Our Terrific Readers
You and I disagree on some very basic issues involving curriculum and testing, but we are in agreement on some other very basic issues, such as the public nature of public education and the stupidity of replacing instruction with a testing regime. What you describe is the mindset of the business/lawyer types who run school districts and who assume that testing will provide the incentive and the fear to produce higher test scores. When we speak of education, they think only of higher test scores, as if that will prove their success. It may take some more time, but I suspect that we will eventually discover as a society that this current obsession with testing has gone overboard, even to supporters of accountability such as me, and that the zealots of today are producing a dumbed-down generation of students who know little more than how to respond to multiple-choice questions about isolated bits of information. These Know-Nothings know nothing about curriculum and instruction; all they reliably know is a behaviorist approach to life, how to reward higher scores and how to punish lower ones. It never occurs to them to consider the instrument on which they rely so exclusively (the test) and to wonder whether it was designed to bear the weight of rewarding and punishing students, teachers, and principals.
You mention the comments that have followed our columns. Like you, I read them all, and I am grateful to the readers who take the time to put in their own two cents. Their comments are often right on target. Last week, there was quite an interesting discussion among our readers after one of them posted a response disagreeing with me. One of our readers (Cal) complained that I was an “elitist” because I recommended that we should not only prepare students to take tests but “to be engaged and thoughtful citizens, to participate in and enjoy the arts, and to have the interest and capacity to read a book that was not assigned by the teacher…” Cal said that my view was “absurdly elitist” and revealed why our country fails to educate “the lower half of our population.” Cal said that reading books is “wholly inconsequential,” that being involved in the arts “won’t do a thing for our populace,” and that our country has gotten along quite well for over 200 years “without saddling public education with the responsibility to produce ‘thoughtful and engaged citizens,’ whatever that is.”
Well. I could not disagree more. I wrote a book (your least favorite of mine, I believe) called "Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform," in which I challenged the elitism of those who would deny a genuine education to “the lower half of our populace.” Every idea that Cal expresses was previously expressed by “educational experts” who believed that IQ tests enabled them to sort out those who would get a liberal arts education and those who were destined to be manual laborers. I urge Cal to read my book (check it out of the local public library) and read what David Snedden, Edward Thorndike, and other prominent social scientists said and how heartily they agreed with Cal’s sentiments.
The true “elitists” are those who think that some children are entitled to a good education, while other children are not. Who will sort the children into the deserving and the undeserving? At what age shall we begin the sorting? Shall we toss out the ideal of equal educational opportunity? Do we need the permission of parents to assign their students to “the lower half” that does not encounter the arts, literature, or lessons in American democracy?
Cal should also know that it is no will o’ the wisp fantasy to teach and practice citizenship, as that is in fact one of the basic reasons that we have a public education system: to prepare people to have the intelligence to participate in our democracy, to choose our leaders, and to improve our system of government.
The best responses to Cal came from other readers, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion. One teacher (Cassandra) writes that Cal “seeks to deny the power of literature to my students that people in the upper crust will certainly get. Literature is not just entertainment. Literature tells the story of what it means to be human. It tells the history of countries and of civilizations, as well as the history of human thought. It nurtures empathy and curiosity and intelligence…My students are entitled to a great education…They should be viewed as American citizens, entitled to the same rich education as all other citizens.”
Another teacher (JP) wrote: “The aim of a liberal education…is to help kids become autonomous thinkers able to determine their own life-outcomes rather than have others determine it for them. This is possible for every child. If I didn’t believe this, I’d pass out Dick and Jane and sit at my desk playing Solitaire all day…The most repugnant form of elitism comes in assuming that a great portion of the population doesn’t possess the faculty for an interesting conversation.”
I could not have made better arguments. What great readers we have! This is where our blog has value, in that we can provide a forum for thoughtful people to think out loud about education and why it matters.