This is the text of the monologue from tonight’s episode of Why? Radio. To hear the entire episode and a detailed conversation about national standards for education, please click here.
I was at a kids’ soccer game yesterday and spent most of the time listening to a man who could say nothing nice to his eight-year old daughter. Every mistake was shouted across the field; every success was greeted with silence. When she was on the sidelines he reviewed all the things she did wrong and then, when he actually realized he was being negative, he shifted to the worst compliment of all: “you did much better, this time.”
I am told that these are minor infractions at kids’ sports, and I will admit that I know nothing else about the guy, but in preparation for today’s episode, I was confronted with a very sobering thought: this is someone who will help determine what gets taught in the public schools; this is someone who will help evaluate local teachers. Plato considered democracy rule by the ignorant. At that moment, I thought the philosopher was being too nice.
When our legislators debate how much power the federal government should have, they talk in abstractions. For debates about education they pit the “local community” against “Washington” and “parents,” against “bureaucrats.” They don’t say, “you know Sally who screams at everyone who walks on her lawn? She should influence what textbook we choose. And Jim, who hits his wife? His input should help evaluate new teachers. And that guy who is making his eight-year old daughter hate soccer? He should be consulted on how much gym is required.” Surely putting these faces on the debate changes our attitude, especially when we talk about standards, about deciding what our kids and teachers should aim for, about what counts as success and what counts as failure.
Standards, of course, are different than curriculum, which is different than pedagogy. Pedagogy describes how we teach, what methods we use. Curriculum describes what we use to teach it—the materials, the books, the examples and exercises—and standards describe the knowledge itself; what everyone is supposed to know when it’s all over. But all of these things require expertise and training, and this is where Plato comes in again. How can people who don’t have these skills decide how teachers should do their jobs? I’m sorry, but parents are not their kids’ best teachers. I’m a smart guy, but I don’t know how to teach my daughter math, and I didn’t know how to teach her to read. She wouldn’t even take my advice when she was learning to ride a bike. Parents are often ineffective and slipshod instructors. We pick and choose what fits our mood. We need help from the professionals.
There is another side to this, though, and that is that the local is indeed important. Community standards are relevant to much that happens in the classroom, especially how students are taught. Rural kids will require some different examples than urban kids; a classroom of immigrants may need different materials than students whose families have lived on the same ranch for four generations; an economically diverse school will have different concerns than a more homogeneous one.
When the federal government makes declarations about all aspects of education, the variety of the American experience disappears and individual needs are steamrolled. We need to recognize that local knowledge is indeed a form of expertise and should be considered. But this doesn’t mean that we should confuse context with purpose. If all children should be able to read at a certain level at a certain age, the way to get there may be different, but the result probably ought to be the same.
Philosophically then, the question is how to negotiate federal and local power in education. We are also concerned with what counts as expertise. If we combine the two, we are faced with a third issue: who negotiates all of this? When the National Governors’ Association created the new —the standards that many American school kids will now be evaluated against—they relied more heavily on business than on teachers. They asked Microsoft and the standardized testing companies what they thought, and minimized the input of those who actually teach. They then assumed a purpose that suited their needs: they concluded that students should graduate from high school career and college ready.
Now, these are good goals. Our students should be ready to move on to the next stage of life. But where is the love of literature, the ability to communicate needs and political ideas, the capacity to respect both difference and personal experience at the same time? Where is the understanding of the importance of math, science, and history, and the celebration of being alive, in the world, surrounded by art, music, comedy, and neighbors? Leaving these things out of schooling is a bit like teaching your child to kick a soccer ball while convincing her that she doesn’t deserve the chance. It’s like putting her on a soccer team only to teach her to despise the game. It’s like sending your kids to school while telling them that education and teachers have little value. Surely, the first goal of education, like the first goal of soccer, should be to show why it’s worth doing in the first place.