learning the material, and not because they’re that dim, because the material isn’t that hard.
Conversely, to make the standards such that everyone achieves them is to make them meaningless on the federal level rather than the state level.
And we need to stop pretending that every student needs to or should go to college. This is the mentality that has made a college degree almost as meaningless and devalued as the high school diploma in terms of what it says about an individual’s knowledge and job readiness. If everyone achieves it, if everyone’s required to achieve that standard for almost any job, what does it mean? Nothing.
“Meeting this challenge requires that state standards reflect a level of teaching and learning needed for students to graduate ready for success in college and careers.” States can say anything about what their standards are. High schools can say anything about what they’re teaching. But you can’t just demand a high level of teaching and assume that what the schools are teaching is in fact what is needed for success in college and work. And in my experience, the quality of what is being taught in K-12 is not remotely what is needed for success in college and beyond. It doesn’t matter how much content you memorize or how well you can take a standardized test, no matter how high the level of reading or math that it’s testing, if you can’t use those skills in an integrated way with personal drive, self-discipline, reasoning, discussion, creative problem solving, and project organization, which are the skills that college success depends on, along with open-mindedness and receptiveness to constructive criticism. Unless middle and high school have changed a lot since I was there, students aren’t being judged on these criteria, but on their ability to follow directions. But you can’t write state educational standards based on those things because you can’t standardized-test them. You can only see them in actual accomplishment.
And you can’t demand any level of learning, at all. That only comes from individual motivation, ambition and desire. You can frighten or coerce kids into performing at a certain level, for a limited amount of time, but you can’t make them learn, at any level. Your state standards can reflect whatever you want; it doesn’t mean it’s happening.
While I sure think this statement of purpose would be an improvement over the current No Child Left Behind, according to which, apparently, states get to decide for themselves what constitutes “challenging” reading and math standards, making state standards ultimately meaningless, I still think it’s well-intentioned but ultimately misses the point of what education should be and will propagate the same problems on the national level.
“In better aligning the law to support college- and career-ready standards,” the White House statement said, its proposed rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law would “require all states to adopt and certify that they have college- and career-ready standards which may include common standards developed by a state-led consortium, as a condition of qualifying for Title I funding.”
Is this what they meant by that?