I have attended many classes in my seven decades of life, twelve years of primary school, four of college and the equivalent of two for post-graduate. Maybe that is enough to have an opinion about the notion that education is something that can be defined well enough to measure and price like a commodity. To me, that is the concept behind No Child Left Behind, and is also behind a current wave of change pushing for standardization of curricula.
I was alerted to the latest developments about this by a post from Jennifer Lockett. She pointed to a link with an excellent article on the subject, one which I also provide here. (Please be persistent if you get a popup email – the article is worth the effort. To get rid of it I sent a no comment message and then refreshed the page.)
Author Joel Westheimer says,
Picture the history teacher who draws heavily on his own experience and interests to make history come alive for his students. Maybe you know him. Students, parents, and colleagues admire him for including in a 20th-century American history course a unit on the role of protest music in the political upheavals of the 1960s. Imagine another teacher whose students study changing immigration policies in urban centers. She uses original documents as fodder for debate. Imagine a math teacher who uses three classes between her units on abstract and linear algebra to have students investigate the biographies of famous mathematicians, or another math teacher who leads students in a critical exploration into the origins of algebraic thinking.
Thus, Westheimer begins to set out the case for allowing teachers the flexibility to have creativity in the educational process. He makes the valid point that different teachers teach differently, based on their own talents, knowledge and personalities. To me that is an obvious fact, but it runs counter to the notion that education is something that must be measured and controlled. He observes, correctly, that to interfere with a teacher’s freedom to explore is to violate one of the oldest tenets of knowledge, the Socratic Method.
But anyone who reads the press about public education knows that efforts to control it have been a failure so far. I have posted on this subject myself and called for “standards”. Given the context of Westheimer’s pleas for academic intellectual freedom to teach, I would like to clarify what I mean by standards; it is simply that schools should define their curricula in terms of how courses of study should encompass not only areas of specialization but how they also fill the need for making a well-rounded individual who will be a good citizen.
Standards should not, however, mean fulfillment of some rote definition of the bounds of knowledge in any particular subject. I submit that the AAAS definition of a liberal (not in the political sense) education is pertinent:
Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds. Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than defer to authority.
Note that the above definition speaks to the result and not the method. This is key, because there is no one path to that result, there are many, and to try to manufacture such a single path is to defeat the purpose, in my opinion. That, it seems to me, is what has led to the deplorable condition of the public educational system today.
It is the nature of bureaucracies to want to control, but some things are not amenable to control and I submit that education is one of them. So how should the success or failure of education be measured? I suggest that it be done by the success of the product, through academic competition during school, and by public reputation and the success of graduates after the fact. Let the teachers teach and let the chips fall where they may. Let the strong teachers survive and the weak find another profession. It works in business; and in evolution, for that matter.