When I walk through the halls of my school early in the morning, just after 6:30, I see some students still kind of dozing in various positions. I see some listening to earbuds and/or looking at their phone screens. But the other thing I see a lot of is students reading. They may be at a picnic table, or the stairs, or sitting on a grimy concrete floor, but they are deeply immersed in books.
And I feel hope. Because they are healthy, literacy-wise.
When I teach, I ask my students to have small group and large group discussions about things we have read in class, and I ask them to come up with all the discussion questions instead of answering prefabricated questions from a textbook. As I circulate the room during small group discussion, here is what hear: great questions and lively answers – and real thinking and passion and engagement. I think it will probably raise their test scores. But I don’t really care. Because questioning and discussion and thinking and engaging are absolute goods.
A democracy needs to have citizens who are readers and thinkers and questioners and debaters. It needs to be raising students up to have healthy intellects with healthy literacy. (See my last two posts.)
If you wanted to undermine democracy, what would be the best way to do it? In the long-term, you would try to devalue and undermine literacy and intellect. And you would do it in the name of saving democracy and education.
You’d start by making everything about test scores. You’d publish a report saying our test scores don’t compare to other countries’ test scores. You would declare it a crisis. You would declare that we have mediocre schools. You would say we need to test and measure and have more data on schools so that we know how to improve. And then you would continue to making everything about test scores, but kick the testing into overdrive. You would change testing from being about the measurement of education to being the purpose of education. You make teachers teach to get test scores.
But what should you test? There must be a way to know what to test, so you would invent standards. Standards let teachers know what to teach so that their students can get test scores. Teachers must not question the standards or go beyond the standards or see through the standards. They must simply use the language of the standards in their learning targets on the board. Teachers are not to think or question. Teachers are to do as they are told. Because they pass on to their students what they model.
As part of this obsession with testing, you de-emphasize doing anything for its own sake. Students don’t read or write or learn about history or science for pleasure or out of curiosity. Students do these things to pass a test. In the name of education, you get to ruin the literacy lives of millions of young people. And the teachers will help it all along! No one cares if they are reading in the hall in the morning or engaging in open class discussion.
You would then press your advantage and make testing even more important. You would link test scores to teachers’ evaluation and pay so that they are even more likely to fall in line, and less likely to think and question.
But you know – teachers are kind of dangerous. Not all of them do fall in line. You need to control their thinking and questioning, so you micromanage them. The best thing for you to do is give them a script – a script designed to raise test scores! But even if you can’t manage a script, you weight them down with curriculum maps and pacing guides so that they don’t have time to think. They’ll just feel pressured to do at their told.
But still some teachers won’t obey! Make it easier to get rid of them. Cut tenure in the name of helping students. Then you can get rid of the trouble makers, the thinkers. Meanwhile, you’re helping some less-effective teachers suddenly become very effective. They were lazy teachers before. Now they have become teachers who like to have all their thinking done for them. “A curriculum map? Great! Saves time!”
But why do you have to have teachers at all? You have now, through testing and curriculum control, turned teaching from being a messy, human endeavor full of curiosity, wonder, questioning, and thinking to being a question of data transferal. Put whole classes on computers so that teachers don’t so much teach as supervise the doling out of assignments and the automated scoring of these assignments.
You have now de-professionalized teaching and virtually (no pun intended) guaranteed that no real thinking, questioning, or literary activity will take place.
But you aren’t quite done yet. You push for more vocational training so that education is always and forever about getting a job – not about thinking, questioning, or democratic citizenship. You commodify higher learning as well, so that college degrees are about getting your money’s worth, not about being enriched as a human being and citizen.
You make education about the credential, not the learning, and with much of education taking place online with generic courses that are the same everywhere, cheating runs rampant. Which is fine by you – you don’t want anyone valuing real knowledge. You want them going through the motions.
Make education a product.
You promote school choice (which sounds logical if education is a product) so that society members can learn whatever they want to know without dealing with opposing viewpoints and facing uncomfortable thoughts. Welcome to the Creationism Charter School. Welcome to the Flat Earth Society Preparatory Academy!
Education is reduced to a quiz show. Nobody reads. Nobody thinks. Nobody questions. You win.
You have ruined the literacy and the intellectual life of a nation.
All in the name of education.