Saturday, March 20, 2010

More Education Debate

The current education debate prompted by Diane Ravitch's new book seems premised on the idea that the current education system is reparable. The proper incentives or threats, depending on how one views testing, should be able to make teachers teach and students learn. As a teacher, I'm not sure schools can be fixed.

Contrary to what George W. Bush asserted, not every child wants to learn. In fact, school is often an interruption in a student's life. Any particular class pales in comparison to hanging out with friends, a job, extra-curricular activities, and other classes that are either easier or more relevant. Relevance is, of course, relative.

In my experience, high school students want to get good grades so that a good college or university will accept them. In their minds, the grades should reflect that they did the homework, passed the tests that they crammed for, and jumped through whatever hoops they encountered. The one thing they resist is actually learning. At my most cynical, I believe that given a choice between learning how to cure cancer with a B or getting an A with cancer remaining a curse on the planet, most students would choose the A. No school reform is going to change these attitudes.

The students aren't totally at fault here; colleges, parents, counselors, scholarship committees, and teachers all feed the attitude.

Further, it seems to me that no sane person would create the current system. Certainly, no one starting from scratch would create schools as they currently exist. The first question policymakers need to ask is what should a school be?

I don't know what an ideal school would look like, but it would have to be far more flexible than schools currently are. It would probably be more diagnostic and corrective than contemporary schools. It would have to connect material across the curriculum far better than the current system does. Of course, no one seems to agree about what should be taught, let alone how subject matter should be taught, but those debates seem to take place in a framework that assumes the current system.

There may not be a universal answer, but a bit of Utopian idealism might help move the debate toward better policy solutions.

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