Educational Landscapes – What Will the Future Look Like?

After spending a fair amount of time reading this week, I have become more and more overwhelmed at the state of our public education system. Obviously, this is not a new feeling, but the combination of Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation, Arne Duncan’s “sea-change” speech at Teacher’s College on Thursday, David Brook’s column in the NY Times today (“The Quiet Revolution”), and Thomas Friedman’s piece earlier this week (“The Untouchables”) makes me wonder if we are sinking into a deeper and deeper pit – or floating further and further away from the democratic ideal of education. Ironically, I just finished revising a paper about that ideal and the schools in which that ideal could best be realized. As I read Kozol’s words at the end of the chapter entitled “Preparing Minds for Markets,” they struck me at the core:

Other principals have said things like…it is as if they’re looking back at an ideal of education that they valued deeply when they started out in their careers, and value still, but feel they have to set aside in order to respond to the realities before them in the neighborhoods they serve and to deliver those empirical results that are demanded of them. These things are said almost nostalgically. (Shame of the Nation, p. 108)

Obviously Kozol’s rally cry is around inner-city education, something I am passionate about as a result of my work with Atlanta Youth Academy. But, I see a far greater problem in our educational landscape – one that is affecting all children. Although I was optimistic at first about Obama’s plan for education, I wonder if we’ll look back on his plan to re-envision education just as many look back on Brown and see that not much has changed despite the efforts of many who care so deeply about equality for all.

Just one day after Arne Duncan highlighted the hope that comes from the Race to the Top funds in his message to over 900 people on Thursday, I was horrified to read the following quote from David Brooks in his column this afternoon:

The changes also will mean student performance will increasingly be a factor in how much teachers get paid and whether they keep their jobs. There is no consensus on exactly how to do this, but there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores, and that teachers who do not need to be identified and counseled. Cracking the barrier that has been erected between student outcomes and teacher pay would be a huge gain. (“The Quiet Revolution,” NY Times, 10/23/09)

Not only are 350 million dollars of Race to the Top funds going to assessments for testing the common college and career-ready standards, but there is also the drive to connect teacher performance with student achievement. What about the variety of factors that affect student achievement? What about the effect of early literacy programs so teachers inherit children who don’t have a 30 million word gap by the age of three (Hart & Risley, “The Early Catastrophe”)? What about the skills that are essential for life in the 21st Century – skills that state-wide standards and assessments do not even begin to address or test?

All of my frustration is rooted in my passion for developing learners who can navigate the 21st century and be engaged citizens in our changing world. In light of the vast ills in our system, Friedman writes about this challenge:

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education. (“The Untouchables, NY Times, 10/23/09)

He ends his column by stating, “So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.” How can this be resolved in this bleak educational landscape? Where are the solutions to combat the ills of poverty and discrimination in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta? How can we address the dropout rates not only in large urban centers but also in smaller cities like Charlottesville (where the dropout rate has tripled)? Clearly, I’m disturbed and frustrated. I’m wondering how to make the most impact…which, after reading the very first case study of the year entitled “Isobel,” is an ethical decision in itself.

**this was originally written as a journal for my ethics class

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