Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A complex response indicates

a lack of commitment to solving a problem. Do you find that hard to believe? This spring, I was doing a presentation and I wanted to include a discussion of American education. I did not get a chance to include some of the information I found or make an argument about it, so I've decided to write something here.

First of all, there is a crisis in American education. The essence of it is that a substantial number of American children are not graduating from high school, and that even ones who do are often not functionally literate. Colleges and universities encounter students incapable of writing, or students whose mathematical preparation for sciences is not enough. For students on a high school to work track, the situation with respect to intellectual functioning in society is probably much worse. These problems are not new.

They're not new because the U.S., in policy, society and culture, has had a prominent streak of anti-intellectuality. In the culture there is a pronounced contempt for what has been called book-learning in the 19th century. There has always been the sense that life provides two schools, there is the institution for the genius, the urbanite, the rich child, and the ambitious, and then there is life for the rest of us. There is the distinction between life-smart and school-smart, and it is asserted often that the first is really all one needs to be successful.

Now in some cases, that's true. But not in all. There are certain enrichments to life conferred only by intellectual development in school. These facilitate happiness through the ability to solve problems, and give the individual an active sense of agency in his or her life. It is one thing to know what one needs to do, it is another to feel one can do it confidently. Intellectual development gives people a life in which thinking is as important as doing, a life in which dreams are not killed by the exhaustion of subsistence. Intellectual development also allows people to see themselves not as family members & workers alone, but as citizens who know their responsibilities, and needs in the context of the community. Citizens are not convenient to political leaders who love power and employers who want cheap labor, silent compliance, and more money to line wallets that bulge already to the ripping point. So education is necessary, but a threat to power.

The educated person demands an authoritative relationship with his or her leaders.
The ignorant one bows to power because he knows if he doesn't, he won't be fed or housed.
One country, two relationships. This is the United States.

In 1983, the Department of Education wrote a report with specific policy recommendations titled A Nation At Risk.

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments. end quote.

The chief virtue of "A Nation At Risk" was its brevity and simplicity. When you skim or read it through, you will find that it is written with the sense that the problems are severe, but not insurmountable. As policy, this document is eminently useful. If I were a political leader, business manager or administrator of any stripe, this kind of writing and structure is what I would desire for policy-making. It works because it encourages thinking on the part of the reader about solutions instead of just making imperatives. "A Nation At Risk" is not legislation. It is policy. It is an expression of authority and a document to provide guidance.

Now take a look at "No Child Left Behind," which is so ponderous it requires an entire website to encompass its material. There is no central preamble document here, no precise mission statement. Yet what we are seeing here is not policy, but law. In the overview there are four points that emphasize local authority and testing, but the authority of testing far outweighs the other. Testing determines the merit of the teacher, and the kind of teaching methods said teacher will use. The word "accountability" is used much, but only in the sense that it takes authority away from the teacher and invests it into the test. There is much accountability from the student to the teacher, from the teacher to the government. The relationship of parents to education is recognized, but their obligations or imperatives are not clearly enunciated.

The program is unfocused and uses the problems of the past to create an atmosphere of distrust between teachers & students, & teachers & administrators. If one looks at the site index or the tables of contents of the No Child Left Behind legislation, one is overwhelmed. And that feeling is what I think the regime wanted to create. If people are confused and overwhelmed, one may rest assured that nothing will be done to solve whatever problems exist. No Child Left Behind is the most blatant expression of anti-intellectualism I have ever encountered in American culture.

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