February 5, 2012

Reforming the Reforms to American Education

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Do well in high school to get into college. Acquire skills in college to get a high-paying job. Work hard at your job to compete with workers in China and India, and claim first place in the Race to the Top. This is the story of American public education. Or rather, it’s the story many of us would like to tell.

Currently, many of our kids are being surpassed by their counterparts in China, dropping out of college (if they even make it there) and jeopardizing their standing in the cutthroat race that is the global economy.

Much of our political rhetoric is focused on fixing this disparity –– on making that story of education slightly more real than the fantastical fiction it is right now.

As President Obama has said, “Countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow and I refuse to let that happen on my watch.” Or, as President Bush clumsily stated: “I understand taking tests aren’t fun. Too bad. We need to know in America.”

This sort of rhetoric is equally prevalent outside of politics. Schools and policy statements with the motto “College begins in Kindergarten” are increasingly common. These schools plaster posters saying “Class of 2027” on their walls just in case five-year-olds forget why they’re learning the alphabet.

These statements, all well-intentioned, focus on the academic performance of American students. How well are we scoring relative to the Chinese? What skills can we give our five-year-olds to ensure their success as twenty-two-year-olds?

Admittedly, academic achievement shouldn’t be dismissed. It is, for most people, the way to a more materially comfortable life. But is that the purpose of our education system? Is our only goal to fill, for example, the 100,000 jobs that are being created in computer science every year?

One might think that education is also about improving as a person –– becoming a better citizen, friend, son or daughter. To quote Martin Luther King Jr.: “Intelligence plus character –– that is the true goal of education.” Our rhetoric definitely grasps the importance of intelligence. But it’s weak or even nonexistent when it comes to character. Or at least the type that King was probably referring to.

It’s not that character is completely absent from the discussion. In fact, many people leading the conversation on education reform are aware that education is not simply about acquiring hard skills. It is also about becoming a person capable of withstanding difficulty, of performing in the midst of adversity. This “character-building,” though, is still couched in terms of performance. It is based on studies showing that traits such as perseverance and curiosity increase the likelihood of graduating from college. The most important thing is still individual achievement; our kids’ character is just a means to that end.

But there is another side of character that is seldom mentioned when we discuss education. Namely, moral character. One’s willingness to stand up for others, to right injustices, and to work towards, not just a better life for oneself, but a more equitable and kind society.

I suspect this is the kind of character that King was referring to. To quote him again: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” People who ask themselves this question are those who ultimately live meaningful lives. A truly reformed education system would encourage students to ask themselves this question.

Such a system might emphasize community service projects that allow students to actively contribute to the well-being of their neighborhoods. It could offer students the opportunity to participate in larger social change efforts like those on Change.org ––– an example might be the fourth grade class whose petition convinced Universal Studios to add key environmental themes to its website for the movie The Lorax. Schools could also foster collaborative projects with students in China and other countries, enabling children to learn about issues that other parts of the world are facing. Such projects might allow kids to see other countries less as competitors––which is the way we currently treat China and India––and more as potential partners and collaborators.

Higher test scores, higher graduation rates and more skilled workers are all important goals. But we should ask whether achieving these goals is enough. An education system should enable students to be more than cogs in the wheel of the world’s economy. It’s unclear that focusing on numerical assessments and individual achievement accomplishes that.

In fact, such a singular focus creates a cutthroat mentality where all that matters is whether I got my diploma. Thinking about and having compassion for others? Not nearly as important.

An education system that permits such selfishness will always be broken. We should demand a more enlightened one.

Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at hdifrancesco@cornellsun.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Harry DiFrancesco

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