Public Education’s 9/11

In 1983 a report titled A Nation at Risk was published highlighting deficiencies in public education. The deficiencies were (are) real. However, the end result of that report was public education’s 9/11. I do not think this was the intent of the writers, and I am not downplaying the most devastating attack on U.S. soil. But consider this. After 9/11, the American people willingly gave up civil liberties and began an endless, financially crippling, war on terrorism. That attack has had a lasting effect on life in this country—even without a second attack ever being successfully completed—the lasting effects remain. I do not know if these forfeitures of civil liberties have made us safer, nor do I know if the war on terrorism has actually reduced or will ultimately increase terrorism.

Similarly, the 1983 A Nation at Risk report has had a lasting, devastating effect on education. We march more and more toward standardization and testing despite not seeing any positive results from that forced march. Unlike my uncertainty as to the effectiveness of our war on terrorism, I know that we are losing our “war” on education. The result of this war has been to set education back 100 years and return us to an assembly line mentality to education. This is not a good thing. It all has to look the same in the name of rigor. Yet because of the measures we are using and the way in which the standards are written, the opposite is the result. Despite the best research saying the proper way to organize curriculum is around engaging essential questions and despite the research that says the best way to produce critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and collaborative workers (what most agree we want) is to use more inquiry and project-based learning, the standardization of education is absolutely discouraging these practices.

We are creating the next generation of teachers who have accepted their role as simply implementers of standards and test prep teachers. Writing curriculum and teaching now consists of listing out the standards and telling that information to the students. The better teachers create activities that align to the standards. But few are allowed to create a curriculum that goes beyond the surface of the standards. And fewer still are creating a curriculum that has any reason for student to be excited to learn it beyond completing a list of objectives to prepare them for a test. Our attempts to increase rigor has ultimately reduced education to rote memorization and test preparation while reducing critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and problem solving.

What I find most troubling is that we have willingly done this. Just like we all agree that we do not like taking our shoes off at the airport and the NSA gathering voluminous data on us, almost all parents and educators agree that we do not like the testing and are not seeing the results we want, yet we grumble and continue to allow it to happen simply because we are making decisions out of ignorance and fear.
We continue down this road in response to comparison of our test scores with authoritarian countries like China. China has embraced capitalism for the elite, but is holding tight-fisted to communism and authoritarian political structures at the same time we in this country are looking to their education model and moving towards a more authoritarian model for education. Now that is terrifying. The education system in China is excellent at producing high test scores. It is atrocious at producing creative, innovative, collaborative problem solvers. The Chinese education system is a hundreds-year-old system designed out of thousands of years of authoritarian philosophy of governing. Beyond being really good at test prep, it is an effective means to maintain the authoritative governing structure ruled by the wealthy elite. Because of this, those few that have benefited from capitalism and freedom in China are sending their children to the U.S. to attend private schools which do not have to meet government mandated standards and testing. The ruling class in China, recognizing that to remain in power they need skills that U.S. schools actually do well (creativity, innovation, collaboration) and are abandoning their own education system for themselves while keeping it in place for the majority of their citizens. This will maintain a majority population with skills to follow rules but not lead. Not a bad strategy for a few to keep a grip on limited resources and maintain control over a large population.

So here we are in this country driving our public education system to be more like the Chinese education system. Meanwhile the ruling elite in this country continue to avoid the public schools as do the ruling class in China. If we continue to train 99% of our next generation in an education system modeled after an authoritarian philosophy, and 1% not, then how long before it is not just our education system that is modeled after China, but it is our government system as well? I hate to say this, but maybe that is the goal. This forced march of standardization supported by president after president and congress after congress and the Patriot Act seem to be the only thing our polarized political system can agree on. And look at the results of both—A reduction of freedoms.

This 30-year-old war on education is an attack on our civil liberties and is what is actually putting the nation at risk. This is unacceptable and must be stopped. We must collectively stand up and say “no more.” To not do so is to accept that future generations we will look back and see most of the population without individual liberties serving those with the money and individual freedoms. To not do so is negligence. At that point the war will be lost.

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