Two Things Everyone Should Know About U.S. Education

I'm glad that I started following the blog Schools Matter a few months ago. This is an excellent blog with a constant stream of intelligent writing on education, schools and teachers. Often, the blog's authors take stands against so-called school "reformers" and the ideas they are pushing so strongly in the U.S. right now, including union bashing, teacher bashing, increased standardized testing, increased teacher "evaluation" and "accountability," increased school choice, and increased promotion of charter schools.

This new, post-NCLB wave of education "reform" is typified by the ridiculous pseudo-documentary Waiting for Superman, which I reviewed and critiqued two months ago. Rather than go on a long diatribe about these issues, however, I'd just like to provide you with two succinct, all-important points that encapsulate the key problem in American education and the key reason why so-called "reform" is nothing more than a set-up for teachers and schools to fail.

1. It's the poverty, stupid.

As much as I'd like to become a teacher myself, (even in the face of anti-teacher sentiment and policies), I don't pretend for one second that I will ever become capable of willfully turning students' lives around, impermeably altering the course of their development by the sheer force of my instruction. Some studies say that "out-of-school factors represent at least two-thirds of the influence on measurable student outcomes." Some studies put out even higher proportions. Children's development is profoundly shaped by their environment, above all by their parents or other family and those who are close to them. Schools themselves are shaped by their environment, reflecting the decisions, values, and privilege - or lack thereof - of the community around them.

Often, "reformers" and their followers will cite American students' failure to measure up to the test scores of students in other developed countries, trying to shame us into thinking our education is woefully sub-par. In fact, if you just took the scores of middle class American kids, they would rank among the best. Undeniably, the United States has much higher poverty rates than all the other rich countries of the world - and American children are disproportionately more impoverished than adults. If you don't think that affects educational outcomes, you truly have to be stupid. (See here for an old post of mine that addresses poverty's effect on memory.)

2. Accountability without autonomy is tyranny.

I take this incredibly apt phrase from this excellent article. Truly, this is a concept that I think few people ever think about. (I never thought about it until I read the article): What are the two things "reformers" always talk about? First is evaluating students - giving them all standardized tests through every year of school so that their sum of knowledge might be accurately measured by multiple-choice questions. Second is evaluating teachers and schools - disseminating test scores far and wide so that teachers and schools will be judged and dealt with according to their students' answers.

Even if these tests accurately represented what education should be all about, what must be realized is that for decades, teachers have increasingly had to follow methods other than their own. They've been forced to adopt curricula they wouldn't design, to teach to tests that they don't approve of, and to more and more fill a position of technical instructor, rather than professional educator. (I believe this is especially true in less privileged areas - precisely where bad test scores will be judged the most.) If teachers are teaching materials they didn't choose and even using methods they didn't choose, how are they responsible for bad test scores? Are teachers only supposed to be conduits for standardized criteria, passed down by the system and filled into children's heads?

I support teachers being held accountable for what they do, not for things in which they have no input or control. Let's give teachers autonomy and professional respect - the freedom to follow what they know as the best educational methods, rather than ones that are stuffed down their throats by bureaucrats. Teachers also should not bear all the persecution for children's failures when there is so much else that fails American children so often, among them their parents and their governments. Otherwise, all teachers will continue to see is that they are increasingly ruled by tyranny.