Thursday, August 26, 2010

Standardized schools

This year at our school, the kids are getting ten fewer minutes of recess each day than they got last year, which, for a lot of the kids, means one fewer recess per day. I’m told that the principal is saying that the change is necessary in order to meet state requirements for the amount of time spent on math and reading every day. I don’t know if that’s the real explanation. But I know that every time the school gets a little less humane in the name of raising standardized test scores, all the school personnel can nod and agree with you about how unfortunate it is, because there’s always someone further up the bureaucratic chain to blame.

If you want to change your school’s curriculum, don’t bother talking to the principal or the school board; instead, talk to Congress or the President of the United States. Curricular decisions may be made at the state and local level, but they’re effectively dictated by federal educational policy.

A lot of people think federal education policy should be different, but fewer people question whether there should be a federal education policy at all. I’d go further and question why there should even be a state education policy, or, for that matter, a city-wide policy. If the people in my elementary school’s district want to follow an educational approach, philosophy, or set of goals that differs from the prevailing one, what is the justification for preventing them?

I can think of a lot of benefits that would flow from deciding educational policy issues at the most local possible level -- many of them related to the greater democratic accountability that would result -- and I’ll explore them in subsequent posts. Here I’ll just note how strange it seems to me that anyone would want to adopt a single, nationwide answer to what our educational goals, philosophy, and approach should be.

Advocates of high-stakes testing like to dress up their arguments in the language of business and finance. “Education is an investment in the future,” “We need to hold schools and teachers accountable by measuring their performance and rewarding success,” et cetera. But pursuing a uniform nationwide policy isn’t what a smart money manager would do, it’s what a compulsive gambler would do. Brimming with manic confidence that our new “system” can’t fail, we bet everything on red.

Putting all of our kids in one basket is a huge gamble, isn’t it? Are we really so sure that the prevailing approach at any given time is the right one? So sure that we won’t allow other approaches even to be tried? Suppose, a generation from now, it turns out that our current obsession with standardized-test-driven curricula was a bad idea -- that it didn’t work, and even made us worse off. Won’t we wish that we had hedged our bets? If education is an investment in the future, wouldn’t it be wise to diversify our portfolio?

..How can I comment?