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A Different Perspective on the Challenge of Education
Why Education Reform?
Every country on earth at the moment is focused on reforming education. This is primarily because of the need to meet economic imperatives while also maintaining sensitivity and celebration of cultural identity. The challenge we run into really comes with trying to understand how to meet economic needs when we have no idea what they will even be at any given time, within any given political system?
The problem is that we continue to try to make reforms by repeating what we have done in the past, which cannot do in order to meet current or even future needs of our globalized society. It used to be that we were kept in school with the story that if we worked hard and earned our diploma, we could go to college and get a job.
Our children do not believe this story, and they are right not to; having a degree is better than not having one, but it is not a guarantee of work. So how can we keep students in school, and better yet, how can we ensure that the education they are receiving is benefiting not only them but our entire economic society? How can we make that work?
Why What Used to Work Doesn't Anymore
The current model of education is founded in a different economic system, and in a different age. It was conceived in the philosophic age of the Enlightenment and in the economic requirements of the Industrial Revolution. Public education was, in fact, a revolutionary idea--the notion of providing free education, paid for through taxes, and compulsory to all children was something that had never been done before. It was so new, in fact, that many within the elite classes of society didn't agree with it. They said it was impossible for "street kids," working class children, to benefit from public education. "These children are incapable of learning to read and write, and why are we spending time on it?"
In fact, this kind of sentiment toward such opposition is still heard within education reform currently. In fact, much of the challenge with the profits of standardized tests and the utilization of standardized tests has been around the notion that the data is used to prove exactly which children cannot benefit from public education, and to maintain the profit-generating engine of capitalization by privatizing education entirely.
The problem with this system, however, is that it builds a kind of ideology into the gene pool of public education: that there are two types of people: smart people and non-smart people: Academic and non-academic, and that these standardized tests are the best tools possible to measure the academic capacity of students at the moment. And this system does not work. The more we turn toward standardized education, the more many brilliant and innovative students do not believe that they are capable of succeeding in school and give up prematurely. It is not only damaging to our education system, but also to our economic stability. When all of the entry level jobs have been outsourced and when minimum wage can no longer equate a living wage, it is the innovation and creative problem solving at the cornerstone of public education that has helped to drive new business and job opportunities throughout the Industrial Age and well into the Age of Information. Now that we are well into a Transhuman Age--the age of a complete symbiotic relationship between humans and computer technology--we also need to develop new ways of thinking and creating that starts in education.
The Arts Are the Victims
In a mentality that is driven by standardized tests and standardized curricula, the major victims are the arts. Although it is also true of science and mathematical applications, the arts are really what are being cut from schools to make room for test prep and test implementation. It used to be that students faced one to two days of standardized tests throughout elementary school and middle school. In the years that I went through elementary, middle school and high school, I took a total of nine tests in that many days.
Currently, we are in the process of students taking the PARCC exam. This exam starts on April 4 of this year and will run until April 29. After the PARCC exam is completed, students will take the End of Course Exam, and then prepare for individual courses' final exams. So that is 20 days specifically scheduled for PARCC, 7 days for End of Course Exams, two days for final exams, 4 days for the SBA tests that seniors were still required to take this year, and 10 days for additional short cycle assessment tests. Add to that the ACT, SAT, Accuplacer tests for concurrent enrollment and the ASVAB test for college and career readiness (as well as for students who are considering the military as a career choice after high school), and that is 45 days of scheduled testing. This is down from the 71 that it was last year (2015), and for that reason, the school board and department of education would like to say that there is progress.
But when all of this emphasis is placed on the tests, how does a school fit time into the schedule to meet all of the necessary core course requirements and test prep? The answer, for many school districts is to cut the art, music, woodworking, and auto shop programs--essentially limiting children's ability to create and be involved with innovative problem solving through engineering and construction.
Students are Anesthetized through School
When we look at the arts in particular, they create an aesthetic experience. This is when we are fully present in the moment, when all of our senses are resonating with the object creating this experience, when our emotions are operating at their peak. In other words, when we have an aesthetic experience, we feel fully awake and alive. An anesthetic is a substance that shuts our senses off and deadens us to the experiences around us.
Dr. Ken Robinson makes a fascinating connection between prescription drugs used for ADHD, and the increase of such prescriptions raising in parallel to the increase of numbers of standardized tests. In his words, "We are getting our children through school by anesthetizing them." I agree with Dr. Ken Robinson; we should not be putting children to sleep when they are in school--we should be waking them up to what they have inside themselves.
So How Does This Tie Into Educational Reform?
Standardized tests have their place, and there is nothing in any kind of research that says we need to lower the standards of public education. But the tests need to be used as tools to help place students into specific areas of study that best match with their individual learning styles, and to their interests. The more we approach education from a cookie-cutter and standard progression of understanding, the more we are also alienating millions of students who would otherwise not only benefit from public education, but will also further to contribute to our economic stability and growth through businesses and jobs creation.
So, what should education reform look like? It starts with an emphasis on the individual as a human being and not as a value-added data driven baseline. We are not dealing with children who are products of a factory line, or ingredients to mix in a massive bakery. The products in our school system include the texts and materials utilized help students interact with the information they are receiving. In that case, it is necessary to ensure that texts are up to date and relevant for the modern times in which we are living. To have Health text books dating back to 1971 is deplorable; to have buildings that are collapsing or being held together by nothing but black mold is appalling.
Education reform should look like new bricks and mortar campuses with access to not only computers but tablets and promethean boards, to interactive software and the ability to communicate via Skype or other means with students from all over the world. Up to date texts should be made downloadable into a student-issued tablet. Instead of a student checking out seven different textbooks for seven different classrooms, student issued tablets can have the texts from their schedules downloaded into them during the registration process. At the end of the semester or school year, the student returns the tablet or is fined--and the fines have to be paid before a student graduates. This is really a cost-effective measure, as it is expensive to obtain hard copies of enough classroom textbooks for each student, and by requiring no more than one standardized test per school year and limiting the number of days that a student is allowed to spend on testing during that school year is cut to three (including make up days), the school districts will save an exorbitant amount of money by not purchasing every single standardized test available to them.
This will also ensure that more funding will be available for the crucial arts, woodworking, auto, sciences, and math programs that promote critical thinking and creative problem solving by generating innovative opportunities to view the world and the current technology differently. It will give students a purpose and an understanding of being in school, where the core classes help to generate further problem solving ideas by being able to have more time for projects-based learning and independent exploration of topics that hold specific interest to the students. In this way, we are no longer working from a model of industrialism, but rather embracing the transhuman age that we have created through innovation and evolution of ideas.
Education Shows Us that Anything is Possible
If education is necessary for anything, it is for individuals to be able to think for themselves and express themselves in ways that others will respect them. The great minds and concepts that have been generated over time and that we study so earnestly in school teach us through education, anything is possible. But education needs to be kept flexible so that it does not become brittle and collapse under societal pressures. The more rigid the system becomes under the desire and need to standardize everything, the fewer opportunities we give to our students and the more fragile our ability to maintain a strong economic and political influence becomes.
Education reform is not difficult, but it does require the crucial element of humanity. Once we forget that we are working with young human minds that are curious and creative and stifle their voices behind a regiment of high stakes testing we do so at our own peril. Once we decide that the standardized tests prove definitively who is worthy of an education and who is incapable, we have shrunk a vast population of minds into such a stifling condition that there will be no recovery. Not everyone fits into the standard, and those who do fit the standard, to loosely quote Eleanor Roosevelt, hardly ever make history.
We can do better, but it will take a deeper consciousness that sees ourselves in the children whom education serves. When we strive to empower and better our children through creativity, curiosity, and guided but independent learning, we are further empowering ourselves, and creating a legacy that will shine on into whatever the next era may bring.